By Obi Nwakanma
I arrived, Thursday morning in London, for the “Legacies of Biafra” conference at the School of African and Oriental Studies in London. Part of the highlights of the program was the “Obi Nwakanma in Conversation with Olu Oguibe” event at SOAS on Friday afternoon, and my talk on “Okigbo’s War: Biafra and Afterwards” yesterday. More on this later. But on Thursday evening, as part of the opening of the events, was the showing of a documentary on the Asaba massacres, one of the most deadly events of the civil war. Again more on this next week, when I shall, I promise, give a fuller account of the conference at SOAS.
But the lynchpin of my reference to this event is, how at the Thursday showing of the documentary, a participant observed that clearly the diver of the war, and the compelling force behind the Federal government and the British government’s brutality, especially in the elaborate covering up of the massacres in Asaba and elsewhere in Biafra had much to do with “oil.” The Biafra war was an “oil war.” It is also oil, and the elaborate acts of dissimulation that has been used to drive a powerful wedge between what we now know as the “South-East” and the “South-South” of Nigeria. Official and unofficial acts of Machiavellianism have been deployed to make certain that these areas of Nigeria mostly belonging to what was known as the Eastern Region, and the parts that were in the Midwestern region before May 1967, never once again found a common voice, or co-operated for the common good of their people, both indigenous and newly resident.
The great losers have been the people of these areas – the loss of capacity; the vicious recriminatory politics of “otherness” that has blinded people to their common and shared interests, and regression of the old East as the fastest growing region of the world to one of the world’s most polluted places on earth. The facts of the continued marginalization of these areas was brought to stark relief by Ms. Anikio Briggs, speaking last week at the South-East/South-South stakeholder’s meeting in Owerri, on behalf of the Ijaw Peoples Assembly. “The induced differences between the South-East and South-South geographical zones” Ms. Briggs lamented, “has not only balkanized the former Eastern Region, but has also injected a false and jaundiced propaganda that has effectively left us where we are today.” And where are we today? In the pit, that’s where. The sloughs of underdevelopment. As I said, the East of Nigeria was once described as the world’s fastest growing economy. But from the fastest developing area of the world as at 1964, the former Eastern Nigeria has today become the latrine of the world. Everybody pisses and shits in it – from the oil companies to the federal government of Nigeria. The Niger delta has been both the site of tragedy and of contention. It is the world’s most contested space, and it is still underdeveloped. In large part, the problem has been firmly grasped by Ms. Anikio Briggs: the people and the governments of these regions of Nigeria have allowed themselves to be played for too long against each other, and played into a corner.
Even the Nigerian government’s narrative of these areas is of a powerful and irreconcilable difference; a narrative developed as part of a wartime propaganda to pit the Eastern minorities against their Igbo neighbors, and to cause the kind of powerful and profound divisions that has resulted to the situation that even today, some Ikwerre are still denying their own identity as Igbo, and forced to fashion a new myth of origin separate from their original Igbo identity. These are all the marks of historical trauma, but also continued idiocy arising from an unwillingness to confront the fear that keeps these “nigger(s) running,” to borrow from Ralph Ellison’s powerful novel, Invisible Man, and deal with it. Anikio Briggs thus puts a finger on the causes, and the condition, that has largely disempowered the South-East and South-South regions of Nigeria, and denied them a powerful voice in the affairs of Nigeria: “induced differences” of a people who actually share far more in common than they realize. I salute Anikio Briggs. The South-East and South-South areas have been played against each other, yes, but people in these areas have themselves also failed to – “open sense” – as Fela would say -and recognize the power and the possibilities of regional cooperation. I have frequently pointed out that the geographical contiguity of these areas make them a potentially powerful interlinked economy. Just imagine a joint regional commission on ports development that links the economic activities of the old East and the old Midwest, and provides logistical ease that would reactivate the old in-land waterways from Onitsha to Burutu, Warri and Sapele, or from Onitsha through Oguta to Ahoada and the Ports at Onne, Port-Harcourt, and round to Bonny, to Oron, to Aba and Owerrinta. Or through the Qua-Ibo river complex from Oron to Itu, to Arochukwu, and the river port between Afikpo and Itigidi.
The powerful internal movement of goods and people through this region would instigate a powerful economic momentum, and open up the South-East and South-South areas to great opportunities. Intra and inter-regional movements of peoples and goods are the drivers of any economy. Imagine a metroline complex that would connect he cities and towns of these regions; a quick and fast train that could take one in 15 minutes from a Port-Harcourt Central station, to an Aba Central station, and from an Aba central station, to an Uyo central station also in fifteen minutes. People often forget that on a good road, it would take any body just fifteen minutes to go from Aba to Ikot-Ekpene. That’s how close these places are. As a matter of fact, Ikot-Ekepne is effectively, a suburb of Aba, and anybody can go to work from Ikot-Ekpene to Aba daily, with good public transportation.
There is no reason why Akwa-Ibom and Abia State cannot have a bi-city development initiative to connect these areas, and reap the benefits of an expanded economic development that is bound to flow through these area. Playing golf one day at Oguta, the former governor of the old rivers state, Mr. Diette-Spiff looked across the landscape and lamented that only a bridge, across the lay of the land, could have opened a vast tract of development between Oguta and Warri, and that much is true. One can have a beer in Benin city after a business meeting, and enter a fast train, and arrive in Enugu or Owerri, or Onitsha, within two hours, if we mobilize our capacities, and think in integrated terms, and establish clear economic objective that would seek and encourage common actions, rather than the divisive politics that comes from fear and ignorance. This is the most powerful statement coming out of the South-East/South-South stakeholders meeting in Owerri. The powerful capacity of these two geo-political regions has been undermined for far too long, and it is no longer in the interest of these areas to remain aloof and suspicious of each other, or to carry on a powerful sense of recrimination, which when closely examined, amounts to no more than school yard gripe.
It is about time that the East and its neighbours awakened to the reality and the necessity of an economic cooperation, and a joint development initiative that would take advantage of their greatest resources – their human resources. And this is the truth: the greatest resource available to the South-East and South areas of Nigeria is really not the abundant oil and gas in these areas, but the human resources – the vast pool of highly trained, and highly skilled people who, with just a little planning, and a little vision can instigate the economic resurgence of these regions, for it is a known truth that Imo, Abia, Anambra, Edo, Delta, Enugu, Rivers – are Nigeria’s most educated states according to statistics frequently supplied by JAMB and WAEC – by very wide margins.
It would seem to me that a joint regional development council should result from these meetings of the South East and the South-South, to make firm the talk of righting a ship that has sailed for too long from its destined course. And it is indeed about time.