By Obi Nwankanma
The tension of Nigeria’s ethnic architecture reared up its head decisively again in the last one week when the letter written to foreign minister, Mr. Ojo Maduekwe by the now erstwhile ambassador to the United States, Oluwole Rotimi, a brigadier and former military governor of the Western State, came to light.
In the letter, just not so as to rehash the circumstance as to highlight its implication and context, the former Brigadier Rotimi had written with elephantine angst to the foreign minister, calling him a “tribalist” and suggesting that he had dealt with people like him before.
How so? Well, Brigadier Rotimi had been, he wrote, the quartermaster-general of the Nigerian Army that dealt with Biafra’s “rag-tag army” of which Ojo Maduekwe was a captain. In swift response, the foreign minister had copied the president, pointing to the utter disdain which the presumptuous Rotimi held both his person and his office, and as events have proved, began what Brigadier Rotimi can now hardly call a “rag-tag” effort to recall the man from his sinecure position as ambassador to the United States.
The background to this situation might as well reflect the profound inadequacies and incompetence that generally characterize Nigeria’s public service, rooted as it were, in the profound cracks in the ideas of a nation which has now come to see sensitive public positions as ethnic pay-off or preferment rather than as an effort at nation-building.
The situation with Brigadier Oluwole Rotimi we have come to learn, came to its decisive heights during the inauguration of the US president, Mr. Barack H. Obama, when the Nigeria ambassador broke all known diplomatic protocols by shunting the foreign minister and chief ambassador in his introduction of the Nigerian delegation.
He had in fact treated Ojo Maduekwe with contempt and had introduced Mr. Emeka Anyaoku, former secretary-general of the Commonwealth, as head of the Nigerian delegation.
This was an act of gross insubordination, and came to its quite hilarious acme when Ambassador Rotimi, in response to the foreign minister’s query about his conduct went off the cliff of reason and launched what can now be described as the greatest diplomatic faux pas in Nigeria’s diplomatic history.
The ambassador’s dispatch to his principal was not only dripping with personal insult it was replete with toxic history. Rotimi woke the restless ghosts of Nigeria’s most terrible national disaster: the civil war in which millions of the Igbo and other Easterners had been killed, deliberately starved, and raped. That Rotimi, a key player in that event would still puff with unimaginable candour for his role in that slaughter points to something egregious and irresolvable in the national psyche of a nation and the context of national belonging.
In fact, while Rotimi’s role as quarter-master gneral in that event did not bring him directly to the fields, he now bears direct historical responsibility for supplying the armies that committed grievous evil against the civilian populations of the East and much of the Midwest.
The massacres at Asaba in which the Nigerian Army selectively annihilated an entire generation of men, from the age of fifteen and above, who had been called out at the Ogbo-Ogonogo square to be executed, remains fresh in many minds.
The writer and journalist, Emma Okocha, whose family had been virtually wiped out by that act has written a most unforgettable book of that event, which he has called Blood on the Niger, a haunting account of the operations of the Army of which Oluwole Rotimi had been quarter-master general, and of which he remains quite inordinately proud. There are many more accounts waiting to be written about the very genocidal acts of that war, of the bombing of civilian targets: markets, schools, hospitals, and even relief planes flying the cross of mercy, which had been shot down deliberately to enforce the food blockade of Biafra. There are many unmarked graves from Afor-Umuohiagu to Uzuakoli of innocent people who were killed by the guns sent to the fields by the quartermaster-general.
This is all too true. But what Oluwole Rotimi could never in good conscience say was that the Biafran forces were a “rag-tag” army. It was a disciplined force which held its grounds for three years. Indeed, it was an army which the French ambassador who visited Biafra in the period said: “before I came, I thought the Biafrans fought like real men. Today I know that real men fight like the Biafrans.” But because Brigadier Rotimi wanted to exact his full quarter of history in a futile fight with his superior, he had to sneak it all in, gloating about his exploits in the defeat of “a rag tag army” of which the current foreign minister was but indeed a subaltern.
These talks would have far less significance had there not been, within the context of post-war Nigerian history, a sense that the Igbo who returned to Nigeria have felt increasing isolation and alienation from the centre of Nigerian affairs. There have also been two streams of thought in Igboland, one which seems to suggest that the Igbo should forgive and integrate fully to Nigerian affairs irrespective of the egregious and obnoxious compacts that consistently seek to reduce its stakes in Nigeria, and the other which tends to feel that the Igbo should begin to deal very decisively with any further acts of violence of any kind - physical or epistemic - against it; essentially as deterrent to anybody who might seek unwarranted heroism on Igbo dead or interest. Among the last group have been advocates for bringing those who committed war crimes against the Igbo to the United Nations War Crimes Tribunal.
This group believes that had the Igbo taken these people to answer before the court of conscience, that such fatuous gloating by people like Oluwole Rotimi who prefer not to let the Igbo continue to chew their cuds on these matters, and quietly mourn their dead, would have been long resolved, and equifinally. Perhaps someone should remind Brigadier-General Rotimi, that war crimes in international law have no time bars.
The other aspect of this is that Brigadier-General Rotimi, unfortunately, has tapped into what many now see as the historical faultlines in the ethnic relationship between the Yoruba and the Igbo. I need to say this quite upfront, that General Rotimi’s comment does not reflect the Yoruba people, or their ordinary feelings about the Igbo with whom they have, to the best of my experiences, remained in healthy and fair competition as do many competitive cultures.
But it does seem that General Rotimi belongs to the party of the Yoruba elite in that historical divide who found their voices and discovered their lifetime work in the deconstruction of the Igbo as vital forces in the building of this nation.
The unfortunate thing is that General Rotimi is an educated man: one of the earliest university trained Nigerians to be commissioned into the officers corps of Nigerian Army, having earned the degree of the University of London. But his career was made in the bloodbath: he took over from the slain Arthur Unegbe as quartermaster-general; he became the governor of Western Nigeria under the Gowon administration, and he was apparently among those who held sway in enforcing a Carthaginian treaty with the East in spite of the “no victor, no vanquished” treaty that ended that war.
General Rotimi must be in some funk of war. It is so, I suggest, because many years later, he remains quite unaware that the war has ended. The Igbo have moved on. Indeed, the Igbo moved on to other things by January 16, 1970, one day after armistice was declared on both sides of the conflict. It is only sad that because people like Oluwole Rotimi remained influential in the affairs of Nigeria, and continued for many years to harbour, it seems, not the Olympian dreams of building a great country, but the Olympian dreams of teaching Igbo a lesson for daring to be at lead, from the anticolonial agitation to the first years of independence, and thus stamped their authority firmly, and in so doing, stamped on the egoistic feet of the Oluwole Rotimis of this world, Nigeria continues to have an Igbo problem. Rotimi was part of the project of a final solution on the Igbo problem.
But even that failed. It failed because, somehow, people transcend the straps that hold them bound to oppressive time and history. To heal Nigeria is a historical task. People like Oluwole Rotimi will have to give way. It is proper, therefore, that he has been recalled from his post by the president.