By Chukwudi Nweje
Pat Utomi, professor of political economy and management expert is Founder/CEO of Centre for Values in Leadership (CVL). In this interview, he shared his memories of the Nigerian civil war and proffers solutions to Nigeria’s problems.
January 15 of this year marked 51 years of the end of the Nigerian Civil War. What do you remember of the war, you were 11 years old at the time?
I was a student at Christ the King College (CKC), Onitsha when the war started, but my family lived in Gusau which is in present-day Zamfara State at the time of the pogrom in 1966. My father was transferred to Lagos and the rest of the family had to relocate briefly to present-day Delta State before moving to Lagos to join my father. I was in Biafra when the war started but eventually crossed over to the Republic of Benin as Mid-Western Nigeria was then called before the federal troops took over. I witnessed the killings in and around Asaba, I missed being one of the victims by the whiskers, but my grandfather was killed in front of his house. Col Mike Ogwuchime, a relative had his house directly opposite my father’s house. When the federal troops entered my village, they headed straight to Col Ogwuchime’s house and razed it down with mortar bomb and then turned around and brought down my own father’s house. By 1968, I had relocated to Lagos to join my father and resumed school in Ibadan, so I had the privilege of witnessing the civil war from both the Biafran side and the Nigerian side.
What horrific images did the civil war imprint on your mind that you cannot forget?
There are the images of the dying hungry children and other people which was even more frightening than the images of those shot and killed by the bullets. There was what we called ‘win the war soup’. The soup was more like water and anything you can put in it for meat, be it lizard or any other thing you can find and add two or three seeds of ogbono seed. There was the gunfire, people being killed and absolute disregard for civilian lives. The Asaba massacre brought out the worst of things then, two stories from that period says a lot about how much attention the world paid to us and the regard to human lives. The civil war was happening at the same time the United States of America (USA) was fighting in Vietnam. One Lieutenant William Kelly led
American soldier into a Vietnamese village and in his nervousness, he opened fire on Vietnamese villagers and killed a number of them. It was such a big issue in the global community that when William Kelly got back to America, he was tried and sent to prison over the atrocities of that act. Compare that to the Nigerian civil war; in Asaba, innocent civilians came out dancing to welcome the advancing federal troops, they were singing ‘One Nigeria, One Nigeria’, and somebody ordered the men to line up on one side and the women on the other side and ordered soldiers to open fire on thousands of men and slaughtered them just like that.
During the EndSARS protest, armed security personnel shot at unarmed youths who gathered at the Lekki toll gate waving the Nigerian flag and singing the national anthem? What is your take on that?
You cannot compare the two. The Asaba massacre was in a state of war, though it was not justifiable and the toll gate incident was a peaceful protest during peacetime but the mindset is the same. The mindset that would allow a well-trained and well-armed soldier to open fire on un-threatening civilians is threatening. It is an ultimate story of cowardice because there is no act more cowardly than for a well-trained and well-armed soldier to shoot at a completely non-threatening and unarmed civilian. It takes away the dignity from the training of the soldier.
You talk about doing everything possible to ensure the county is not plunged into another civil war, but some of the things that led to the conflict are still in play today. What do you think?
There is a general problem about Nigeria being an unjust society, that has not changed and one of the ways you can change that is to create a more rule of law-dependent society. There are too much arbitrariness and impunity in our political life in Nigeria. Rule of law and modernity is too far from the way we are organised. The basic premise of the lack of development in Africa and Nigeria is that there is a lack of modern ways of thinking and rule-based ways of doing things and disregard for the dignity of the human person. Your nationality is not questioned based on where you come from; it doesn’t matter whether you are an American or South African. Those are still problems in Nigeria today.
To be fair, Nigeria made one of the most remarkable efforts at healing immediately after the civil war. Gen Yakubu Gowon’s three Rs reconstruction, rehabilitation and reconciliation were implemented with a fair amount of conscientiousness. We tend to forget that Dr Alex Ekwueme became Vice President of Nigeria within nine years of the end of the civil war. If not that a group of treasonable felons in army uniforms overthrew the government of President Shehu Shagari in 1983, it was very likely that Dr Ekwueme would have become president of Nigeria in 1987, that would have buried the ghost of Biafra.
Catholic Bishop of Sokoto Diocese, Most Rev Dr Hassan Kukah said in his new year message that there would have been an uprising if a non-Muslim president had done a fraction of what President Muhammadu Buhari is doing. What is your take?
There is no point in trying to stoke that point because everybody knows that Bishop Kukah was not trying to say what a lot of people have been inferring that he said. What he was trying to say is that the nature of the lopsidedness of how the federation has been organised is such that some are more prone to impunity than others. But to be fair, it is just individual orientation. Some Northern leaders are more sensitive than others. Alhaji Shagari was an extremely sensitive man and he took into consideration the interests of all the people in the Nigerian project.
How sensitive is President Buhari to all the interests in the Nigerian project?
Nigerians can make their own judgement on that. Sometimes is the press trying to put what they want to say in someone else’s mouth. This is a subject I don’t want to talk about, I have written about it and I am writing another book about it, I don’t want to give away what will be in the book.
Ohanaeze Ndigbo has just elected and inaugurated a new President-General, what advice do you have on moving the organisation forward?
First and foremost I will say I no longer believe in the whole concept of Ohanaeze. The concept should be re-thought because Ohanaeze has not functioned the way it should. I can trace the origins of Ohanaeze to the days when Ekwueme was the vice president. I was one of those around him then and groups of Igbo businessmen, elites and other professionals talked about going for ‘caucus meeting’. It is that caucus meeting that metamorphosed into Ohanaeze. Unfortunately for the Igbo nation, Ohanaeze is gradually becoming a political party and it is hurting Igbo interests rather than protecting it.
You canvassed for postponement of the January 10 Ohanaeze election, why?
I believe in doing things properly, I believe in the rule of law and I believe in following guidelines. The Ohanaeze election was like my APC primary in Delta State which was a complete farce and everybody that participated in the election knows that. I thought we could give more dignity to that organisation. I was not directly involved but people participating called and told me what was happening. It is like political parties have taken over Ohanaeze and I felt it was important to call a wider meeting before the election.
What do you think about the agitation for a Nigerian president of Igbo extraction in 2023?
I don’t care very much about the agitation any more today; I used to be very passionate about it. We are going back to the concept of let’s just grab it; it is no longer about who can do the job. I will support anybody to be president of Nigeria as long as the country will be well governed; I begin now to move away from that South East concept. What we need is for the country to be well-governed.
What is your vision for the country, say in the next 10 year?
I want a country that is just and provides opportunities for its young people to reap democratic dividends and become competitive in the global economy. Nigeria’s economic managers must move as fast as possible to see that crude oil does not exist as a factory for Nigeria and create a non-oil economy. We had one before the discovery of crude oil and we need to move quickly away from oil.