Recently I have had a lot of people ask me what my views about the recent agitation for Biafra in the south east of Nigeria are. I guess because I’m Igbo and most people (especially my generation) are labouring under the misconception that Biafra is purely an Igbo issue. But it’s not, Nigeria will not split into 2.
Usually I give a stock answer, something that barely scratches the surface of what I actually feel about the situation. But the fact is there is no correct answer to that question. Its either you support Biafra and are a traitor to Nigeria or you don’t and are a traitor to your tribe, a hell of a catch 22.
So watsup with Biafra anyway? Why is it still such a hot button issue almost 50 years after the civil war was fought and the issues ostensibly decided? Why does the mere mention of the word “Biafra” arouse such emotion both for and against the notion?
Nigerians have a very strange aversion to studying history, understanding what happened in the past and drawing the right conclusions, a phenomenon which has doomed us to keep repeating patterns, never moving forward and running around in circles, culminating in a whole generation of people who lack basic knowledge about what happened in 1967, the defining conflict of this nation.
For example, after what happened with President Yaradua, another country would have passed some laws to make sure something like that never repeats itself again. But its barely 15 years later and we are in the exact same situation.
Tracing the root of the desire for Igbo’s to secede which caused the civil war will require space that I don’t have here, but we can talk about the day before the war, what the mood in the country was like and how we ended up where we were on 6th July 1967.
I like to think of myself as detribalized in my thinking, but deep down we all know that feeling of pride when a member of our own ethnic group achieves something great, that feeling of relief you get when you are in a strange place and hear someone speak your language, the feeling of instant camaraderie you get with a stranger of similar ethnic background. I don’t know if that all counts as tribalism but it does show that dropping all tribal sentiment is a very difficult task, especially as most Nigerians are not even trying. So, it is very ironic that the catalyst to the civil war was a hard core detribalised Nigerian as evidenced by his own actions, and testimony of his contemporaries.
Major Patrick Chukwuma “Kaduna” Nzeogwu. In the morning of January 15 1966 Major Nzeogwu popularly known as Kaduna and a group of Majors began what would become Nigeria’s first military coup d’état ( The Coup of the 5 majors). By the time the day was done they had killed 22 people including the Prime Minister, senior army officers (and their wives) and the Sardauna of Sokoto. The majors charged that the politicians were running the country aground with their corruption and ostentatious lifestyles.
The coup attempt failed after the then senate president (and acting president as President Nnamdi Azikiwe was out of the country) Nwafor Orizu “voluntarily” handed over the government to Major General Aguiyi Ironsi who was able to regain control of the government by force using the military. All the conspirators were arrested and sentenced to death. Major Kaduna eventually died in the civil war, and legend has it that the northern soldiers who found his body in the forest burst into tears and held a moment of silence for him, they knew they had lost a brother and even though he died while fighting on the side of Biafra, General Yakubu Gowon ordered that he be buried in the military cemetery in Kaduna with full honours.
Because of the large number of northerners killed in the coup attempt, the northern elite became deeply resentful and rumours began to fly around that it was an Igbo planned coup deliberately designed to kick northerners out of power. I guess it didn’t look so good that the whole saga ended with an Igbo man as Head of State even though that man was the Commander of the Nigerian army and was the logical choice to lead the military government that was formed immediately.
In 1966, less than 18 months later. There was another coup, a “counter” coup they called it this time led by Murtala Muhammed and a retinue of northern officers. Aguiyi Ironsi was brutally murdered, and a relatively unknown officer Lieutenant Col Yakubu “Jack” Gowon was sworn in as head of state. This coup touched off pogroms against Igbo’s living in the north. A straight line can then be drawn from the Coup of 5 majors, to the Counter coup, to the Ahiara declaration where Lieutenant Col Chukwuemeka Odimegwu Ojukwu Governor of the then Eastern Region declared the secession of the eastern region of Nigeria to form the Independent Republic of Biafra.
The problem with all this though is that no serious historian accepts the “Igbo coup” theory 1st and foremost because the coupists were very clear about what led them to strike namely pervasive government corruption which nobody denies was the case. Igbo coup theorists will then point to the fact that 3 out of 5 of the leaders of the coup were of Igbo origin, but a large number of officers in the Nigerian army were of Igbo origin at the time and people with this theory conveniently forget that the Coup was largely put down by Igbo officers like Lt Col Ojukwu, and Gen Aguiyi Ironsi. Thirdly while the coup had 5 major leaders, it takes a lot more than 5 people to execute a coup d’état and the soldiers who carried out the coup on the ground were from different ethnic groups including from the north and were bound together by one simple purpose; fear for where Nigeria was heading under the politicians. It is no co-incidence that the Coup of 5 Majors has been called Nigeria’s first and only ideological coup. Its most prominent leader Nzeogwu can be called many things, but nobody ever called him a tribalist, he lived most of his life in the north, spoke Hausa as a first language and saw himself as a Nigerian first.
All these are facts which can be read in any history book. The problem is, I’m willing to wager that 70% of Nigerians below the age of 30 have no idea about the details mentioned above.
In any other country, the events leading up to, and during the civil war would be analysed and rehashed ad nauseum, the root causes of the war would be aired, all in a bid to make sure it never repeats itself, and that the emotions and events leading up to the war are resolved. Any student of history understands that history has a funny way of repeating itself, as the famous saying goes, “Those who fail to learn the lessons of history are doomed to repeat it”.
