Former President Olusegun Obasanjo said yesterday that the 30-month Civil War was never meant to exterminate the Igbo, but an altruistic attempt to bring “our brothers and sisters” back to the fold of one Nigeria.
Although federal troops thought the war could be won within three months, they almost lost it, Obasanjo said.
The former president, who spoke of the need for the Federal Government to negotiate with Biafran Republic agitators, recalled that he was one of those who wrote the war’s operational manual.
Acting President Yemi Osinbajo said Nigerians must continue to learn from the history of the civil war and stop beating the drums of a second civil war. The wise learn from history, experience remains the best teacher for a fool.
Obasanjo, as the Commander, Third Marine Commando Division, accepted the surrender of Biafran forces on January 12, 1970, after three years of war.
He spoke at an event tagged “Memory and Nation Building: Biafra 50 years later”, organised by the Shehu Musa Yar’Adua Foundation,
He said: “We really never had a national leader. We had three leaders at the beginning of our journey as a nation who were mindful of their different regions and that remains our problem till today.
“Even in the process of our movement towards independence and when you compare with other countries, they were talking about freedom and unity. When you look at the speeches of our leaders, they talked of freedom, they talked of progress but they rarely talked of unity.
“So, the unity they never talked about, and scarcely worked for, has eluded us and that should be our starting point. So when of course the military, for whatever reason, and I have maintained that the young officers who struck in 1966 were naïve, but there was an element of nationalism in some of them.
“But, be that as it may, it set us back and we moved from the political instability to military coup and then the pogrom, the separation and the civil war. I was one of those who wrote the operation order for the civil war.
“We thought we would end it in three months, and then bring our brothers and sisters back; we allowed six months, just for the unexpected. The civil war took us 30 months and the federal side nearly lost it.
“Talking about reconciliation, right from the beginning of the war, reconciliation was on the minds of those of us on the federal side. If the plan was to exterminate the Igbos, the federal troops would not have operated by its own special code of conduct as well as the Geneva Convention, nor would the federal government have allowed foreign observers into the country.
“If it was a war to exterminate; a war that did not put reconciliation in mind, then what would foreign observers be doing? We had foreign observers who were filing reports and even empowered to investigate allegations and they did.
“Civil war is more difficult to fight than fighting in a foreign land or to exterminate because we were fighting to unite and if you are fighting to unite, how much do you have to do to prevent annihilation.
“All the people who are agitating for Biafra today were not even born during the war. They do not even know what it entailed. Nigeria must be loved and we must treat Nigeria as we treat love affairs. It must be massaged.
“Nigeria must be massaged by all of us. No exception. It’s like a husband and wife. If when you have issues, your wife would always say she is fed up and wants to go and everyday that is what you get, one day, you would become fed up and say, ‘ok you can go’, but if there is any misunderstanding and you come together to solve it, then you would almost live forever.
“And I will say that we should even appeal, if anybody says he wants to go; not that we will say, ‘ok, you can go if you want to go. Do not go’. There is enough cake for each of us. And if what you are asking for is more of the cake, then try to ask in a way that is pleasant, not in a way that could make others feel that you are not entitled to what you are asking for.”
Prof. Osinbajo, who delivered the keynote address, said while it is kinder to learn from history, experience is a harsh teacher.
He said: “Introspection is probably what separates us from making mistakes. That ability to learn from history is perhaps the greatest defence against the avoidable pains of learning from experience because history is a better and kind teacher.
“There is a saying that experience is the best teacher. It is incomplete. The full statement of that adage is that experience is the best teacher for a fool.”
Going down memory lane, he said: “I was 10 years old when my friend in school, Emeka left school one afternoon. He said his parents had decided to go back to the East. I never saw Emeka again. My aunty, Bunmi was married to a gentleman that I cannot recall his name again, but I recall when my parents tried to persuade her and her husband not to leave. We never saw again.”
“We are better together than apart. No country is perfect”, Osinbajo said, adding that the often quoted statement that “Nigeria is just a geographical expression”, originally applied to Italy.
Ohaneze Ndigbo leader John Nnia Nwodo warned that if he nation’s leaders failed to build a nation that caters fairly for all its citizens and prepare us for the world of tomorrow, there will be new challenges in future.
He said the challenges ahead of the nation were way beyond Biafra, adding: “Just like the challenge in Northeast Nigeria exploded in our face and has engaged our nation for almost nine years; we could face challenges anywhere and anytime. In my view, if we fail to build a nation that caters fairly for all its citizens; and prepares us for the world of tomorrow – there will be new challenges in the future.
“We must find creative ways to manage a complex multi-ethnic and multi-religious state. History teaches us that no society is static; the status quo cannot endure forever. We must find creative ways to promote political, economic and social justice within a nation and between the people that comprise it. If not, then we are invariably opening the doors to future threats of chaos, disorder and societal dislocation.
“The final challenge of our generation is to show that we learnt the right lesson from that sad conflict of 50 years ago. We must bequeath our children with a nation that works for all and one that looks ahead.
“We want a Federal Republic of Nigeria which is collectively owned by all Nigerians as opposed to a Federal Republic that will be perceived as the private property of one group or groups of ethnic groups, depending on who is in office. The categorical destination is a Nigeria under the collective hegemony of the people of Nigeria.
“In order to achieve this, we must have a flexible federation; strong enough to guarantee our collective defence and protect individual rights, agile enough to react to emerging tensions and threats, yet expansive enough to allow each state room to develop at its own pace. We must create a national order whereby each state bears the primary responsibility for its development.
“Today, majority of Nigerians are yearning for a restructuring of the federation. The beneficiaries of our current system are resisting it. A famous British Prime Minister in the wake of nationalist struggles in colonial Africa said to the British ‘there is a wind of change blowing throughout Africa. Those who resist it do so at their own peril’.
“Nigeria cannot prosper, as it should, unless we redress some aspects of our current condition. I believe we have enough men and women of vision and experience in every part of the country to help us plot a bright future. I commit Ohanaeze Ndigbo to this path. It may be difficult but it is doable.
“True leadership evolves in historical circumstances like this. Our country is at crossroads. You can feel the tension every day. It is palpable, it is potent, it is real. Let us wake up to the change imperative at this moment and claim a glorious judgment by history.”