Professor of political economy and former presidential candidate, Pat Okedinachi Utomi has said the 30-month-old Nigeria-Biafra war fought between 1967 and 1970, by human cost, is the second worst genocide of the 20th century, a century he said was the century of genocides
Utomi who said this while delivering his keynote speech at an event to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the end of the war, held at the Muson Centre, Onikan, Lagos on Monday, painted a sad picture of the killings in Asaba, Delta State capital during the hostilities.
“Let me turn to a really emotive thing. The word genocide is a coinage of the 20th century. In fact, it entered the lexicon from reflections on the Armenian experience in Central Europe. But the Nigerian civil war did produce the second worst genocide in numbers of the 20th century, which was a century of genocides. Now, I will tell you the embarrassing personal thing about how I engaged this subject,” Utomi said.
“Embarrassing because it is completely out of line from the Biafra experience. In 1996 I was writing a book called Managing Uncertainty: Competition and Strategy in Emerging Economies. I took a sabbatical leave, spent it on the Harvard Business School working on this book.
“The more I looked at the environment of business, the more I realized that the government was the most dangerous object in the environment of business. Businesses have failed more because of government in Nigeria than any other country.”
Utomi who gave detailed account of his experiences during the war, noted that if it were to happen today, there would have been no Nigeria.
“If Biafra war was fought today, there would be no Nigeria. Because the mood in the international community now accepts self-determination as a doctrine. But thank God we have a chance to build Nigeria. There is a lot more that can come from Nigeria if we are honest to one another,” he said.
“So, how did my civil war story begin? It’s a very intimate personal story. My father worked for British Petroleum (BP) in a town in the current capital of Zamfara State, Gusau. My father worked there and I was returning to Gusau by train, arriving one Sunday morning, the last Sunday in May 1966,” he narrated.
“As the train pulled in, the station was completely deserted. I thought, this is strange. I got out of the train. Across the track I could see my father’s blue Peugeot 404. I looked closely, away from the car, somewhere by the corner was my father. He was carrying a double barrel gun. And he had his bullets. He waved me across, I got in the car and he drove off.
“Then he started telling me what had happened. Earlier that morning, rioting had started. My mother and my siblings were in the church, Our Lady of Fatima Catholic Church in Gusau. Rioters had invaded the church, my mother’s arms had been broken. The hospitals were too dangerous to have anybody. So, he had taken the family to the home of a family friend who was the manager of the Barclays Bank there at the time. His name was Garba Wushishi. He would become Minister of Information under (Shehu) Shagari.
“In Garba Wushishi’s place, we got a doctor to treat my mother and all of that. Then it got worse. Okonkwo Ofiadulu, his father was the leader of the Igbo community in Gusau. He was killed that night. We all ran to the airport, my father made contacts and BP sent an aircraft to come and take us, it was a 10-seater aircraft. When the aircraft came in and we were leaving, you can imagine hundreds of people desperate to leave and this one family was going. People were running after the aeroplane. That was my first vivid image of the nature of that kind of crisis.”
Utomi said he was in Onitsha when the war started, later went to Asaba by canoe at night only to find out that it was a theatre of war.
“When the civil war started, I was in Christ the King College Onitsha and went though those early days in Biafra. And at some point crossed the Niger in a canoe at night into the Midwest, which was war theatre.
“Few weeks before, soldiers entered Asaba and people were being killed for exercise. And the people of Asaba got together and said OK, let’s show that we are warmly welcoming these troops. So, in their finest white clothes, they came out to dance to welcome the troops. And the women were ordered to this side, the men to the other side and they opened fire on the men,” he narrated.
“A friend of mine survived that by playing dead under the weight of the bodies of his father and his brother. Thousands were killed. These stories are not meant to make anybody get upset. But to say that if you don’t deal with those kinds of things, it is dangerous.
“In a chat with General Gowon, I speak very frequently with him, he was in Asaba a few weeks ago and the issue was raised again. It was the third time he was in Asaba that the issue was raised. He really didn’t know what happened in Asaba.
“When I crossed to that side, that had just happened. At this time, my people were all living inside the bush, nobody lived in the town. And my grandfather chose not to run into the bush. He was a World War II veteran, what was he running for? And one young soldier saw him in the house and said, “what are you doing there?” My father said what can I be doing here? And the young soldier used him for target practice. And his body was left in front of his front porch.
“The interesting thing is that as we were coming out of the bush, we were captured by some soldiers. Again, men to this side, women to this side. Then another group of federal soldiers arrived and said to the ones that captured us, “what are you trying to do?” And they started fighting. We ended up in St. Patrick’s College Asaba as refugees.
“As it turned out, the battalion commander, Colonel Daniel Nasamu was a friend of my father’s. And a couple of weeks later, I was in Lagos. After I got to Lagos, life was so good, nothing was happening. That is the kind of feeling I have when I see people talking about the Northeast today in Lagos.”
He regretted that Nigeria appears to have learned nothing from the war, noting that there is presently another war going on in the country.
“War is a horrible experience. I have experienced it, I watch it in movies and I have read about it in books. But not all wars involve guns and bombs. Some deploy only words. Yet, they can be as dangerous devastating. Our country is embroiled in one right now.
