The Shehu Musa Yar’Adua Foundation today held a conference to mark 50 years since Nigerian experienced the Biafran War. The event was tagged ‘Memory & Nation Building; Biafra: 50 years After’, or #Biafra50. If you know anything about Nigeria’s phobia for history you will realise that the event alone is a tremendous accomplishment. But that isn’t all, the event organisers miraculously managed to get former President Olusegun Obasanjo and the Acting President Professor Yemi Osinbajo to speak.
The Biafran War is not something a lot of Nigerians talk about outside abusive and divisive fora, it is something the leaders never address, it is conspicuously absent from primary and secondary school classrooms and only sparsely included in a few modules in history related courses in our universities. All these have led many to construct several misconceptions about it. When the late Chinua Achebe recounted his personal experiences during the war in his last book, There was a Country, the national conversation was more about his alleged bias and dislike for Obafemi Awolowo than it was about the war. So, organising this event was a bold move in the right direction for Nigeria.
During his speech, Acting President Osinbajo was in a reflective mood, he started with his experiences growing up during the war, telling the story of a childhood friend named Emeka, that he never saw again. He went on to say that he was not telling people to let bygones be bygones nor to just forget the past but made a case for all Nigerians to come together. He said it was time for a new generation of Nigerians to take a different and more ennobling route than those before them. No one stands to benefit from divisiveness, he said, we will all be losers.
There was a point during Professor Osinbajo’s speech that it became clear he was breaking away from the federal government’s policies on the issue of Biafra. That was when he reaffirmed the rights of Nigerians to fully discuss and negotiate the terms of our unity. It is something Nigerian public officials have formed the habit of not doing, the subject has been treated with so much disdain and contempt that people who even entertain the idea of Biafra are looked down upon and told to “go back to Biafra.”
In that moment, Professor Osinbajo spoke like the President Nigeria needed and while it is uncertain if he will ever be Nigeria’s president, he has struck a chord. He endorsed the rights of Nigerians to desire more and to work for a country that works.
It seems to me that we are on the cusp of a new era on conversations surrounding our unity and while it is still unclear what that new era will look like, it is what is best for this country.