Biafra at fifty

Political activist and leader of the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) movement, Nnamdi Kanu (L), wearing a Jewish prayer shawl, speaks to veterans of the Nigerian civil war in his garden at his house in Umuahia, southeast Nigeria, on May 26, 2017, before commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the war on May 30.The war was triggered when the Igbo people, the main ethnic group in the southeast, declared an independent breakaway state, the Republic of Biafra. / AFP PHOTO / STEFAN HEUNIS


It was on May 30, 1967 that Col. Emeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu, the military governor of Eastern Nigeria, declared that region the Republic of Biafra. A few weeks later, Col. Yakubu Gowon, Nigeria’s head of state, declared war on the secessionist territory. The war dragged on for 30 horror-filled months until the Biafrans threw in the towel in January 1970. Gowon announced a three-point programme of Reconciliation, Rehabilitation and Reconstruction. A few days ago, Biafra became 50 and was marked with a solemn seminar titled “Memory and Nation-building: Biafra 50 Years After.” It was well attended: Olusegun Obasanjo who commanded troops in that war and later on became head of state and President of Nigeria; Prof. Yemi Osinbajo who was in primary school then but is now the Acting President of Nigeria; Ahmed Joda who was one of Gowon’s super permanent secretaries at the time. He headed the Muhammadu Buhari transition committee in 2015. John Nnia Nwodo, the President of Ohaneze Ndigbo, a former minister of Information and a scion of the famous Nwodo family; Professor Ebere Onwudiwe, a well-known political scientist and public intellectual.

There were several others, most of them young Igbo intellectuals who were probably not born during the war. There was nothing substantial or divergent to be expected from a group like that. It was largely a gathering to do some introspection on the lessons of the war and why Biafra as an idea has not gone away. It was an exercise in admonition and not quite a forum for soul searching. But it was worth it because since the end of the war things have not moved swimmingly either for the Igbos or for Nigeria. There have been renewed agitations for the actualisation of Biafra as a republic. The agitators have been harassed and detained by security agencies but there is no let-up in the agitation.

Today’s Biafra is a lingering echo of the Biafra of 1967 and of the fact that many years down the road many Nigerians feel excluded from Nigeria’s dinner table which means that we have not been able to build an inclusive, consensual union that caters for all interests fairly, equitably, and in a fashion that is not perceived as discriminatory and sectional. When the Federal Government sites amenities and makes appointments in a manner that is nakedly discriminatory then that is the real spelling of exclusionism. Exclusionism is a reflection of bias and lack of trust which leads in turn to reciprocal bias and lack of trust. That is not bridge building, not nation-building.

When Gideon Orkar did his coup some years ago against the Ibrahim Babangida government he said he was carving some states out of Nigeria. Such an attempt at fissure was a product of accumulated frustration with the state of the union. Since then not much has been done by elected politicians at the Centre to give a new and sincere approach to nation-building and inclusiveness as articles of faith.

The new Biafra agitation is receiving scant shock because not many Igbos think they are doing anything out of the ordinary. Prominent Igbos feel able to visit the rebel leader, Nnamdi Kanu, in prison. When he was released on bail prominent Igbo leaders such as Dr. Alex Ekwueme, former Vice President of Nigeria, felt able to welcome him into their homes. When he was in detention all the five governors of the Igbo states called for his release from prison not necessarily as a humanitarian gesture but essentially because the Igbos as a race identify with the fact that they have been largely denied a decent seat at the table. The Igbos feel that as one of the alegs of Nigeria’s so-called tripod, Hausa-Fulani and Yorubas being the other two, they have been done in because the other two have taken the top spot several times but they have been left in limbo. This explains why there has been a resurgence of the discourse on Igbo Presidency recently. All that they have got at the commanding heights has been six fleeting months of Major General JTU Aguiyi-Ironsi’s administration. Igbos believe, rightly or wrongly, that they are still being treated as conquered people. That is why the Igbos including those in the APC controlled Federal Government have not been able to make a full-throated condemnation of Nnamdi Kanu’s exertions. They think he is taking the risks on behalf all of them.

