Politics as warfare: Lesson from the Christmas truce, By Olusegun Adeniyi

Posted by News Express | 25 December 2014 | 3,759 times

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It was December 25, 1914, only five months into World War I, German, British, and French soldiers, already sick and tired of the senseless killing, disobeyed their superiors and fraternized with ‘the enemy’ along two-thirds of the Western Front (a crime punishable by death in times of war). German troops held Christmas trees up out of the trenches with signs, ‘Merry Christmas’; ‘You no shoot, we no shoot.’

“Thousands of troops streamed across a no-man’s land strewn with rotting corpses. They sang Christmas carols, exchanged photographs of loved ones back home, shared rations, played football, even roasted some pigs. Soldiers embraced men they had been trying to kill a few hours before. They agreed to warn each other if the top brass forced them to fire their weapons, and to aim high.

“A shudder ran through the high command on either side. Here was disaster in the making: soldiers declaring their brotherhood with each other and refusing to fight. Generals on both sides declared this spontaneous peacemaking to be treasonous and subject to court martial. By March 1915 the fraternization movement had been eradicated and the killing machine put back in full operation. By the time of the armistice in 1918, fifteen million would be slaughtered.

“Not many people have heard the story of the Christmas Truce. On Christmas Day, 1988, a story in the Boston Globe mentioned that a local FM radio host played ‘Christmas in the Trenches,’ a ballad about the Christmas Truce, several times and was startled by the effect. The song became the most requested recording during the holidays in Boston on several FM stations. ‘Even more startling than the number of requests I get is the reaction to the ballad afterward by callers who hadn’t heard it before,’ said the radio host. ‘They telephone me deeply moved, sometimes in tears, asking, ‘What the hell did I just hear?’ ”

“You can probably guess why the callers were in tears. The Christmas Truce story goes against most of what we have been taught about people. It gives us a glimpse of the world as we wish it could be and says, ‘This really happened once.’ It reminds us of those thoughts we keep hidden away, out of range of the TV and newspaper stories that tell us how trivial and mean human life is. It is like hearing that our deepest wishes really are true: the world really could be different...”


The event captured in the foregoing story, culled from “We Can Change the World” by David Stratman, happened exactly 100 years ago today on Christmas day in 1914 when soldiers on the warfront decided to demonstrate the fact that whatever might have been their differences, they all belonged to a community of humanity. Essentially, what Christmas teaches, which was not lost on those fighting soldiers, is for us to see beyond ourselves, to connect with other people who want only to love and be loved and to demonstrate that virtually anything is possible when we work together and deploy our diversity in promotion of worthy causes.

I am sure many would argue that what those first World War soldiers did was merely symbolic in that they just suspended the killings for one day. That may well be true but the significance goes far deeper in that by their simple gesture, they also raised serious questions about the whole essence of war and whether it is really worth the trouble for one man to be killing another. But that is the subject of interrogation for another day as my brief homily today is centred on the desperation for power by the Nigerian political office seekers and their supporters that is tearing apart the fabrics of our society and may yet lead to an implosion after the February 2015 general election if care is not taken.

Apparently troubled by the looming signs of an impending danger, two respected former Foreign Affairs Ministers and eminent scholars, Prof. Bolaji Akinyemi, and Prof. Ibrahim Gambari have in the last one week made critical interventions. In a letter dated 16th December 2014, which he addressed to both President Goodluck Jonathan and Major General Muhammadu Buhari (rtd), Akinyemi recalled the 2011 post-election violence, against the background that the stakes seem far higher this time around.

Wrote Akinyemi:  “Now we are back at the same crossroads again, except this time is more precarious and dangerous than the last time...One of my low moments during the just concluded 2014 National Conference was when in an attempt to break an impasse, I painted a grim picture of devastation which would follow a breakdown of the Nigerian state, to which a delegate between 45 and 55 years old replied: ‘So what?’ I thought to myself, here is a man who would probably run away to a neighbouring country at the boom of the first gun but was callously indifferent to the fate of the youths, women and children who would be caught in the middle...The violence of 2015 is going to be horrendous and worse than the one of 2011 for the simple reason that the illegal, massive importation of weapons into the country has reached such alarming proportions that I really wonder which is better armed, the militias on one hand or the official armed forces on the other hand...”

However, Gambari, a former United Nations (UN) Under-Secretary General, has decided to be more practical on the issue. On Monday, he inaugurated the ‘Council of the Wise’ by the Savannah Centre for Diplomacy, Democracy, and Development (SCDDD) which he founded. These eminent Nigerians are “to engage with key state and non-state actors to promote consensus on issues likely to drive violence in the elections,” he said. Chaired by Justice Mohammed Uwais, to be assisted by Gambari, other members include Sheikh Ahmad Abubakar Lemu, Archbishop Josiah Idowu-Fearon, Ms. Joke Silva, Amb. Brownson Dede, Amb. Gaji Usman Gaitamari, and Prof. George Obiozor. SCDDD is a non-governmental think-thank for policy research, advocacy, and training in the areas of diplomacy, democracy, and development.

I am sure many Nigerians know both Akinyemi and Gambari enough to understand that they are not the kind of people who would raise fears that are not founded. In any case, what they have put down for the record is what most people are saying on the streets: that the 2015 election could descend into violence whichever way the result goes. The question to ask therefore is: why should that be so? The answer is simple: public service in Nigeria is really not about the people who are often turned to mere canon-fodders by self-seeking politicians for whom every election is a zero-sum game. I therefore hope that the critical stakeholders, especially those listed by Akinyemi and Gambari will take seriously their assigned roles and work to ensure that there is peace in our country after February 2015.

Now to come back to the story with which I opened the page. I have been made to understand that by Christmas 1969, combatants on both sides of the Nigeria-Biafra war had reached the point which the World War combatants got to a hundred years ago today. On that day 45 years ago today, cigarettes were exchanged, shots were fired into the air, flares of an undeclared ceasefire lit the skies as soldiers on both sides in the Onitsha and Abagana fronts exchanged visits. As the story goes, fighters on both sides of the divide compared notes and informally agreed that they would be cautious about killing each other on the orders of “big men”. Thereafter, the war lost venom and by 15 January 1970, it was all over. Troop morale on both sides had reached that critical equilibrium of stasis beyond which no war is possible. 

But we do not even have to reach that point and that is the message of Akinyemi, Gambari and indeed many others. I recall that last month, at the public presentation of his book, “Writing the Wrongs”, Dr Chidi Amuta had sounded a similar note of warning in his presentation titled “Order and the Trembling State”. The central kernel of his thesis is that the forces of disorder are today better armed than the state and that we are ripe for politics by “other means” since these free-range actors are ever ready to do the bidding of desperate politicians.

Therefore, beneath the sabre-rattling that is fast replacing an issue-based campaign in the countdown to the 2015 election is a certain mentality of politics as warfare which must not be allowed to play out. At the end of the day, no matter which side of the divide we belong, nothing is ever resolved in crisis or by the barrels of the guns. It is a message that those soldiers taught us a hundred years ago today, a message the world ignored to its own peril. I hope Nigerian politicians will get the message this time around and begin to act responsibly.

•Originally entitled ‘In Memory of the Christmas Truce’, this piece first appeared in Adeniyi’s column “The Verdict” in today’s edition of ThisDay. Adeniyi can be reached via olusegun.adeniyi@thisdaylive.com

Source: News Express

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