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Demola Rewaju: The generation that fought the civil war – How Obasanjo differs from Buhari (1)

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Demola Rewaju: The generation that fought the civil war – How Obasanjo differs from Buhari (1)

by Demola Rewaju

The story of General Olusegun Obasanjo reads sometimes like a fairytale straight out of an Enid Blyton or Ladybird book. The man fascinates me to no end – loved by some, hated by others but respected by all – Obasanjo is no ordinary man. Casting Nigeria into the perspective of our unique history often helps to understand where we stand in the course of history. With what I know of the civil war and in looking at the current President, my mind stumbled on a pet theory which I would explain here but Obasanjo stuck out like a sore thumb in my narrative and I had to go back to history to understand why.

Many accounts have been written on the civil war and I have read most of them. In understanding how quickly America was able to rally back from its own civil war, I had to study theirs too and I discovered one major difference in how the civil wars of both countries were prosecuted.

To kill a man is no mean feat. To kill men who were once comrades in warfare and who fought on the same side as one did is not an easy thing. To order soldiers to kill men with whom they had previously shared living space or a hot meal at some point is very difficult to do for any sane person. Apart from serial killers who derive a bizarre kind of thrill from killing random people, the rest of us who are sane are not moved to kill unless we see the ‘victim’ as a threat – many rational humans will give in to self-survival instincts or to protect a loved one when in a situation of kill or be killed.

The psychology of genocidal killings aims to foster a feeling that the other side by account of race or ethnicity is an inferior breed that threatens the superior race – those who killed for Hitler felt justified in doing so. The Rwandan genocide found the Hutus seeing the Tutsis as less than human, as animals, as cockroaches – vermin that needed to be destroyed by conditioning people in this manner, even children who should ordinarily be wary of blood.

The psychology of warfare is a bit different: trained to kill, soldiers are automatically conditioned to fire on an enemy at the voice of their commander. To prosecute a war with another country requires a form of nationalism and patriotism that lets the soldier see himself as defending his country. The infamous Sgt. Rogers in confessing why he killed some high profile Nigerians explained that he was told by his superiors that they were enemies of the state and he was a loyal servant of the state, trained to kill in its defence. The psychology of warfare demands that those who kill on behalf of the state must see their victims as threats to something that they hold dear; this is why one finds among soldiers the greatest patriots of a country.

The psychology of civil warfare is a bit nuanced – there are those who prosecute civil wars without the full extent of the animosity of country to country hate-motivation that attends warfare. The American civil war was conducted in this manner: the commander-in-chief emphasised that this was a battle of brothers and no blood was to be shed than was necessary to get the other side to commit. Where other civil war leaders would take the low road, Abe Lincoln explained to his generals that the South was not an enemy, he turned the civil war from a battle of might to a battle of right and morality – no part of an America built on the concept of Freedom and Democracy should keep anyone enslaved on account of their skin colour. This argument found fertile ground among troops who stayed loyal to him as they had by that time abandoned the culture of slavery that was still predominant in the southern parts of America. Many of them over time had set their own black slaves free in line with that argument while the South refused to do the same.

Contrast with the Nigerian civil war – fought on a history of mutual ethnic suspicion, grown over time from the seeds sown before independence and six years after with the killing of prominent northern leaders followed by the killing of Igbos in the north. Ethnic patterns had long emerged: Northerners routinely referred to Ibos as “anyamili” (a corrupt derivation of the Igbo phrase for “give me water”), Yorubas referred to the same tribe as “a j’okuta ma m’omi” (Those who eat stones without drinking water). The Ibos also had their own ‘pet names’ for these other tribes and a generic description of them: the Yorubas to them were cowards while the Hausas were dirty people.

Cast against this background, both sides of our civil war were fertile ground for ethnic hatred, long before the first shot was fired. Soldiers in the military understood that promotion and deployment most times was a matter of tribe and ethnicity rather than competence – imagine soldiers from one tribe jubilating at the news that an officer of their own tribe had been deployed to head their section of the army; for them, kin with the commander meant more than it ordinarily should. The name of a soldier and its suspected ethnic roots could make or mar his promotion.

