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Republicans Edge Away From Trump on Coronavirus Response – The New York Times

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WASHINGTON — Every evening from his kitchen table in southwestern Michigan, Representative Fred Upton, a moderate Republican running for his 18th term in office, posts a coronavirus dispatch for his constituents, highlighting his own efforts to respond to the crisis and the news from Washington, often with cameos from Democrats.

Absent from his Facebook updates are any mentions of President Trump, whose response to the pandemic has raised questions that threaten to drag down Republicans’ electoral prospects this fall, or of the president’s provocative news briefings, which have become a forum for partisan attacks on Democrats and dubious claims about the virus.

“You have to sort of thread the needle,” Mr. Upton said in an interview, explaining how he has tried to navigate Mr. Trump’s performance during the crisis. “I’ve been careful. I said, ‘Let’s look to the future,’ versus ‘Why didn’t we do this a few months ago?’ I’m not interested in pointing the finger of blame. I want to correct the issues.”

It is a tricky task for lawmakers like Mr. Upton in centrist districts throughout the country, who understand that their re-election prospects — and any hope their party might have of taking back the House of Representatives — could rise or fall based on how they address the pandemic. Already considered a politically endangered species before the novel coronavirus began ravaging the United States, these moderates are now working to counter the risk that their electoral fates could become tied to Mr. Trump’s response at a time when the independent voters whose support they need are increasingly unhappy with his performance.

The president’s combative news conferences, which his own political advisers have counseled him to curtail, have made the challenge all the steeper.

“It does make it difficult at times,” Representative John Katko, Republican of New York, said in an interview. He said he hoped his constituents would evaluate him not based on Mr. Trump’s record, but on his own.

“I’m hanging on — not hanging on, flourishing — in a district I should probably not have as a Republican,” said Mr. Katko, one of only two House Republicans running for re-election in a district Hillary Clinton won in 2016. Voters “are going to judge me on what I did or did not do, and that’s all I can ask.”

In an attempt to ensure their contests become referendums on their own responses to the virus, rather than the president’s, vulnerable House Republicans are instead brandishing their own independent streaks, playing up their work with Democrats, doubling down on constituent service and hosting town-hall-style events — avoiding mention of Mr. Trump whenever possible.

It is an approach that looks familiar to former Representative Carlos Curbelo, Republican of Florida, who tried to distance himself from Mr. Trump on immigration and other issues in 2018 as he fought to hang onto his seat in a diverse South Florida district, but was swept out in a midterm debacle that handed Democrats control of the House.

“The president continues to be reckless in the context of the Covid-19 crisis,” Mr. Curbelo said in an interview. “You could see a similar dynamic where a lot of Republicans in competitive districts will just break with him in an effort to protect their own candidacies.”

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Many of his former colleagues in competitive districts had hoped the severity of the crisis would give them a platform to highlight their own responses, Mr. Curbelo said. But as Mr. Trump’s nightly briefings “became more about the president and his personality” than about the disease, he added, “Republicans have perceived a peril in that development, and certainly some of the recent polling validates that.”

Moderate Republicans are doing what they can to shift the dynamic. In virtual town-hall-style meetings conducted by telephone from his central New York district, Mr. Katko has stressed the importance of bipartisanship, saying his constituents are “sick of the nastiness” in Washington.

Mr. Katko teamed up recently with Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, a Democrat, for one such call, in which he broke with one of his own party’s leaders, rejecting a proposal by the top Senate Republican to allow states to go bankrupt rather than provide a federal lifeline.

“I’m going to continue to work across the aisle,” Mr. Katko told voters, pointing to his relationship with Ms. Gillibrand. “I totally disagree with what Mitch McConnell said — that’s a great example.”

In southeastern Pennsylvania, Representative Brian Fitzpatrick, another Republican whose heavily suburban district went to Ms. Clinton in 2016, has been doing his best to avoid answering for Mr. Trump’s comments as well.

Asked this month by local reporters about the president’s early remarks minimizing the coronavirus and comparing it to the flu, Mr. Fitzpatrick demurred.

“You’ll have to ask him why he made those comments,” Mr. Fitzpatrick said. “I really do believe that everybody’s doing their best right now.”

