By Akaeze Boney
The Biafra struggle is an expression of a legitimate right to self-determination induced and fueled by the Nigerian State. It is sustained by the emotions and common solidarity of the Igbos of South Eastern part of the country whose successive generations have been victimized with Nigeria’s apparatus of State power, but most unfortunately; this legitimate aspiration has continued to be jeopardized by its own leadership which has repeatedly fallen into the hands of demagogues with poor conflict handling attitudes.
In spite of this unfortunate fact, the aspiration will be kept live as long as the Nigerian State continues to neglect to adopt peace building and conflict transformation strategies rather than its approach of coercion against the agitators. Those in whose grip the country has been held up in her structural contradictions, constitutional and institutional aberrations, and who continue to promote the prejudices and tendencies that engendered the agitation in the first place should realize that they are running a race against time.
There is no doubt that the Igbos constitute the most dispersed population in Nigeria if not on the African continent. They are found in every human community in the country and even across the world, they are basically merchants trading in every ware available and required by humans. They carved a niche for themselves in this field of human endeavor, and the ways and manners they go about it have attracted for them the combination of admiration, envy and hatred.
Socio-politically; the Igbos developed a republican system with its attendant egalitarianism and the high sense of liberty which open the individual to the attainment of the highest station in life as his or her abilities could detect. Obstacles to individuals on the social ladder are very limited and there is no entrenched aristocracy. Theirs has been a truly republican society.
This is the socio-philosophical foundation of the adventurous nature of the Igbos. It has also been contended by some school of thought that the nature of the soil in the Igbo territories which is not very suitable for agriculture; the basic industry of all African societies, accounts in great measure for the people’s focus on trading as their fundamental preoccupation as well as their mass migration to other territories for their sustenance.
A fact that is hard to be contradicted is that the Igbos have remained the most self-sustaining ethnic nationality in Nigeria. They have the credit of mobilizing for community self-help projects, human capital development through apprenticeship and collective pooling of capital for investments especially in merchandise. They have a tradition of capital accumulation and the resilience to survive adversities. Like the Japanese in the spirit of the Meji Restoration demonstrated in their quick recovery from the devastations of the World War 11, the Igbos recovered from the genocide visited on them by the Nigerian State during the civil war which lasted for thirty months. They rebuilt their destroyed communities and businesses and bounced back to their original status that in the first place attracted for them the jealousy of some other peoples of Nigeria especially those who orchestrated the Kano attack in 1954 and the pogrom between 1967 and 1970. A visit to South Eastern Nigeria today will confirm the creative, generative and self-sustaining spirit of the Igbos. The region has the least level of unemployment in the country and economic activities by self-employment are highest in the region with its attendant consistent highest regional Gross Domestic Product (GDP) growth rate.
Unfortunately; this people have remained at the receiving end of Nigeria’s crisis of co-existence especially as this relates to the mutual suspicion and antagonism among the ruling and political elites of the northern and southern parts of the country. The absence of national unity in Nigeria was clearly revealed early enough by Alhaji (Sir) Tafawa Balewa when he addressed the Legislative Council in 1948 in the following words.
‘’Since 1914, the British government has been trying to make Nigeria into one country, but the Nigerian people themselves are historically different in their backgrounds; in their religious beliefs and customs, and do not show themselves any willingness to unite’’. ‘’Nigeria unity is only a British intention for the country. Many people deceive themselves by thinking that Nigerian unity is one, particularly some of the Press people…..this is wrong’’. I am sorry to say that this presence of unity is artificial and it ends outside this chamber, the Southern tribes who are now pouring into the North are more or less domiciled here and do not mix with the Northern people……and we in the North look upon them as invaders’’.
Since this historic declaration not much has changed, even Sir Tafawa Balewa himself went down very unfortunately as one of the major early casualties of the deep rooted disunity and other contradictions of the country as a macro polity.
The antagonistic contestation of power at the nation’s centre by the regional political leaders and their elites and conservative ruling class collaborators, engendered the national confusion that paved the way for the January and July 1966 military coups that dragged the newly independent Nigeria into a bloody, wasteful and very unfortunate civil war. This very ugly episode in our national history deeplydegraded the very fragile base upon which Nigeria was resting as an edifice built upon sand, and have more than any other factor, malnourished and dehydrated the stunted national morale of a severally anemic body polity in dire need of a life line. Today the Biafran question and other regional splinter aspirations and tendencies have continued to resonate as the collateral damage bequeathed to us by our megalomaniac founding fathers.
The mutual animosity and antagonism among the elites of the component units of the country have produced and continued to oil the centrifugal and centripetal forces pulling the country in different directions and have kept her gravitating around convulsive insecurity, fatal mass poverty, perplexing reign of mediocrity, decadent and denigrating value orientation, and the mocking image of a giant with the feet of clay. Our country has remained in the daily calculation of outsiders, a powdered magazine and a disaster waiting to happen. Unfortunately this fact is not related to any form of natural vulnerability, but essentially hinged on the recurrent decimal of how we have consistently mismanaged our affairs, squandered our opportunities, and conducted ourselves as if we are collectively plainly ahistorical.
