By Anote Ajeluorou
‘Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeating it to their ruin’ is often the mantra for a failure to exorcise the ghost of the nightmarish past. And is Nigeria falling into this trap? Is the current Boko Haram insurgency in the North East an augury of the past? Precisely, what has Nigeria learnt from the tragic events of the 30-month Nigerian Civil War of 1967-1970? Is the country doomed to walking the ugly path of 1967-1970? What has been learnt from history as guide for the present and leading into the future?
These are some of the issues that a new play Aburi ’67 will explore as it hits the stage every Sunday in December starting from this Sunday, 7th, at popular Theatre@Terra, Terra Kulture, Victoria Island, Lagos. Aburi ’67 is the third installment of a 4-part play that started in 2012. According to the producer and president of Wazobia Theatre House, Jude Ikenna Opala, the series, a production of Ola Opesan-led United Leisure Production, is based on the original transcripts of the failed Aburi, Ghana meeting between Cols Odumegwu Chukwuemeka Ojukwu and Yakubu Gowon, the two principal actors of the civil war. In 2012 the first part, Iron Sharpens Iron was staged and No Niger No Benue, the second part, was staged in 2013.
With the drums of 2015 election beating all over the land, with their sometimes unsavoury but deafening rhythms, Opala is convinced now is the best time to put the performance on stage as warning and instructional material on how best political actors should conduct themselves, obviously with decorum, so the transition is smooth, and so as not to exhume the demons of 1967-1970 that still haunt the country anyway.
Opala noted, “The Aburi ’67 meeting was the last attempt by the young Nigerian leaders to prevent war. However, the events of 1967-1970 aren’t too dissimilar to current events and those of the last National Conference. Putting it on stage is for people to see how the drama of it went. We hope young and old people alike will learn from it. We want young people, who are reading less these days, to come see part of their history with the hope that it will redirect them to their books so they learn this important aspect of their national history. Seeing it on stage is something different, of course; it will enable us all to learn in a very entertaining way. We have also infused music into it; so, it’s also a musical drama. We’re giving that meeting that dramatic effect by showing older Nigerians what happened in Ghana before the war”.
For Opala and his group, while Aburi ’67 is a window into the past, it does not intend to open any old, festering wounds by way of the vicious, cataclysmic events that led to the war. Rather, “we’re artists trying to entertain; it might seem like opening old wounds and trying to remind us about the past and the road we didn’t travel to arrive at where we’re today, and how we can avoid the road of insurgency and other political anomalies plaguing us as a people. We’re not out to incite anybody or inflame the polity. However, people are free to take away lessons from it and read it whichever way they want”.
For this young Igbo man, his art, which is theatre and what it can offer people in helping them heal wounds, is bigger than any political, tribal or religious leaning. He also equates Nigeria to his art, which he strongly affirms is bigger than any other agenda. Although born long after the war, Opala said he’s heard stories about the tragic war, how his own father couldn’t realize his university education when the war broke out. However, he sees Nigeria as the sum total of his nationalistic, patriotic zeal.
“I just love Nigeria,” he stated under the acacia tree in front of the ‘Free Theatre’ space at Artistes Village, National Theatre, where rehearsal was being held. “I don’t see Igbo or Yoruba or Hausa. The war was directly against us, but I’ve refused to see it that way. Some of my friends call for another Biafra or the ‘Rising Sun’ (Biafran flag), but I don’t share their vision. I’m for one Nigeria. The irony is that Biafra could have won the war and I’ll be a foreigner in Nigeria. I’m happy Igbo didn’t secede. I love Nigeria being one and not broken up”.
For Opala, therefore, the rise of insurgency in parts of the country is a source of dread, as it threatens to shatter his one Nigeria vision. He noted, “I dread the mission of Boko Haram. It is tearing Nigeria apart. Nigeria is the best place on earth to live”.
For the instructive lessons the play has to offer, it’s Opala’s desire that the key personnel at Aburi, Ghana meeting should come to Terra Kulture on any of the four Sundays in December to see the play and react to it. According to him, “I would like the very people at that meeting to see the play and make their reactions to the play”.
The entire transcript, he said, is reduced to the play script, with lots of improvisation infused into it. But Opala is convinced there was more between Ojukwu and Gowon, which the two men have so far failed to reveal to world on why they took the dangerous path of war rather than peace aside the pogrom in the North as immediate reason.
“Was there something the key players were fighting for in that conflict?” he asked. “I believe there was a lot of bad blood between the key players. There was something personal they failed to tell the public”.
And like Dr. Chidi Amuta, Opala has challenged Gowon to write his memoir since Ojukwu failed to do so before he died. That way, he said, the world would know what went down between them as friends who chose to go to war rather than remain friends.
“I’M not intimidated playing Ojukwu,” Sambasa Nzeribe, a near-striking Ojukwu look-alike, who is playing Ojukwu said. “Rather, I’m touched by the things he went through for his people because there was division in the country and his people were killed. Ojukwu is a spontaneous and prepared character. Nothing thrown at him surprises him and he was also calculated. His character is a mathematical and natural one, who had answers for whatever Nigeria threw at him.”
On what to expect from him and the entire performance, Nzeribe said, “Come and see a passionate man with a true cause to affect the lives of his people. It’s surprising to see a man who was ready to sacrifice all to see genuine harmony among all Nigerians. Come and see a spectacular person. Importantly, what should be in the minds of the audience after seeing the play is, ‘When should it all end? Is there really a Nigeria today?’
“You see, a lot of people are afraid about 2015. We’re hoping for the best. How can we make the madness stop? We must all understand that the masses are bigger and more than the leaders. How do we make them stop the madness? That is the question”.