- We can no longer continue to pretend that all is well when some groups capitalize on our sad experience of the past to try to railroad us into fighting another avoidable civil war
- The number of protesters should be a warning signal to the Federal Government not to dismiss the Biafra issue with a wave of the hand,
- The youths started agitations for Biafra because of the feeling by Ndigbo that they would never get justice in Nigeria and that their leaders had been compromised
- All these agitations are because of the refusal of the owners of Nigeria to restructure the country into true federalism.
Until recently when his agitation for the revival of the defunct Republic of Biafra somehow attracted a certain level of global attention, Nnamdi Kanu, was just another Nigerian, among several thousands of others, living in the United Kingdom. Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia, describes him as a political activist and promoter of a separatist organization, the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB).
Reports indicate that Kanu’s Radio Biafra which initially began transmission from London in 2014 launched him into limelight as it apparently enjoys popular listenership especially in the South-East and South-South where the campaign for Biafra is expected to have effect.
Apparently basking in the euphoria of the clamour, Kanu may have exploited the radio initiative to drum further support for the separation of the area from the rest of the Federal Republic of Nigeria.
“At this point in the country’s history, we believe that it is appropriate to bring home Radio Biafra. The last time the radio broadcast in the east was about 43 years ago, during the war. We have been broadcasting from London, on short wave frequency. By coming home now, we want more people to tune to the station. Now, we are on the FM frequency and covering a segment of Eastern Nigeria,” Kanu says.
While on a visit to Nigeria, men from the Department of State Services arrested Kanu in Lagos and he was charged to court. Kanu is still being detained by the security agencies, a development which has tended to engender varied reactions culminating in further discussions on the vexed issue of Republic of Biafra.
Before now, the Movement for the Actualization of the Sovereign State of Biafra (MASSOB), founded about 16 years ago by Chief Ralf Uwazuruike, had dominated the scene in the campaign for the revival of Biafra, more than three decades after the name plunged the entire country into a civil war that lasted almost three years.
The promotion of IPOB may not be unconnected with alleged disagreements within the leadership of MASSOB apparently leading to its fractionalization. Accusing the Uwazurike-led MASSOB of undue allegiance to certain political elements who do not have the interest and aspirations of the group at heart, Kanu admitted in a recent interview that Radio Biafra was actually floated in collaboration with MASSOB.
However, according to Kanu, “actualization” as in MASSOB is a misnomer since Biafra once existed, a notion which the late Chinua Achebe alluded to in his book, “There was a Country.” So, for Kanu and his supporters in the struggle, what is left is “realization” and manifestation of the Biafra concept.
Biafra, there was a war
Advancing various reasons including what he described then as the marginalization, oppression and genocide against the Igbo within the Nigerian Federation, the Military Governor of the defunct Eastern Region, the late Dim Chukwuemeka Odimegwu Ojukwu, proclaimed an independent Republic of Biafra on May 30, 1967, a development which led the then Head of State, Gen. Yakubu Gowon, to launch a war on the area, beginning from July 6, 1967, as a move to reclaim the secessionist territory.
And, Biafra went to war with reported 30,000 soldiers against Nigeria’s 120,000 troops. After several months of military bombardment of the secessionist territory with attendant loss of lives, the Biafran Army gave up the struggle on January 13, 1970.
Unconfirmed casualty figures indicate that between 10,000 and 25,000 Biafran soldiers were killed in the course of prosecution of the war while the Nigerian side recorded a death toll of between 10,000 and 25,000 soldiers.
These figures were very conservative as the war was said to have claimed more lives. Two days later on January 15, Gowon officially announced an end to the hostilities with his famous proclamation of “no victor, no vanquished” even as he noted further that, “the tragic chapter of violence has just ended. We are at the dawn of national reconciliation. Once again we have an opportunity to build a new nation.
My dear compatriots, we must pay homage to the fallen, to the heroes who have made the supreme sacrifice that we may be able to build a nation, great in justice, fair trade, and industry.” But while the war lasted, reports said that more than two million people from the South-East died from the prevalent famine and disease alone as the International Committee of the Red Cross in September 1968 estimated that there were between 8,000–10,000 deaths from starvation daily.
Reacting recently to the activities of the current promoters of Biafra, Gowon re-affirmed his earlier pronouncement that Biafra died in 1970 and in a gesture that was equally believed to have sealed the fate of Biafra, former President Olusegun Obasanjo, on May 29, 2000, commuted to retirement, the dismissal of all military persons who fought on the side of the breakaway state of Biafra during the civil war.
