Author Topic: HOW CIVIL WAR LESSONS CAN BENEFIT ALL NIGERIANS, BY RALPH UWECHUE  (Read 1724 times)

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How Civil War lessons can benefit all Nigerians, by Ralph Uwechue

Chief Raph Uwechue, then only 33 years old, had just been posted as Nigerian envoy to France when the 1966 coup took place. When the Civil War started, he hooked up with the Biafran side only to shift to the Federal side because of his strong belief in Nigeria's unity. Currently the President-General-elect of the apex Igbo socio-cultural organization, Ohanaeze Ndigbo, Uwechue who attended the famous St. John's College, Kaduna, Major Kaduna Nzeogwu's alma mater, said as a Nigerian patriot, he only joined to the rebel cause because of the need for Igbo to protect themselves within Nigeria but backed out when he realised that Ojukwu wanted full independence. He spoke to HENDRIX OLIOMOGBE in Ogwashi-Ukwu, Delta State. Excerpts:

THIRTY-NINE years after the Nigerian civil war, what do you have to say about the conflict?

I was already in France, Paris when the war started. I opened our Embassy there. Nigeria and France had problems in 1960 when we had our independence over the testing of Atomic Bomb in what was then known as the Algerian Sahara. Nigeria didn't like the idea and so we broke off diplomatic relations. Then French President Charles de Gaulle didn't like the way we treated him. For nearly six years, there was no relation between Nigeria and France. When the matter was settled in 1966, I was the one sent to go and open our Embassy there. I was just 33 at the time.

You were close to Major Kaduna Nzeogwu, the main plotter of the January 1966 coup. How did you receive the news of the coup?

Most Nigerians just like me heard it on the radio. Coups are plotted by very few persons. One of Nzeogwu's closest friends, Gen. Olusegun Obasanjo, the former President, was not even aware though he was outside the country when it happened. We received it as something new. That was the first coup in Nigeria. We have had coups elsewhere. In Pakistan, Gen. Ayub Khan took over and Abdel Nasser, in Egypt.

They were idealistic young men who thought that they could do certain things and change the image of our country. Unfortunately, the coup was not bloodless. That was an aspect that complicated matters. It brought the complications that eventually led to the revenge killings. The January coup was on the 15 and six months later, there was another coup.

Gen. Aguiyi Ironsi who was the Head of the Army was invited by the remnant of Prime Minister Tafawa Balewa administration to help steady the nation. He was not part of the coup but was officially invited to take over government as Head of State. It was Ironsi who helped to put down the coup because senior officers were not involved. Ojukwu was in Kano commanding the Fourth Battalion. He didn't join the coup. So also was Col. Arthur Unegbe, the Quarter Master General who was in charge of the armoury. When they came to ask for the keys to the armoury so that they could arm their boys, he refused and was shot dead in Lagos. They were denied access to the armoury and therefore the means of executing the coup in the supremely strategic Lagos. If you have not taken the capital of a country, you have not succeeded. The following day, Ironsi had access to the armoury and armed his boys to ensure that the coup failed. It was Igbo officers who actually stopped the coup.

The problems that led to the coup are still there...

The truth of the matter is that the development of any nation is evolutionary. The boys had their own ideas. Eventually, confusion came and we had the threats of secession from Biafra and the civil war. Luckily, Nigeria remained intact but at a very heavy cost to lives. Some two million people mainly Biafran children died. It is a lesson that we have learnt. Nobody will wish another such fracas for Nigeria.

However, on the problems that the young men saw and thought that they could resolve through military intervention, some of them have over time been tackled. Obviously many of such problems remain. This is natural. As a country evolves, people come up with ideas to help solve the problems they meet. Some are solved but not all of them unless the country is not evolving and growing.

Comment on the view that Igbo officers from the East conspired to torpedo the putsch because Nzeogwu was an Igbo man from the West.

It is not a question of Igbo from across the Niger and Nzeogwu being from the other side. There were non-Igbo who participated in the coup. It was the middle ranking officers who carried out the coup. The senior ones stopped it. Col. Conrad Nwawo is from Onicha-Olona, Delta State. It was he who was sent to Kaduna to go and bring Nzeogwu down to Lagos. They were against the coup. He is not from across the Niger. It has nothing to do with which side of the river the Igbo belonged to. It was a question of young idealistic officers versus the older ones who had other views.

Though Nzeogwu was buried with full military honours but some believe that as a patriot, he has not been fully honoured...

