Question: You have been very vocal lately in dismissing and trashing the then federal military government’s post-civil war efforts at the 3 Rs: Reconstruction, Reconciliation and Rehabilitation. What don’t you agree with?
AKPABIO: As a young man, you definitely will not understand me. But I was a victim of the Civil War. I was one of those who suffered the pains of the war. I was born sometime in 1962; the civil war came really into our area in 1967. So, I was probably five or six years old during the war; and if I had been around nine years, I would probably have been conscripted.
I saw parents throw their children into pit toilets because they did not want their positions to be made known to the enemy. I saw devastation; I saw kwashiorkor; I saw hunger; I saw thousands of people and bodies littered everywhere and smelling while vultures had a field day every day. I saw houses destroyed; I saw families scattered such that till the end of the world, they can never gather themselves together again.
There were children who were shipped away to Gabon, and they can never come back to Nigeria again because they were small. How would two-year-olds and three-year-olds ever know where they came from? They are now proud Gabonese and I don’t think Nigerians are even asking questions.
So, during the Silverbird Man of the Year Award, there were pictures that were shown of the Civil War. Somebody, sitting by me, who is from the West, was asking if those things were acted: the Kwashiorkor-ridden children with their swollen tummies, ugly shapes and bony structures because of hunger and starvation.
The then Head of State, General Yakubu Gowon attempted to explain that he tried everything to avoid the scenes that were being shown on the screen, that he did not want the war. The other person who could have answered him, unfortunately, that is Emeka Ojukwu, is dead. He said he tried everything to stop the war from breaking out but it’s only Ojukwu who could have answered whether he equally did his part in avoiding the war.
But something struck me: it was said that Gowon should be commended for initiating the three Rs: reconciliation, rehabilitation and reconstruction. And I asked a very simple question, that I came with a written text but I wasn’t going to read it. I thanked Silverbird for the award; and I said I did not want to criticise my leaders because I am also now a leader. But I asked to be allowed to ask a question: how come reconstruction started in the West when the war was actually fought in the East?
They started the Third Mainland Bridge, the National Theatre, the international airport, and so on, in the West, while the war was fought in the eastern region. And if we really wanted to ensure total reconciliation, how come every account holder in the eastern region was given only £20?
It did not matter whether your father had £10,000,000 or £50,000,000 before the war; you were given just £20. It was a take it or leave it situation. If your family survived and there was an account holder alive, he/she went to the bank, and collected just £20.
Could £20 pounds solve the Kwashiorkor that we were seeing? Could it reconstruct the houses that were burnt? Could it produce food? A lot of other things happened that I did not mention on that occasion. Don’t forget that it was shortly after the war in 1971 that the policy of indigenisation started, where most of the foreign industries and companies were sold to Nigerians, and the war-ravaged eastern regions, which include the entire South-South and the rest of them, could not buy, because no one who did not have money to even feed or clothe himself would have had money to buy any industry.
So, I was just wondering, as a young man, if that was true reconciliation, because one would have thought that the government would have gone to any extent to give them more money so that they could truly rehabilitate themselves.
They needed money from reconstruction, and I would have thought that reconstruction would have also started from the East. I just asked because we were lucky to have the personae dramatis of the war right in still alive : General T. Y. Danjuma, General Yakubu Gowon, General Obasanjo, General Buhari and others. It is very rare to see these former heads of state in just one place, so I had to ask.
I said also that it is important, even for the current-day leaders, that we continue to take actions that will unite Nigeria. And we should purge ourselves of actions that tend to cause pains to Nigerians. For me, I believe that because of certain policies of the federal government after the war, the war did not cease in the eastern region until about 30 years after the war.