By Obi Nwakanma
Sam Omatseye’s piece in the Nation, “The Ghost of Biafra,” this past week adds to the growing discussion on the inevitable impact of the new secessionist movement in important ways. The kernel of that column is that Nigeria as a nation runs in vain from its obligation to effect closure on the Biafran experience. Omatseye, of course skirts certain issues, and fudges a few, including the important question he raises: “how could a people knowing that they did not have the arms still plunge to war against an overwhelming armed opponent?”
In other words, why did the leaders of the East fight, when they knew they were outgunned? The simple answer is that (a) The East fought to survive. They did not levy war against Nigeria. War was levied on the East when the federal side reneged on the terms of peace arrived at in Aburi.
The Federal Government initiated the war on July 6, 1967, by opening two fronts from the North: the Nsukka front and the Gakem front. Ojukwu evacuated Enugu, and responded with a defensive strategy; (b) as a means of easing the pressure of attack from the North, Biafra’s Liberation Army led by Brigadier Victor Banjo and Colonel Emma Ifeajuna as his Chief of Staff opened the Midwest corridor to foreclose the attack formation already planned from Jebba by the Federal forces, through the Midwest using the Military Division already established for that purpose led by Murtala Muhammed, circumventing Benin through Auchi, moving through Agbor to the East.
The movement of the Biafran forces on August 9, into the Midwest, ruptured that plan. The Liberation Army would have arrived Ibadan and secured Lagos, and the tides of the war would have been dramatically turned, but for the extraordinary meeting between Banjo, Ifeajuna, and Mr. Bell, the Deputy British High Commissioner in Benin City as the Biafrans moved in a claw formation from Warri through Benin and through Auchi towards the West. Banjo’s dilemma, regarding the threat to bomb Lagos from the sea by the British frigate and turn the West into a theatre of war, and the threat to wipe out Banjo’s family still in Lagos left him with very little choices, other than to stymie the Liberation Army in the Midwest, order a haphazard withdrawal, and the rest is now history. As a matter of fact, one of the key actors in that event, the playwright and Nobel Laureate, Wole Soyinka, already waiting in Ibadan with a “reception party,” has written about this in two of his very important memoirs, The Man Died and You Must Set Forth at Dawn.
But Nigerians hardly read these days, except for religious tracts. But Omatseye is right: War is a messy business. The after effects linger and take doggone time and supreme effort to heal. Nigeria has not healed from the last major war. It is that war that is the ghost that haunts Nigeria. That war is also the spectre rearing up today in the self-determination movements that are now challenging the basis of Nigerian nationhood. The IPOB/MASSOB and the Niger Delta Avengers are now raising the question of a “Biafraexit” – the call for a referendum on Biafra to constitutionally determine whether Biafra should be allowed to exit Nigeria as a separate nation.
The Separatist movement has been gathering momentum since 1999, and has been recently fueled by President Buhari’s adversarial, isolationist, discriminatory and conquistadorial domestic policies. It does now seem that the greatest threat to the continued survival of Nigeria is the president of Nigeria himself who seems bent on pursuing a narrow revanchist agenda, as well as the use of coercion to stop the secessionist movement which has grown as a counter force to his revanchism. Recently, the president declared that Nigeria’s “unity” was “not negotiable.” Happily many people, including Wole Soyinka, have told him that Nigerian unity is in fact negotiable. The president of course is not talking about real “unity.” He is talking about the unity which the late Emeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu once described as like the relationship between Jonah and the Belly of the whale.
Unity cannot be legislated. Unity is the product of a felt sense of shared destiny and values. And this is the point that the Biafran secessionists are making. I’d like to say this: every Nigerian must support the right of the Biafrans to seek self-determination through the plebiscitory process. The Biafrans must have their referendum, as permitted in International Law, on the question of “Biafrexit.” In 1964, the founding father of the modern Nigerian nation, Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe, wrote in the US Foreign Policy magazine, warning that though he preferred an organic nation, it might yet be better for the leaders of Nigeria to meet, and sit, and negotiate how “we will all go our separate ways peacefully” rather than push Nigeria, then lurching towards a bloodfest, to the ultimate evil of a civil war that would claim millions of Nigerian lives. Azikiwe was prescient in 1964, and I stand with the great Zik on this. It is important to settle this question of Biafra’s secession once and for all by peaceful means through a referendum. To that end, I think that those calling for secession should do the right thing: they should collect the required signatures and write the National Assembly to initiate the referendum, with a copy forwarded to the United Nations. Thereafter they should campaign for support. Here is what the Biafrans are arguing: they are arguing for a restructuring of Nigeria because Nigeria in its current formation is oppressive to their interest and survival; if Nigeria does not want to restructure constitutionally, they are arguing for peaceful exit through referendum. They are arguing that the federal government failed to meet its own obligation under the truce called “No Victor, No vanquished” by not fulfilling the promised three R’s in the old East, and by launching policies that have discriminated against, and isolated the East, especially the Igbo people, since the end of the war. They have argued that the Federal government has repeatedly failed to protect Igbo lives and property from the indiscriminate attack nation-wide, and therefore they no longer trust the government of Nigeria to secure their lives.
They have argued that as republican people, they have nothing in common, culturally, with the rest of Nigeria, and that they reserve the right to pursue their separate destiny, and redeem their society from underdevelopment and poverty using their talents and energy freed from the inherent draw-backs of a Nigeria with feudal and monarchical traditions and tendencies that squelches the Igbo spirit, and the spirit of their Biafran neighbors with long, cherished republican and democratic traditions. And they have also argued about the criminal exploitation and expropriation of resources from their oil rich region which has left the region very impoverished and ecologically devastated and they want the right of self-determination in order to have the power to restore the ecological balance of the delta. These are very powerful arguments, and I am quit