“We are at war in public conversation. The theft of identity of others is so pervasive. And few people, unfortunately, are so much the targets as me and Professor Wole Soyinka. In recent months, I have seen conjectures credited to me. Then generating ad-hominem barbs and tirades from the agents of those who think those created stories affect their interests.
“In fact, what I have found out that is tragic for our country is that many times they come from officials. They come because people anticipate that you will take a position on something that is coming. And they are afraid that your voice will mean something.
“So, they want to devalue the position you could take and they create fake news around you, to create a crisis. And then, they begin to attack the effect of that fake news. It is not an accident that some of the most profound discussions of the public sphere focus on virtue of people who play in public life.”
Utomi noted that the tragedy of modern Nigeria is the dearth of leaders with virtue.
“One of the most important conversations I think, in political thought, is offered by Baron Montesquieu. We often remember him for the points about separation of powers and how he influenced the making of the American constitution. But his biggest contribution for me, is to say that virtue is a requirement to play in public life.
“One of the finest political scientists to ever come out of Nigeria in my opinion, Professor Peter Ekeh who headed the Department of Political Science at the University of Ibadan several years ago, who, sadly, has been living outside of Nigeria for more than 30 years now, wrote one of the most important essays in Nigerian political science: The Two Publics, in 1975. Peter Ekeh’s conversation is focused essentially on morality as a necessary ingredient of playing in the public sphere. In my own words, I have referred to values.
“When a nation is generally headed in a direction by people who are lacking in those, that nation is in crisis. And we must not allow our country to go that way.
“Let me begin my proceeding along the track we set for ourselves. When Professor Soyinka expressed frustrations on these matters, I said to myself, well, how do we go about throwing light in the face of darkness struggling to encompass us?
“Therefore I begin by paying tribute to the human spirit, which allows grown men and women to overcome the anguish of war and conduct new lives after that war. With the Nigerian civil war, there were saints and there were sinners. There were heroes and there were traitors. It’s not possible to talk about the war without talking about the kind of emotions that came out a stage across from here where the musical Kakado was staged.
“I remember eyes of pain and gratitude in Surulere, Lagos where I was when the war ended. As I got ready to return to school in Ibadan. People returning after fleeing Lagos nearly four years earlier, realizing that their Yoruba neighbour had rented out their house and dutifully saved the rent in paid them that money as they returned, changing the 20 pounds narrative as a tribute to the human spirit. And that is what my Nigeria is about. Gratitude in all things to the creator and human solidarity, which allowed foreigners from far, French doctors like Bernard Kouchner who would become foreign minister of France.
“I’m almost certain that I met Bernard Kouchner as a doctor in Biafra. Not on any level, I was a young person and there was a sick relative who was treated by a group of French doctors. The particular one that was treating this relative was a black French doctor from Martinique who must have been Bernard Kouchner. After the experience, Kouchner would of course, start Médecins Sans Frontières, Doctors without Borders, to deal with these matters. The were also global charities like Caritas. There were neighbours far and near who helped ameliorate miseries almost unprecedented in human experience. But that was the war. Why does it matter to reflect on that experience 50 years on?
“I think the imitative has value because war is horrible and anything that can make people learn enough from its experience, to make them not to repeat it does humanity a great favour. Applied to this is the management of the cessation of hostilities which determine how people heal, and whether it is easy to capitalize on old wounds or not. Few doubt that the nature of the peace treaties, and Professor Anya spoke to this, that concluded World War 1, the punitive demands on the Germans, where not responsible for the emergence of a charlatan who swept the anger of the German people in Adolf Hitler, and gave the world an even more horrible war. How we end wars matter.
“War creates a psychosis and it can affect culture in a way that people may not even begin to think about. But it’s real.
“I give you a funny example that I always cite. Many people who are old enough will remember that the stereotype of the Igbo man before the war was of a very modest person; of a man who wears a shirt nicker and singlets and his bathroom slippers walking around the market. And then, a car knocks him down and you discover that he has one million pounds under his pillow. That was the Igbo man before the war.
“The post war Igbo man is one who is voluble, very very showy. How did we go from that image of the Igbo man to this image of the Igbo man? The psychosis and the realities of how war affects people. I have many theories on this, but this is not the day for it.
“We all need to reflect to determine why war has brought scientific and allied commercial material progress to many societies, because of the scientific gains of war. We saw how the Americans appropriated German scientists and German science after the war, in addition to its own, to lead to America’s post war commercial expansion. But we look at Nigeria and see how little we gained from the science of our civil war. And we have to ask ourselves questions. These are the kinds of matters that we should be interrogating.
“I say frequently that the most primitive public sphere is one which instead of focusing on issues, focuses on ad-hominem trading of insults. Something that has continued, unfortunately, to dominate our space. But I think that we have to face the reality that one of the lessons is that we don’t seem to have learnt from the war is how to manage publicly conversation.
“If you go on social media today, you would know that Nigeria is at war. The young people who were not anywhere around the war, hate so much. And you wonder why. For me this is a failure of leadership in Nigeria.
“It is easy for me to ignore being called names, but not many people can do that. Those who cannot do that take those insults in, in a way that leads to the kinds of tensions that leads to war. How do we manage a culture that is so infused with this anger? Many of it comes from people not having the capacity to have rational conversations. Because they don’t have the information, the education is poor that they can’t take on the issues, they chose to insult. So, we must begin to educate our people better….”