Biafra and the logic of Boko Haram

Dare Babarinsa

Dare Babarinsa

THERE is a new resurgence of Biafran sentiments in the southeast especially among youths born in the post-Civil War era. The arrow heads are youths, mostly Igbo, and they are mostly based outside the shores of Nigeria. They must have found the concept of Biafra romantic for they fill the social media with bellicose messages and propaganda. Lately, they have succeeded in attracting attention in the Igbo heartland of the southeast and even in Port Harcourt, the Garden-City named after the British colonial secretary of the late 19th Century. Such is the allure of Biafra that it wafts in the air like a recalcitrant scent. Who can banish this ghost?

The late Colonel Chukwuemeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu, who led the ill-fated Republic of Biafra for 30 gory months of war, hated being referred to as the former Biafran Warlord. “Was Gowon Nigerian Warlord,” he queried. “What of Obasanjo, Murtala, Danjuma, are they warlords? Why is it only Ojukwu that is referred to as a warlord?” He blamed it on the bias of the media.

We had many interactions with Ojukwu especially in his house in Ikoyi, the famous Villaska Lodge which he inherited from his father, the millionaire transporter, Sir. Louis Odumegwu-Ojukwu. The young Ojukwu went to Kings College, Lagos and was dispatched to Oxford University by his rich father to have the best of British education. Then he joined the army and by 1966, when he was the commanding officer of the 4th Battalion of the Nigerian Army in Jos, he found himself at the epicenter of national politics.

On January 15, 1966, Alhaji Abubakar Tafawa-Balewa, the Prime Minister, was killed by coup makers along with the premiers of the North and the West. History had reached a turning point and the devil was preparing for a rich harvest.
Balewa was succeeded by Nigeria first military ruler, Major-General Johnson Aguiyi-Ironsi, a bully commander who appointed four military governors for Nigerian then four regions: David Ejoor for the Mid-West, Hassan Usman Katsina for the North, Adekunle Fajuyi for the West and Ojukwu for the East. When Lt. Colonel Yakubu Gowon became Nigerian military ruler August 1966 following the assassination of Ironsi, he retained the military governors. He posted Colonel Adeyinka Adebayo to the West to succeed Fajuyi who had been killed with Ironsi during the counter coup.

The mayhem and massacres in the North in 1966 especially of people of Eastern Nigerian origin, mostly Igbo, precipitated an exodus to the East. Attempt to negotiate peace, including a retreat to Aburi in Ghana by Nigerian military rulers, failed. A Leaders of Thoughts Conference called for Lagos failed when Ojukwu suddenly withdrew his delegation, headed by the respected Professor Eni Njoku, former vice-chancellor of the University of Lagos citing security concerns. When Gowon created 12 states in 1967, Ojukwu responded by announcing that the Eastern Region would now be known as the Republic of Biafra.

War was joined. In that conflict, it is estimated that almost one million Nigerians perished. For me, the war was a personal experience at the home front. Adeyinka, my eldest brother and my father’s first son, went to war and was shot in the face during the battle of Onitsha in 1967. The bullet narrowly missed his right eye. He survived but carried the scar for the rest of his life. In 1969, Adeyinka, then a lieutenant, was company commander at the 131 Battalion, Iwo Road, Ibadan. The battalion commander was one Major Fagbure. We had two of our senior cousins who had just finished from Okemesi Grammar School. The songs of war were in the air and the siren was irresistible. What with the allure of heroism, the heady intoxication of youthful exuberance, the belief in reckless immortality and the pervasive romance with death. Despite the warning of our elder brother who had survived the horrors of war, one of our cousins fled to join the army at Mokola Barracks. They shaved his head and one day, he visited us in his private uniform. He was very happy and proud. Few days later, he was shipped along with his colleagues, to join the final onslaught on Biafra by the Third Marine Commando Division under the command of the methodical and thorough Colonel Olusegun Obasanjo. He never returned.