The fact that Gen. Yakubu Gowon who was the Head of State then decided to bury him with full military honours, is already a recognition that this gentleman was a Nigerian and a great nationalist. That in itself is an acknowledgement of the fact that Nzeogwu was a true Nigerian and a nationalist.

What kind of a man was Nzeogwu?

I was with him in college. We were students together for four years and I taught in that school for another two years, so I was with him for six years before he left and joined the army.

Nzeogwu was an idealist, a very intelligent young man at the time. If you use the word 'pure' in terms of attachment to principles, he was one such person. They were in the mould of people like Nasser who were idealistic and pan-African and wanted to bring about change through military means, the same changes that politicians wanted but through other means. He was somebody that those who knew him respected. Obasanjo said that much in his writings. When his mother died a few years ago, as President, he came all the way to Okpanam for the burial.

During the war, you were Nigeria Ambassador to France. You joined Biafra and later back-pedaled to the Federal side. Why the changes?

It is not a question of going to the Biafra side and back. I opened the Nigerian Embassy in Paris. The difficulties that arose which later led to the Civil War occurred. I personally felt that the Federal Government at the time under Gowon-I do not hold the government responsible for what happened that provoked the war- did not do enough to reassure Igbo people about their safety and security in Nigeria after the successive massacres of Ndigbo in the North and a tearful exodus of Igbo men and women with children on their backs running. Many people felt that the Federal Government should have come in and admit that something has gone wrong. The government should have taken over to see how it could repair it. That did not happen, I remember that Yoruba Obas came to Enugu. Some of them were crying at the airport when they saw what happened. They parted with the little money they had. The Federal Government did not do enough to reassure the survivors that it was taking enough to see their welfare was protected.

Like Nzeogwu, I am pan - Nigerian and African. What happened in Paris was that why the Igbo were under attack I felt that they needed support and defence to save the lives of those who were alive. I joined Ojukwu in helping to organise support for them but I made it clear from the word go that I did not believe in secession as the answer to the problems facing Igbo in Nigeria just like Nzeogwu who died at Nsukka on the Biafran side but he was a pan- Nigerian. That was why Gowon did what he did for Nzeogwu. I never believed in the Biafran cause but if you are being killed, you will be forced to fight and nobody should have any apology for that. The important thing is that people like us did not believe in secession and that was made clear to Ojukwu.

I met Ojukwu for the first time in 1976, six years after the civil war at Charles de Gaulle Airport. He came from Ivory Coast and I happened to be at the airport at the time. He was shopping but I recognised him from his pictures. Immediately I shouted "Emeka", he asked who I was. I told him I was Raph and we embraced and went out to a restaurant for lunch. What happened in Paris was that I felt that Igbo needed to defend themselves from attack. My support was conditional: 'within Nigeria, yes, secession no.'

We should use the experience of the civil war to readjust the Nigerian Constitution. What we got at independence was something arranged by the British. Our people took over the Nigerian structure from the British and the founding fathers were specific on what they wanted: a federation. When you talk of a federation it means that the corporate units constitute the base that then concede to the apex what they want it to do. The base of the federation is the unit that makes it up. That was what was agreed.

Since then other things had happened because of military intervention and socialization. In my book, Reflections on the Nigerian Civil War, in 1968 I recommended for Nigeria what I called an elastic federal union of six states, 24 years ahead of the concept of six geopolitical zones. In fact, the states coincided largely with the six zones. I mentioned North-West, North-East, North-Central, South-West, South-East and South-Central. What I called South-Central is South-South.

From your account, you got disillusioned with the Biafran Cause and so crossed over to the Federal side...

What happened is simple. Basically, I do not believe in secession. I had to help because the Igbo were under attack. The condition was that we should settle within Nigeria. We had a chain of peace talks. When they were collapsing, some of us knew that Ojukwu was insisting too much on sovereignty, we believe that what the Igbo was lacking in Nigeria was not sovereignty but security. Any arrangement that gave them and other ethnic groups security was good enough. I specifically mentioned the agreement we reached at Aburi in Ghana, which gave autonomy to the various regions. I felt that it was good enough as it will keep Nigeria together.

Now does the Igbo man have the security that he needs in Nigeria especially in the North where there are regular religious crises?

