… A country’s unity threatened by separatist agitations
Hundreds have been arrested as their chants, “All we are saying, give us Biafra,” and “Freedom for Biafra,” “We are not terrorists, we are freedom fighters,” “Biafra my home,” “Biafra must stand,” “Biafra for life,” “No going back on Biafra,” “Free Nnamdi Kanu Now,” emblazoned on placards resonate across the landscape. Some have paid the ultimate prize, shot and dying, their blood staining the sides, despite the peaceful nature of the protests.
Armed with flags and placards they continue to press for a State of Biafra, the release of the Director of Radio Biafra, Mr. Nnamdi Kanu and leader of the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB), and continued detention of other members of Movement for the Actualisation of the Sovereign State of Biafra (MASSOB). In spite of the risks, the protesters and their leaders have vowed to go on, “as long as the government continues to detain Kalu.
The scenario has raised questions and concerns in a region beleaguered with bad roads, high crime, and a thriving sense of political and economic marginalistion by the Federal Government. Just how realistic is the quest for Biafra? Is MASSOB actually the voice of Ndigbo? Is the actualisation of a state of Biafra an Igbo cause? Is MASSOB the platform for the actualisation of the Igbo cause? Is this protest a shadow of a campaign against the APC government of President Muhammadu Buhari? Where is the fate of the leader of the Biafra Zionist Movement (BZM) Benjamin Igwe Onwuka, standing trial for treason after his group tried to hoist their flag in the Enugu Government House and for invading the Enugu State Broadcasting Service (ESBS) in the protest? Perhaps, no self-determination group in Nigeria has been so hounded. None perhaps yet so misunderstood and fractionalised.
And yet, none so passionate, resilient, unyielding and its members so fatalistic. No one is certain anymore how many members of MASSOB have died in their chase for the actualisation of their dream, a sovereign State of Biafra. Many are rotting in police cells and others awaiting trial in various prisons. Yet many others are on the streets protesting. They protest the arrest of their leaders, police brutality and harassment, death of their colleagues, refusal of government agencies to recognise and accept their right to exist, etc. The governor of Imo State Rochas Okorocha, who claimed to be speaking on behalf of Igbo leaders and governors in the South East said that the protests do not have the support or blessing of the governors and leaders of the zone, and that Ndigbo will not use the platform of any separatist group including MASSOB to pursue the pursue the Igbo cause.
According to him: “The Igbo will not use the agitation for Biafra as a platform to negotiate the place of Ndigbo (in Nigeria). The Igbo will not use Biafra as a front; we condemn those agitating because that is not Ndigbo’s need.”
According to Okorocha: “If a section of the people in the South East or even the whole people in the geo-political zone protest over the bad shape of the federal roads in the area or protest over the total negligence of the geo-political zone, every governor and leader in the area would support that, but not to protest over an issue that is neither here nor there.”
While Okorocha restated the submission of Ndigbo to the unity of the country, he pointed out that the concern of the leaders of the zone “is to get what is due for us in our country, and any other quest especially for Biafra is diversionary. We regret that some Igbo people could get involved in a protest the end result of which won’t benefit Ndigbo in anyway, but could lead to the shooting of some of them”.
The disassociation is widespread in the face of a loud silence of Ohanaeze Ndigbo, the foremost socio-cultural and political organisation, whose leadership considers the “matter is too sensitive right now.”
In Enugu, a group tagged Concerned Citizens of Enugu State (CCES), faulted the protests and considered them “illegal, unacceptable, anti-democratic,” and inimical to the peace and unity of the country.
But the acclaimed leader of MASSOB, Chief Ralph Uwazurike has dismissed Okorocha as “a sabotuer,” who is only “aiding and abetting the All Progressives Congress-led Federal Government in the continued marginalisation of the Igbo.”
While Uwazuriuke is condemning Okorocha, his position on the protests is ambivalent. In one breath, he condemns Kanu, and considers Radio Biafra a violent approach and opposed to the non-violent modus operandi of MASSOB and that “Kanu’s arrest has nothing to do with the struggle for the sovereignty of Biafra.” In another breath, he calls for the release of Kanu, “so that he will come out and learn to adopt the non-violent approach, but since he is preaching Biafra, he should be freed.”
A top member of a faction of MASSOB in Owerri, who pleaded anonymity, said that the positive thing about the protests is that “people agree that a huge sense of injustice has been perpetrated with the arrest of Kanu. Kanu won’t be the first MASSOB member to be arrested, and he won’t be the last”.
Dismissing the wave of disassociations, the source said, “These are people who say one thing in public and another in private.”
According to him, “Uwazurike has no moral right to disclaim Kanu. It should be the other way. Uwazurike and his faction of MASSOB have become a tool in the hands of government. He picks his fights. What has he done recently in the fight for the actualisation of Biafra if he so believes in the cause? In the last general election he was used by government in the campaign to sack the then chairman of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), Prof. Attahiru Jega. He cashed in and mobilised MASSOB members. His double standards have factionalised the movement.
