January 15th must be a date either cursed in Nigeria’s history or merely remarkable by coincidence. It all started on 15thJanuary 1966 when a group of young Nigerian army officers embarked on the terrible misadventure that culminated in the three years of Nigeria’s fratricidal war commonly known as the Nigeria-Biafra war.
In the 1960s, a military coup d’état was a popular means of effecting a change of government in the third world. Nigeria did not escape the virus.
In the early hours of January 15th 1966, middle ranking officers of the Nigerian army struck and although they failed to control power they succeeded in toppling the NPC led government of Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa.
Initially the coup enjoyed a brief nation-wide acceptance but the ethnic composition of the coup ringleaders and the pattern of killings of mainly northern and western political and military hierarchy introduced a lethal dimension into the event.
Six months later, northern military officers staged an even bloodier revenge coup, leading to the brutal massacre of Easterners in northern Nigeria. The stage was set for an unmanageable political upheaval and for almost 3 years Nigeria fought one of Africa’s most brutal civil wars. The casualty figure is still contentious but it came to an end, again on the date it all started, 15th January, 1970.
50 years after, Nigeria how far?!, as local parlance would say. By 1970 it is true to say that both sides of the war were glad that the war came to an end. The Biafrans came out from the trenches without preconditions or the option of guerilla warfare.
The then Nigerian Head of State, General Gowon was quick to declare a no victor no vanquished but what actually happened continues to plague Nigeria till today. Unfortunately, the victors were not magnanimous enough and too myopic to understand the benefits of embracing the defeated.
The south east geo-political zone or precisely the Igbos were subjected to the most vindictive and punitive policies. The catalogue of measures including confiscation of money and properties and other veiled policies of economic and political exclusion ensured that Nigeria missed a gigantic opportunity to leap forward.
Unfortunately the military leaders that won the civil war were neither revolutionaries motivated by the ideals of change and development nor national patriots fired up by nationalist zeal. They hardly grew above the tribal circumstances of their emergence and Nigeria’s current inadequacies are clear manifestations of their weaknesses. As a victorious army, they shared the spoils of war as they saw fit and laid the foundations of what is today a fragile, insecure, divided and volatile Nigeria.
50 years after, let’s lament the misfortune of 15th January and wholesome record of poor leadership and unfulfilled hopes. 15th January 1970 presented a unique opportunity to design a united and prosperous country. War is often said to be a catalyst for change and economic growth. Without any form of opposition the Generals were expected to seize the opportunity and perform the same feat recorded in postwar Europe and Japan. But we failed.
Today Nigeria is a country ravaged by ethnic chauvinism and rivalry, excelling only in all the indices of failure or underachievement. What the next 50 years foretells is just anyone’s guess. But one thing is certain. Nigeria can hardly survive and prosper in its current structure. Nigeria imperatively needs to jettison the ugly legacies of 15thJanuary 1966 and 1970. The keyword today is RESTRUCTURING to make a meaningful start to a peaceful and economically viable nation state, otherwise Nigeria is imperiled.
To the Igbos, do not despair. The sun set in the east, albeit temporarily since 1970. Those currently wielding seemingly unassailable political supremacy may gloat but all empires rise and fall. The empire of the victorious will fall calamitously and no external force is required to induce the fall.
The inherent socio-economic and political contradictions of Nigeria’s far north are obvious time bombs that will consume both perpetrators and victims. At the appointed time, those who are outside Nigeria’s political patronage systems and have invested in individual and community developments will have cause to smile and many would be wondering, who actually won the war in 1970?
EMMANUEL CHIGOZIE OSUCHUKWU is a London based writer and a regular commentator on Nigerian affairs. He can be reached on firstname.lastname@example.org.