Igbo divided over fresh Biafra agitation
But, in spite of the colossal loss of human lives and property due to that war, the Biafra question appears to stick out again like a sore thumb, 45 years after a near annihilation of the people of the South-East, dominated by the Igbo ethnic group. Although a number of people from the area appear opposed to the idea of Biafra, against a backdrop that it may engender another round of civil war, a number of others condemn the treatment meted out to canvassers of the notion of a separation of the South-East from Nigeria.
Security agencies and members of the MASSOB have over these years been engaged in various confrontations as they are often arrested even though they insist that they have a policy of non-violence attached to their struggle. And, the recent arrest of Kanu equally led to protests in Port-Harcourt, in the South-South. In Umuahia, the Abia State capital, a cross section of MASSOB members trooped to the streets condemning Kanu’s arrest as they described themselves as “die hard” listeners of Radio Biafra even as the police deployed tear gas to disperse the protesters.
According to Comrade Uchenna Madu, factional spokesman of MASSOB in the area who described the arrest and detention of Kanu as cowardly, “we see the arrest as part of the price to pay for our non-violence struggle. No agitation is complete without arrest, detention and prosecution. They shape the minds of activists, drawing sympathy from internal and external observers.
It also shows that Nnamdi Kanu and Radio Biafra have become a factor to be reckoned with in Nigeria. The arrest and detention of Nnamdi Kanu by DSS will assist immensely in reviving the consciousness and sympathy for Biafra actualization in a higher dimension. This singular arrest will cause more diplomatic harm to Nigeria.”
But another pro-Igbo group, the Igbo Information Network says neither MASSOB nor IPOB has the mandate to speak for the Igbo, arguing that the agitations may not be unconnected with hidden selfish interests. As the group’s leader, Chuks Ibegbu, puts it,
“we can no longer continue to pretend that all is well when some groups capitalize on our sad experience of the past to try to railroad us into fighting another avoidable civil war.
“Uwazuruike is today enjoying his stupendous wealth in his palace in Owerri and he occasionally makes noise about his Utopian Biafra on the pages of newspapers. The promoter of Radio Biafra, Nnamdi Kanu, was a MASSOB member. He fell out with Uwazuruike some years ago and he ran away from Nigeria and formed the Indigenous People of Biafra whose communication arm is Radio Biafra.
“It is because the power of communication and information is great that Nnamdi Kanu has been able to win the hearts of some Igbo to the envy of Uwazuruike. The truth about all these pro-Biafra groups is that they have never made any efforts to feel the real pulse of their people. Before we went to a war in the past, the opinion of Igbo and Eastern Leaders of Thought were gauged by General Ojukwu.”
“The Nigerian state is responsible for the structural imbalance in the country which makes Ndigbo to have only five states and 95 local governments whereas Kano state alone has 44 local governments. The Nigerian state excised some economically viable parts of Igbo land and gave them to the neighboring states of Akwa-Ibom, Cross-River, Bayesla, Edo, Benue and Kogi states. The Nigerian state has refused to conduct a credible census to ascertain the true population of all parts of the country.
“These are areas the pro-Biafran groups should concentrate on and not by abusing everybody as Radio Biafra does. The truth is that Ndigbo need peace. They have suffered enough in the hands of the Nigerian state and their own leaders. There should be only one condition for any secession in the future and that is, if Ndigbo or the South-East for any reason is visited with any threat of annihilation or pogrom as was done in the past.”
However, for a number of the Igbo, the reality of Biafra cannot be wished away as it remains an idea that will come to fruition someday, according to some residents of Port-Harcourt where the pro-Biafra protest also took place under the aegis of the IPOB. A resident of Port Harcourt, Mr. Ameofiori Charles, said he had never seen such crowd of protesters on the street of the city, as according to him, “no politician has ever mobilized such a large number of protesters on the street, at any given time.”
But unlike similar protests in other parts of the South-East and South-South, the police provided cover for the protesters as they marched peacefully along major streets in the Garden City. “The number of protesters should be a warning signal to the Federal Government not to dismiss the Biafra issue with a wave of the hand,” Ameofiori said.