When there is crisis, a lot of people suffer. Those in the theatre of crisis always pay a price. There are more Igbo in other parts of Nigeria than other ethnic groups in Igbo land. That is a fact. So, when there is an explosion, it is those in the vicinity of the explosion that suffer. What we are saying really is that security in Nigeria should be for every Nigerian and not just for Igbo people alone. There is no reason to start slaughtering your neighbours if there is a minor disagreement. The government should come in and ensure that no one takes law into his hands especially taking peoples' lives whether it is over religious or political disagreement.

How do you view a conspiracy theory that holds that Ojukwu deliberately set up Nzeogwu at the war front because he saw him as a traitor?

I don't think so. You don't have people in any family or group having an identical view on every issue. Each person, military or otherwise has his or her own view. There are other people like Col. Banjo and co who had problems with Ojukwu and paid with their lives.

As an Igbo man who grew up in the North, how did you feel about the mass killing of your kinsmen in the North during the 1966 pogrom?

Wherever you find crisis involving the killing of human beings, any normal person will feel distressed. We are going through the process of nation building; different ethnic groups with different traditions, different ways of thinking. These groups are being fused together and in the process of fusion, you have friction, some of which become violent. We hope that with time we all will be learning from each mistake that has occurred in the process of nation building.

Nigeria is still in the process of nation building and we hope that with time as we learn progressively from experiences and mistakes that we have made, we will continue to move closer and closer to what will be a save and prosperous country for everybody. Igbo as a nation, Yoruba as a nation, Ijaw as a nation, Hausa/Fulani as a nation: every Nigerian should feel happy and save within the Nigerian union. That should be the ultimate objective. We talk a lot about Nigeria unity, that is important but the easiest way to guarantee unity is to carry out programmes and policies that encourage people to feel happy that they are part of the group. Unity becomes automatic when people feel happy to associate and belong. Government at any giving time must ensure that every ethnic unit in Nigeria has cause to feel happy within the Federal union.

That takes us to the agitation by the Movement for the Actualization of the Sovereign States of Biafra (MASSOB)...

MASSOB is like Chief Ganiyu Adams-led Oodua People's Congress (OPC). When the people have a problem confronting them, different members of that community have different views on how to solve the problem. In the case of MASSOB, if they break the law of the land, then obviously they are wrong but if they have views that will not coincide with other peoples' views but are not violent and do not carry arms to cause confusion, what you do is to note what they are saying.

What they are trying to achieve for Igbo can be achieved without breaking away from Nigeria. You have to balance the need for government to be in control with the need for individuals to have enough freedom to express their views as long as they do not express these views with violence and the expression of these views does not break any known law of the land. You must balance the need to keep Nigeria together and have peace with the need to allow people free expression. If they have taken no step to break the laws of the land, then, you must respect their views. It is where they take up arms that you take up arms to stop them. They are free to think the way they want to think and that is what freedom is all about.

What do you think is the problem confronting Ndigbo in Nigeria today?

The problem confronting Ndigbo as a unit is like the problem confronting other units in Nigeria because most groups keep talking of marginalisation. What the Igbo require is to identify what their needs are and to walk together in harmony with other ethnic units to achieve what is good for Ndigbo. Fusion is taking place and it is important that all the various units respect the rights of the other units. Igbo need to identify their interests just like any other ethnic nationality need to do the same. They should negotiate and move together to ensure that what is best for each unit is achieved.

Yesterday, January 15 was the anniversary of the end of the Nigeria Civil War. Have the issues surrounding the war been resolved?

Civil war is not a good experience in the life of any nation. One of the causes was the question of emancipation of slaves, President Abraham Lincoln said 'stop this thing' but the Southerners said 'no.' It was one of the major planks on which the American civil war was based. But today, a black, an African-American, Barrack Obama is the President-elect of the United States of America. What we must do is to know that the civil war is one of the processes- a bad experience for Nigeria of course-of fusing people who have different views and tradition just like in America. With time, we are going to have more understanding.

One of the things that impressed me the other day when I was going through statistics is the level of inter-ethnic marriage. A lot of people marry across ethnic lines. With time, our people will be half-Yoruba/half-Igbo, half-Hausa/ half -Yoruba, half-Igbo/half-Urhobo, etc. The biggest fusion is in this kind of process. In a history book, you read something in two sentences but that something you read in two sentences took about fifty years to happen. It is natural to be impatient with the slow progress being made towards nation building but the end result will justify the time it took to consolidate the Nigerian nation.

As the President-General Elect of Ohanaeze Ndigbo, what do you have in stock for Ndigbo?


