By Obi Nwakanma
Dr. Charles Soludo, Professor of the Economic Sciences, former Economic Adviser to the President of the federation, and former Governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria, very recently said at a book launch on the subject of Biafra that ignoring the new Biafra secessionist movement will be a mistake by the Buhari administration. I couldn’t agree more. Soludo just amplifies the position which this column has consistently taken in the past, and which I wish to reaffirm today. The Biafra movement is a slow-burning fire at the moment.
In a speculative survey, it is easy to assume the following scenarios: that 40% of Igbo people back the secessionist objective of the new Biafra movements, 20% are currently unconvinced, and in between is 40% of the undecided, the ambivalent, and the neutral, who could go one way or the other. In other words, only 40% of the Igbo population currently stand in the way, or constitute the difference between a secessionist movement in full force, or a merely fissiparous movement that could very easily, and strategically be demobilized if the Federal government applies civilized and strategic methods, including the “capturing of hearts and minds technique.” This flash statistics can equally be applied to the remaining population of the East and the parts of the old Midwest, now all called the “South-South” which constitute the geographical areas claimed by the Biafran secessionists.
The federal government currently treats this movement as some kind of flash-in-the pan phenomenon, inspired mostly by a reactionary impulse, by a new generation of young people, mostly those who were born after the war, and who suffer the massive unemployment that ravages the region with its vast number of the skilled and unemployed as some kind of outlet for the frustration.
The strategy has been to burst their open-air protests using military and police action, and contain them by force from street protests. This is a “dead-end” policy. It shows quite clearly that Nigeria’s national security policy is unimaginative, and geared mostly to constabulary methods. But I should not tell the federal government what to do. They ought to have, and where they do not, they should develop the kind of expertise that can be fully deployed to providing, and thinking out frameworks of action, that can manage these kinds of conflicts, so that it does not escalate into war and bloodshed, and so that the federal government may have its hat in the game of winning the argument for a sustainable and shared nation. Now, the argument for Biafra, and its increasing appeal rests squarely in the feeling particularly, of the Igbo, of political isolation, economic subjugation, mistreatment, lack of opportunity in Nigeria, and the discrimination they have suffered within the current nation, particularly since the end of the civil war in 1970.
It is true too that the Igbo have suffered all these and more, and that the there is a serious disjuncture between the rights of the Igbo as Nigerians and the conditions to which they’ve been subjected in the unspoken Carthaginian treaty at force, that subverts the treaty of “No Victor, No Vanquished” to which the Biafrans agreed as precondition for the acceptance of an end to hostilities. Let me put this in context: Biafrans have argued that the primary condition for which they agreed to end the civil war in 1970, and not to launch the Guerrilla phase of that war, or continue hostilities was on the agreements reached to reabsorb Biafrans into national life without discrimination or recrimination; the launch of the program of Rehabilitation, Reconstruction, and Reintegration, the so-called “three Rs.”
The new Biafrans claim that the Federal government reneged on this agreement since none of the Rs took place in the East. Nothing was rebuilt, including the damaged energy or power systems, public buildings, cities, roads, and so on. Dr. Alex Ekwueme has given grist to the claim that the coup of December 1983 was specifically targeted at Igbo political leadership, and particularly, the possibility that he might be president in 1987.
It was a claim first made in Sam Goomsu Ikoku’s 1986 memoir, from his encounter with key northern political prisoners in Kirikiri after the coup, and no one has yet refuted this. As a matter of fact, the new Biafra movement began in 1999, when in reaction to the subversion of the Ekwueme candidacy following the PDP convention in Jos, the group MASSOB was formed by a disaffected Igbo lawyer, Ralph Uwazurike. Uwazurike himself had been a victim in many ways of the Nigerian malaise: his sister he claimed had been killed in the last war, and he did not forget. But far truer is that his law practice in Lagos was something of a sham, and he was part of the group of Igbo who made do by living on their wit, in that era which gave rise to what we now call 419, because Nigeria denied his bright mind the opportunity for fuller, more legitimate expression. MASSOB launched what was at first a rag-tag mission based on Ghandi’s Satyagraha, the “non-violent” mode of political action based on the “truth-force.”
The aim, Uwazurike claimed was to achieve Biafra’s independence by step-by-step scaling of political action using pacifist methods. Biafra was always a romantic option for the Igbo, especially for the young disaffected, who have always imagined it as some kind of “lost Eldorado” – a place where “everything would have worked, had Biafra not been subverted and betrayed.”
Biafra has acquired the sheen of “Jerusalem” for a new “Jewish” exile – and indeed, “Biafran Zionism” basically frames itself in the same context of the Jewish exile and resistance. A lot of its impulse is drawn from groups of Igbo “exiles” in the global “Diaspora.” In the last ten years, new groups have emerged claiming to speak and fight for Biafra, among them, the IPOB, the Indigenous People of Biafra, which has been given some kind of left-handed validity by the arrest of Nnamdi Kanu, its spokesman. The arrest of Kanu has provided some kind of impetus, and once again, shows a bumbling and incompetent federal government which reacts, knee-jerk, to issues around Biafra. Now, here is some truth to consider: Biafra is a most sensitive issue to any true Igbo person, and for the Igbo, and this is the truth that Nigerians must come to accept, Biafra is the idealization of what the Igbo dream of as the quintessence of nation: possibility, innovation, political freedom, the power to transform their society through their own abilities and compete with the rest of the developed world. The Igbo genuinely feels that Nigeria is a serious burden on their ability and their ambition.
It is of course arguable. But for as long as Nigeria continues to discriminate against the Igbo, the search to opt out of Nigeria will continue. President Buhari himself has, in his actions since he arrived to power, given even greater impetus to the agitation. But then, it is equally true that the Biafran movement has been bumbling, disorganized, and unclear about its mission in particular ways too.
Support for “Biafra” is currently based on an over-romanticized idea of this lost nation. But the language of this agitation is frightening off many thoughtful Igbo who see a truly fascist impulse in the current movement. And many, like me are opposed to fascism. In this agitation, there is no clear statement about the vision of Biafra that would be different from what the neo-Biafrans want to escape from. There are many skeptics who have noted that it would be fool-hardy to jump from frying pan to fire. There is no evidence that Biafra offers any clear alternative other than a dream. There is nothing that documents the vision of the movement beyond “leaving the zoo called Nigeria.”
The new Biafran movement has not offered Ndi Igbo anything other than isolationism and the contraction of space, particularly given quite frankly, that a more coherent Nigeria offers the Igbo a vaster playing field. The question therefore has been, should the Igbo not fare better by fighting with the same energy deployed now to this agitation, to forcing the emergence of a “new Nigeria?” Perhaps what the Biafrans should do is to argue for the treaty of autonomy, much like the Catalan “statute of Autonomy” with the government of Spain, or the Irish republican status obtained by the Irish republic from the British Commonwealth.
In other words, I think that the current agitation for Biafra has to be rethought, and reconsidered within pragmatic parameters. As a matter of fact, the first step might be to obtain the democratic mandate of the people to speak for them on this issue. The Biafrans must first present themselves to the Igbo electorate, campaign on this issue of Biafra, and win and secure their mandate, and then take it from there. This is vital, otherwise the current movement for Biafra will lack the legitimacy to speak for the Igbo because it currently has no mandate. This much was said, and it rings true, by Mr. Godfrey Onyeama, an Igbo, and Nigeria’s current Foreign Minister.