By Obi Nwakanma
Right up to, and through the 1990s, it was anathema to discuss Biafra openly. It all began with the end of the civil war in 1970 and the attempts by the Federal government to suppress and erase every sign of the conflict in the public mind, and revise the causes of the Biafran conflict in the historical records. It seemed like an attempt to decree memory into oblivion – as though talking about it would subvert the very basis of Nigeria.
Perhaps it would have. But military decrees are futile when it comes to reflective and sentient men: you cannot decree pain away when you continue to inflict pain. And the actions of the Federal government continued to inflict pain on former Biafrans, and in both official and unofficial policies continued to treat these Biafrans, particularly the Igbo like pariahs.
But on the question of Biafra, there is the Igbo saying that no matter how it tries, the palms of the hand cannot hide or cover the moon: “Akaekpuchionwa.” Biafra has remained a dazzling moon in the Nigerian horizon – romanticized to the point that a new generation has now taken up its cause. But why? Why the resurgence? Why now? Why is it that the gnawing pain of that conflict has been inherited by a new generation that did not even see the war?
People like me who survived on ration milk – infants of that war – and those who came right behind us after the war: these are the new voices of Biafra. The answer is very simple: Biafrans – particularly the Igbo – have felt themselves very mistreated in post-war Nigeria; they feel that they have borne the heaviest burden of injustice in a contemporary Nigerian nation built on the primitive whims of a rent-seeking “elite,” who have profited on the triumphalist project of silencing and marginalizing the catalytic Igbo, and who have sustained themselves by a divide-and-conquer program.
By projecting the image of the Igbo as the “problem of Nigeria,” they have ignored the true problem of Nigeria, which is poverty, ignorance, disease, and corruption – none of which the hard working Igbo has caused.
The war cry on the federal side, “to keep Nigeria one is a task that must be done” was built on the very logic that the central means of keeping Nigeria one was by suppressing the “insurgent” Igbo. The result is the unalterable positioning of the Igbo into a “national enemy” who is not only despised, but must be prevented from enjoying the benefits of contemporary Nigerian citizenship in a country which their fathers helped in large part to establish.
The result of all this is growing and widespread Igbo disaffection. Let me point out an important fact in all these: if the Igbo mean to effect a restructuring of this federation, they will. No threat, nor sanction, nor military action can stop it, and here are the reasons: one, the Igbo have a stubborn and terrifying will once they agree to a course of action. Two, Igbo have the means and the capacity to effect that through their density and network.
It is not only a major ethnic bloc, a nation in itself, it is the most dispersed and linked across the nation. It is like the glue holding Nigeria. Three, the Igbo is the only group of people in modern Nigeria which has mobilized and fought a war, and therefore have a civilian even if aged population with field combat experience that can mobilize, train, and deploy logistically and technically.
The Igbo also fought a sustained anti-colonial resistance by means, sometimes of direct defiance, sometimes of subtle subversion with the mightiest imperial power in the 20th century, and starting with its global diasporic network late in the 18th century (see the writings and activities of Olaudah Equiano) had laid the grounds for a modern West African political consciousness. But the question before the contemporary Igbo is, given their challenges in modern Nigeria, what should the Igbo do? Do the Igbo want Nnamdi Kanu’s version of Biafra? I, myself, I do not buy into Nnamdi Kanu’s Biafra. I buy into Odumegwu-Ojukwu’s version of Biafra, the one he later theorized as “Biafra of the mind” – a more sophisticated, more discrete, more pragmatic conception of nation and national-belonging. And here is why: first, the material factors – domestic and international – that made the first Biafran secession impossible is not only still at play, but has grown even more complex.
Furthermore, the current movement for Biafra proposes to turn Igbo into no more than a “Bantustan” nation or enclave – a glorified native reserve. It would be an apartheid state because it will be unable to resolve its own inherited historical contradictions. Listening to the statements of the IPOB, one is struck by its reflex of what the Igbo Harvard-educated Political scientist, Azinna Nwafor in his introduction to George Padmore’s seminal book, Pan-Africanism or Communism, once described as “a conservative totality,” referring to Tom Nairn’s critique of “black nationalism” in the United States.
This ethos has a consciousness of itself as different and separate; and exploits the misery, poverty, ignorance, and want of a disgruntled population by foreclosing other options. It is a pollution of a revolutionary idea by a polluted offspring. Recovering Nigeria is still possible and restructure is a viable option.
It is important that more serious, strategically-minded Igbo intellectuals begin to redirect the discussion around Biafra, and not leave it in the hands of Nnamdi Kanu and the lumpen. Yet we must equally recognize that Kanu and the great number of those who support the new separatist movement, have justifiable and legitimate grievances: it is the movement of the vast generation of contemporary Igbo deprived of opportunities and a means of livelihood, discriminated against and isolated by sustained Federal Nigerian government policies, and rendered marginal and hopeless by the Nigerian condition in a Nigeria which they have described as a zoo. And yes, Nigeria is a zoo because, it feels like George Orwell’s Animal Farm.
But the Igbo are part of that zoo because, when one thinks of it, Sam Mbakwe built the first independent Power stations in Nigeria in Amaraku and Izombe designed to make the old Imo state energy-sufficient. But it was not a Yoruba or Hausa, or Berom, or Ijo that dismantled that project and sold the parts of the Imo state Power stations to the Koreans parts by parts.
It was an Igbo. It was not the Yoruba or the Fulani or Boko Haram that de-industrialized Imo state by stopping or selling off more than 35 industrial and commercial projects at various stages of completion established by Sam Mbakwe, calling them at the time, “white elephant projects,” it was an Igbo. It is not the Hausa-Fulani that has refused to conduct local government elections, or seized funds allocated to local governments in Igbo land for grassroots development.
It is not the Hausa or Fulani that has burnt Igbo shrines and sacred groves, and such sites of its communal memory and cultural heritage. It is not the Hausa or Yoruba that has destroyed and refused to re-plan or rebuild once-thriving Igbo cities like Aba or Onitsha. The Igbo must hold itself responsible too for the condition of the people.
The Igbo must understand their condition dialectically, and take steps towards redirecting historical Igbo purpose, because the Igbo, whether we like it or not, as Tekena Tamuno did once piquantly suggest are the makers of modern Nigeria. The modern purpose of the Igbo was always to found and help build a great nation and national space. That is the meaning of “Biafra of the mind” – to deploy all the capacity available to the Igbo to redefine the Nigerian enterprise. This is not impossible. This will be the real step towards a greater Biafran enterprise: to turn all of Nigeria into Biafra – a place where Igbo ingenuity, matching the ingenuity of its allies within this state – will create a free and prosperous society of equal citizens, free of fear, religious fundamentalism, bigotry, and hatred.
True justice for the Biafran dead would be for the Igbo to help dismantle the feudal cultures that have held Nigeria captive, stand and fight, and not cede an inch of Nigeria, until the Igbo, working with their natural allies, have established the modern Igbo dream of a coherent West African nation founded on the “ofo” principles of equity and justice. The Igbo must begin tactically to find and create alliances for a new Nigeria, North and South, for there are such allies waiting, and the Igbo are in the most unique position to achieve this, but dare not alienate their possible allies by this isolationist agenda.