I was a child during the Nigerian Civil War but I have good memories of the destruction and death from the war itself and the death from kwashiokor of at least a million children who died of starvation. I remember the death of my uncle Godson, my father’s youngest brother and a Biafran soldier, and the wailing anguish of my now late grandmother at his funeral. The lives and futures of so many brilliant young men and women wasted in a conflict not of their making.
Till tomorrow, I continue to believe that Major Chukwuma Nzeogwu’s violent coup of January 1966 (which ultimately failed as it was suppressed) was a wrong move, because that’s what started the violent phase of the Nigerian crisis (there was a political crisis already). But I believe Nzeogwu and his co-conspirators from various ethnic groups in our country acted alone. No one sent them, let alone Ndigbo. They were simply hot-headed and misguided soldiers in a time in Africa when the military thought they could settle problems. As we know now, they created more.
Fast forward to 1970. The war is over. General Phillip Effiong, Justice Sir Louis Mbanefo, Dr. Akanu Ibiam and the rest of the Biafran military and political high command have surrendered. The short-lived Republic of Biafra is no more. General Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu, the Biafran leader, has gone into exile.
Fifty years later, Ndigbo have yet to recover. Yes, we were relatively quick to recover economically. Who can possibly stop the Igbo trader or industrialist who, love him or hate him, supplies the basic elements of survival in communities across our country for a justifiable profit margin?
But, politically, it’s been complicated. Remarkably, though, nine years after the civil war an Igbo, Dr. Alex Ekwueme was Vice-President of Nigeria under President Shehu Shagari. It is quite possible, perhaps even likely, that Ekwueme could have become President and a great unifier of Nigeria in 1987 at the end of Shagari’s second term in office. But the Second Republic was truncated by the soldiers, led by the then Major-General Muhammadu Buhari. Again, another example of how the military created more problems than they were meant to have solved. The rest is history.
We need national reconciliation. Nigeria needs healing and peaceful co-existence of its motley ethnic groups joined together by the British without our consent but nevertheless a legal reality under the International law doctrine of uti possedetis. We are not unique in this regard. Other countries were colonized too, and many of them are doing well today, thank you. They built their nations and moved on from the past, focused now on achieving glorious futures.
Who will bring and lead the necessary healing and reconciliation, and how can it be achieved in a practical manner? It’s an open question, but my many years of experience in conflict resolution, international security operations and nation-building as a United Nations diplomat (before the next chapter in central banking and economic management) have left me with some answers.
Flashback. In 1982, Ojukwu returned to a tumultuous welcome following a state pardon from President Shagari. (General Gowon, accused of complicity in the Dimka coup of 1976 that killed Murtala Muhammad who overthrew the Gowon regime seven months earlier, was also pardoned and cleared to return home to Nigeria in 1981). For those of us old enough to have seen these events first hand, it is hard to reconcile the progress we made in healing and nation-building, especially under the Shagari presidency, with what is happening in Nigeria today.
Ojukwu was to go headlong into Nigerian politics in the years after his pardon and return from exile. He was later elected to the Senate, and in the next decade even contested for the Nigerian presidency in 2003 in the Fourth Republic after the second return to democracy in 1999. Older and wiser, he sought to advance the interest of Ndigbo in a united Nigeria. He now saw a territorial Biafra as unrealistic.
I am yet to be convinced that he was foolish in reaching this conclusion, or that anyone could be more “Biafran” than the man who led the military fight, ultimately without success, for a territorial Biafran enclave.
What is the lesson of all this history from the standpoint of the present? It is this: that although Nigeria’s Southeast region has a valid case of being politically denied justice and equity, secession or a victim mentality are not the answer. There simply isn’t a path forward for Ndigbo other than to embrace our national politics and bring their 20 million (at the very least) adult, voting age votes into it. Period. Any other alternative, such as boycotting elections or having low numbers in voter registration, is to marginalize themselves and then turn around to blame others.
In the United States, residents of the two largest states of Texas and California have occasionally floated the idea of secession. They have not seceded. But they have not been persecuted for having that desire. These demands are simply managed within the boundaries of the Constitution as the right to free speech and assembly in America. The French speaking Quebec Region in Canada had a strong seccessionist movement. Today, tout et calm (all is quiet). It was all negotiated politically. Constitutional adjustments were made to accommodate their grievances. Not a bullet was fired. I respect civilized people, I have to tell you.
In Spain, the same thing, the problem even worse. In 2017 the country went into its worst political crisis in 40 years after separatist politicians in its affluent Catalonia region (home to Barcelona) tried to have the region secede from Spain. They failed, but the battle continues, politically and inside the Spanish electoral system. Today, the separatist forces have won a majority in the Catalan regional parliament and are calling on the European authorities for negotiations. But the Spanish Constitution does not permit secession.
Self determination is a right under international law. But in reality it is a qualified right. When domination is external, as was the case in colonialism, the right is interpreted as an absolute one, and the United Nations supported the independence process of many nations under this principle. When it concerns self-determination from an already constituted, independent country, it becomes more complicated, because it is then subject to the Constitution of that country.
To conclude, there is a big difference between having a grievance and pursuing such a grievance intelligently. The destruction of the economy of the Southeast in endless sit-at-home orders by IPOB is hurting the interest of the region and Nigerians who live there. So is the ongoing violence , although there is some confusion about its true provenance because of a mish-mash of actors and motives. Of course, we know this is happening because of a failure of leadership by the State Governors and other politicians from the region . Nature abhors a vacuum. The Nigerian political class in the Southeast, as in most of Northern Nigeria, for example, have lost legitimacy. Non-state actors have filled the vacuum.
But we simply cannot go on living as if in a jungle, with citizens cowed and terrorized by a confusing array of forces, and legally constituted authorities unable to investigate, provide answers and stop the violence. This is called state failure, pure and simple. But the lessons of the tragedy of 1967-1970 must be kept sharply in mind. It cannot happen a second time. No matter the challenges, peace is a better option than war.
I believe that every part of Nigeria will benefit from remaining one country in the larger union it is today, if we can successfully re-engineer (restructure) our country for success instead of our current failure. A great future for Nigeria is possible and doable. We just need to select the leaders that have the vision and the capacity to make it possible. This is where we must now spend our time and energy.
Editor’s note: Although Chief Emeka Odumegwu Ojukwu contested for senate in the 1983 elections under the NPN, he was not elected.