And calling in to a radio show in Michigan, Mr. Upton hedged when asked if he agreed with the president’s optimism about reopening the economy. “As much as the president wants to open things up — and we all do — I think you’re going to have to let the virus really determine where things are at the end of the day,” he said. “We know that we are not there yet.”

In some ways, the dilemma these centrist Republicans are facing is the same one they have had to navigate since Mr. Trump was elected, as they have repeatedly been called upon to answer for his more provocative statements and actions. But the pandemic has sharply raised the stakes as their constituents bear the brunt of its dire consequences.

At home in their districts, lawmakers have largely been able to avoid direct questions about the president’s handling of the crisis, instead fielding an onslaught of requests from constituents and reporters for basic information about when relief will reach them.

“People are going to make a judgment here: Who do they want to give the responsibility of governing to, given what has just occurred?” said David Winston, a Republican pollster who works with the House Republican Conference. “Did you try to do the right thing? People want to know how their elected representatives are trying to solve this.”

That has translated into a new raft of bipartisan legislation from moderate lawmakers up for re-election intended to confront the pandemic. In announcing a bill he introduced with Representative Stephanie Murphy, Democrat of Florida, to create a Sept. 11-style commission to examine the government’s response to the virus after the pandemic subsides, Mr. Katko sought to assure voters it was apolitical.

“I just honestly think that this may be an opportunity, this covid crisis, to show people that bipartisanship works,” he said. “We’re going to be struggling for a while. And I think as we struggle as a country, the last thing people want to hear is partisan crap.”

Mr. Katko’s bill would delay the formation of the review commission until 2021, meaning it would not begin investigating until after the election.

After Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced she would create a special committee to scrutinize the Trump administration’s response, Mr. Fitzpatrick, who faces a primary challenge from the right, criticized the move as inappropriate, calling for unity.

“We all remember 9/11 and how incredibly united our country was,” he said. “Nobody was questioning anybody else’s decisions. There was a time and a place to do that down the road.”

From his porch in St. Joseph, Mich., Mr. Upton unveiled a plan that aims to modernize the nation’s health care system to prepare for future pandemics. His nightly Facebook dispatches have drawn responses that offer a glimpse of the political balance he is struggling to strike.

“Not giving the President Trump administration any credit are you Fred,” Jerry Litke commented on a recent post that omitted any mention of Mr. Trump.

But Patricia Resetar had a complaint of her own about the same dispatch, demanding that Mr. Upton answer for the administration’s failure to deploy broad testing throughout the country.

“Where is all the testing?” she wrote. “Where is it, and why aren’t you holding this administration accountable?”

Mr. Upton said in an interview that he was “not afraid to give the president credit on a variety of issues” or to “be against him when I think he’s wrong.” In his purple district, which went for President Barack Obama in 2012 but Mr. Trump in 2016, voters “don’t always identify as Republican or Democrat; they want you to do your job,” he said. “If people voted straight party line, I would have lost in the ’90s.”

Just outside Syracuse, N.Y., Gary Dixon, a retired salesman who supports Mr. Katko, said he appreciated that the congressman was “staying in his lane” in responding to the pandemic. Though he voted for Mr. Trump in 2016 and said he was most likely to support him in November over former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., Mr. Dixon also said he worried that an association with the president had the potential to damage other Republican candidates.

“It’s a tightrope,” he said of the challenge that Mr. Katko and his fellow moderates face. “You’ve got to be on that wire where you’re trying to stay in the middle, but I don’t think his middle position will alienate the true Republicans.”

Catie Edmondson reported from Washington, and Rebecca R. Ruiz from Skaneateles, New York.

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U.S. protests over Minneapolis death rage on amid political finger-pointing

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MINNEAPOLIS — The full Minnesota National Guard was activated for the first time since World War Two after four nights of civil unrest that has spread to other U.S. cities following the death of a black man shown on video gasping for breath as a white Minneapolis policeman knelt on his neck.

Minnesota Governor Tim Walz said the deployment was necessary because outside agitators were using protests over the death of George Floyd to sow chaos, and that he expected Saturday night’s demonstrations to be the fiercest so far.