What the world has witnessed in the IPOB agitators is just archetypical of the myriad group alienation from the Nigerian nation induced and fueled by the Nigerian state. Be it the OPC militancy in the West, MEND, Avengers and other militant groups in the Niger Delta, the Boko Haram and herdsmen terrorists in the North, or the different shades of Biafra agitations in the East, the common element remains a sense of separate identity from an overriding national identity. The main difference lies only in the operation and which in itself does not diminish the reality of the very frayed and fickle national unity as the fulcrum on which Nigeria has continued to whirl and oscillate seemingly permanently.
Today like in the aftermath of the military coups of January and July 1966, the Biafran secession quest has remained a big issue in Nigeria, but what is certain is that the adventure is still being mismanaged as before both on the side of the agitators and the Nigerian State.
Every violent conflict gathers and escalates from the level of blips to clashes before attaining the crisis stage where it results in security and humanitarian challenges. It is therefore always necessary for every responsible Government to adopt proactive strategies to track the early warning signs of potential violent conflict drivers especially such conflict factors with the capacity to upset public peace and national unity. Unfortunately; this has not been the case with the Federal Government of Nigeria.
It is also a fact that the conflict attitudes of disputants or the leadership in the case of inter group conflict is a fundamental determinant of how particular conflicts respond to remedies. This school of thought believes that it was the character of Adolph Hitler that precipitated the World War 11, just as the replacement of Neville Chamberlin with Winston Churchill as British Prime Minister, and Harry Truman with Franklin Roosevelt as President of USA changed the character of Britain and America’s response to Hitler and determined the eventual end of that World War. This school of thought underlines our assertion that Biafra was induced not by the military coup and counter coup of 1966, but rather by the character of those who managed the context.
Against overwhelming and incontrovertible facts of history, the northern ruling class weaved and propagated a damaging false interpretation of the January coup among the northern masses as they dubbed the coup an Igbo agenda against the north. On the strength of this propaganda, they were able to rally the support of northern Nigerian army officers and deployed the military apparatus of the Nigerian State to stage a revenge which did not stop in a counter coup but extended to massacre of Igbo military officers as well as civilians mostly in the Northern Region and in military formations especially in the north and the west. The massacre went on unabated in the manner of a well-orchestrated and coordinated action, and in manners that has made it very difficult if not impossible to absolve the Federal Military Government under General Yakubu Gowon of tacit and inglorious complicity.
Naturally; injustice especially those impinging on socio-cultural, economic and political values, and relating to identity, livelihood and power representation etc. generates alienation and readily fuels grievances. It is also a fact that a psychologically injured person in respect of political and economic marginalization and social exclusion is very vulnerable to the promptings of radical ideas whether genuine or not, altruistic or self-serving, objective and pragmatic or whirling in wide and delinquent exuberance.
Those who have been able to undertake a dispassionate and objective study of the Biafran struggle will readily draw the conclusion that the manner of the struggle under Nnamdi Kanu and his proscribed group; the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) is more of history repeating itself. This is because Kanu has more or less reenacted the character of the leadership of the struggle during the civil war. In the book; Reflections on the Nigerian Civil War (Facing the Future), Raph Uwechue observed that in the Biafran secession struggle, General Ojukwu’s tactics led to a quick alienation of many talented Igbos because from the very beginning, he set out to establish his authority with a heavy hand. He also observed that the Biafran leader raised a timid army tamed to unquestioned obedience as well as an extremely efficient propaganda network which enslaved to him, the Biafran masses who had neither the facts nor the liberty to form an independent opinion, and that the leader neglected to take advantage of very valuable political and diplomatic opportunities. The tendencies revealed the above observations are clearly discernable in Kanu’s leadership of the struggle under IPOB
Ojukwu no doubt had unreserved personal domination of the Biafran struggle of his time and as it was with him, so has it been with Nnamdi Kanu. There has remained widespread sympathy for the Igbos over the fate visited on them by the Nigerian State but there is hardly any meaningful support for the secession option as adopted under Ojukwu as it is with Kanu. Like Ojukwu, Kanu failed to realize the importance of cultivating the alliance of other ethnic nationalities in Nigeria and neglected to maximize the diplomatic windows opened to him and his people. It is unfortunate that this struggle, a legitimate aspiration for which many lives have been wasted has at its critical turning points continued to fall under the leadership of persons who would not trust other people’s judgment and who place their authority above every other consideration. The Biafran crisis became personified in Ojukwu whose conflict behavior became the strongest and overriding factor that dictated how Biafra responded to Nigeria. The same scenario was reenacted by the IPOB leader. Nnamdi Kanu emerged on the Biafran scene like a complete reincarnation of Emeka Ojukwu enjoying cult followership and street popularity across Igboland and among the commoners, but the reality remains that the case of Biafra is that of twice stumbling on a similar stone which is a proverbial disgrace.
Akaeze Boney, a Political Economist and Historian, writes from Asaba.