Nigerian civil war experience: We must build a better future together

Ogunsakin Mustapha
20 Min Read

By Prof Yemi Osinbajo SAN

I need not emphasize how indebted we are to the National War Museum and the Ken Nnamani Centre for Leadership and Development and the governments of the Southeast States for hosting this important gathering of Nigerians to mark 50 years since the Civil War ended.

I bring you all warm felicitations from President Muhammadu Buhari. He asked me to especially commend you Senator Ken Nnamani, he shared with me about your friendship over the years and your hosting him in your home several times.

We stand in the shadow of one of the darkest chapters of our Nation’s history surrounded by the artefacts and monuments to a terrible conflict.

This is neither the time nor the place for rehashing the polemics of justification and recrimination, and claims and counterclaims about the remote and immediate causes of the war. Many scholarly publications, histories, biographies, and brilliant works of fiction have been devoted to these issues and rightly so. Yet, a nation must always examine itself and reflect on its journey.

In a democratic society, this means a robust conversation over vigorously contested aspects of history. Such debate remains necessary if only to enhance our self-knowledge. But perhaps more importantly, to bring closure.

What we all agree on is that the Civil War from 1967-1970 was a defining national tragedy. A catastrophic conflict that scarred us as a people. Its’ cost in lives was massive, so was the cost in lost opportunities for national advancement. The spectacle of promising lives cut short in their prime, families ruptured, communities sacked and the environment poisoned by ordinance is one that redounds to our eternal regret.

Yet, we do not remember this seminal event in our history merely to indulge in the futility of regret, we engage in the discipline of remembrance so that we can learn from history and resolve that such horrors will never repeat themselves again on our watch. And we must do so not just this month, our nation’s month of remembrance of our fallen heroes, but every moment of our lives.

Indeed, the greatest tribute we can pay to the memories of those who made the supreme sacrifice for the survival of this union that we call Nigeria today is to ensure that the circumstances that led to the conflict are never re-enacted.

We cannot change the past, but it is within our power to ensure that history does not repeat itself and that we never again confront the awful consequences of abandoning dialogue and letting our darkest impulses drive us.

Sixteen years after the end of the war, Dim Chukwuemeka Ojukwu was asked if he thought the war resolved the issues for which it was fought. His reply is instructive, he said and I quote, “Wars hardly ever resolve issues. Wars are an aberration. Eventually, the issues still have to be dealt with.” In any event, it is evident that the cost of resolving our differences peacefully through dialogue is far less than trying to do so through war.

Chinua Achebe once described Nigeria as, I quote, “a nation favoured by providence.” I certainly see the hand of providence in our nation’s survival of that conflict. Unlike many other African countries which have known protracted multi-generational strife and perpetual division, our conflict ended after three years and we have suffered no relapse into such fratricide since then.

Your Excellencies, in the fifty years that have followed since the end of the war, we have invested in national integration, peace-building and reconciliation. That has been a less than a perfect task. Our road has not been easy and we have faced many challenges along the way. But these setbacks should not induce hopelessness or despondency but should constantly remind us that the stakes are high because of the incredible dividends of unity for us all.

Again, in the words of Achebe, I quote him again, “there are individuals as well as nations who on account of peculiar gifts and circumstances, are commandeered by history to facilitate mankind’s advancement. Nigeria is such a nation. The vast human and material wealth with which she is endowed bestows on her a role in Africa and the world, which no one else can assume or fulfill.”

Our historic mission therefore, is not just to build a nation that works for all of us, but to create a successful polity, an economic and social powerhouse capable of powering our continent to prosperity and renown. And yet, nation-building is hard work and bringing together the multiplicity of ethnicities, languages and creeds that make up this great land under one banner is an onerous but necessary task.

But the more difficult, but crucial work is that of emphasizing and ensuring, fairness, justice and equity amongst all ethnicities and religions. We must be open to addressing the concerns of all. Within this union, all of us must feel entitled to legitimately aspire to the limits and extents of our dreams and visions in public life and commerce.