For some Igbo, the reality of Biafra can never be wished away. It is an idea that will certainly come to be. This conviction may have spurred several of them who participated in the Rivers State protest. However, while the core Igbo are cold about secession or the Kanu’s Biafra, those who actually fought against Biafra during the civil war were the ones who turned out on the streets of Port-Harcourt in what they call agitation for Biafra.
Rivers State indigenes who have Igbo links are said to be in majority in Rivers. Reports also indicate that the pro-Biafra and IPOB rally in Port-Harcourt had a certain level of political undertone as a number of those seeking political offices in the forthcoming elections in Rivers State have been accused of posturing for Biafra and may have influenced the protest.
A number of other protesters who spoke with Saturday Vanguard described the Igbo as a force in the area, noting that they drive the economy of the state. “Politicians struggle to win our support ahead of any general elections,” said Tochi who sells Toyota parts at Ikoku, adding that, “they (politicians) are always in constant touch with our union leaders here and they make all kinds of promises to us. We are not a voice to be toyed with.”
Biafra: A cart before the horse
Even though he recommends the promoters of Biafra be tried for treason, an Igbo leader, the Ogirishi of Igbo land, Chief Rommy Ezeonwuka, told reporters at his country home in Oba, Anambra State, that the campaigners should first of all work towards placing what he calls the economy of the South-East in the right direction, nurture it and then begin to canvass for a possible sovereign state of Biafra.
According to Ezeonwuka, rather than the struggle to get a Republic of Biafra, Ndigbo should first of all repatriate their investments scattered all over Nigeria and beyond back home and nurture them to growth before looking for Biafra.
As he put it, “mind you, we are not opposed to Biafra at all because by birth, we are all Biafrans but what we are saying is that Igbo people who invested outside Igbo land should first of all bring back their investments home to transform Igbo land into Japan, Korea or Dubai before doing so in a comfortable terrain since to me, we are foolishly and stupidly developing other areas and denying ourselves the opportunities to industrialize our own land.
For now, we should concern ourselves with how to develop Igbo land and not how to become a Biafra Republic because that name Biafra is treasonable and you cannot have a sovereign state in an existing one. How can we destroy what we have as Nigerians in search of Biafra Republic?”
Another Igbo man, Dr. Ugoji Egbujo, holds the same opinion even as he describes the IPOB approach as mediocre, warning though that the Biafra agitation appears to spread like fire, fueled by what he calls “mischief, political disgruntlement, perceived marginalization, joblessness and hopelessness.”
Also for him, unlike the situation before the outbreak of the civil war in 1967, the Igbo do not currently face any serious threat of immediate selective violence supported by acts of commission or omission of the national government and that there is no lopsided distribution of social evils in Nigeria such that the South-East and Igbo are especially imperiled. However, according to Egbujo, the people who live in the territory said to constitute Biafra ought to first begin by creating a certain level of political autonomy and test their popularity within the South-East region.
As he puts it, “if those who seek Biafra can win democratic control of South-East states and demonstrate through innovative people-oriented governance, the distinction that Biafra represents, then their Biafra agitation will acquire purposive legitimacy and this must precede a formal referendum because consent secured by mere propaganda is not informed consent.
The Igbo are too deeply entrenched in the Nigerian matrix that they cannot forcefully separate from Nigeria. This new agitation cannot be in the interest of Igbo who own over 50 per cent of commerce in Lagos and 70 per cent of real estate in Abuja.”
The roundtable option
Although the current agitation for a separatist Republic of Biafra appears to command widespread opposition from a cross section of the Igbo, a number of others describe the campaign as legitimate when pursued within the limits of the Nigerian Constitution. According to the President of a pan-Igbo group, Enugu Unity Forum, Chief Tahil Ochil, any efforts at trying to secede from Nigeria without employing constitutional means, should be treated as treason.
As he puts it, “the Biafra struggle should not be confrontational. They should follow the dictates of the law. They should look at how Sudan broke up. As an Igbo man, I will be part of the struggle if it is done constitutionally but if it is done by force, I cannot be part of it.
“The Nigerian government should look at why agitations are rife from the North, to the South-West and South-South and South-East. They should go back to the National Conference report which addressed these issues that trigger ethnic unrest. Apart from Biafra, the Yoruba, through the Oodua People’s Congress, are calling for their own state. There is the Boko-Haram issue in the North and there are calls for secession from there. The Federal Government should implement the conference report which addressed the injustices plaguing the nation.”
