London University’s School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) was the venue on Friday 11 November for the launch of Chudi Offodile’s controversial book: The Politics of Biafra and the Future of Nigeria. Several UK-based Nigerians, pro-Biafran separatists, and academics with an interest in Nigeria turned up to hear the author speak about the book and then take questions from the audience, drawing on his experience as a member of Nigeria’s House of Representatives for four years when the country returned to civilian rule in 1999.
The book is 279 pages long but yet to be reviewed by Naijiant.com (purchased today) and includes three appendices (“Restructuring Nigeria for prosperity”) by Charles Soludo, the former Governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria. The author described his book as “a reflection on the importance of history in addressing present realities and the future co-existence of Nigeria’s multi ethnic society. It analyses the ideological struggles and conflict in Biafra during the war with Nigeria from 1967-1970, the impact of the war and the relevance of those struggles in the current agitations for a new state of Biafra”.
While presenting the book today, Offodile argued that Nigeria’s “founding fathers” – Nnamdi Azikiwe, Ahmadu Bello and Obafemi Awolowo had a vision of a true federation for the country. But military rule after independence failed to interpret this federal vision properly and pushed through a de facto unitary state, which, in the author’s view, has been at the root of many of Nigeria’s problems.
In a very lively and boisterous Q&A session that paid little attention to the book, Offodile was challenged on his position that the founding fathers favoured a federal system. One inquisitor argued that Azikiwe’s party (the National Council of Nigerian Citizens – NCNC) had a unitary system in its manifesto.
Another questioner asked the author how many motions or bills he championed in the House of Representatives “for the interest of Igbos”, claiming that the “Igbo man is holding himself down”, especially as they tend to prosper away from home. The author’s response was that he was nominated as the best legislator in 2004 by Nigeria’s This Day newspaper, he was the lawmaker behind the “Local Content Bill” (legislates for an increased role for local players in the oil and gas industry), and also championed an armed forces bill that focused on “federal character”.
Some questioners argued that “restructuring”, favoured by Offodile, was unlikely to work taking account of their belief that there was too much divergence on religious grounds between Muslims and Christians. Offodile agreed when asked if there was genocide against the Igbos during the civil war. In response to why the perpetrators of that genocide have not been punished, Offodile claimed that there was a tendency in Nigeria to ignore “certain aspects of our history”. However, the issue now for him was “what do we do, where do we stand, and how do we move forward”.
He also argued that Igbos had not produced politicians with “the relevant skills” and there was a lack of “selfless leadership”. He didn’t explain if this was just peculiar to Igbos. But for Offodile, the solution was to “organise the country to accommodate its various identities”.
Another questioner claimed that there was no future for Nigeria without addressing the “Biafran question” and that the country would have to address this “at some point”. Offodile responded that Nigeria is yet to address “the issue of nationhood, what the nation should be”, and that: “Nigeria is not a nation. It is made up of nations”. He believed that nationhood couldn’t be legislated into being, and to achieve nationhood, Nigeria’s various nations have to come together and agree a “framework”. He emphasised that there was no leader to drive the process of nation-building and that Nigeria was “moving as a country not a nation.”
One pro-Biafran activist asked the author what he thought about Biafrans’ right to self determination, why Igbo politicins were “scared of northerners”, “scared of speaking up about Nnamdi Kanu (the Biafran separatist leader that has been held in jail for over a year), and claimed that a country divided almost equally between Christians and Muslims would never make progress. On Kanu, Offodile replied that “no one should be in prison for holding an opinion”. He disagreed on being scared of northerners because since 1999, southerners have been in power for most of the time.
He agreed that Nigeria has “challenges” and the response has included some demanding self determination, others arguing for “restructuring” and another point of view being in support of the status quo. It was a “contest of ideas” and no one should be “arrogant enough to believe his opinion is supreme”. He advocated “push what you believe in and push it within the law”.
On whether there should be a referendum on secession from Nigeria, Offodile agreed it should be one of the options, but those in favour needed to consider how they are “collaborating to achieve it, the fairness of the result [if the voting would be free from fraud], the outcome” and so on.
He acknowledged that there was a lack of involvement of the Igbo “intelligentsia” in the current clamour for Biafra. This was in stark contrast to 1967 when the agitation of the Igbo “intelligentsia” made secession “irreversible”. But Offodile admitted that the circumstances were different then from now.
He said that the motivation for his book was to “give younger people the opportunity to understand the politics and the forces at play” in Nigeria. He went on to argue that the Nigerian constitution “needs to change” because it was “designed for consumption”. He illustrated this point with the constitutional provisions for a “federation account” from which all the states are paid monthly allocations. He argued that this was a “prescription for a consumption economy”. A constitutional change would “allow the units to be productive”.
In closing, Offodile was asked why he thought Igbos “were better off in Nigeria”. He ducked the question saying “no position is superior to the other”.