For those of us that are old enough to remember the war, we must be mindful of the fact that the majority of Nigerians alive today are too young to have witnessed the Civil War and therefore have no memory of it. The last fifty years belonged to us, but the next fifty years belong to our children and their children and we have a responsibility to unshackle them from the ghosts of ancient grudges and grievances.

As elders, we must ensure that we do not poison the minds of the young with our own prejudices and affect their ability to take advantage of the opportunities available to them in their country. We must also avoid foisting the toga of victimhood and helplessness on the next generation.

The memory of the elders is crucial and supplies us with instructive lessons, but we must enable the vision and the imagination of our youth to flower untainted by the biases of the past.

Moments ago, I toured the War Museum with a group of students from the schools in the State. It was a tremendous learning experience for us. I was struck by how novel the war stories behind the artefacts were not just to me, but to the students. It was a reminder that while we must acquaint the younger generation with our history, we must also realize that this young generation does not see the world through the same lenses as we did in the 1960s.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie talks about the dangers of a single story and there is certainly a danger in casting Nigeria solely in terms of the narratives of those of us that witnessed the war. The generations born after the Civil War are navigating the adventure of being Nigerian on different terms from their forebears. Let us give them a chance to do better than ourselves.

Young Nigerians are intermarrying, migrating and co-mingling in the quest for love and livelihood; they are doing business together and forging alliances in civil society and politics across ethnic and religious divides. Social media may be a site of divisive debates, but it is also bringing young Nigerians together in spite of their diversity and helping them to forge a new collective consciousness.

Our children are showing us that it is possible to forge friendships and bonds across ethnic and religious lines that are even stronger than family ties and this in itself evokes the possibilities of unity in diversity.

One of our biggest challenges as a nation is that of providing opportunity and hope for our teeming young population. Our youth are among the most creative, energetic and dynamic on the continent and the Southeast is home to Nigeria’s most entrepreneurial sons and daughters. Young Nigerians all over the country and in the Southeast in particular, require outlets that will enable them to maximize their potential.

We have listened to the voices of some of our young people in the Southeast expressing their discontent, however, we do not hear a battle cry, but rather a cry for help. We are determined to continue providing them with the tools and resources that will enable them to make the most of their lives. This is the reason for our collaboration with the African Development Bank, AfDB to provide a $500million facility for startups and entrepreneurial loans. This is aside from the N10billion fund set aside by the Bank of Industry for the same purpose.

We are also working with the Central Bank of Nigeria towards the creation of the entrepreneur bank, in addition, a Shared Facility for MSMEs which will be launched at Ugbenike in Anambra State by April 2020 for MSMEs in the shoe production cluster.

Our young people are full of zest, ideas and creative energy and sometimes they get understandably frustrated with the inability of our institutions to keep pace with their vision and dynamism. But we must not let agents of discord weaponize this frustration and turn it into a severe rupture within the country. The opportunities that you need for growth and prosperity are all here in Nigeria and we are working every day both at the national and sub-national level and local government level to increase these opportunities.

What our young people need is not self-determination but self-actualization, more opportunities, more support to attain their dreams and visions and we are committed to creating these opportunities.

Within years of the end of the conflict, the Igbos re-established themselves as the foremost entrepreneurs in our country and are now thriving everywhere across the vast expanse of our land.

The Southeast is Nigeria’s natural industrial hub. Slowly and steadily, an industrial revolution is gathering momentum here in Abia and in the Southeast as a whole. From leatherworks and textiles to engineering, the “Made-in-Aba” label is emerging as an international brand. I do not say this lightly and without knowledge, I had the privilege of launching the National MSME Clinic at the Aba Polo Club in Abia on the 25th of January 2017 with over 15,000 participants.

Aside from Imo State, all other Southeastern States have hosted the National MSME Clinic with a large attendance of MSMEs. Abia State government won the inaugural award for MSME State of the year in 2018.