From Minneapolis to several other major cities including New York, Atlanta and Washington, protesters clashed with police late on Friday in a rising tide of anger over the treatment of minorities by law enforcement.

“We are under assault,” Walz, a first-term governor elected from Minnesota’s Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party, told a briefing on Saturday. “Order needs to be restored. … We will use our full strength of goodness and righteousness to make sure this ends.”

He said he believed a “tightly controlled” group of outsiders, including white supremacists and drug cartel members, were instigating some of the violence in Minnesota’s largest city, but he did not give specific evidence of this when asked by reporters.

As many as 80% of those arrested were from outside the state, Walz said. But detention records show just eight non-Minnesota residents have been booked into the Hennepin County Jail since Tuesday, and it was unclear whether all of them were arrested in connection with the Minneapolis unrest.

The Republican Trump administration suggested civil disturbances were being orchestrated from the political left.

“In many places, it appears the violence is planned, organized and driven by anarchic and left extremist groups – far-left extremist groups – using antifa-like tactics, many of whom travel from outside the state to promote violence,” U.S. Attorney William Barr said in a statement.

In an extraordinary move, the Pentagon said it put military units on a four-hour alert to be ready if requested by Walz to help keep the peace. Defying a curfew imposed by the city’s mayor, protesters took to Minneapolis streets for a fourth night on Friday – albeit in smaller numbers than before – despite the announcement hours earlier of criminal charges filed against Derek Chauvin, the policeman seen in video footage kneeling on Floyd’s neck on Monday.

Chauvin was arrested on third-degree murder and manslaughter charges, and faces up to 25 years in prison if convicted.

Three other officers fired from the police department with Chauvin on Tuesday are also under criminal investigation in the case, prosecutors said.

The graphic video of Floyd’s arrest – captured by an onlooker’s cellphone as he repeatedly groaned, “please, I can’t breathe” before becoming motionless – triggered an outpouring of rage that civil rights activists said has long simmered in Minneapolis and cities across the country over persistent racial bias in the U.S. criminal justice system.

‘PAINS ME SO MUCH’

As peaceful protests took place on Saturday in several major cities, including Philadelhia, Miami and Newark, New Jersey, the mood was somber in the Minneapolis neighborhood of Lyndale where dozens of people surveyed damage while sweeping up broken glass and debris from the night before.

“It pains me so much,” said Luke Kallstrom, 27, a financial analyst, standing in the threshold of a post office that had been burned to the ground. “This does not honor the man who was wrongfully taken away from us.”

As he spoke, several military vehicles rolled by, loaded with soldiers.

Some of Friday’s most chaotic scenes were in the New York City borough of Brooklyn, where police armed with batons and pepper spray made more than 200 arrests in sometimes violent clashes. Several officers were injured, police said.

In Washington, police and Secret Service agents deployed in force around the White House before dozens of demonstrators gathered across the street in Lafayette Square.

President Donald Trump said on Saturday that he had watched the whole thing, and, if the demonstrators had breached the fence, “they would have been greeted with the most vicious dogs, and most ominous weapons, I have ever seen.”

Writing on Twitter, he also appeared to call his supporters to rally outside the executive mansion on Saturday evening.

CHAOS IN ATLANTA

In Atlanta, Bernice King, the youngest daughter of slain civil rights icon Martin Luther King Jr., urged people to go home on Friday night after more than 1,000 protesters marched to the state capitol and blocked traffic on an interstate highway.

The demonstration turned violent at points. Fires burned near the CNN Center, the network’s headquarters, and windows were smashed at its lobby. Several vehicles were torched, including at least one police car.

Rapper Killer Mike, in an impassioned speech flanked by the city’s mayor and police chief, also implored angry residents to stay indoors and to mobilize to win at the ballot box.

“Make sure you exercise your political bully power,” he said. “But it is not time to burn down your own home.”

Protesters also took to the streets in other cities including Denver, Houston, Oakland and Louisville, Kentucky.

Authorities in Minneapolis had hoped Chauvin’s arrest would allay public anger. Late on Friday, officers opened fire with tear gas, plastic bullets and concussion grenades to disperse protesters. Still, Friday night’s demonstrations were far smaller and less unruly than the night before, when some two dozen buildings were set ablaze and looting was widespread.

