Selective Amnesia – the disease of Post-Authoritarian Nigeria

One of the major reasons for the backwardness of the Nigerian state after so many years of independence is her ability to avoid addressing the past, thereby dooming herself to the commendation of never learning from past events. I understand that most of our history is macabre. But continuous avoidance is only setting us on a road of regression.

Most of the undemocratic governments in Nigeria were welcomed with open arms by the Nigerian people at the advent of their reign. The January 15 Ifeajuna-Nzeogwu incursion was happily received in its early days because it restored order in the western part of the country and destroyed the “political profiteers… men in high and low places that seek bribes… those who keep the  country divided permanently so that they can remain in office  as ministers or VIPs…”

The January 15 Coup failed, as Aguyi Ironsi, the GOC of the Nigerian Army was able to mobilize the brigade of guards against Ifeajuna and his men. After this he made the members of the Balewa government hand over power to him, making himself in effect the Head of state – a position he would hold for 194 days.

Some months later, after the political landscapes had shifted due to ethno-regional sentiments, Ironisi was killed in the July 29 counter-coup. These events led to one of the darkest times in Nigerian history.

After the Nigerian civil war, Gowon was usurped from power by Murtala Muhammed. Muhammed was supported by large swathes of the Nigerian people and is still remembered today as a Nigerian hero – his portrait adorns the 20 Naira note. Very Ironic, since he was known to have been the mastermind of the July counter-coup that led to the murder of hundreds of Igbo army officers and was said to have committed atrocious acts during the civil war.

When Shagari’s government was toppled, and Buhari came to power, Nigerians once again were very happy because the new military government promised to free them from the corrupt shackles of the past administration. In his declaration speech on the January 1, 1984 Buhari among other things had this to say about the Shagari government:

“…The change became necessary in order to put an end to the serious economic predicament and the crisis of confidence now afflicting our nation… Fellow Nigerians, finally, we have dutifully intervened to save this nation from imminent collapse. We therefore expect all Nigerians, including those who participated directly or indirectly in bringing the nation to this present predicament, to cooperate with us. This generation of Nigerians, and indeed future generations, have no country other than Nigeria. We shall remain here and salvage it together.”

We see how that turned out. Buhari, even though some claim his intentions were good, used barrack-like methods of discipline on the Nigerian people. He arrested and convicted politicians and senior government officials – giving them sentences as long as 100 years, and incarcerating them in the harshest of conditions. He made soldiers abuse the Nigerian people all in the name of making them observe communal hygiene and social decorum.

Once again the same Nigerian people that had clamored for the leadership of the austere anti-graft military leader were tired of him and wanted him changed. It was in this atmosphere and combined with a plethora of other internal nuances within the structures of the military that Babangida ousted Buhari. In his 1985 speech Babangida had this to say about his predecessor’s government – the man he help put in power:

“Regrettably it turned out that Major General Buhari was too rigid and uncompromising in his attitude to issues of national significance. Efforts to make him understand that a diverse polity like Nigeria required recognition and appreciation of differences in both cultural and individual perceptions, only served to aggravate these attitudes. Major General Tunde Idiagbon (Buhari’s vice) was similarly inclined in that respect… A combination of these characteristics in the two most important persons holding the nation’s offices became impossible to contend with…”

After it became clear that Babangida had no intention of making good on his promises – 8 years later – the Nigerian people began to revolt against his government; and coupled with the Abiola saga, he was forced to leave office, leaving a caretaker government behind.

It was at this time that Babangida’s minster of defence, friend and partner for a long time, General Sanni Abacha, decided to usurp the interim government in a palace coup. In his November 17, 1993 speech he had this to say among other things:

“…Nigeria is the only country we have. We must, therefore, solve our problems ourselves. We must lay a very solid foundation for the growth of democracy. We should avoid any adhoc or temporary solutions. The problems must be addressed firmly, objectively, decisively and with all sincerity of purpose… This government is a child of necessity with a strong determination to restore peace and stability to our country and on these foundations, enthrone a lasting and true democracy…”

Among all this, one is able to observe an existing pattern. First the people welcome the new government – even though that government is undemocratic – they give that government legitimacy by acquiescing to its ascent. They believe that their saviours have come to deliver them from the corrupt bowels of the previous government. To the people it does not matter what they had to do to get there. Then down the road, they realize that they have given legitimacy to a worse monster. Then they begin to protest the downfall or and revolt against the government they gave assent to. Another monster comes along, offers them sugar-coated nonsense, which they swallow and welcome again; repeating the same process over again.

An alleged speech prepared by the coup plotters of the failed 1997 coup, contained the same ridiculous “i-am-here-to-save-you-from-the-previous-bad-government” message. A part of the alleged speech goes thus:

“Abacha has gone astray. Virtually nothing concrete has been achieved. Rather, our people are still in abject poverty. Electricity is unstable, water supply inadequate, hospitals are still without drugs and where they are available the cost is unaffordable. Education is in disarray… General Abacha’s greed for wealth and power is becoming more and more insatiable thus making hum blind and nonchalant to this unacceptable condition.”

According to Matthew Kukah, a member of the Human Rights Violations Investigation Commission (HRVIC): “Had this coup succeeded, Nigerians would have trooped out in celebration with the sad belief that a new set of redeemers has arrived; the circle of deceit would have been re-enacted all over again”

Still many Nigerians chose to forget. This only gives credence to the words of Richard von Weizsacker, a former German president: “whoever closes his eyes to the past becomes blind to the present. Whoever does not wish to remember inhumanity becomes susceptible to the dangers of a new infection”.

