More than a rag-tag controversy

By Akeem Soboyede
Published: Thursday, 5 Mar 2009

“It will be a long, long, long time, possibly generations, before passions die out over the Nigerian Civil War.”

— Prof. Wole Soyinka, The Man Died (1972)


The ferocious conflict that pitched the Nigerian federation against the break-away Republic of Biafra ended in January 1970. But you wouldn’t know this if you followed the controversy ignited by statements recently credited to outgoing Nigerian Ambassador to the United States, retired Brigadier-General Oluwole Rotimi.

First, a background. For some weeks, rumours had floated among Nigerians in the Washington, DC area that the relationship between Nigeria’s Foreign Minister, Ojo Maduekwe, and the man who heads the “crown jewel” of Nigerian missions abroad, the ambassador to the United States, was far from cordial. Rotimi had assumed his post only in April 2008; his boss, the Foreign Minister, was said to have a fondness for visiting the Washington, DC area. Protocol demanded that during those visits, the minister’s host and ambassador to the United States, the 71-year old “Old Soldier,” receive Maduekwe on arrival at the airport and generally cater to his every wishes while “in town.”

Things got to a head when Maduekwe arrived in DC for the Obama Inauguration with a “high-powered” presidential delegation headlined by former Commonwealth Secretary-General, Chief Emeka Anyaoku. US government protocol demanded that official tickets to the Inauguration go to a country’s head of mission in the US. In this case, it meant Ambassador Rotimi. It was said the honourable minister would have none of that but that the ambassador stood his grounds.

Later, at a party the ambassador hosted for Nigerians and other dignitaries to mark the Obama Inauguration, an announcement was said to have been made to the effect that it was time for the ambassador to go to bed, so guests would have to leave. Furthermore, the minister allegedly received a correspondence in which the ambassador was said to have written the following: “I have dealt with people like you in the past. I was the Quarter-Master General of the Nigerian Army that thoroughly defeated your rag-tag Biafran Army.” Yuck!

The words credited to the ambassador are incendiary and clearly undiplomatic. They must have cut quite close to home for Maduekwe, said to be a former Captain in the defunct Biafran Army. But the fact that the minister’s ego was clearly bruised here is not the issue; if the words are true, that was the ambassador’s intention and he achieved his aim. And no one is crying for the minister, too: he got his revenge with the ambassador’s very public recall after a rather brief stint as ambassador to the US.

Brigadier-General Rotimi has since said his words were twisted out of context. But they certainly formed the basis of his recall from his ambassadorial position. Even more important, they provoked the internecine battle Nigerians of all stripes both at home and in the diaspora, especially the latter, have launched against one another over the reported remarks.

A big lesson here is that the Nigerian Civil War remains very fresh in the minds of those who, arguably, were on the receiving end of the hostilities. When Rotimi’s alleged “Biafra comments” were first made public, an Igbo individual on an Internet message board made a posting that had Rotimi’s picture, with the subject-line “This is the bastard who boasted of defeating Biafran Army.” Another Igbo individual wrote, “This man, Rotimi, deserves 36 lashes on his buttocks.” Among these postings by Igbo individuals, “idiot” was the least derogatory word used in making reference to the ambassador.

Yes, the ambassador’s alleged comments, if true, were unbefitting of his status and office. He should not have made those statements in the context of addressing his boss, the minister, and should have avoided offending the sensibilities of Nigerians in the diaspora that he represented, especially the Igbos among them.

But an issue that also needs to be addressed is why the sensibilities of Nigerians of Igbo extraction remain so raw, close to 40 years after the end of the Nigerian Civil War.

War is a dirty business and its pains usually linger for generations, long after the dead are buried and the wounds are healed. For instance, the feelings of many in the Southern states of the US remained raw for decades after the end of the American Civil War. This accounted for the failure of the policy of Reconstruction in that country, and why a Civil Rights struggle had to be waged more than a hundred years later to fully realise equal rights for African-Americans.

It does seem General Yakubu Gowon’s own version of America’s Reconstruction, encapsulated in his proclamation of “No victor, no vanquished” immediately after the Nigerian Civil War simply wasn’t enough to assuage Igbo fears and expectations regarding their position in post-war Nigeria.

Igbos have, for decades, complained of being under-represented in federal appointments, the military and all other important facets of Nigerian life. Even more ominous, a group like the Movement for the Actualisation of the Sovereign State of Biafra (MASSOB) does not exactly renounce violence as part of the tactics it intends to use to achieve the aim its name suggests.

In addition, perhaps the anger at Brig-Gen. Rotimi’s comments was reinforced by long-standing perceptions among Igbos that leaders and members of Rotimi’s Yoruba ethnic group were most instrumental in the defeat of Biafran forces. I have often heard Igbos talk pointedly about Chief Obafemi Awolowo’s supposed betrayal of the Igbos after the Aburi talks.

The exploits of Yoruba generals in that war, like Olusegun Obasanjo and Benjamin Adekunle, were widely celebrated in the popular media, which also relegated the efforts of Northern generals to the background. Everyone knows too that the most popular books on the Civil War from participants on the victorious side have been penned by Yoruba officers, notably Obasanjo’s “My Command” and “Not My Will.” Igbos’ feelings have clearly not been assuaged by Obasanjo’s recent presidential act of announcing payment of the pension arrears of Biafran officers and soldiers.

Aside from the documented political and social inequities suffered by the ethnic group in the aftermath of the Civil War, I also happen to believe that the story of the Igbos regarding the events leading to the Civil War and the prosecution of the struggle itself has not been well told. Save for Alexander Madiebo’s laudable effort, there isn’t a major body of work by Igbo actors involved in the Biafran struggle from the beginning to end. One waits, eternally it seems, for “The Book” promised by General Odimegwu Ojukwu, who clearly remains exhausted after his last literary effort, a long love letter to the ravishing Bianca titled “Because I Am Involved.”

Ojukwu’s telling, when it eventually comes, should clarify many of the sources of Igbos’ angst regarding the war and Yorubas’ perceived role in it: whether Awolowo actually betrayed Ojukwu and the Igbos at Aburi; and whether the Yoruba leadership that served in the Gowon regime actually crafted policies that aimed to strip Igbos of their assets, in spite of Gowon’s “No victor, no vanquished” policy.

Perhaps awaiting such a telling of the comprehensive Igbo story is being too optimistic. After all, millions did die in the Nigerian Civil war, a great majority of these being Igbo. Others still carry the mental, physical and existential scars, including exile; and many of these may have been the Igbo “Internet Warriors” who lit up the message boards with vitriol as they reacted to Oluwole’s alleged words. No re-telling or acts of rehabilitation would assuage the scarred memories of such people.

Erstwhile Ambassador Oluwole Rotimi should have realised this fact, and thought better about reopening old wounds that apparently never heal.

Soboyede, lawyer-journalist, wrote via jeffdan37@ comcast.net

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