Floyd, a Houston native who had worked security for a nightclub, was arrested on suspicion of trying to pass counterfeit money at a store to buy cigarettes on Monday evening. Police said he was unarmed. An employee who called for help had told a police dispatcher that the suspect appeared to be intoxicated. (Reporting Brendan O’Brien and Carlos Barria in Minneapolis; Additional reporting by Steve Gorman in Los Angeles and Rich McKay in Atlanta; Editing by Frances Kerry and Daniel Wallis)

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'Vicious dogs' and 'ominous weapons': The politics behind Trump's latest protest threats – CBC.ca

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U.S. President Donald Trump is doubling, tripling and quadrupling down on a bet rooted in history: that when civil-rights protests turn riotous, Americans will favour the iron fist.

His Twitter feed on Saturday again filled with martial language — about using vicious dogs and ominous weapons if protesters storm the White House; the need for strength and old-style generals; and protesters being screaming ranters whom he tacitly encouraged his own supporters to confront.

Commentators have drawn parallels to Richard Nixon’s law-and-order message of 1968 whom Trump’s own former campaign manager called an inspiration.

History carries more recent examples.

They loom again as angry protests for racial change are sweeping across U.S. cities in an election year and clashing with demands for law and order.

A researcher who studies moments like these in American life was startled by something he noticed about another police-related death and its destructive aftermath, in Ferguson, Mo.

His findings involved the reaction of a certain type of American: the self-declared independent white voter. And a certain politician: Trump.

“I was pretty struck when we did the data analysis,” said Kevin Wozniak, who studies the politics and public opinion of criminal justice at the University of Massachusetts.

He and colleagues examined voters’ reaction during the 2016 election to being shown different images, including one of police officers in riot gear atop an armoured vehicle.

They found that whites who called themselves independent voters became 10 percentage points likelier to declare support for Trump after seeing that image.

A protester pours vodka into the mouth of another in front of a liquor store in flames in Minneapolis on May 28. (Kerem Yucel/AFP/Getty Images)

The finding are pertinent politically following fury over the death of George Floyd, an unarmed black man killed after a policeman kneeled on his neck, prompted nights of protest, arson, looting and vandalism in several American cities.

Authorities in Minneapolis accused white agitators from outside the state of committing much of the vandalism, a claim Trump has echoed on his Twitter feed.

Trump’s track record

Earlier this week, one of Trump’s tweets was slapped with a warning label from Twitter for glorifying violence. Trump later insisted that he was not in fact endorsing extrajudicial execution when he tweeted: “When the looting starts, the shooting starts.” 

Officers keep demonstrators away from the White House during a protest in Lafayette Park in Washington on May 30. (Tom Brenner/Reuters)

He said he was simply calling for peaceful protests, and warning about the danger of violence: he noted that seven people were shot in Louisville, Ky., during protests over another police-involved death.

But there’s history leading up to that Trump tweet and his latest comments Saturday.

He’s the same president who referred to mostly black NFL players, peacefully protesting police violence during the national anthem, as sons of bitches.

He’s gotten cheers from a crowd of police officers for telling them that when arresting violent suspects, “Please don’t be too nice.”

A Detroit protester holds a photo of George Floyd, who was killed in police custody in Minnesota, in a case that has launched nationwide protests and prompted criminal charges. (Sylvia Jarrus/Reuters)

The history behind the quote

Books like The New Jim Crow, by Michelle Alexander, and Dog Whistle Politics, by Ian Haney Lopez, chart how politicians, from way back when the U.S. was still a colony, have used punishment of blacks to their own political ends.

One famous law-and-order devotee was the originator of the slogan Trump tweeted about looting and shooting.

The Miami cop who coined the phrase, Walter Headley, was a nemesis of civil-rights leaders described in a New York Times piece as a hardline police chief of the old school.

His obituary talked about his willingness to use shotguns, dogs and stop-and-frisk tactics to fight crime in black neighbourhoods, culminating in several deaths and numerous injuries in 1968.

The Trump tweet that prompted a warning from Twitter. Users of the platform can still read it, but must first click through an advisory. (Twitter)

He died that same year after three marriages, two divorces, and one fatal heart attack. Yet his own legacy, like America’s race history, includes twists and turns that defy storybook conclusions.