But not here, the details of what might be the most important event in our nation’s history after independence have been buried so deep that children born after the 90’s probably have no idea of the bloody civil war that was fought here so recently, so recent in fact that both my parents can tell u exactly what happened the day the first shot was fired, leading us to the situation where we are today.
Now let me say something which should be obvious; telling an Igbo person to just “get over” the events of the civil war is like telling a Jewish person to get over the holocaust, it is extremely insensitive, offensive, at best ignorant and at worst plain cruel.
Every Igbo family that exists today was affected by the war, families were torn apart forever, entire homes and livelihoods were destroyed, children taken from their parents never to be seen again, loved ones disappeared leaving the family without even the closure of a dead body to bury.
My grandmother who tells the story of being separated from her husband at the beginning of the war, leaving her with 5 children to take care of, running at night to be able to avoid the air raids carried out by the Nigerian Airforce on civilian areas, looking for a safe place, sleeping in uncompleted buildings, cooking and eating lizards, rats and making soups with nothing more than leaves and pepper. Likes to tell me that only people who have never seen war are eager to beat its drums. The war she lived through had the effect of turning her into a hardcore pacifist. When she heard about the quit notice issued to Igbos living in the east, her only response was “let them come home”.
The Head of State General Yakubu Gowon understood that even though the Nigerian side had won the war, it would not be in the best interest of the future stability of the nation to impose humiliating surrender terms on the losing side so he tagged the end of the war “No victor, no vanquished” indicating to the Igbos that they would be re-integrated into the country and their region which had been devastated by the war rebuilt. After his speech which opens “We have fought a long bitter battle, and it has ended in a victory for common sense, a victory for the unity of this country…” , Major General Philip Effiong, the officer whom the Biafran Leader Ojukwu left in charge made his own speech, he said ; “We affirm that we are loyal Nigerian citizens and accept the authority of the federal military government of Nigeria, any future constitutional arrangement will be worked out by the representatives of the citizens of the federal republic of Nigeria, and that the Republic of Biafra, ceases to exist.”
The problem is Biafra is an idea, the idea that the Igbo people, have been failed and marginalised by the Nigerian State., the idea that the Igbo people deserve to be sovereign in their own land, the idea that only Igbo people can assure themselves a better and safer future if only they can take charge of their own destiny instead of being subsumed in the general Nigerian polity which so far has not worked. And the only thing that can defeat an idea, is a better idea not force.
In recent years, the one thing that we can all agree on is the fact that nobody can explain to a group of people what their narrative is. What this means in essence is that if Igbo people say they feel oppressed, then the only contribution that you as a non-Igbo person can have to that conversation is to ask “how do u mean? ” and not to try to belittle what is being said, or worse try to explain how your own people have suffered more, it’s not a competition. Nnamdi Kanu did not force or pay anyone to come to his rallies, he is preying on real feelings of oppression, disenchantment, disappointment and dissatisfaction being felt by a large swathe of people in the eastern region, and no amount of Yousplaining it away will resolve it.
No matter who you are, no matter what part of this country you come from, before you contribute to the Biafra conversation, take the time to understand what actually happened before, during and after the war. For example, did you know that John Lennon the lead singer of the legendary band The Beatles gave up his knighthood because of what he called British collaboration in the genocide of Biafrans? Or that the international aid organisation medecins sans frontiers (Doctors without borders) was established directly as a result of the Biafran war because of the inability of the Red Cross to transcend politics and get aid to those who needed it most? Or that a land, air and sea blockade was imposed on Biafran territory during the war preventing even humanitarian goods from coming in and when asked about it Chief Obafemi Awolowo reportedly responded “Starvation is a legitimate weapon of war and we fully intend to use it”? And that a recent WHO study revealed that children who managed to live through the war on the Biafran side are more likely to have hypertension, strokes and heart diseases later in life? So you see that while the war might be a non-existent memory to you, something you hear about in throwaway conversations, to the Igbo people it is a tangible part of the recent past, and they are still suffering from its consequences
For what it’s worth, I believe in the unity of Nigeria. Apart we are going to be just a collection of small nations subject to the whims of larger neighbours, together we have super power potential; our population, natural resources, resilience and culture. What we need is a proper governing structure and leaders who are able to put the needs of the country above personal needs.
Currently the only basis for our existence as a nation is simply the fact that, Lord Lugard thought it would be the best and cheapest way to impose British rule on the natives, 100 years later, anyone can see that it is not enough. We need to sit down with each other and discuss the basis and structure of our union, we don’t need to break up for the different tribes in the country to achieve self-determination, if the Europeans can find a way to co-exist & live in peace, harmony and prosperity after almost a century of constant conflict, we will probably have an easier time of it. But we need to start now, every day we continue in this failed structure is a day closer to a violent conflagration that would make Syria look like Disney Land.
Until we can justify our existence as a nation, create a proper governing structure that fits our unique needs and solve historic injustices, we will continue to be beset by separatist movements till it gets to the point that even those living in the Lagos bubble can no longer ignore.
Today its Biafra and Igbo people, tomorrow It could be your own Ethnic group. Just remember Biafra is not the problem, Nigeria is.