The agitation for the secession of southeast Nigeria from the rest of the country by organisations such as the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) and others is unlikely to end in this New Year. While acknowledging the challenges faced with Boko Haram, Niger Delta militancy and clashes with Shia Muslims, President Muhammadu Buhari tried to ignore the burning Biafran issue in his New Year message to Nigerians.
He said: “I want to reassure all Nigerians that our defence and security forces are more than ever before ready to perform their constitutional role of protecting lives and property in the country; and we will surely overcome all other forms of security challenges”. There was no acknowledgment of the Amnesty International allegations that Nigerian security forces, ignoring their constitutional role as described by their Commander in Chief, have killed up to 150 unarmed pro-Biafrans since October 2015.
Buhari seems oblivious to how atrocities by Nigerian security forces further divide the country: “I want to remind you on the first day of this New Year of an African proverb that says ‘it is easy to break a broomstick but not a bunch’. Nigeria is a bunch and is more than equal to troublemakers”. The “troublemakers” are being helped by the Buhari approach, as killing pro-Biafrans and the continued detention of Nnamdi Kanu, the leader of IPOB, has boosted the profile of the separatist movement in Nigeria and internationally. While there is little chance of an independent republic of Biafra being created soon, Buhari’s empty words and the Gestapo tactics of his security forces are unlikely to stop the movement.
So what happens next? Buhari and the pro-Biafrans can’t continue doing the same things and expecting different results. Most sensible people would accept that despite the “change” mantra of the Buhari regime, there is unlikely to be any change in the official approach to Biafran agitation or any respect for the rule of law from the security forces in dealing with protesters.
If Nigeria can’t and won’t change, the pro-Biafrans need to change their approach.
One thing has been clear since Kanu, Radio Biafra and IPOB gained in notoriety about two years ago. The Igbo elite have generally not been at the forefront of the clamour for Biafra. Chudi Offodile, former House of Representatives member and author of the book “The politics of Biafra and the future of Nigeria” made this point at the launch of his book in London in November last year. Offodile argued that, unlike in 1967 when the Igbo “intelligentsia” were solidly behind Biafran secession, many of them have ignored the current movement.
Pro-Biafrans would need to address why Igbo elite support has been lukewarm or hostile towards secession. Part of addressing this issue has to revolve around turning the agitation for Biafra from a negative campaign to a positive one. It is just not enough to demand “freedom” from Nigeria because of all the negativity around Nigeria. The Biafran alternative has to be one grounded in positive reality.
Biafran agitators should project their movement as inclusive and not alienate those they perceive as “enemies” -either other ethnic groups or Igbos that are not fully convinced about the rightness of the cause. There are several practical steps the pro-Biafran movement can adopt to move their cause forward as a genuine alternative to Nigeria.
When Samora Machel and his movement Frelimo were fighting for Mozambique’s liberation from Portuguese colonialism, he said that it was not enough to just condemn the colonisers as evil. Frelimo had to show the Mozambican peasants what liberation meant. So in any enclave in which Frelimo had control, they provided education, social services, and other forms of support for their people. This served as a template for what they could deliver when they took over the country from the Portuguese.
Hezbollah operate as a political and social movement in Southern Lebanon. They are possibly better known for their guerrilla fighting force, but they also run schools, hospitals, provide social security and other services to members and their people. The probity of the movement is held in stark contrast against the corruption of Lebanese governments. When the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) destroyed much of Beirut in 2006, Hezbollah had a support network on ground to establish what the Shia of the southern suburbs lost and provided funds for rebuilding homes. It is one reason why support of Hezbollah is so embedded in the south of country and why they have twice routed the richer, better armed IDF.
IPOB could emulate this by supporting the families of members killed by Nigerian security forces. Pro-Biafrans need to learn from these two examples of building grassroots movements.
They should also learn from the complete failure that is Buhari. The president ran for office four times over 12 years and it was clear from the onset that he had no plan on what to do if/when he got the job. Nigeria is the biggest example of the old saying that those that fail to plan, plan to fail.
Where is the IPOB plan for Biafra – just in case independence becomes a reality in the near future? Pro-Biafrans should at least have a skeletal plan of how the new country would be organised economically, politically, socially and so on. Such a plan would at least suggest some thought is being given to avoiding the failures of Nigeria. Such thinking would attract the more cerebral among Igbos and other progressive thinking Nigerians.