Miss Nora Oransoye from Abia State, won the 2019 Outstanding Female MSME of the Year and received a brand new car and prize money.

This zone is already a regional manufacturing hub servicing West and Central Africa. Goods from here are heading to Cameroon, Ghana, Togo, Equatorial Guinea, Central African Republic and other African countries.

The Igbo apprenticeship system has been cited as the biggest business incubator in the world and the Southeast is the birthplace of Nollywood; our film industry which has achieved global renown on the strength of the creativity and imagination of young Nigerians.

I have given these examples to demonstrate that nations are not built by politicians or their opinions however opinionated they may be, but by men and women in business; the professions and commerce, large, medium and small, who demonstrate their belief in their country by investing their resources and lives in enterprises here in their own country. The reason I have mentioned all these people is that by investing and working here, they have demonstrated more faith in this nation and this nation’s unity.

The businessmen and women, professionals and traders here in the Southeast and across Nigeria are the true nation-builders.

One of our errors in times past has been our inability to appropriate the positive aspects of the Civil War legacy such as the spirit of innovation and self-reliance that inspired technological feats in extreme circumstances even here in this museum. Within that period, our people manufactured weapons and tools for refining crude.

After the war, the Federal Government sought to leverage the technological genius that had come to the fore during the conflict by establishing the Projects Development Institute (PRODA) in Enugu. Unfortunately, over the years, our commitment to the objectives of PRODA has not been as strong as it should be.

However, we are now making up for lost time. Because of our commitment to reviving local manufacturing, Innoson Motors, a company that epitomizes the Nigerian productive genius, is now partnering with the Army to modify some of its equipment, produce armoured fighting vehicles and other military hardware. Innoson is also in partnership with the Air Force towards the manufacture of aircraft parts. I am especially proud to note that the Aba footwear industry is kitting our troops. Four years ago, the military ordered 60, 000 pairs of boots from Aba.

I think there is no greater evidence of how firmly we have closed ranks as a people than the fact that industrialists of this region are today equipping our nation’s Armed Forces.

Years ago, Dim Chukwuemeka Ojukwu said and I quote, ‘The war has at least underlined for all of us, the importance of staying together.” Brothers and sisters, no human relationship is perfect and no nation is received or conceived in ideal circumstances. All polities, no matter how good they look today, are imperfect and only through the labours of their members are they perfected. Like families, nations are made up of people who disagree and at times disagree intensely. The ties that bind us have survived the most intense disagreement we have ever known as a people and it resulted in the Civil War.

However, our national anthem enjoins us to “build a nation where peace and justice reign.” Setbacks and adversity are as integral to a nation’s journey as they are to human existence as a whole. But we have also known hope and victory, we should not on account of the disappointments we have suffered, give up on our collective possibilities and on each other.

It is true that we are not where we want to be, but we have not been standing still either, our country is very much, a work in progress. The attainment of peace and justice is not an event, but a process and a journey.

In 2017, this administration paid the accumulated arrears of pensions owed to retired war-affected ex-Biafran Police, who have been pardoned since 2000. This was more than a gesture of good faith, it demonstrates our belief in fairness and justice and our conviction that we can only move forward together.

We must build a country devoid of any form of discrimination and marginalization. This is the ideal to which we must strive. However, we cannot prosecute this struggle with weapons of bigotry and hatred. Our tools for creating the country we want, have to be those of empathy and a willingness to invest effort in understanding each other.

All of us must also be mindful of the sacrifice that unity calls for; it means that those of us in power must understand that the bitterness of the loser when the winner takes it all, will ultimately swallow all including the winner. Three watchwords matter: fairness, equity and justice.

We must also be mindful of the fact that it is far easier to destroy than to build. It is easier to put asunder than to bring together. It is my firm conviction that we are infinitely stronger and better together. This is not a time to put asunder, it is a time to bring together. We cannot change the past, but we can learn from it and build a better future together.

Prof Osinbajo is Vice President, Federal Republic of Nigeria

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