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War, tragedy, and the power of memory

Can a country tackle its troubled history if it is never acknowledged?
Last modified: 18 Apr 2014 17:09

Are Nigerians afraid of their own history? And can an honest appraisal of the past help create greater consensus about the present?

At a time when terrible violence continues in North East Nigeria (and indeed in other parts of the country), this seems a question worth asking, and is the premise of this piece by Nigerian author Chibundu Onuzo.

Chibundu hopes that Biyi Bandele's film Half of a Yellow Sun, adapted from the novel by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, will get Nigerians talking about the events surrounding the Biafran War.

When I was a reporter based in Nigeria some 15 years ago, I was initially impressed by how Nigerians dealt with the legacy of the Biafran War. There seemed to be remarkably little residual bitterness around such a cataclysmic event. Nigerians, it seemed to me, had resolved to move on and not allow their memories to fester away. For example, although I reported on the 30th anniversary of Biafra's surrender for my British audience, I recall that the passing of this date attracted hardly any attention in the Nigerian press.

Later, I grew to worry that the truth is less flattering – that Nigerians are very adept at sweeping the past under the carpet, and thereby fail to confront the uncomfortable questions about their country that an examination of the Biafran War, and other more localised conflicts, inevitably raises.

This suspicion grew within me as I covered atrocity after atrocity in the years I lived in Nigeria. For example, and purely off the top of my head, in 1999 alone, I can remember witnessing ethnic and/or religious mob attacks and killings in Mile 12/Ketu and Ajegunle in Lagos, in nearby Sagamu and the retaliatory violence in Kano that followed, as well as in Warri down in the Niger Delta, and in Anambra in the East.

In February 2000 there were the 'Sharia riots' in Kaduna that are believed to have left thousands of people dead (as ever, in Nigeria, casualty figures are almost impossible to come by), and which erupted again in May of that year, with perhaps hundreds more deaths.

Now I wonder, who remembers all of this? The families and communities involved, obviously, but in the wake of any of these atrocities was there a concerted effort by the authorities to bring the killers to justice? Do any of the bereaved have a sense 15 years on that justice was done? I don’t know.

All I do know is that in the years since I left Nigeria, ethnic and religious massacres have continued – in Plateau State again and again, in Kaduna and in Kano. And then there is Boko Haram and everything it's done, not to mention the excesses of the security forces tasked with its destruction.

Of course, I'm not saying that the act of remembering would solve all of Nigeria's problems. But I agree with Chibundu that it creates necessary foundations on which to build.

An act of remembrance

Forgive me for what may seem like an odd comparison, but I was reminded of the positive power of memory this week, when I visited Liverpool's Anfield football ground in the North West of England.

There were tens of thousands of supporters there, but they had not come to watch a match. Instead, they had gathered to mark the 25th anniversary of the Hillsborough disaster, in which 96 Liverpool fans were crushed to death in a stadium. The passion and intensity with which the people of Liverpool remember Hillsborough is a wonderful tribute to those who died. But the campaign by the victims' families has also ensured that the real reasons for the Hillsborough disaster are, at long last, being revealed by a judicial inquiry.

They've had to overcome powerful resistance from within the British establishment to reach this stage.

Their campaign is a salutary example of how memory not only dignifies the human spirit, but can also provide answers as to what went wrong in the past, and who was responsible. That seems a useful lesson, of course not just for Nigerians, but for all of us.