You cannot be a good member of your town if you are a bad son or daughter of your family. If your are a thief and a liar within the family you won't be a good member of the town and if you are not a good member of your town you cannot be a good member of your ethnic group, if you are not a good member of your ethnic group, you cannot be a good Nigerian. The same goes with being a good African and charity begins at home, if at the source we are able to develop an ethos that produces good citizens automatically; we are helping to build Nigeria and Africa.

My hope is that with the cooperation of everybody, we will be able to help Ndigbo revive their cultural heritage. Ohanaeze is not a political organization. It is a socio-cultural organization and we intend to invest our time and effort in helping to revive the Igbo language, which some people are losing now because of where children are being brought up outside Igbo land. We will dig into our culture and revive it.

Obviously, Ndigbo besides serving their tradition and culture are part of the world and have economic and political interests. Where we notice that there is need to give out rice, we will encourage Ndigbo who are involved in economic and political activities to be good citizens of their country. Ohanaeze cannot be partisan in terms of politics, you have people belonging to the various political parties, and they all have the responsibility of Ohanaeze. We do not tell people what party to join and so fort, but we are interested in every Igbo person that is doing the right thing. If they go into politics or business, they should not go in there as thieves and be a disgrace to the community, both to the Igbo nation and to Nigeria in this case. So, our job will be to help revive and improve upon whatever successes that have been achieved by our predecessors in the traditional and cultural fields of Ndigbo. You know Prof. Chinua Achebe will be honoured soon; all these have to do with getting our people to know the achievements of their sons and daughters. We intend to encourage more of that especially the young ones to be better citizens of the Igbo nation and of their country Nigeria.

Some Igbo in Rivers State and the Anioma area of Delta State believe that they are not benefiting much from the Igbo union. How do you intend to come into this issue?

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Offline furtune

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Re: HOW CIVIL WAR LESSONS CAN BENEFIT ALL NIGERIANS, BY RALPH UWECHUE
« Reply #1 on: January 16, 2009, 02:59:48 PM »
First of all, the very fact that somebody from Anioma which is the Igbo speaking part of Delta state has been elected by the entire Igbo nation to lead the Ohanaeze Ndigbo organisation should put paid to any thinking that the Igbo across the Niger have anything against us on this side participating in their activities. You cannot be against a people and you ask them to come and lead you. We have been told, you know my election stems from a slot given to Anioma people, Ndigbo decided that this time the President-General of Ohanaeze Ndigbo must come from Anioma and Anioma people came together and asked me to be the candidate and I was elected by all Ndigbo. So, my feeling is that whoever has that kind of view that the others across the river didn't pay us enough attention should now realise that if that didn't happen in the past, that today attention is being paid particularly in the choice of Anioma to produce the leadership of the apex Igbo organization world-wide.

How do you see the present state of affairs in the country with President Yar'Adua at the helm of affairs?

President Yar'Adua has just been confirmed by the Supreme Court as duly elected President. He has had about a year and half in power and he has taken certain steps to put his stamp on the governance of Nigeria. The first major reshuffle he did is only a matter of weeks ago and if you look at the caliber of people he has put in there, you feel that he is trying to bring about improvement. So, I think we need to give him time to organise himself and his government.

Quote

I do not believe in secession. I had to help because the Igbo were under attack. The condition was that we should settle within Nigeria. We had a chain of peace talks. When they were collapsing, some of us knew that Ojukwu was insisting too much on sovereignty, we believe that what the Igbo was lacking in Nigeria was not sovereignty but security. Any arrangement that gave them and other ethnic groups security was good enough. I specifically mentioned the agreement we reached at Aburi in Ghana, which gave autonomy to the various regions. I felt that it was good enough as it will keep Nigeria together.

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Offline beibee

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Re: HOW CIVIL WAR LESSONS CAN BENEFIT ALL NIGERIANS, BY RALPH UWECHUE
« Reply #2 on: January 16, 2009, 03:23:42 PM »


whatever...someone should stop the killing...
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Offline furtune

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Re: HOW CIVIL WAR LESSONS CAN BENEFIT ALL NIGERIANS, BY RALPH UWECHUE
« Reply #3 on: February 17, 2009, 12:08:55 PM »
do you think killing will stop?
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Re: HOW CIVIL WAR LESSONS CAN BENEFIT ALL NIGERIANS, BY RALPH UWECHUE
« Reply #3 on: February 17, 2009, 12:08:55 PM »

 

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