Crime dropped for a while under Headley in some rough areas.

He drew a positive profile from the Associated Press where Miami black residents were said to welcome his tough approach and express relief at their safer neighbourhoods. 

His Times obituary also said Headley frequently expressed pride at having hired the city’s first black police officers.

The man who coined the phrase Trump tweeted, Miami Police Chief Walter Headley, left, seen here in 1967 listening to Rev. Theodore Gibson. (Jim Bourdier/AP file)

There’s a meandering trajectory to Trump’s own recent history with race.

Trump now speaks frequently about the criminal-justice bill he signed, which softened prison sentences. It’s a frequent topic in his appeals in swing states, where he’s hoping to win a few more black votes.

Yet one of the first things his own electoral base relished about him was his law-and-order attitude.

In a 2016 interview, Trump’s original data director Matt Braynard said a desire for tough justice was the No. 1 defining characteristic among Trump’s earliest primary supporters.

Braynard rejected two common depictions of them — as authoritarian or racist. In the same interview, the ex-Trump campaign official also disparaged “Black Lives Matter terrorists,” in referring to the 2016 killing of Dallas police officers.

The Obama effect

There’s also evidence from the last presidency of how a police controversy and race can have combustible political effects.

Among the sharpest declines in support Barack Obama ever experienced happened in July 2009; he had commented on the arrest of a distinguished African-American university professor, who was trying to get into his house.

Pew Research cited that as one of the factors as it recorded a seven-point drop in support for Obama among white voters within one single week.

Early in his presidency, Obama had largely steered clear of talking about race.

But Americans talked about race lots. The author of one book, Post-Racial or Most-Racial? argues that simply having a black president quietly drove racial resentment that infected numerous conversations. 

The so-called Beer Summit is pictured in 2009 when then-president Barack Obama invited Harvard scholar Henry Louis Gates (L), Cambridge, Mass., police Sgt. James Crowley (2nd R) and Joe Biden to discuss a controversy. (Jim Young/Reuters )

The author, political scientist Michael Tesler, found a huge racial divide between whites and blacks in support for the Obamacare health reform — it was 20 percentage points greater than the gap in white-black attitudes during Bill Clinton’s failed health reform effort years earlier. 

Other research has suggested that American whites adopt more conservative attitudes when they hear about the country’s changing racial demographics. 

So what does Wozniak think will happen in 2020 as a result of this fury over police brutality, and eruption of looting and civil unrest?

“Our findings would suggest that the Minneapolis uprising will benefit Donald Trump — that it will be a mobilizing force for his base,” he said.  

“I would add a great, big caveat to that, though.”

WATCH | Minneapolis mayor seeks National Guard help:

Riots and vandalism stem from protests over the death of a black man, George Floyd, after he was restrained by police.   1:42

His caveat: there are so many monumental issues rocking American politics right now that voters might be more focused on the pandemic, the economic collapse, and impassioned debates about Trump himself. 

Meanwhile, Trump’s opponent, likely Democratic nominee Joe Biden, is promising voters his own version of stability — different from law and order. 

His pitch is a less dramatic presidency. 

In an address to the nation from his campaign website, Biden said he’d called Floyd’s family and said now was the time to address 400-year-old racial wounds, not add gasoline to a race controversy. 

“This is no time for incendiary tweets,” he said. “The very soul of America is at stake.”

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Remembering my father's Biafra: The politics of erasing history – Al Jazeera English

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This is how my father remembered it.

The year was 1966 and he, a bright and ambitious boy of 13 or 14 (no one could be sure because the European missionaries did not issue birth certificates to children like him whose parents refused to convert to Christianity), lived in Akpugoeze, in Nigeria’s southeastern Enugu state.

It was a town of sprawling cassava farms and towering palm trees – not a wealthy place, but one where the townsfolk worked together to build new roads and widen existing ones, to construct schools, churches, and a primary healthcare centre.

My father had just won a scholarship to study at one of the country’s finest secondary schools in Port Harcourt, 200km south. But my grandfather was sceptical. He was scared that the city that opened its mouth to the sea, would swallow his first-born son.

Soon, school would be the last thing on either of their minds.

