I confess: the title of my essay today is not original. It was first penned by the now late Agwu Okpanku, Classicist and journalist trained at Ibadan and Cambridge, in his column, “The Third Eye,” published in the now defunct, Enugu-based newspaper of the 1970s, Renaissance. Agwu Okpanku was a fierce critic of the post war attempts by the Federal Military Government of Nigeria, under the leadership of Yakubu Gowon, to erase all evidence of Biafra from national memory.
When Agwu Okpanku wrote “Killing Biafra,” he was simply reminding the triumphalist power of that moment, about the indelicacy as well as the futility, in decreeing oblivion. Biafra was an independent republic. For three years it fought for its sovereignty. It had symbols; it had documents, and it had a material presence which the Federal Military Government’s policy was working rather too hard to erase, in uninformed attempts to force “one Nigeria” down the throat of former Biafrans.
So, for instance, the Uli Airport, which could have been preserved for its historical significance and value was bulldozed; the Bight of Biafra suddenly became “Bight of Bonny;” material evidence that had any hint of Biafra were seized and systematically destroyed, or kept sealed – until Babangida established the National War Museum in Umuahia. It would have been tolerable if the former Biafrans felt a welcoming sense of justice and acceptance to “one Nigeria.”
But, no. A lingering sense of alienation remains from Nigeria’s mishandling of the policy of the “The Rs” announced at the end of conflicts. In actual fact, at the end of the war in 1970, Sam Ogbemudia as military governor of the Midwest had quickly made contact with the now late T.E.A Salubi and Dr. Nwariaku, one of the great Biafran scientists, and a key figure of the Biafran Research and Production (RAP) department whose innovations in war production gave insight into the capacity of the black mind, and quickly made a case at the Council of States for the Gowon administration to urgently gather these scientists, rehabilitate them, and use RAP as the basis for Nigeria’s industrial revolution.
Ogbemudia was strenuously opposed by his colleagues in the council: nothing of such should be done with “the rebels,” he was told. Post war federal policy, not surprisingly, was at odds with reason, and it was soon clear to those who had fought for Biafra that the Federal Military Government’s policy of “reconciliation and rehabilitation” was no more than a hollow pact calculated to disarm the Biafrans. Since 1970, the mindless and tragic exploitation, and the strategic policy of neglect has left areas of the former Eastern region bitter, frustrated, and alienated.
The Federal government, using its divisive politics and narrative of sectionality have tried to emphasize regional differences between what it has often falsely described as the “Niger Delta” and the South East. The fact that much of Igbo land falls into what is geographically the Niger Delta has been obscured by the convenient geo-political narrative of difference that has long been promoted by the self-interested powers, who have used the ploy to exploit and contain any upsurge of defiance from the East in the last forty years.
But a new generation, many born in the war and after it have seen through it all: how come, many of them now ask, that the areas from which much of Nigeria’s oil wealth was exploited have benefited very little from the exploitation of the resources in their region? The direct benefits of what should have been an oil economy went in the enrichment of people outside the region. Not even many Nigerians have benefited from this product, oil, now in its dying phase as an economic factor.
One of the significant aspects of the old East is its contiguity. What happens in any part of the region is quickly telegraphed to the other. Gas flare in Izombe is felt in Port Harcourt. Oil spill in Eleme is quickly felt in Asa and Aba. If an explosion happens in Eket, you will quickly feel its reverberations in Owerrinta, or Ohambele or Bori. It is fifteen minutes from Aba to Ikot-Ekpene on a good road, and to Uyo, less than 45 minutes.
Only a bridge separates Itigidi from Afikpo. Asaba and Onitsha are just like St. Louis and East St. Louis, as with the other, linked by the Eads Bridge across the Mississippi, one in Missouri, and the other in Illinois, yet inexorably linked. From Yenegoa, Degema, through Elele to Owerri is as much distance as from Owerri to Enugu, and it is such contiguity that makes the Eastern areas of Nigeria a powerfully attractive economic belt as well as a disaster waiting to happen. The interconnections and linkages is most probably the factor that is driving the new Biafra and the Niger delta movement into a single defiance movement.
The growth of this single movement quite frankly poses a security threat to this nation that no president should, or can ignore. It requires a strategic and comprehensive response; that much is true. Whatever response to this movement however must begin from the framework that the new Biafra movement is the result of both political and economic frustration and alienation. It did not begin with this administration, but it is growing exponentially, and is compounded by what seems to be the President’s tunnel vision; his unwillingness to address this question like a statesman not much rather like a belligerent soldier.
Thus far, the president’s response to the Biafran agitations, which is currently at its peaceful stage, is ego-driven, and frankly immature, and does not lend itself to the kind of thoughtfulness and diplomacy required of a president whose duty above all else is to secure peace by all means necessary in a fragile multi-ethnic nation such as Nigeria, in order to achieve common prosperity. The growing Biafra question is looking most certainly to define the Buhari presidency. The president looks all set to entangle Nigeria in a long and unwinnable conflict that threatens to snowball into another civil war if improperly handled.
Last week, the president lost a great opportunity to address it and scale it down. He was confronted with this question in an Al-Jazeera interview, about Biafra and the administration’s authorization of the killing of unarmed Biafrans by soldiers. The president refused to see recorded evidence available to Al-Jazeera of the killing of unarmed, peaceful protesters asking for a “Biafran referendum” in Aba.
He snapped at the interviewer who asked if it is not better to meet with them than shoot them. “Why Should I meet them?” the president asked, bristling. This president puts himself in an actionable position in justifying the use of maximum force and the killing of an unarmed civilian population protesting peacefully within their rights. The president’s claim that their agitation for Biafra is intolerable, is itself intolerable under democratic rule. What the president is doing is deliberately pushing a currently unarmed movement towards an inevitable armed conflict, and a widening of the field. The images of the shooting of civilians is a great recruitment tool for the Biafrans, as more and more people once indifferent to it are quietly joining from deep anger at these images.
This president, we use this column again to plead with, should not push Nigeria into another civil war, by his actions or inactions, because there is no greater threat to the security of a nation than a deep sense of injustice and alienation felt by a great number of people. President Buhari fought in the last war and must certainly realize that there is no such thing as a “cake-walk” in war. It is important that president Buhari’s advisers tell him that it is still early and possible to contain this Biafran movement peacefully, and prevent its next inevitable phase, the armed phase, which will happen if the young leaders of this movement begin to feel that no one is listening to them; and that they have no other option than to defend themselves militarily against the government’s use of force. We must never arrive at this moment, Mr. President.
Therefore, it is important that all parties, from the federal authorities to the new Biafrans, show good faith and meet and listen to each other. President Buhari ought to take the initiative to meet because he is the president – the adult in the room. Otherwise, he might just have a great, complex situation unfolding in startling ways before him. It is not possible to “kill Biafra” with threats. We have said this before. It needs repeating.