“We need new ideas to realise the dream. It is the inability to continue to listen to the self-serving arguments by Uwazurike that forced Kanu and people like Benjamin Onwuka to embark on their projects with their groups. Although we are committed to a nonviolent approach, the action of the BZM has shown that the passion for Biafra runs deep. The Radio Biafra, of course, is not a violent approach and it has brought some attention to the cause.”
A factionalised cause
THE struggle for Biafra sits on a tripod – MASSOB, the Biafra Zionist Movement (BZM) led by Benjamin Igwe Onwuka (who is on trial for treason) and the IPOB led by Kanu. While there is a general agreement for non-violence, a source said, “Most members of MASSOB are disenchanted with the antics of Uwazurike, who is stupendously rich, lives like a head of state in an impregnable mansion and has a fleet of choice cars. We are not nearer to the actualisation of Biafra, as we were many years ago, when MASSOB was founded. What sort of engagements are there to even push for the cause? Since 1999, thousands of MASSOB members have been killed, arrested and detained without going to court. Once a MASSOB member is arrested, he is charged for treason.”
Whither Biafra? Executive Director of the Dan Ukwu Leadership Foundation, Enugu,
Mr. Daniel Ukwu, said that Biafra has continued to thrive in the psyche of the Igbo man essentially because of the civil war.
“The sentiments of Biafra cannot be toyed with. People died to raise the name of Biafra. Ndigbo might have lost the chance to have Biafra as a country, but what no one can take from any true Igbo man is the memories of the war.
Biafra has become a rallying cry. It has a stronger sentiment than even Ohanaeze, the dominant Igbo organisation. The arrests and detention of the protesters will not deter others to march on the streets. This courage comes from a purposeful passion that has kept the dream of Biafra alive even when the reality or realisability of the subject is considered dead. I am convinced that the quest for Biafra died at the end of the war. Although those who have offered leadership to the articulation of the sentiments might have their own reasons, I see them more as romantics. How can Biafra be realised? The issue of violence is out of the question because no one wants war. The non-violent approach appeals, but it has no place without a wider agreement in the Igbo nation. This is certainly an agitation that is beyond MASSOB and its adjuncts; their fragmented leadership and factions confirm this.
The Igbo cause is usually couched as marginalisation by the Federal Government and the lack of political place in the polity. As long as that feeling of deprivation thrives, the sentiments of Biafra will be aroused. It is left for leaders in the zone to use this sense of unity offered by Biafra to develop the region.”
A lecturer in the Department of English, University of Lagos, Dr. Chimdi Maduagwu, noted, “Every nation or group of people is entitled to national movements. No one can deny a nation the right to self-determination. If a group of people, or a nation within a bigger nation, desires secession, it should be given a chance to articulate its desires. It is after a clear picture emerges that negotiations will begin. MASSOB has been around for some time. May be authorities should invite them for a talk.
It is not easy to assess the seriousness of MASSOB. However, I can feel the passion of her leaders. Though there are a lot of sentiments, but the sincerity of purpose is not hidden. The leadership of MASSOB has articulated a non-violent but civil movement asking for independence. To them, the Igbo nation is colonized by Nigeria and all they want is freedom for the people. If the leaders are able to make this point a universal Igbo feeling, then there is a case.
The next steps will be towards the actualization of sovereignty. If they are able to attract the sympathies and support of the Igbo political class, especially those in the National Assembly, in a way that will make them push for a referendum on the issue. Then actualization may not be far-fetched. We have recently witnessed a successful move in Sudan and an unsuccessful move in Britain. The bottom line is that democracy permits that and it is possible here too.”
On the fragmented leadership held together by the pursuit of a common cause, Maduagwu said, “If the self-determination quest intensifies, of course there are bound to be fragmentations and factionalisations. In fact, more groups may emerge to join the struggles. Self-determination movements and quests produce action leaders, but the proper orthodox leaders, at the political level, will emerge after the radical revolutionaries have prepared the stage for them. The important thing for rebels or revolutionaries is to keep on focus. If the objectives of all factions and groups align, reconciliation will come at last.
“One cannot legislate platforms for action for self-determination. For a people with a strong sense of marginalization, any route perceived to be capable of leading to freedom is acceptable. What is important is a realization of what Ndigbo need and want and how they wish to go about it.”
MASSOB’s factional Director of Information, Madu, said, “MASSOB shall continue to identify with genuine, selfless agitation, as showcased by Kanu. South East, South-South geopolitical zone are wiser, united and hungry for Biafra now. MASSOB, IPOB and other genuine groups are now ready to unleash the potency of non-violence, which includes civil disobedience, massive boycott, as was done during the emancipation struggle of Ghandi of India and Martin Luther King Jnr”.