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The phenomenon of Biafra (6)

By Douglas Anele

We ended our discussion last week by disclosing that whereas Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe was single-mindedly committed to Nigeria’s independence on the scheduled date irrespective of who became Prime Minister, his northern counterparts led by Sir Ahmadu Bello were obsessed with ruling Nigeria as a conquered territory. Thus, by October 1, 1960 when Britain’s Union Jack was lowered and the Green-White-Green flag of Nigeria was raised, the most influential politicians from the north and south had conflicting visions of post-independent Nigeria.

Notwithstanding the wide acclaim with which Nigeria’s independence was heralded both within the country and elsewhere, some unresolved issues indicated that the edifice was erected on a faulty foundation. For example, none of the critical differences between the north and the south was satisfactorily resolved, nor the fears and doubts assuaged. There was no sincere effort by top ranking colonial officials to deal impartially and fairly with the centrifugal tendencies that had been rearing their ugly heads since the emergence of regional parties in the 1940s.

As one perceptive writer aptly remarked, “The hopes, aspirations and ambitions of the three regions were still largely divergent, and the structure that had been devised to encourage a belated sense of unity was unable to stand the stresses later imposed upon it.” It is not surprising, therefore, that the British left behind a fragile glass house whose inhabitants began to throw stones at one another shortly after independence. The history of Nigeria under parliamentary system of government has been well documented.

From these accounts, it seems that the modified version of British parliamentary system which the colonialists handed over to Alhaji Tafawa Balewa and others was unsuitable to the existing socio-political configurations in Nigeria, not properly understood and digested by those entrusted with the mandate to operate it, and impracticable in the context of an artificially created colonial amalgam where entrenched inter-ethnic rivalries, instead of being mitigated by British colonial officials, were sometimes exploited by them as a useful expedient and strategy to bolster indirect rule.

Now, because before independence the British colonial authorities had always conceded to the demands of their compliant northern friends who threatened secession at the slightest disagreement with their southern counterparts, the north was given more seats in the federal legislature than the eastern and western regions put together. This implies that any significant decision affecting Nigeria must be supported by northern leaders before it can be implemented by government.

The situation was odd, because it gave northern Nigeria undue advantage over the south which is difficult to justify based on relevant criteria such as contribution to the national treasury and qualified personnel. Moreover, it means that inspite of the huge gap between the north and the south in modern education, Britain deliberately ceded power to the economically disadvantaged part of Nigeria with relatively small number of well-educated manpower to drive policies in a modern African country desirous of rapid development. Consider this: at independence, despite occupying about two-thirds of Nigeria’s land mass, northern region contributed less than 20% of the national revenue.

The region provided 10% of primary school enrolment; of over one thousand students of the University of Ibadan, just over fifty were northerners while the number of secondary schools in the south outnumbered those in the north by a ratio of over twenty to one. Little wonder, then, that several politicians from the south felt that the British intentionally selected Balewa to be Prime Minister ahead of Dr. Azikiwe and Chief Awolowo because he lacked the intellectual stamina and sophistication to resist being a stooge that would safeguard British strategic interests in post-independent Nigeria.

Although we have noted that conflicting visions of Nigeria’s future by northern and southern politicians is important for understanding the Biafran phenomenon, we must also bring to limelight once again the deep resentment against the Igbo by other ethnic nationalities in Nigeria, especially northerners, which gained traction after the colonial administrators departed. As we said, the British authorities ignored warnings even from their own officials about the growing hostility of northerners to the Igbo in the decade and half preceding independence, epitomised in the Jos and Kano riots of 1945 and 1953 respectively.

On this issue, there is a pernicious tendency by revisionist historians of inter-ethnic relations in Nigeria to ignore or treat cavalierly what one might call the “Igbo Predicament” either by glossing over the degree of devastation Ndigbo suffered during pogroms against them in other parts of Nigeria or by concocting gratuitous rationale for blaming victims of such barbarism. In my opinion, given the role of Igbo people as the only group of Nigerians that takes seriously the concept of a united Nigerian nation by giving it practical significance, any rational reconstruction of modern Nigeria that does not engage critically with the “Igbo Question” is gravely flawed.

But why are Ndigbo a problem in Nigeria, to the extent that they are usually the preponderant victims of hatred and violence in any part of the country? Answer: because they are by far the most gregarious ethnic group in Nigeria with the requisite character traits (both good and bad) to thrive anywhere outside their ancestral homeland. Certain objective conditions compel the Igbo to leave their places of origin and migrate to other parts of Nigeria and beyond, notably, inadequate land for farming, housing and other activities for survival. More significantly, some features of traditional Igbo culture engender self-confidence in the individual, which in turn encourages achievement-oriented mentality, ambitiousness, and dedicated quest for material success.

These very qualities tend to make the average Igbo person achieve more than his compatriots from other ethnic groups whose capacity for personal accomplishment might have been severely hampered either by a highly feudalistic conservative religion (as in the case of a typical northerner with subservient ranka dade mentality) or by hierarchical cultural stratifications typical in Yorubaland which discourages single-minded pursuit of individual success. Unfortunately, the accomplishments of the Igbo, according to Prof. Chinua Achebe, “can and did carry deadly penalties: the dangers of hubris, overweening pride, and thoughtlessness, which invite envy and hatred or, even worse, that can obsess the mind with material success and dispose it to all kinds of crude showiness.

There is no doubt at all that there is a strand in contemporary Igbo behaviour that can offend by its noisy exhibitionism and disregard for humility and quietness.” Thus, the vicissitudes of Ndigbo in post-colonial Nigeria which eventually led to the Biafran phenomenon can be understood better as a regrettable outcome of the contradiction between the possibility of harnessing the competitive individualism and adventurous spirit of the Igbo for sustainable national development and crude attempts by the northern dominated leadership to suppress them and gain undisputed control of the resources in the defunct eastern Nigeria. It must be admitted that Ndigbo sometimes are their own worst enemies; yet no amount of arrogance or hubris by the Igbo justifies the violence unleashed on them periodically by northerners.

Meanwhile, northern leaders in general have never hidden their instinctive antipathy towards the Igbo, to the extent of sacrificing merit for mediocrity. For example, Sir Ahmadu Bello was deeply concerned that the better educated Igbo might take up the best positions in his region. To prevent that from happening, he started implementing  a pro-north strategy aimed at replacing the Igbo oftentimes with less qualified northerners and filling job vacancies in the north with northern candidates.

Where no qualified northerners were available, expatriates were employed in preference to qualified southerners, notably the Igbo. In this connection, it is clear that Alhaji Tafawa Balewa knew what he was doing when he criticised those who thought that the unity of Nigeria was settled. Unlike Dr. Azikiwe who saw the emerging Nigerian nation mostly through lenses coloured by his broad-based American education and experiences which emphasise democratic integration of diversity, leading northern politicians realistically looked at Nigeria from the narrow prism of competition between northern and southern Nigeria together with its ethno-religious corollaries which ensured that the north got more than its fair share in the distribution of political power and the benefits that flow therefrom.

A dispassionate critique of the Biafran phenomenon would reveal that its core or DNA is resentment of the Igbo as a group for their impressive achievements in education, economy, and the federal civil service by members of other ethnic nationalities mostly by northerners. But the elevated status of Ndigbo before the Biafran war, which contrasted sharply with their subordinate political status, was largely deserved given that British colonial officials who were in charge insisted on a merit-based system when recruiting Nigerians to fill vacant critical posts that is far better than the morally flawed and extremely corrupt “federal character” system instituted by Balewa’s government to favour mainly unqualified northerners.


To be continued…
























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