By Emediong Francis Boniface
I felt an immense sense of optimism and sudden despair while having a chat with my nine-year-old nephew some time ago. My original intention was to guide him through his Social Studies assignment but unintentionally we were soon buried in a rich and exhilarating debate about World War I and World War II.
He exhibited such a brilliant understanding of the pre-war interests and posturing of each country primarily involved in the conflicts, their strategic interests and objectives during the war, the leadership composition of each country at the time, their military chain of commands and a good insight into the various arsenals on their inventories. I was especially in awe of how a nine-year-old pupil could analyze conflicts from such an innocent and humanistic perspective yet with such dexterity of political intelligence and understanding of warfare strategies.
Unfortunately, about an hour into our exciting discussion; I enthusiastically asked for his views on the Nigerian Civil War and he surprisingly descended into a state of shock and unbelief as he uttered the question “was there a war in Nigeria?” Then, it dawned on me that my young nephew’s ignorance of the events of 1967-1970 is totally not of his making but a collection of the failures of the post-civil war leadership of Nigeria, the educational system at all levels and all Nigerians as we collectively occupy the single most important office in Nigeria, that is, the office of the citizen.
More often than not conflicts play a vital role in shaping the identities of nations. For example, the Cuban Revolution that ousted the United States backed regime of Fulgencio Batista and ushered in Fidel Castro, his brother Raul Castro and his dependable ally, the Argentine-born Che Guevara, into the corridors of power in the Caribbean nation, has been a source of inspiration to most Cubans over the years. It has provided them with enormous strength for perseverance in the decades of difficult trade sanctions by the United States until such were recently lifted and relations between both old cold war adversaries started edging towards normalization.
Germany’s industrial and manufacturing might of today are fruits of one of the only good seeds sown during World War II, when Nazi Germany under the brutal rule of Adolf Hitler encouraged massive research into the design and manufacturing of combat hardware for use by troops in the frontlines. The multiplier effect of those efforts contributed to Germany’s post-war and post-reunification manufacturing successes.
On the other hand, France learnt a crucial lesson during World War II, as her porous defenses capitulated and her forces were effortlessly crushed and Nazi Germany occupied the hexagon for most parts of World War II. The French have learnt from history and apart from being a nuclear power, she currently has one of the finest defense set-ups of any country on earth complete with an aircraft carrier, the Charles de Gaulle currently in the Mediterranean co-coordinating airstrikes on ISIL positions in Syria and Iraq.
In what may sound like a conundrum, a critical factor in why France fell so badly on her defenses during World War II was the French leadership’s total neglect of the then French Army, as revealed in Lieutenant-Colonel Charles de Gaulle’s 1934 book titled: “Toward a Professional Army,” which advocated a professional army based on mobile armored divisions. Such as would compensate for the poor French demography, and be an efficient tool to enforce international law, particularly the Treaty of Versailles which forbade Germany from rearming. He proposed mechanization of the infantry, with stress on the wholesale use of tanks.
Ironically the German panzer units, so effectively used these theories during their 1940 invasion of France while the French dispersed and wasted their armor. The book sold only 700 copies in France, where the French leadership advocated an infantry based, defensive army, but 7000 copies in Germany where it was studied by Adolf Hitler.
It is widely believed that “those who don’t learn from history are destined to repeat it.” The knowledge and understanding of events of the Nigerian Civil War has not been passed down the generations. It is increasingly sounding like a myth to educate the younger ones like my nephew about such an important event in our history. Indeed, he felt more at ease and in familiar territory when we later switched to discussing the ancient wars between the Roman Empire, the Vikings and the Barbarians.
Any sense of direction and identity forged during those bleak approximately years of turmoil has been lost under repressive regimes, coups/counter coups, short-lived attempts at civilian administrations and a democracy still fighting for its souls after 16 years.
Good virtues and rationality of purpose can be embedded in these young ones through the right information that can form a good ideology and identity of Nigeria in their hearts and minds rather than allow them to grow without adequate exposure to such knowledge and putting the cost of their foundational shallowness on the country through a continuous production of uninformed and ill-advised leaders from our hapless educational system
My young nephew developed such a good grasp of events during World War I and World War II through the children friendly documentations of those events available in his school library. I totally believe in fighting and bringing corruption to its end in Nigeria but we should remember to allocate tangible funds in encouraging the authoring and publishing of illustrative books of our past for our children. I believe so much in the wise saying, “we easily become what we read repeatedly” and good virtues and rationality of purpose can be embedded in these young ones through the right information that can form a good ideology and identity of Nigeria in their hearts and minds rather than allow them to grow without adequate exposure to such knowledge and putting the cost of their foundational shallowness on the country through a continuous production of uninformed and ill-advised leaders from our hapless educational system. We should always remember Aristotle’s wise counsel, “good habits formed at youth make all the difference.”
Young Nigerians who are enthusiastic to write about Nigeria’s beautiful history should be encouraged through a scheme that nourishes and gives hope to their literary creativity. Our Armed Forces veterans in Nigeria should be better treated and reimbursed accordingly instead of being allowed to rot away begging on top of bridges, sidewalks, and motor parks for the few lucky ones as a sizeable proportion are currently on sick beds at home unable to access basic medical care. It gives a very poor image of our country to these very young ones and prevents those experienced veterans from adding to our knowledge substantially by writing books, memoirs, articles and telling our younger ones stories that can rekindle their passion for our country.
Additionally, their economic situation has completely rendered them redundant in helping us with sound counsel at a time where we are currently fighting terrorism and insecurity at an alarming rate.
The struggle to end Apartheid immortalized Nelson Mandela and brought a collective spirit of unity to such a racially and culturally diverse nation as South Africa. It forged a togetherness that still keeps the country united despite their deep differences and resulting occasional tensions.
The amiable Thomas Sankara in his bid to end corruption and revolutionize Burkina Faso became a symbol of cohesiveness and progress to his compatriots, a spirit displayed 27 years after his brutal assassination during the ousted administration of his successor Blaise Compaore. The spirit was again on display in their subsequent handling of an apparent coup d’état by the Presidential Guards which ended peacefully with the aid of regional mediation.
The long years of civil war in Angola and Mozambique has given birth to robust developing economies that have heeded the lessons of their past. This has led to a dramatic role reversal that sees more flights loaded with Portuguese citizens fleeing the harsh economic reality in Portugal and Southern Europe, especially leaving through Lisbon to Luanda and Maputo respectively, than Angolans or Mozambicans heading to the Old Continent. Instead, in our case more Nigerians flock the British, American and Canadian high commissions and embassies aimlessly in search of visas.
In the light of our exploitative political system, a faltering educational system, vulnerable defense mechanisms, corrupt policing/security outfits and a baseless foreign policy that immediately makes us prey to any country with a higher Gross Domestic Product (GDP) ratio, even for me as an adult it still feels tempting to repeat my young nephews question albeit from a different perspective: Was there a war in Nigeria? And if yes, did we really learn anything?
I will end with the great opinion of the distinguished Senator Fulbright of the United States as beautifully quoted by his then protégé Bill Clinton in his memoir: “We can’t change society too much through the courts. Most of it has to come through the political system. Even if it takes longer, it’s more likely to stick.”
Emediong, a public speaker, writes from Abuja