Biafra: Another war we can’t afford

The Biafra spirit is alive today as much as it was 50 years ago when, on May 30, 1967, the governor of the Eastern Region, Col. Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu, declared the territories under his control independent of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. This separatist republic was known as the Republic of Biafra. Despite the collapse of the separatist republic in 1970, the agitation for the actualisation of the sovereign state of Biafra has continued peacefully, first with the idea being whispered and discussed in hushed tones among the masses of the Igbo heartland states in the South East geo-political zone, while the elite remained aloof and assumed a posture of indifference that could be taken as scorn for the idea of secession. The attitude of the elite of the Igbo towards the Biafra agitation was because successive governments since the end of hostilities in 1970 have extended a token of patronage to them as a step towards inclusiveness in government and consequent integration into the socio-economic equation of the Nigerian federation; a gesture the very hard-working and industrious people of the South East took full advantage of and prospered tremendously. For example, following the return to civil rule in 1979, the rest of the Nigerian nation ceded the vice presidency to the East in the person of Dr. Alex Ekwueme. In 1985, another Igbo man, Ebitu Ukiwe, was appointed as the Chief of General Staff and second-in-command in the military presidency of Ibrahim Babangida. Between 1999 and 2007, Igbo sons and daughters played leading roles in the kitchen cabinet, economic management team and National Security Council of the Olusegun Obasanjo administration. The Umar Musa Yar’Adua administration in 2009 appointed Ogbonna Onovo as the first Igbo IGP in the history of Nigeria.
However, all of these have changed in the last two years. For a close and objective observer of events in Nigeria since the beginning of the Muhammadu Buhari administration, it is manifestly clear that the Igbo ethnic group has never been this marginalised in the history of Nigeria. The victorious President Buhari has largely treated the Igbo as a conquered people. He has excluded them from his kitchen cabinet and National Security Council. These have further exacerbated the structural marginalisation of the Igbo, who have the least number of states and local governments in Nigeria, which makes them work hardest for the lowest reward. The Buhari administration appears to be punishing the whole South East for making a democratic choice against him. This heightened marginalisation of the Igbo has negatively affected the political elite in an unprecedented manner, leading to a drastic reduction in their already meagre privileges of state patronage. Today, the leading elite and masses of the Igbo have been passed through the crucible of deprivation by the Buhari administration and have become pressured into one. To every Igbo man, Biafra is utopia; the final solution to their problems of restricted development and prosperity. This new wave of sentiment is responsible for the near total compliance with the sit-at-home order issued by MASSOB to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the declaration of the Republic of Biafra.
There is no consensus of opinion among historians as to the real cause of the Civil War. However, a close look at some events before, during and after the war may reveal some leads into resolving the Biafra question. Among the various ethnic groups that formed amalgamated Nigeria, only the Igbo appears to have embraced the concept of the realities of the new modern state. The predominantly Muslim Hausa-Fulani of the north were very pessimistic about the prospect of a union in which they would co-habit with “a people that are not a people’’. To make matters worse, the new standard of participation in state affairs would be the acquisition of Western education, an area in which they were clearly disadvantaged because of the almost one century gap between the introduction of education by Christian missionaries to the southern part of the union and the period of the establishment of colonial government schools in the North. The fear of domination by the Christian South in the event of an independent Nigeria was real in the North. This fear was further heightened by the arrogance of education exhibited by some southern elite. Northerners were often ridiculed on account of their perceived backwardness. This unfortunate scenario was as a result of the fact that the basis of Nigeria’s political process was defined around ethno-geographic parameters. The education of the southern elite didn’t transform them from the comfort zones of their ethnic niche to broad-minded nationalists. As expected of patriots, rather than ridiculing their fellow countrymen in the northern region for their educational backwardness, their enlightenment should have made them broad-minded  and sympathetic enough to view the problems of the North as a Nigerian problem and not a regional one, requiring all hands on deck. The North’s reaction was to insist on a rigid form of regional federal structure and leveraged on its large size in terms of land mass and population to negotiate a favourable political deal that guaranteed steady development at its own pace.
Consequently, the ethnic regional structure of the first republic gave rise to a conflict of indigenship of regions and citizenship of the country. Having embraced the concept of a united modern Nigeria wholeheartedly, largely because the pre-colonial political culture of the Igbo reflected the modern practices of democracy and consensus building, while their traditional economy was devoid of feudalist advantages but hinged on hard work and merit, they moved freely around the evolving nation of Nigeria and made a home out of every part. However, their success attracted envy and suspicion in their host communities outside the Eastern Region. The young middle cadre military officers of mostly Igbo origin that staged the January 1966 coup were clearly unable to reconcile the realities of a strong regional federation and their ideals of nationalism and military service to fatherland. It was the conflict of regional indigeneship and Nigerian citizenship that boiled over into the bloody chain reactions of the coup, counter-coup and civil war between 1966 and 1970.
The lesson not learnt from the war is the need to resolve the various conflicts of interests militating against the transformation of Nigeria into a truly united, egalitarian and prosperous nation. The Biafran war brought to the fore the question of the right and privileges of a Nigerian citizen living outside his region of origin. The leaders of the first republic and those after them failed to resolve this question satisfactorily. After the regions, states were also created along ethno-geographic fault lines rather than on economically pragmatic settlement patterns that took into consideration the preservation of Nigeria’s unity in diversity. In resolving this question, the federating units should become organic and move away from being rigid ethno-geographic structures to flexible entities that allow for the proper assimilation and integration of any citizen of Nigeria who, for political, cultural and economic reasons, choses to reside in a federating unit outside his place of origin. The acceptance, integration and assimilation of the Igbo in all parts of Nigeria will go a long way in resolving this crisis. If their energy and skills are accommodated by Nigerians, it will be a source of prosperity for any community where they settle. The industrious enterprise of the Igbo should not be scorned but appreciated and considered worthy of emulation.
The danger posed to the existence of the Nigerian nation by a passive but defiant war being waged between ‘Biafra’ and Nigeria is real. The first and immediate step at resolving this impasse is for the current administration to reconstitute the relevant organs of government to fully include the South East, particularly the National Security Council. Furthermore, the rest of Nigeria should reach a consensus aimed at making the otherwise cumbersome creation of states and local government smooth and easy to bring the South East at par with the rest of the country. Finally, political leaders across the geo-political zones in a bipartisan manner should set a timeline for the emergence of a Nigerian President of Igbo extraction.

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