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To Acknowledge Is To Heal: Taking The Courage To Define Nigeria's Character

Every December, when the girls were young, we would load up the car and make the 12-hour drive from Johannesburg, across the haunting beauty of the South African landscape, to holiday by the sea. Everyone in the car lived in a separate world even then, behind the fortified walls of noise-canceling headphones. The older one was halfway into ‘Half of A Yellow Sun,’ Chimamanda Adichie’s groundbreaking fictional exploration of the Biafra War, when she encountered a harrowing rape scene and suddenly cried, “Mom, did that really happen?”

Across the landscape of one’s life, every once in a while the untended question of the war will poke through the surface, like a bone from a secret mass grave. In my family, this was not at all a subject we dwelt much upon. My wife rarely spoke of her experience, and only when pressed, though as a teenager she was for a while trapped behind the inferno, along with her family, before being evacuated to safety in England. Like all Igbo families, theirs bore the full brunt of the war, which will permanently imprint millions of lives.

I grew up in Ife, in western Nigeria, and really my family’s only notable experience of the war was that the Nigerian army commandeered one of my father’s trucks. To all intents and purposes, as a million children starved to death and perhaps another million citizens perished in the fighting and the raping and the pillaging a few hundred miles east of my hometown, I existed in another universe. School was not interrupted, nor was there any outward sign of disturbance to the normal rhythms of daily life. As George Eliot writes in Daniel Deronda, “And it might well happen to most of us dainty people that we were in the thick of the battle of Armageddon without being aware of anything more than the annoyance of a little explosive smoke and struggle on the ground immediately about us.”

"Over time, our national attempt to expunge the memory of the war, to refuse even to acknowledge it, began to seem to me at once the reality and the metaphor for our endemic and seemingly intractable divisions."

One reason for our willful blindness is that the narrative of the war— and therefore the theater of our divisions— is bitterly contested territory. In the North, there’s enduring bitterness about the first military coup of Jan. 15, 1966, led by mainly Igbo officers, and in which seemingly the entire political leadership of the north was wiped out, and Igbo political leaders were spared. Ethnic minorities ringing the Igbo heartland nursed their own grievances and fears of domination. And all across the country today, too many communities have been traumatized by too much violence that a willingness to revisit the lasting impact of our greatest trauma is inevitably met with resistance and rampant whataboutism.

It seems clear today that Nigeria is more divided than it’s ever been, along religious, linguistic, and regional lines. Our country is riven by sectarian violence, desperation and dysfunction, and many citizens see no reason to presume the legitimacy of the state. If you take the Biafra War as the River Niger of our divisions, it has since developed many destructive tributaries. In the northeastern corner of the country millions of lives have been shattered by a self-professed Islamist insurgency led by Boko Haram. The Niger Delta has long gotten used to brigandage as a fact of daily existence. In southern Kaduna, an especially bitter and violent standoff bubbles along between Christians and Muslims, expressed in an endless series of reprisals, which is then refracted through the larger national division along zealously policed boundaries of religion. Criminal networks routinely invade communities in nearly all corners of Nigeria, and kidnapping is a growth industry. Poverty so desperate that it should provoke horror and urgent action in all but the most impervious leaders has scarred the land, feeding ever more despair and social dissolution. The bodies pile up daily. We grow bitter and we grow numb, and we withdraw from one another. “Knives are drawn against other knives,” as Nuruddin Farrah wrote of the collapse of his native Somalia, though he could have been writing about ours, “and unreason began to rule.”

However we approach this bitter history, no one can today deny that we are a traumatized country, too divided to embark on collective action that is so necessary for building a new home.

To start the process of repair— to begin to put all our many Biafra Wars behind us, my family has established the Nigeria Foundation, which aims to nudge Nigerians into taking the first steps together on the road that starts with acknowledgement, and leads to reconciliation and, ultimately, a recommitment to jointly rebuild their country. While it takes our greatest loss as a jump-off point, the effort in fact encompasses all our losses, and all our divisions. The courage to see clearly what ails us, and to start working together to make amends, will define the character of our country.

The Foundation is focused on three goals:

  • 1. Mobilize millions of Nigerians (and friends of Nigeria) to underwrite the design, construction, and operation of a National Center for Memory and Reconciliation. The center will serve as a powerful acknowledgement of loss, a place where the people have their names restored to them, a center for convening dialogues and also for quiet contemplation— a place for memory. A measure of success is not how much an individual contributes, but how many millions of individuals, from across the country, choose to participate meaningfully in making the national memorial a reality. In it, we can begin to see one another again.
  • 2. A campaign to declare January 15 a public holiday, to be known as Day of Reconciliation. January 15 is a day freighted with painful symbolism, at once the anniversary of the end of the war, as well as of the first military coup, which set in motion a series of bloody reprisals that culminated in the cataclysm of the war
  • 3. Convene and support ongoing dialogues in communities throughout Nigeria, with the aim of ending bitter divisions, and restoring the connective tissue necessary for concerted action to build a country where human beings can flourish— in conditions of peace, justice, equity and opportunity. We may undertake other activities that help foster community and promote the health of the commons.

Please take the first step and join us. Send us your story of your experience of the Biafra War or of our many other conflicts, via a 2-3 minute video, or audio. Send us family or community pictures that illustrate your experience. Share those experiences whether you lived in Calabar or Kano, or Kabba or Kaltungo or Kaura Namoda, or Aba, Abak, or Abakaliki. We ask that you share stories of then, but also of now, in your corner of the beloved country. You can tell your story here.

Please spread the word. There is safety, and encouragement, in large numbers.

Also, visit our website and donate whatever you can. It is the commitment that counts. All contributors will be acknowledged equally on the web site. As stakeholders, you will be constantly updated each step of the way.

Finally, thank you.

Dele Olojede

*Nigeria Foundation is registered in the United States as a non-profit 501(c)3 organization, and is certified as such by the US Internal Revenue Service. All donations made in the US are tax deductible. Different rules may apply in other jurisdictions.