The writer’s father with his teacher, before the start of the war [Photo courtesy of Innocent Chizaram Ilo]

In the markets and on the way to the stream, people had started to whisper tales about pogroms in the north. They said Igbo people – the ethnic group to which my father belonged – were being rounded up and killed in Kano, Kaduna and Sokoto, some 600-1,000km away.

When Nigeria had gained its independence from the United Kingdom on October 1, 1960, a federal constitution had divided the country into three regions, each run by one of the main ethnic groups: The Hausa-Fulani in the north, the Yoruba in the southwest and the Igbo in the southeast.

Less than six years later, there was widespread disillusionment with the government, which was perceived as corrupt and incapable of maintaining law and order.

Then on January 15, 1966, a military coup overthrew and killed Nigeria’s first prime minister, Alhaji Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, a northerner. As several of those involved were Igbo, and many of those killed were politicians from the north, it was erroneously labelled an Igbo coup. Many northerners interpreted it as an attempt to subjugate the north, which was less developed than the south.

Army commander Major General Johnson Aguiyi-Ironsi, an Igbo, suppressed the coup but took power himself. His plan to abolish the regions and establish a unitary government further compounded northern fears that southerners would take over. A counter-coup in July saw soldiers from the north seize power as Aguiyi-Ironsi was overthrown and killed.

When news of the pogroms first began circulating in the southeast, people from the towns and villages started to trek to cities like Enugu and Onitsha, some 70km away, in search of telephones. They carried with them pieces of crisp brown paper on which their relatives who moved to the north had scribbled their numbers. They travelled in groups. Those who could not make it begged others to call the numbers for them.

They returned to their homes distraught, having learned that the telephone lines in the north were down.

Weeks later, mammy wagons began dropping people off at my father’s town – people with sunken eyes and blistered skin, some of them with missing limbs.

The homes to which these people returned erupted into squeals of delight – the relatives they had feared dead were alive. Most had nothing but near-empty bags with them. A few carried something else – the remains of relatives who had not survived the pogroms.

About 30,000 Igbo were killed in the pogroms and about one million internally displaced. Some northerners living in Igbo areas were also killed in revenge attacks.

Remembering my father's Biafra: The politics of erasing history [Photo courtesy of Innocent Chizaram Ilo]

A popular promotional snapshot of Odumegwu Ojukwu before the war [Photo courtesy of Innocent Chizaram Ilo]

In response to the pogroms, on May 30, 1967, Colonel Emeka Odumegwu Ojukwu unilaterally declared the independent Republic of Biafra in the southeast of the country.

Then the war began.

My father and his family learned to take cover as the air rumbled with bombs, shelling, bazookas and, much later on, ogbunigwe, weapons systems mass-produced by the Republic of Biafra.

Like most boys his age, he volunteered to join the Biafran Boys – a group of child soldiers trained by the Biafran army. Few of them ever saw combat, but he never tired of telling me and my siblings about his mock wooden gun, morning drills and uniform of khaki shorts and shirt.

Decades later he would recall how he and the other boys would go to the market to bully traders into parting with their chickens and goats, groundnut and palm oil, with the same boyish excitement with which he had experienced it. He also remembered the jubilation with which they received the news that other countries – Gabon, Haiti, Ivory Coast, Tanzania and Zambia – had recognised Biafra.

Occasionally, he would wonder what his life would have been like had the war never arrived and he had made it to that school in Port Harcourt.

By another name

In Nigerian history books, that period between 1966 and 1970 is called The Nigerian Civil War or The Nigerian-Biafran war. But for those of us whose families lived through it, it is an erasure of truth not to name it The Biafran Genocide.

Estimates of the death toll vary – with some putting it at more than one million and others at more than two million. Some died as a result of the fighting but most from hunger and disease after the Nigerian government imposed a land and sea blockade that resulted in famine.

In The Republic, Amarachi Iheke gives a detailed analysis of the case for and against classifying it as a genocide, arguing that whether or not you believe it to have been a genocide, the conflict exposes “blind spots in our application of international human rights norms” and that “moving forward, as part of a national reconciliation project, it is necessary we embark on critical truth-seeking around Biafra’s genocide claim”.