By the time Ojukwu returned from exile in 1981, he was a changed man. The then ruling party, the National Party of Nigeria, NPN, saw him as an instrument of offence against the Nigerian Peoples Party, NPP, that was dominating the politics of the Igbo heartland of Imo and Anambra states because of the enduring charisma of its leader, the legendary journalist and nationalist, Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe. Ojukwu could not resist the temptation of partisan politics. He joined the NPN and was roundly defeated at the polls when he attempted to go to the Senate. He ended up in prison, along with many other politicians, when Major-General Muhammadu Buhari came to power December 31, 1983, and attempted to clean the Augean Stable created by the army of irascible politicians.

Ojukwu’s faith in the democratic process never left him. He contested for other elections thereafter, including for the Presidency, and lost all, except one under General Sani Abacha. For him, Biafra as a political goal, ended with the Civil War.

However, as a philosophy against injustice, it lives on. He said anywhere there are oppression, injustice, impunity and violence, it is the duty of those who believe in the philosophy of Biafra to fight those evils. He said that he would wage war again if it was necessary to fight those evils. In the twilight days of the Abacha Administration, he did not see any serious contradictions in campaigning for the military ruler who was determined to perpetuate himself in power.
Those who are hoisting the flag of Biafra now have not made their position clear. What is Biafra in their reckoning? Are they including the non-Igbo speaking states of the former Eastern Region which are now the states of Cross River, Akwa-Ibom, Rivers and Bayelsa? Unlike Ojukwu, they seem not to have faith in the democratic process and institutions. They are not in tune with what is happening in the contemporary world which is moving away from war and into an era where war would become an obsolete instrument of national and international relations. The world has seen the futility of war and most statesmen are working to create a world without war.

Not this new Biafran brigade. Apart from occasional filibustering on the social media, they have not articulated their position. What do they really want? Are they asking for a new state of Biafra? Do they want war without even giving Nigeria the benefit of a dialogue? My suspicion is that some people may have decided to turn the whole Biafran sentiment into a business. If militancy had paid off in the Niger Delta and Oodua Peoples Congress, OPC, could get oil pipeline security contracts, why not try something that bring a big harvest. When hostage taking was a form of agitation in the oil rich Delta Region, some smart Alecs in the southeast simply formed their own Kidnapping Plc. Today, it is the biggest business in the region.

It is not in the interest of Nigerians, especially the Igbo, to turn Biafran sentiment into business. Nigeria may be imperfect, but we have learnt the hard way to know that dialogue and the democratic process is better than the eloquence of violence. If they are serious, let them articulate their points and how it can be accommodated and realised within the current democratic dispensation. The people they claim to represent have the right to decide through the democratic process including elections, whether they are willing to follow them. This means they should articulate their points and let their members contest for elections on the basis of their programme. Otherwise, President Muhammadu Buhari has a duty to treat them as the southeast equivalent of Boko Haram.

However, the Biafran wind is a wakeup call for us. Our Republic is good, but not perfect. We should be ready to always discuss the state of the union. This would make the union better and stronger. It was our unwillingness to jaw-jaw that led to the Civil War in the first place. Anyone who is advocating war as the only solution to the problems of the Republic should be treated as an enemy of the state. Whatever the future holds for the Nigerian Commonwealth, we should always ensure it is a future without war.

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  • Bobjk

    Dare, your views are clearly jaundiced. How many people have biafran agitators killed? On what basis are you saying that they are the southeast equivalent of the blood thirsty and murderous boko haram? You should realize that justice is the first condition of humanity. Buhari’s government is sectional and clearly biased against the south east. Apart from ministers which are Constitutional, can you mention anybody from the southeast in buhari ‘s government? Is his government meant for all Nigeria or for the hausas and yorubas alone?

  • okbaba

    Mr Dare,
    I do not support any extreme option from the Biafra agitators unless it is peaceful. The universal right to express your views in a non-violent manner still remains a mantra. I stand to condemn all forms of violence as a means to an end.

    One mistake adults do make is to take for granted the concerns of their youths. This is where you have failed woefully by comparing them with the dreaded Boko Haram. Please be careful with your words as you try to unearth what their grievances are and to suggest what steps are needed to take to address issues. Your last paragraph devoted to jaw-jawing does not do justice to all the jaw-jawing that have been taking place in Nigeria. Have you called on the president to take a second look at all the dialogues, one of which he boycotted, that have taken place and see what can be done?

    You have taken time to brand these youths, but ignored what role the government can play at this crucial time?