From the Maitatsine riots of 1981 to the Boko Haram insurgency mostly in the North-East, the Igbo have been, disproportionately when compared with Nigerians from other ethnic groups, the greatest victims of wanton acts of destruction by their Northern compatriots for no good reason.
Remember, the brutal massacres of Ndigbo living in Northern Nigeria in 1966 triggered the same feeling of alienation among the Igbo that pro-Biafran agitators are feeling now because of the discriminatory style of Buhari, which is the psychological foundation of the decision to secede from Nigeria in the first instance. Of course, sporadic violence against the Igbo predated independence – for example, the bloody riots of Jos and Kano in 1945 and 1953 respectively.
The pogroms were caused by inter-ethnic rivalries and what Prof. Achebe calls ekwolo, that is, deep-seated jealousy in large segments of the Northern population arising from the educational and economic success Ndigbo had achieved which allowed them to occupy top positions in the civil service, in business and in other establishments that require a high degree of technical knowledge in Northern Nigeria.
In addition, the irrational, noisy and showy exhibitionism of some misguided Igbo nouveaux riches living in the North tend to infuriate their hosts who, lacking a non-ascriptive and non-hegemonic democratic tradition of managing crisis arising from social change, often resort to violence to express their anger. This point has been adequately analysed by the political theorist, Patrick Wilmot, who points to the persistent trait of the Northern establishment to uphold and defend its political power in the society ruthlessly and tenaciously.
Those castigating pro-Biafran activists for championing secession “at the slightest provocation,” need to be reminded that the Igbo were not the first ethnic group to demand for separation and actively work for it. Before independence, influential members of the Northern ruling class used the threat of secession to blackmail British colonial administrators to get what they wanted.
Thus, at the General Constitutional Conference at Ibadan in January 1950, the emirs of Zaria and Kano made it abundantly clear that “unless the Northern Region is allotted fifty percent of the seats in the central legislature, it will ask for separation from the rest of Nigeria on the arrangements existing before 1914.” As is well known, the overarching aim of the bloody riots in May 1966 was araba or secession.
Furthermore, because of unsubstantiated fear of Igbo domination, demonstrating civil servants in Kaduna carried banners emblazoned with the strident demand, “Let there be secession.” When the governor of Northern region, Col. Hassan Usman Katsina, called a meeting of all Emirs in the region, many of them arrived with clear mandates from their subjects asking for secession of the North. Frederick Forsyth reports that “In Zaria the Emir was mobbed by crowds begging for secession.” Isaac Adaka Boro, an Ijaw from Oloibiri, tried unsuccessfully to carve out an independent republic in the Niger Delta. In 1961 or thereabout, he lost to an Igbo in a student council election at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka. As a result, he concluded that in Nigeria minorities are second-class citizens, and decided to champion the cause of his Ijaw people by forming the Niger Delta Volunteer Service, a ragtag army which was quickly dismantled by government forces. Ironically, Boro died during the civil war as a federal soldier to put down the Biafran secession.
Let us not mince words: centrifugal tendencies and separatist movements are a constant feature in federal systems all over the world. Therefore, the United Nations recognises the right of people to self-determination if there are sufficient political, economic, socio-cultural and psychological reasons for that.
Now, to determine the appropriate moment for secession and the means for actualising it is a perennial challenge to political theorists and activists. Nevertheless, as in divorce to end a bad marriage, secession must be considered as the last resort or option, especially in cases where widespread violence and pogrom against a people are involved. Concerning the secession attempt by the Eastern region in May, 1967, a plausible case can be made that it was justified because of the killing of over thirty thousand Easterners living in Northern Nigeria and nearly one million who fled to their ancestral homes from there, mutilated, traumatised and broken. Still, the devastating civil war could have been averted if Gowon and Ojukwu were experienced sagacious political leaders who could see the bigger picture, so to speak, by putting aside their petty jealousies and youthful exuberance. Unfortunately, they did not, and the pretence that Biafra is completely dead has been exploded by what is happening today.
The case for secession by Ndigbo now is far weaker than the case for separation in 1967, despite the irritating anti-Igbo pattern of decision-making by the APC federal government. To begin with, it is definitely wrong to blame the marginalisation and underdevelopment of South-East on the federal government and non-indigenes alone.
Largely, Ndigbo themselves are their own worst enemies. Although Northern-dominated military dictatorships had, through deliberate unfair distribution of states and local government councils, ensured that Ndigbo were relegated to a minority status in the scheme of things, some prominent sons and daughters of Igboland have, for myopic and selfish reasons, connived with others to deprive the Igbo of what is due to them.
Moreover, since the civil war ended in 1970, most Governors of states in the South-East, with the possible exception of late Chief Sam Mbakwe and one or two others, have embezzled a large percentage of the funds that accrued to their states from the federal government and from internally generated revenue. How many ministers of Igbo extraction used their elevated positions to develop Igboland instead of enriching themselves? What about Ndigbo in the federal legislature – how many of them have sponsored bills for the development of Igboland or initiated programmes for youth empowerment throughout the South-East.
Oftentimes, contracts for infrastructural projects in the zone awarded to companies owned by well-known Igbo politicians and businessmen were either uncompleted or not executed at all because funds meant for the projects disappeared into the private accounts of the companies’ owners. Ndigbo regularly accuse indigenes of other ethnic groups for discriminating against them unjustifiably – which is largely true. Unfortunately, Ndigbo discriminate against themselves too: the grossest instantiation of this horrifying behaviour was former governor of Abia State, Theodore Orji, who dismissed civil servants from other Igbo speaking states in Abia State civil service. It is not unusual to observe someone from Anambra State discriminating against an Imo State indigene or the latter doing the same thing to someone from Abia State. Even within each South-Eastern state, people build Berlin walls of demarcation against one another based on which part of the state or senatorial zone each person comes from. In some cases, an Igbo would frustrate a fellow Igbo from getting a job or contract because of envy and jealousy.
From my investigations, before the Biafran war, the negative traits of Ndigbo highlighted above were not as widespread as they are today. It appears that the civil war and its negative aftermaths engendered a negative paradigm-shift in the group psychology of Ndigbo.
The extreme suffering caused by the war, exacerbated by harsh anti-Igbo policies by the victorious military government of Yakubu Gowon, compelled the Igbo, most of whom starting from scratch to rebuild their shattered lives, to engage in single-minded pursuit of money for survival to the detriment of time-honoured values such as truthfulness, loyalty, and the philosophy of onye aghala nwanneya.
In conclusion, there was indeed a country, Biafra, to which Ndigbo gave virtually everything. But it was short-lived. Inasmuch as there is justification for protesting unnecessary discrimination against the Igbo or any other ethnic group by President Buhari and his lieutenants, I believe that the best way for the Igbo to achieve their immense potentials is to look at themselves and begin a massive process of intellectual and moral revolution aimed at eliminating those bad mental habits that have prevented them from being the best they can be.
They should stop blaming others and begin the arduous task of harnessing the incredible human and natural resources in Igboland and the Diaspora for the construction of a strong prosperous Igbo enclave within the federal republic of Nigeria. Pro-Biafran agitators should focus their attention and energy on the agbata ekee politicians that have betrayed the trust of Ndigbo and make them accountable to the people. The Igbo must remove the cotton wool in their eyes first so that they can see clearly the logs in the eyes of other Nigerians. Concluded