But the foundations of the Nigerian government’s denial were planted on January 15, 1970, when Biafra agreed to a ceasefire and the war ended. Nigeria’s Military Head of State General Yakubi Gowon declared the conflict had “no victor, no vanquished”.

But there was clearly a victor – the Nigerian government, which had regained control of the oil-rich region – and a vanquished – the people of the now-defunct Republic of Biafra, on whose land the war had been fought, whose homes had been destroyed, whose relatives had died of starvation and disease, and their descendants who would have to navigate the world with the weight of their trans-generational trauma.

Biafra opinion piece

A Biafran child sits by a pile of yams, 1968 [File: Getty Images]

Erasing history

Still, in keeping with Gowon’s mantra, the government began to craft its own story; one echoed in school textbooks.

In school, I learned no details of what happened in Biafra. The reality was tactfully erased from the curriculum, while those responsible were depicted as national heroes who had fought to preserve Nigeria’s unity. I tried to reconcile the colourful pictures of these “national heroes” in my Social Studies books (history was removed from the basic curriculum in 2007) with my father’s experience of the war.

When I told my classmates my father’s stories, they would look at me, their mouths open in disbelief, as though they were hearing these things for the first time. When the topic came up in class, the teacher would gloss over it as though it was something from the distant past, then conclude with a tone of “happily ever after”.

The result is a new generation of Nigerians who are either unaware of the country’s true past or have normalised it as a small price to pay to maintain the nation’s unity.

This ahistoricism follows us around in the physical and virtual worlds. Recently, during a Twitter brawl, Bello el-Rufai, the son of Kaduna State governor Nasir Ahmed el-Rufai, threatened a user he perceived to be Igbo, saying he would pass the Twitter user’s mother around to his friends, while Bello’s own mother appeared to defend her son, declaring that all was “fair in love and war”.

But for Biafrans, it is not so easy to delink his words from history. After all, 50 years ago, Igbo women were being passed around in the military camps set up in captured Biafran towns, in open-air markets, on the street or in their own homes, as their children and husbands were made to watch.

Remembering my father's Biafra: The politics of erasing history [Photo courtesy of Innocent Chizaram Ilo]

The writer’s father sits with his mother and siblings after the war [Photo courtesy of Innocent Chizaram Ilo]

I often think of Mourid Barghouti, who in his autobiography I Saw Ramallah writes, “It is easy to blur the truth with a simple linguistic trick: start your story from ‘Secondly’.” By carefully omitting the real spark of the conflict in 1966 – the pogroms – we change the whole truth of it.

Yet sadly, this is how most Nigerians tell the story of the Biafran Genocide; disregarding its cause and pretending that it was a war to protect Nigeria’s territorial integrity instead of one fuelled by years of ethnic tensions and concerns over resource control.

But in Nigeria’s quest to erase and amend its history, it has forfeited the opportunity to learn from it – and this is something that continues to haunt us. Decades after Biafra, we have witnessed this past replicate itself in mini-episodes such as the Odi Massacre in 1991 and Zaria Massacre in 2015. And just like the Biafran Genocide, the memories of these gruesome incidents are forgotten quickly, erased and distorted, downplayed by the media, and the perpetrators are never held accountable.

But the truth is, it is impossible to erase the past, at least not completely. We may try to distort it, pretend that it never happened, but it will always be there. And for people like my father, the war will forever give shape to their lives – splitting it into a before and an after.

Immediately after the war, the Nigerian government made it a point of duty to instil a spirit of nationalism in the hearts of schoolchildren like my father. But these children had already seen first-hand what comes with challenging the notion of one Nigeria. So it was not a patriotism borne of love for one’s country but of fear. Unconsciously, my father passed this fear on to his children.

We have learned to perform our nationalism in public, to avoid speaking our languages, to show our most Nigerian selves.

My father died last year, after years spent battling health problems in a country where he could not access quality healthcare. But his life, and the memories he shared with me during years of conversations in our parlour, has left behind glimpses of a history we must never forget.

What he gave me with his stories is the knowledge that it is imperative to talk about the past, to teach it, to confront it. In that way, we learn from it, and can tell when it is being erased and distorted, or about to be recreated.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.

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