By Anote Ajeluorou
In a country like Nigeria, the question inevitable arises: How can theatre play its part in the continuing quest for nationhood? Many might be tempted to dismiss this with a wave of the hand. But that also says a lot about pervasive cultural ignorance prevalent in the land. Elsewhere, Terra Kulture, Victoria Island, Lagos, would have recorded high attendance for many Lagosians and others from elsewhere to see Nigeria’s first major national conference undertaken to negotiate the soul of the country in what has become an unfinished business. Time was 1967.
Elsewhere also, those who swamped the Star lager beer stand on Lagos Bar Beach in the last two Sundays would first have stopped at Terra Kulture to see Aburi ’67 before proceeding to drown their sorrows in bottles of beer. Or shouting themselves hoax at the COPA Lagos Beach Soccer tournament that took place further down the reclaimed beach land last Sunday. They would have seen firsthand how their country missed the opportunity to negotiate aright and travel the right road as far back as 1967 and the wrong choice that was inevitably made some 47 years ago; it led down a capricious road with its many dangers and bumpiness. But the producer and director of the play Aburi ‘67, Ikenna Okpala and Ola Opesan, are hopeful that the remaining two Sundays in December will fare better and more Nigerians will troupe out to see the performance, including some surviving members of the military at that time – Mobolaji Johnson, Adebayo and, of course, Gowon - who are still alive. They were principal actors in Aburi ’67.
And so when lights came on, Ghanaians are welcoming the young leaders of an equally new country to their country to negotiate its survival, torn as it was along ethnic lines with many already killed, including the leader, Gen. Aguiyi Ironsi (Ironside). Cols Emeka Ojukwu -OJ (Sambasa Nzeribe), Yakubu Gowon -Jack (Bimbo Olorunmola), Bob Harrison -Commando (Reshayo Kasumu) and Hamza (Precious Anyanwu) are the four young leaders who had gone to Gen. Ankara of Ghana to try and resolve the senseless killings of people from the Eastern Region, whom OJ happens to lead as regional governor after a coup de’tat a year earlier.
While the others appear vague and tend to prevaricate about their mission in Ghana, OJ has a firm agenda – stop the killing in the North, discentralise or devolve power from the centre, a categorical statement on the where about and fate of Ironside, punish officers responsible for killing fellow soldiers in the barracks and settle those who had fled their original places of residence. While Jack tries to play along and is ready to resolve all issues, Hamza is emphatic OJ is asking for too much. He is most vocal about the first coup that decimated his own people. In fact, it becomes a fight between him and OJ; he seems set to oppose OJ on every point raised. From his manner it’s clear he is acting on a pre-written script to which Jack is a mere participant.
Although Jack heads the government, he doesn’t appear to be in charge. He’s indecisive on a number of issues. While OJ and Hamza are squaring it out, he merely pacifies both men, who appear to be in better grasp of their respective sides. OJ is lucid in tabling his points and is surprised his colleagues fail to see his points of view, which should be for the overall benefit of the country on the verge of war or break up. OJ is the only one among them who seems to understand how dire the situation was, which is just as well because he is at the receiving end of the influx of refugees into the region he leads, refugees who are being hounded and killed like dogs for bearing the same kinship with the military men who carried out a coup!
It is a most turbulent meeting with just four young men deciding the fate of a new nation. More turbulent also because the odds seem stacked against one man whose mission it is to assuage the suffering of millions and stave off a war, which the Hamzas of this world are already beating the drums. Several times Hamza openly asks OJ to pull out of Nigeria if he insists too much on certain things like discentralising the federal government, asking the most senior military officer to take over since Ironside’s where about is unknown. So, although Jack is leader of Nigeria’s delegation, it’s Hamza who has come to affirm advantage already gained for the federal side.
Soon enough OJ sees through the charade and futility of the meeting and withdraws into his shell; he is certain nothing serious will come out of it to meet the expectations of his people as they battle with their unprecedented suffering. Even when resolutions are reached after much haggling and fighting between OJ and Hamza, OJ remains aloof and unconvinced they go far enough. He sees through the ineffectualness of Jack; he sees the bloodlust of the likes of Hamza and crawls into himself. He seeks refuge in prayers; he asks for peace and justice to be enthroned in the country.
So, he cries, “The pain is too great for blood revenge to assuage… when will there be peace and justice after all the killings? Let peace reign in our land, but I hear drums of war… Never before did I visualize my brothers at the opposite trench…How long before peace comes to Nigeria… if we allow impunity to roam the land free…”
So the dialogue or conference to savage the soul of Nigeria continues… It started in Aburi, Ghana, after the independence conferences in London. Others have also been held; the recent one being the National Conference. Like OJ many left the conference unhappier than they went; the feeling of frustration leaves a bad taste in their mouth; that their people will not fare better after all than before. Issues of a centralised government, regional autonomy, regional or state police still plague Nigeria after four young men deliberated on them some 47 years ago and came to a deadlock. OJ or Ojukwu saw far into the future and gave a blueprint; the rest of Nigeria shouted him down. Today, the country is not the wiser for it.
Aburi ’67 is a play worth seeing for its depth of emotions. The script was sculpted from transcripts of that meeting in 1967. According to the director, Mr. Opesan, “With this play we’re playing our little part in the Nigerian project; it’s our own contribution. We want to let Nigerians know that no nation has survived two civil wars; we’ve got to avoid that path. Even though the play may not be economically viable for us because of poor audience attendance, we’d like to use it to contribute to Nigeria’s progress”.
That progress would mean that resolutions from a conference such as the last one, unlike Aburi, should be implemented to the letter. Failure to implement Aburi Accord inevitably led down a slippery path. Nigeria just can’t afford that path again; this is why Aburi ‘67 is apt at this moment in history. And, need it be said, a must-see?