But, for a former Secretary General of the apex Igbo socio-cultural group, Ohanaeze Ndigbo, Chief Nduka Eya, the younger generation of the Igbo may not understand the extent of devastation and destruction of lives of the people as a result of the earlier agitation for the same Biafra.
According to him, “the young people who were born after and during the civil war do not know the history of Nigeria. The civil war between Nigeria and Biafra ended in 1970 and we are now part of the sovereign state of Nigeria. But there is nothing wrong if a group agitates for a state but you cannot do so by confrontation in a sovereign state of Nigeria. It is treason. Biafra ended with the civil war in 1970.”
Factors fueling Biafra agitation
However, beyond discussions on the legitimacy of the Biafra agitation, a prominent Igbo leader from Ebonyi State, Chief Abia Onyike, blames the resurgence of Biafra agitation on socio-economic factors, manifesting in what he describes as the marginalization of the of the people of the South-East, by successive administrations in the country. For him, “I think that the resurgence of the Biafra self-determination struggle may have to do with the several unresolved issues regarding the national question in Nigeria.
“The issues include, lack of equity and fairness in the polity, concentration of power at the centre in a diverse country which ought to have been run on the basis of genuine federalism and dwindling economic fortunes with a corresponding high level of unemployment among the youths. Government should re-visit the resolutions of the 2014 National Conference and take remedial measures to douse the tension in the land, before it gets out of hand.
“Nigeria should undergo radical reforms in its governance structure if it is to survive the current socio-political crises occasioned by political agitations. So, the Nigerian union should be run in such a way that the rights of the federating ethnic nationalities must be respected.
“Nigeria is a diverse country and the Igbo and others are too large and too sophisticated that you cannot just trample on their sense of equity, otherwise you may be pushing them to invoke their rights to self-determination. The right to self-determination is enshrined in the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights and the United Nation’s Charter on Human and People’s Rights. So, the pro-Biafra are merely agitating for their rights as a people.
“Aggrieved parties should adopt legal means to seek redress and avoid the resort to violence and the Federal Government should design and adopt political and diplomatic strategies in dealing with the Biafra and other agitations from various parts of the country.”
Another factional MASSOB leader from Ebonyi State, Chidi Egwu, sees the renewed Biafra agitation as veritable opportunity to liberate the Igbo from what he considers as various forms of slavery.
“MASSOB, IPOB and other genuine pro-Biafra groups have vowed that our children will never suffer the subjugation to slavery meted to their parents by Nigeria state,” Egwu said, noting further that, “the clampdown, incessant arrests, detention and persecution of armless and non-violent Biafra agitators are all signs of jittery and fear exhibited by Nigeria security agents.
“The future and survival of Ndigbo in Nigeria is very slim because of the Nigeria government’s harsh economic and political policies targeted against the Igbo. Nigeria is a state where some people are first class citizens while others are second class; a state where some are said to be born to rule while others are perpetual outcasts; a state where state policies deliberately deny the Igbo region critical developmental infrastructure.”
With the renewed vigour among agitators of the Biafra Republic, an Awka-based legal practitioner, Chief George Enekwechi, has identified an alleged marginalization of the Igbo as the reason for the seeming rise in the agitation for realization of the Biafra project. Speaking with Saturday Vanguard, Enekwechi, who was former local government Chairman for Awka said the Federal Government does not appear to help matters as it ought to strive to correct the alleged imbalances that had reduced “the one leg of the country’s tripod to a minority because of their involvement in the 1967 -1970 civil war. These people agitating for Biafra are not armed and I believe that what the Federal Government should do is to try and convince them that it is prepared to correct the imbalances they are suffering in Nigeria. But if security operatives continue to harass and arrest the agitators, they might resort to acquiring arms to pursue the struggle which will not be good for anybody in view of the lessons Boko Haram has taught us.”
Also speaking on the issue, Mr. Amos Okeke, who said he fought on the side of Biafra during the war, dismissed the Biafra issue arguing that the agitators did not experience the war. “Nobody who experienced that war would want to do anything to remind people of secession. The best thing the Federal Government should do is to ignore them because they do not have the capacity to threaten the peaceful co-existence of Nigeria”, Okeke said.
Why agitation may persist
Another cross section of Igbo leaders believe that there may not be an end to the agitation for the Biafra struggle unless there is what they refer to as true federalism in Nigeria. According to some of them who spoke to Saturday Vanguard, those in support of MASSOB are youths who were either born during or after the civil war noting that their campaigns do not have the backing of either the Ohanaeze Nigbo or its affiliate unions.
