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Sam Omatseye: History, civil war and our haunted house


Sam Omatseye: History, civil war and our haunted house

by Sam Omatseye

I cannot remember their first names, but they captured my young fancy. Short, articulate with gesticulatory agility, they raised the tempo of their classes to the theatre experience. Since in my teen years I knew little about thespian ecstasy, the two history teachers gave us something close. They were Eshareture and Edeyan. I recall Eshareture’s dissection of the Yoruba Wars and the birth of Liberia. I cannot forget Edeyan’s ability to conjure back the tumble and heroics of the Niger Delta city states. In those days, the greed of England eyed our liquids – not below the earth and not black. They were red and white, and the juice of trees.

After my days in Government College, Ughelli, I knew I wanted to study history and become a professor in that romantic inquest into the past. Not even my fascination with tales and language enlivened by the classes of Mr. Money and Demas Akpore, former deputy governor of Bendel State, took away the rapture of the past.

At Ife, two major teachers, Professors Femi Omosini and Tunji Oloruntimehin, heightened my love affair with the subject. Oluruntimehin handled with irony and understated zest West African people’s treacherous tango with freedom and tyranny under colonial thralldom. Omosini, with wit and dramatics, engaged a feudal Europe simultaneously in love with God and mammon. After my certificated years, I have followed history year after year, reading histories all around the world and across epochs.

Recently, when General Alabi-Isama published his civil war account, The Tragedy of History, I observed an irony. Most secondary schools in the country are doing away with the study of history, and the universities are diluting it, making history major study a lost cause. Now, it has to be history and international relations.

The Alabi-Isama book, apart from its onslaught on the Obasanjo claims, was an invitation to the past. As the historian E.H. Carr asserts in his classic, What Is History?, it is “an unending dialogue with the past.” What struck me when the Alabi-Isama book came out was how the events of today look so much like the days before the civil war. Secondly, I discovered that our young, even the very bright ones, know little about that period. It is not their fault. Who taught them or guided them into that vault of our souls?

As much Nigerian history as I know, much of our history is still unknown. How many know the details, for instance, of the most turbulent era of our history? Major Iluyomade narrated in detail, his command of the Ore confrontations during the civil war. Much of this has not been documented until this paper unveiled it. The Ore battle is the most mythologised of all the civil war encounters, but how much of this has been taught or documented in books or studies? So much of the war is wrapped in clouds. The Murtala Muhammed’s blood-laden command of the Niger bridge, the revenge pogrom against Hausa-Fulani in Asaba, the Abagana combustion, the capture of the Central Bank in Benin, the Midwest role, the battles for Owerri, life in Lagos, the minorities in the old Eastern region, the Yoruba relations with the Hausa before the war, etc.

We have not had also in detail books about Ojukwu as a general, or his handling of the so-called saboteurs from the Midwest, or Gowon either as a weak or necessary commander in chief, Awolowo as the finance mainstay and dynamic of starvation or the stories of the three divisions, their challenges or exploits or limitations. All of these would form major studies in postgraduate schools and provide simplified materials for primary and secondary and undergraduate studies. Studies on most of these are perfunctory at best. I generated discontent in some quarters in a recent article on Alabi-Isama’s book, especially my assertions of Gowon as a weak commander in chief. Gowon was a nice man. Commander in chiefs are not supposed to be gentlemen alone, but officers and gentlemen. Gowon became too much of a gentleman to become an officer. If he became supreme commander as a compromise, he took it too lamely. He was a Christian to douse the southern suspicions of Hausa-Fulani hegemony, and he was a northerner to restrain northern hubris. He would not rein in Shuwa or Muhammed because he feared for his survival. Frankly, if he was rash with the two men, they might have ousted him and complicated the ethnic and political fragility of the country. But both men were killing Nigerians and Biafrans in avoidable bloodbaths. Gowon did not have cunning and statecraft like Lincoln, and he sacrificed his survival for a prolonged war. Murtala was on a tear pillaging his own men. Shuwa did not know the difference between strategy and tactics, and moved from village to village as Igbo ran away from their villages, fuelling the charge of pogrom, which was hard to deny. What of the last days of the war? Achuzia claimed he never went to Akinrinade to surrender. I would want to know if he went to him in the thick of night for a picnic. And why did Ojukwu run away? Or was Effiong then a traitor? Even a book on Air Raid will be a good document of that era. Madiebo said he lied about being at the Abagana massacre.

A century after the conflicts, books roll out each year on the United States civil war. Abraham Lincoln’s role inspires books every year. The First and Second World Wars enjoy the chronicles of historians, novelists, memoirists, and they visit various parts, whether it is Operation Barbaroosa, or the Battle of the Bulge, or the battle of Britain, or the detention at Auschwitz or Sobribo or Hitler or Churchill, or the French resistance and General de Gaulle, or Musolini also known as the Sawdust Caesar, etc.

If our young know history, they know their country. Tragically, the old, including our leaders, know little about our past, except the ones they experienced. If they know our history, they would know that some things happening today hark back to our past. The Rivers State crisis reechoes the rumbles of the Western region crisis. The killings of the North reverberate with the scatological details of the pogrom of the 1960s. The forming of the APC as a party harks back to NNA versus UPGA in the First Republic, PPA versus NPN in Second Republic and, under IBB, SDP versus NRC. Hence philosopher Nietzsche wrote about the theory of eternal return. The past makes us tenants of a haunted house.

A few topics have engaged writers like the coup led by Nzeogwu and the countercoup. Even at that, the accounts come less from detached writers than memoirists whose stories stand on personal prejudice. The reason for this is the failure and decline of our education, and the philistinism of a society that would not read. Where are the equivalents of Alan Bullock’s Hitler: A study in tyranny, AJP Taylor’s The Second World War, or Albert Carrie’s enquiry into the same subject, or William Shirer’s tome, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, or E.H Carr’s engagement with Bolsheviks Revolution?

History is what we should honour and mourn, to paraphrase the classic Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton. To honour the heroes by telling their story, and mourn what we lost with a view to pursuing paradise anew. History is never boring, it is our engagement for renewal. The other day, I asked a student who Bukar Dimka was? He didn’t know. He was in his last year in the university.

When we study history, we engage the present. We look at then to see now. A new movie, The Great Gatsby, is now running in theatres around the world, lashes at wealth from false values. It is based on a novel of the same title. Many critics say the revisit of the film is inspired by the recent economic crash just like the one that happened at the time Scott F. Fitzgerald wrote. They were right, but that book prophesied the power of history with the following lines: “So we beat on, boats against the current borne back ceaselessly into the past.”

– This Best Outside Opinion was written by Sam Omatseye

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