In 2001 at the Justice Oputa Panel of Inquiry, Ohaneze Ndigbo presented a memorandum in which it asked for N3 trillion in reparation or compensation for the pogrom that took place in the North and for losses in lives, limbs and livelihood during the war. They also made a presentation on the same subject during the 2014 National Conference. None of these efforts has yielded any positive result. Rather, they have been derided as smart lovers of money who want to reap a rich harvest from a war that they caused in the first place. Not exactly kind thoughts. But you can also say that several communities in Nigeria have been marginalised. The Niger Delta feel they have been holding the wrong end of the knife while those who hold the right end of it have gone home or to the bank with the rich resources that pollute their land and bring them misery.

The Zango Kataf people have complained of oppression and marginalisation for years but is anyone doing something to assuage their feelings? The import of the fissures and agitations is that we have an imperfect union, a union that lacks unity, equity, fairness but amazingly does not even think about reversing its imperfections and may even not be willing to admit that there are in fact some imperfections. Kanu and co are taking what they possibly believe is a necessary risk which may not lead to the birth of a Biafra Republic but may lead to a shuffling of the cards, an introspective examination of the fate of the Igbo under the Nigerian sun.

Obasanjo’s thesis at the seminar was that we have a large enough cake to go round which is correct. He also said our relationship as component groups is like that of a husband and his wife. That is where the problem lies. I hope he was joking because in the Nigerian context the husband is the master and the wife virtually the slave. See how many otherwise respectable Nigerians beat up and brutalise their wives as if they are punching bags. The truth is that the various ethnic groups including the Igbos want a union of equals, not of husband and wife, master and slave, falcon and falconer, hunter and hunted, victimizer and victim, meat eater and meat provider. They want, as John Nwodo said, a nation of equals not one that is treated like the private property of one ethnic group or fiefdom. That is the source of our enduring trouble about this beleaguered country and its unhappy people.

Have we asked and answered the question about our drift to centrifugalism. The answer is that we feel safer when we drift away from the centre because the centre does not make us feel safe due to its intolerably discriminatory practices in employment, appointments, amenities and in considerations of crime and punishment. We seem to lack the generosity of spirit and the large-heartedness that are the reservoir of fairness and justice.

We are relating to people and communities based on vote count. You voted for us, yes, okay take this. You did not vote for us. Okay, nothing for you. Politics of an eye for an eye is devoid of the generosity of spirit and the large-heartedness that statesmen bring to the table for the healing process. What of the other experiential view that if you show love to those who don’t love you, you may win them over.

In marking 50 years of Biafra, do our hearts expand? Are they filled with joy of things remembered and memories cherished? I doubt. Are we now nourishing some nobler sentiments that can build a nobler nation? I haven’t seen it. The credo is the winner takes all and the loser loses all. So losers who want to be winners must join the bandwagon of the party in power and their sins will be forgiven. In a sane democracy no one will think of using “federal might” against those constituent parts that contribute to the mightiness of that might. But here the acquisition of political advantage is more important than the building of national consensus and national cohesion which can lead to national stability and the birth of a happy people who feel a sense of pride in their flag.

We seem to be working extra hard to make a heterogeneous country look homogeneous, but that is not necessary. That is the equivalent of tilting at windmills. There is nothing wrong with diversity. The key to success in a multi-cultural, multi-ethnic country like ours is to allow each group to grow at its own pace as John Nwodo said at the seminar.

That means that the country must be deliberately structured to accommodate the idiosyncrasies of each group and to liberate the creative energies of the people. Where there is a lacuna, a set of affirmative actions can be created to take care of the disadvantaged and vulnerable members of the society. That way we can substantially reduce the crisis of underdevelopment and the feeling of exclusion which the Biafran agitation represents.

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BiafraYakubu Gowon


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