President of Igbo Youth Movement, IYM, Evangelist Elliot Ukoh, who spoke on the issue said that his interactions with youths in the last 20 years show that Nigeria has been unfair to the Igbo, adding that the youths started agitations for Biafra because of the feeling by Ndigbo that they would never get justice in Nigeria and that their leaders had been compromised.
According to him, “the feeling among our youths is that Nigeria has been unfair to the Igbo. Ndigbo believe that they would never get justice in Nigeria. The youths also believe that their leaders have been compromised. This is what I have learnt after over 20 years of my interactions with them through lectures and seminars.
“They believe that the way things are going, they have no future where everything is skewed against them. They believe for example that the JAMB cut-off marks are skewed against them because they get higher marks and get dropped for northerners who score lower grades in the name of national character.
“The general feeling is that the highest political position an Igbo can get is the Vice President and that is when those who claim to be the owners of Nigeria allow an Igbo man or woman to be Vice President. All these agitations are because of the refusal of the owners of Nigeria that the country should be restructured for true federalism.”
For the National President of the youth wing of Ohanaeze Ndigbo, Mazi Okechukwu Isiguzoro, President Muhammadu Buhari has to dialogue with the people of the South-East to reassure the zone that he is committed to a nation in which all component units will be accommodated.
In an interview with Saturday Vanguard in Aba, Isiguzoro who also linked the renewed Biafra agitation to the perceived marginalization of the Igbo said that, “I urge President Buhari to dialogue with Ndigbo and allay the fears of the zone and reassure them that he means well for everybody. And, Ndigbo should seek ways to partner Buhari and his administration towards addressing the problems of the zone.
“We need to fight for our rights. The agitation springing up daily across Igbo land is the result of years of accumulated neglect of the zone. The state of federal roads and other infrastructure remains the worst in the federation. For over 12 years now, Enugu-Port-Harcourt expressway, Enugu-Onitsha expressway, Aba- Ikot Ekpene highway, Aba-Owerri highway, Umuahia-Arochukwu highway, Okigwe-Arondiziogu-Uga highway, Umuahia-Ikot Ekpene highway, have become death traps with deep gullies requiring urgent attention.
“Yet, nothing has been done to alleviate the sufferings of the people. When you look at the situation, there appears to be a grand conspiracy by some people not to develop critical infrastructure in Igbo land. Dialogue has proven to be a veritable tool for dousing tensions. Ndigbo must employ this strategy. The proponents of MASSOB and IPOB must desist from activities which cast the Igbo nation in bad light.
“Any group, which truly seeks the good of Ndigbo should table their demands to the Federal Government where their grievances can be heard and the MASSOB and IPOB must sheathe their swords as Ndigbo can find greater accommodation within a united Nigeria. The businesses of Ndigbo are located across all geo-political zones of the country and we cannot afford to mortgage these investments valued at over N47 trillion, on the basis of sentiments.”
Kanu’s Biafra territory
According to Kanu, apart from the people from the South-East geo-political zone “the ideology of Biafra is the freedom, the emancipation of all the Biafran people, which means all the people bound genetically, culturally and by the same value system. In other words, I am talking about those who understand the history of the Biafra people. I am talking about the Idoma people, the Igbo people, the Efik, Ibibio, Anang, Ijaw, Itsekiri, the Urhobo and the Anioma people.
“All these are Biafra families. If you go to a village or town, for instance, Oturkpo, they have four market days – Eke, Orie, Afor and Nkwo. And when people say that these people are not Igbo people or that they are not related to Igbo people, it becomes a thing of wonder. How is it possible that people that have Eke, Orie, Afor and Nkwo as their market days are not related to Igbo people?
“When you go to Akwa Ibom or Cross River State, what they call God is Obasi. That is what we call God, where we come from. The highest fraternity in Igbo land, where I come from in Abia State is Okonko. Okonko was derived from Ibibio and the Efik cultures. The same thing with Ekpe. When we want to dance Ekpe in my place, we go to Ibibio land to buy the kits for the Ekpe which is a masquerade dance.
“So, we are all related. We are the same people genetically, in terms of our complexion, in terms of our attitude. I want you to go to any market in Warri, for instance. Stand back and take a picture of that market, then, go to any Igbo town or village, take a picture of the market and tell me if you can tell the difference. There is no difference.” (Vanguard)