One of the most definitive accounts of the Civil War for me was written by Brigadier General Godwin Alabi-Isama whose work cast a deep and reflective look at the Civil War by virtue of history. He only wrote about the war decades after he had seen and participated actively in it. His own story also makes a point: born to an Ukwuani Christian father from the Niger-Delta area who died when he was four and an Ilorin Muslim mother who consequently raised him with her Muslim family. ‘Godwin’ was the name his father gave him with the surname ‘Isama’ but his mother raised him in Ibadan and Ilorin as Abdulrahman Alabi (his Muslim name and her maiden name). Joining the army, the latter name created easy access but his dual origin made him the target of suspicion several times. At the time, 70% of all military installations were located in the northern region – mainly in Kaduna, Kano and Zaria with infantry battalions and several support units; the Eastern Region had one infantry battalion in Enugu while the Western Region had infantry battalions in Ibadan and Ikeja along with a field artillery unit in Abeokuta.

The first coup in West Africa happened in Togo in 1963 when the Northern Peoples Congress was in power in Nigeria and the government recruited more soldiers into the army to prevent such an occurrence in Nigeria – predictably, the recruits were mainly northerners. Three years after the coup in Togo, Nigeria also witnessed a bloody coup that confirmed the worst fears of many from Northern Nigeria as all major Northern leaders were killed on January 15, 1966. The counter-coup of July that year was largely a reprisal one. In one of the unfortunate events that surrounded those coups and reinforces my point in those article: Lt. Col. Abogo Largema (a northerner) had been killed in Ibadan in the first coup in January. Troops felt insecure in areas outside their own ethnic places and so they were mostly redeployed to their respective regions. Returning
Northern troops from Ibadan to Kaduna whose commander Largema had been killed were spoiling for revenge. Alabi-Isama records that Col. Hassan Katsina and Lt. Col. Abba Kyari (not the same as the present Chief of Staff to President Buhari) facilitated the movement of non-Hausa soldiers out of Kaduna by train to protect them but the returning soldiers who wanted vengeance laid ambush for the train at Minna Railway Station where the train was to refresh with water and coal and killed many non-northern soldiers while wounding others. One of those injured in this attack was a certain Benjamin Adekunle who would play a very major role in the Civil War.

The War itself was executed as a war of enemies. The foulest language was used to stir up hatred by those who participated heavily at the warfront. Each side saw the other side as infidels or cowards. Interestingly: even on the Federal side, divisions were created along ethnic/religious lines such that Yoruba officers headed divisions that had consisted mainly of Yorubas and so on. Nobody from that generation who participated in the civil war could come out to lead a detribalised Nigeria.

That last line is my pet theory but Obasanjo was the exception. Alabi-Isama’s account however clears it – written to counter Obasanjo’s My Command with facts, figures, maps and rough-hand strategy plans, it points out that Obasanjo came into the war after the major battles had been fought by the Third Marine Commandos under Col. Benjamin Adekunle. Adekunle it was who had justified starvation of Biafran children as a tool of war – he himself like many other participating commanders had steeped themselves in the emotion of hatred and bitterness much needed to prosecute any war but a civil war. In other division where the affront of Biafra was taken more personal from an ethnic and religious dimension dating back to the killing of January 15, 1966, the bitterness was even thicker but rarely expressed. As the war raged, the Commander-in-Chief Yakubu Gowon found time to get married in Lagos. Many like him were part of the generation that fought the civil war but mainly from a detached point of engagement – they never really had to motivate their troops with emotional tales of how the Ibos hate the Hausas to justify why they must be killed. They never had to motivate troops with religious arguments to show how this was a Jihad. It is no casual or random thing that Chinua Achebe’s parting epistle to the world was a recollection of the Biafra story – they also lived through it with much emotions on the Biafran side – emotions of hatred and bitterness for a country that only wanted them to be a part of ‘One Nation’ as animals to be slaughtered like Akaluka was in the north. Every new technological innovation of weapons of war was considered a sign of Ibo ingenuity – the genius of the Ibo man restrained and hindered by the larger Nigeria – Biafra for them was a true ‘motherland’ in the context of patriotism. Obasanjo was largely shielded from the bitter points of the war – he inherited a very motivated-to-kill-Biafrans division and thus escaped the hatred and bitterness of his generation, the generation that fought and lived through the Nigerian Civil War – a generation taught and conditioned to hate anyone not of its own ethnicity.

(To be continued)

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