Just recently while reading Mathew Kukah’s Witness to Justice I came across ten propositions by Louis Bickford, on how best a post-authoritarian nation, escaping the fangs of authoritarian rule can deal with its past memories – especially of the grotesque kind. Here are the propositions and my analysis on how the Nigerian State has conducted herself in adherence to them

  1. Setting up of truth commissions: In its almost 55 years after independence, Nigeria has been ruled by Military dictatorships for 29 years. This periods of military juntas – one between 1966 and 1979 and the other between 1983 and 1999 – where extremely dark times for the Nigerian people. These periods where tagged with the repression of the Nigerian people; the suppression of the Nigerian Media; the torture of dissidents within the Nigerian state; the gradual dilapidation of the Nigerian education system; the complete abandon of world class indigenous industries – e.g. Agriculture, textiles manufacturing, cassava processing and tie and dye cloth making – industries of the Nigerian economy; the institutionalizing of corruption and patronage  networks within the social, economic and political dynamics of the Nigerian state. Almost everything wrong with Nigeria is rooted in these periods of her history.

To set things right and the records straight, president Obasanjo set up the Human Rights Violations Investigation Commission (HRVIC), popular known as the Oputa panel in 2000 – an apt moniker since the head of the commission was Justice Chukwudifa Oputa. This was supposed to be Nigeria’s truth commission. In my opinion I believe it should have instead been Nigeria’s Nuremberg Trials – a period of House cleaning for the Nigerian State. But then the Commission did not have the necessary powers needed to deliver justice where justice needed to be delivered. Instead past generals refused to appear before the panel to answer the allegations made against them. In the end the final report of the panel which is said to contain shocking revelations of torture and other macabre acts perpetrated by these military governments, recommendations on what needed to be done in some of the cases brought before the commission and the many an individual indicted of numerous wrong doings by the commission, has been kept from the public eye.

  1. Initiating the trials of perpetrators: Till date many of the actors involved in the diabolical regimes of the past in the Nigerian state still walk free and are considered respectable statesmen. The culture of impunity these perpetrators revel in is mind boggling. I am of the opinion that we can try many reforms to change our country for the better, but until the guilty is punished our country would go nowhere and would forever remain a backwater civilization.
  1. Embarking on academic research, analysis of historical memory of the past: The dearth on qualitative and quantitative research on events and timelines in Nigerian history cannot be overstated. The Academia thus far has not performed it duties as the power houses of historical and political analysis within the Nigerian state. Instead they get involved with ridiculous university politics of who would become the next dean or head of department – a complete dereliction of the duty placed on them.
  1. Lustration (denial or perpetrators access to public office): This, of all is the most embarrassing in the Nigerian state. These men who are known to be murderers and thieves are still allowed to hold public office. This culture of impunity within the Nigerian state has a dangerous look-alike with the Cosa Nostra.
  1. Setting up museums and monuments for heroes or heroines: Thus far there are just a handful of museums in the Nigeria state. But due to the fact many of the heroes and heroines recognized by the Nigerian people are criminals that have committed various acts of treachery, there is no way museums or monuments would be a big deal in the Nigerian state. Apart from the recently established presidential library by Olusegun Obasanjo, no other head of state has had the guts to open one, where most of his papers and memos could be scrutinized by independent researchers.
  1. Extracting confessions through interviews with perpetrators: When researchers today try to interview most of these dictators, they become evasive or defensive revealing no useful information in the process. Memoirs of the major actors during the periods of the military juntas in Nigeria is in serious scarcity, and in cases when some of these men decided to write one, they blandish them with semi-fictionalized accounts of events to aggrandize themselves.
  1. Adopting arts and theatre: There have been over 170 movies made about the American Civil War, Hundreds of movies made about World War II and the Holocaust till date. This is not counting the hundreds of documentaries, TV series, and stage plays that have been made. The dearth of such things within in the Nigerian creative industry cannot be over stated. Even though there has been a rise in the number of the Nigeria Civil War and the military regimes themed books we know that a lot has to be done in our movie making industry – surprisingly the third largest in the world. We all know about the Half of a yellow Sun saga. I mean, a movie adaption from a book that followed the lives of twin sisters during the civil war became a concern of national security.
  1. Embarking on symbolic protest: I have made too much noise above to show why this would not happen.
  1. Technological documentation of past abuses (Internet): In this aspect I must confess there has been progress, but because of the culture of impunity there is little or no effect. An example is the Ekitigate Scandal. Since it was a nationwide spectacle I would not say more on this. But to understand how depraved the Nigeria state is, all you need to do is compare the Ekitigate Scandal and the smoking gun tapes of the Watergate Scandal.
  1. Setting up of Archives: it is impossible to imagine the dearth of Archives in the Nigerian state after all that has happened. I concede that we have a National Archive, but all you have to do is check the conditions of these places. Some of them have become decrepit from many years of abandon. In an interview Niyi Osundare, a Nigerian poet and writer, when speaking on why the US is an ideal place for writers like himself to work and do research he said, among other things that, “…the University of Wisconsin, for example, has more research resources/archives on Nigerian writers than any of our universities in Nigeria…”. Imagine that.

Indeed for the Nigerian nation to move forward we need to go through a process of reflection. We need to remember our past and set market driven systems that would usher us into the great nation we were destined to be.

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