By Douglas Anele
When one of Africa’s foremost storytellers, late Prof. Chinua Achebe, published his account of the civil war entitled There Was a Country: A Personal History of Biafra three years ago, agitation for the actualisation of a sovereign state of Biafra was in a state of suspended animation.
Indeed, from May 29, 1999 to May 29, 2015 when Dr. Goodluck Jonathan left office, pro-Biafran activities were low-key, unlike what is happening right now in some major towns and cities in the South-East. As is well known, the Movement for Actualisation of the Sovereign State of Biafra (MASSOB) was founded by Ralph Uwazuruike and his cohorts as a platform for realising the Biafran dream violently aborted in January 1970 by the Nigerian armed forces led by Gen. Yakubu Gowon.
Throughout the tenure of Dr. Goodluck Jonathan, MASSOB was largely inactive, probably because there was a fair representation of Ndigbo in government at the time, although the serious problem of low federal presence in the South-East, particularly in infrastructural development, heavy industries and solid investment in agriculture remained largely unaddressed.
In addition, MASSOB has been weakened by internal disputes and lack of clear vision among its leaders. Presently, the organisation is factionalised: one of the factions led by its National Director of Information has expelled Uwazuruike and installed Uchenna Madu as the new leader of MASSOB. In fact, a new group known as the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) has emerged which appears to be more militant than MASSOB in the forefront of current protests for an independent country for the Igbo and their immediate neighbours.
The recent upsurge in pro-Biafra agitations has generated a lot of discussion both within the country and around the world: the Nigerian media have reported it extensively because it challenges the arrogant pronouncement by our rulers, both military and civilian, that “Nigeria’s unity is sacrosanct and non-negotiable.” More significantly, every movement for resurrecting Biafra brings back memories, both pleasant and largely unpleasant, for Ndigbo who experienced the short-lived euphoria when Lt. Col. Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu announced the secession of Eastern Nigeria and the disastrous war that followed.
As I noted earlier, MASSOB’s quest for the establishment of Biafra has been ineffectual, but it started gaining momentum since the “second coming” of President Muhammadu Buhari. In order to understand better what is happening right now, it is appropriate to consider the problem in its historical context by identifying the major cause of the renewed agitation for Biafra and comparing it with the reasons why, on May 26, 1967, the 335-member Consultative Assembly of Chiefs and Elders in Eastern region mandated Ojukwu to pull Eastern Region out of Nigeria “at an early practicable date.”
In my opinion, the most important reason for the on-going pro-Biafran agitations is the I-don’t-care or indifferent attitude of President Muhammadu Buhari to the concerns and aspirations of Ndigbo in general – he has not overcome his penchant for treating Ndigbo as “the last among equals,” so to speak. The clearest demonstration of Buhari’`s disdain for the Igbo is that he completely left out the South-East geopolitical zone in the first twenty-four key appointments he made as President, a decision which is so discriminatory that only someone with stunted moral intuition of fairness who hates Ndigbo passionately can condone or accept it with equanimity.
Were it not for the constitutional requirement that the President must appoint one minister at least from each state of the federation, Buhari would probably have nominated only one or two ministers from the South-East for his cabinet to prove to the Igbo that he can govern without them just as he was elected President without substantial votes from the South-East. In addition, by excluding the zone, the President was actually keeping the promise he made in the United States that he would treat various parts of the country differently based on the number of votes he received from them during the presidential election.
Therefore, for those with Stone Age antediluvian mentality codified in the Mosaic law of “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth,” Buhari is justified in neglecting the Igbo. However, his proclivity for treating Ndigbo like a conquered people or vassals who deserve only crumbs that fell from their Northern master’s table did not start today. As I have argued severally in this column, it was manifest when he served as military head of state, and several years later as chair, Petroleum (Special) Trust Fund (PTF).
To buttress my point: after the coup that brought him to power in December 31, 1983, Buhari locked up Vice President Alex Ekwueme in Kirikiri prison whereas Ekwueme’s boss, President Shehu Shagari, a Fulani and Muslim like himself, was placed under house arrest in a cosy house in Ikoyi owned by the federal government. I do not have information on the exact composition of Buhari’s Supreme Military Council. But I am almost certain that Igbo representation in it was either zero or one at most. Available data show that PTF under Buhari constructed 13,870 kilometres of roads in the North, representing 76%, whereas the South-East and South-South together got only a paltry 2,472 kilometres or 13.5%.
The ill-advised discriminatory anti-Igbo decisions by President Buhari must have compelled thousands of mostly unemployed Igbo youths to feel that Ndigbo are not equal stakeholders with their compatriots in the Nigerian project, that they have nothing to gain in Buhari’s administration. Many of them believe that it is better to fight and possibly die in the struggle for a country they can truly call their own where they can be reckoned with as important stakeholders in the scheme of things rather than endure continuously the humiliations of being treated as second class citizens.
From comments in the media regarding the agitations, a sizeable percentage of Nigerians from other parts of the country, including top government officials, seem to be either ignorant of the depth of pro-Biafra feelings driving the agitators or are mischievously hoping that the protests would become destructive to provide a convenient excuse for violent clampdown on the Igbo. Meanwhile, some of the actions taken by the federal government thus far, instead of solving the problem, are actually escalating it.
For example, despite the hyperbolic anti-Nigeria statements broadcast by Radio Biafra, the Directorate of State Services (DSS) made a tactical error by arresting and detaining Nnamdi Kanu, Director of Radio Biafra, which means that the present government did not learn any lesson from the ineffectual heavy-handed attempts by the Abacha regime to silence Radio Kudirat, the clandestine radio station established by elements of the National Democratic Coalition (NADECO) to help actualise the truncated mandate of Chief M.K.O. Abiola.
Detention of Kanu by operatives of the DSS has not reduced the clamour for Biafra: on the contrary, it has triggered more protests and inadvertently made Kanu a hero for thousands of his admirers. Before his arrest, Kanu was relatively an unknown figure: now, he is very popular, and many young men and women in Igboland and beyond see him as a role model. Femi Aribisala captured this point succinctly when he observed that “those who were not disposed to Biafra before are now shouting Biafra. For weeks on end Biafra has become the biggest news item nationwide, with agitations, demonstrations, threats and arrests.”
Although the glaring discriminatory leadership style of Buhari against the South-East is the most important cause of the on-going struggle for Biafra, we should not lose sight of the pent-up emotions and nostalgia for a separate homeland by a significant proportion of Ndigbo because they suffer the biggest casualties whenever there is uprising in the North since the civil war ended in 1970.
To be continued