Biafra is not one of the problems besetting Nigeria. Those unable to appreciate this fact may require a dose of creative thinking. Nigeria’s stubborn thorn in the flesh is its adamant repudiation of the self-evident concept of the changelessness of change, upon which sits a crippling unwillingness to engage that same constancy of change. There are two random but famous declarations – one little remembered today, the other something of a mantra – that neatly wrap up the national anti-party to inexorable change and its management.
On January 15, 1970, there was a ceremony at Dodan Barracks, Lagos, the then seat of political power. Biafran acting Head of State, General Philip Effiong, Colonel David Ogunewe, Colonel Patrick Anwunah, Colonel Patrick Amadi and Police Commissioner Patrick Okeke had gone to submit Biafra’s document of surrender, which officially marked the end of the civil war. “The so-called rising sun of Biafra has set forever,” declared Head of State General Yakubu Gowon, on that occasion. In the leaps and dips of Nigeria’s turbulence, it is common to hear politicians of varying persuasions declaring, as a way of “helping” to stabilise the listing ship of state, that “Nigeria’s unity is not negotiable.”
Between Gowon’s presumption of Biafra’s finality, which rode on the crest of triumphalism and was hailed as prescient by many, including Gowon’s biographer Professor Isawa Elaigwu, and the incessantly voiced exclusion of terms on Nigeria’s oneness, lies the country’s problematic. General Gowon is alive and bouncing. Were he to honestly comment on his 45-year old declaration today, he would readily admit to not having thoroughly considered all sides of everything. For it is clearly outside the bounds of political authority to decree the irreversible amputation of human predilection and proclivity. The current hoopla around Biafra lends credence to the assertion.
Now, there is something baffling in the oft-repeated statement on Nigeria’s unity not being negotiable. The statement does not mean that Nigeria’s unity is a fait accompli. It simply insists on a spiteful denunciation of any thought of mapping out a sustainable road on which the assumed or anticipated national unity must travel, free from iniquity and cataclysms; a method for mastering the imperatives of national unity which is, anywhere in the world, a particularly daunting proposition. It is because Nigeria has kept its back obdurately turned to change that even the littlest molehill on its uncharted road invariably becomes a precipitous mountain.
Why is Nigeria incapable of learning from history? When Biafra came in 1967, it was way ahead of its time. Since January 15, 1970, the world’s political map has continued to be redrawn. Emperor Haile Selassie would have started, and branded any dream in which Eritrea was mentioned a nightmare. Eritrea gained international recognition as an independent state in 1993. South Sudan was only a fictional construct in 1970; it became an independent nation in 2011. Bangladesh was non-existent in 1970; it declared its independence from Pakistan a year later. The Soviet Union dissolved into 12 independent states in 1991. By 1992 Yugoslavia had fractured into about seven independent countries. On January 1, 1993, Czechoslovakia split into Czech and Slovak Republics. Scotland held an Independence referendum early this year that failed. There is a powerful Catalan movement pushing secession from Spain. Separatist tendencies are not on the wane in Cabinda.
What to bear in mind is that most of the secessions or agitations for secession in the world are along ethnic lines. For an ethnically composite country like Nigeria, the way to avoid potential split props is not by precluding discussion on contentious issues, and it is not by expeditionary repression of peaceful dissent. After all, dissent is not and should never be construed as a crime in a democracy. A country of disparate peoples can only be held together in peace and harmony by the glues of visionary leadership indexed on tried and tested political structures of equity, fairness, justice, innovation and practicality. This cannot be said of Nigeria.
Look at neighbouring Ghana, which, like Nigeria, is multi-ethnic. Who ever heard of secessionist agitation in that country? Here is a point made in a June 28, 2012 Memorandum submitted to the House of Representatives Committee on the Review of the 1999 Constitution by the Ohanaeze Ndigbo: “In our socio-political and economic intercourse all groups (big or small) must be allowed free-play and equitable access to our country’s resources and strategic political command posts, including particularly the presidency. Sustained imbalance in sharing responsibilities and the ‘national cake’ could conceivably induce in those units aggrieved a rethink of the value to them of our much vaunted national unity.”
One possible way of checking skepticism on Nigerian unity is the implementation of the report of last year’s National Conference. Unfortunately, chameleons, who throughout their dubious political careers had hoisted the National Conference placard, turned up on the eve of the last presidential ballot to execrate the idea.