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Biafra and Lagos: 50 Years After —By Olusegun Adeniyi

Come Saturday (27th May), it will be exactly 50 years that Lagos State was created (along with others) by the military administration of General Yakubu Gowon to give Nigeria a 12-states structure. 

Instructively, four days after that historic event, on 30th May 1967 to be specific, the late Colonel Emeka Odumegwu Ojukwu announced the secession of Eastern Nigeria and the establishment of a State of Biafra. 

Taken together, a combination of the creation of states, the military incursion into our national political affairs that precipitated the dismantling of the regional structure and the subsequent declaration of Biafra would define the unfortunate trajectory of our country in ways that nobody could have foreseen at the time.

However, if ever any proof was ever needed that we don’t learn from our mistakes, it is in the fact that the possibility of a military coup would still be subject of a national conversation in May 2017 while many communities and groups are yet to be weaned of the ideas of secession, agitation for more states etc. just as hate-mongering has become the defining issue of the day.

Yet, if we are honest, it is easy to understand the cold calculations that propel such harebrained ideas—including the notion that a president who is marooned abroad, battling health challenge, would seek and win re-election—in a nation where the political elite has perfected the art of exploiting group differences to advance personal agenda.

The greater challenge is that because we have failed to harness our potentials, many now romanticise the past at a time other societies are busy plotting their future.

It is in that context that we should situate the renewed clamour for Biafra by those who, disappointed with what Nigeria has become, imagine what might have been had the civil war ended with a different outcome. 

While I am well aware of our squandered opportunities, it may also help to look at what Southern Sudan has become today despite the promise of yesterday and the enormous sacrifices in human lives of recent years. That may help in tempering our political arithmetic with a bit of realism.

For sure, the 50th anniversary of the declaration of Biafra offers a rare opportunity for sober reflection on a number of issues that may be useful in dealing with contemporary national challenges. But for me, reflections about the past are useful only to the extent in which they help in advancing the future. 

And today in Abuja, the Shehu Musa Yar’Adua Foundation, with support from the Ford Foundation and the Open Society Initiative for West Africa (OSIWA), will be holding a one-day conference on the theme, “Memory and Nation Building – Biafra: 50 Years After”.

I am particularly interested in the outcome of the sessions, having had the benefit of sharing ideas with Ms Jackie Farris, Professor Ebere Onwudiwe and Mr Amara Nwankpa in recent weeks. 

One of the main objectives of the conference is to encourage all Nigerians to be aware and concerned about the humanitarian and social impacts of internal conflicts regardless of where they occur in our country. 

The conference is also bringing together some brilliant post-Biafra generation professionals who had no direct experience of the civil war so as to ascertain what Biafra means to them within the context of a united Nigeria.

With the Acting President, Prof. Yemi Osinbajo, as keynote speaker, the conference will bring together key actors like former President Olusegun Obasanjo, Ohanaeze Ndigbo President, Chief John Nnia Nwodo, former federal bureaucrat, Alhaji Ahmed Joda and a host of contemporary Nigerian voices to examine the much-touted post-war programme of “Reconstruction, Rehabilitation and Reconciliation” so as to glean lessons (not) learned and to explore potential social and structural interventions required to secure Nigeria’s future.

While such an enterprise is very productive, especially so we can understand the subliminal impulses that inform the actions and reactions of Igbos to contemporary Nigeria and the feeling of collective hurt that remains very strong among the people, it will be more helpful if we tackle challenge as a national one as the Yar’Adua Centre is trying to do. 

Two reports within the past ten days make such an exercise even more compelling.

First, in a report titled, Rethinking Transportation 2020-2030, a Stanford University Professor, Tony Seba, has predicted that the transportation landscape will soon change dramatically as people switch from the much-cheaper fossil-based vehicles to electric cars, thus leading to a collapse of oil prices and with it the petroleum industry. 

Even if the forecast that all this would happen within the next eight years seems farfetched, the fact remains that the oil economy is in the past and that we must wake up to the reality of the moment.

At about the same period that we are being warned about the futility of building our hopes on hydrocarbon resources, Oxfam released a report which provides a picture of the current state of poverty and inequalities in our country. 

“Nigeria is not a poor country yet millions are living in hunger”, according to the Oxfam report, which advocates that to free millions of our citizens from deprivation and want, we must build “a new political and economic system that works for everyone, not just a fortunate few.”

Quite predictably, the response of the authorities was to dismiss Oxfam while politicians like former Vice President Atiku Abubakar would continue to argue that the solution to our problem lies in restructuring our country by using the existing geo-political zones as federating units rather than the current 36 states. 

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