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The Biafran question

The arrest in Nigeria of the UK-based Radio Biafra “director” Nnamdi Kanu has brought to the fore the clamour for a separatist Biafran nation.

Radio Biafra has, in recent times, tapped into separatist sentiments among some Igbos, that has been prominent on social media, led to the formation of the Movement for the Actualisation of the Sovereign State of Biafra (Massob), and other forms of agitation against the Nigerian state as currently structured.

Nnamdi Kanu broadcasting on Radio Biafra before his arrest
Nnamdi Kanu broadcasting on Radio Biafra before his arrest

The attractiveness of a separate Igbo country carved out of present-day Nigeria was probably bubbling under the surface until civilian rule returned to the country in 1999. 16 years of civilian rule has predictably not brought what is called in Nigerian parlance “the dividends of democracy” to anyone beyond the political class and their cronies.

Since 1999, Nigeria has also been plagued by deadly ethnic and religious conflicts, particularly in the North, where the extension of Sharia law, beyond civil matters affecting consenting Muslims, has led to attacks against the lives and livelihood of many non-Muslims living in that region. A majority of these people tend to be Igbo. Those attacks took a turn for the worse with the escalation of the Boko Haram insurgency since 2009.

As a result, many Igbos that made their homes in northern Nigeria have had to flee and become “internally displaced persons” in their own country. The attacks and deaths have fed resentment against the Nigerian state, especially because of its incapacity to protect Nigerians and punish the perpetrators.

The deaths and displacement of many Igbos in the north drew parallels with the pogroms against Igbos in 1966 that led to the then Eastern Region’s attempt to secede as the independent state of Biafra. It took three years to defeat that rebellion in 1970.

Biafran leader Ojukwu inspecting troops during the Nigerian civil war
Biafran leader Ojukwu inspecting troops during the Nigerian civil war

While the Biafra of circa 1967-1970 was defeated, the separatist spirit of that war still lingers among many. About a month ago, I saw a guy wearing a shirt and baseball cap in Biafran colours at Barking Station in London’s East End. The people behind Radio Biafra have formed a group called the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) to pursue their secessionist agenda. Two of their members, including a white woman, were on BEN TV in the UK last week. They argued that Igbos were being persecuted in Nigeria and that Biafra should be carved out of Nigeria, with the initial boundaries starting from the old Eastern Region.

However, their idea of “Biafra” seems to involve only Igbo-speaking people. This is in stark contrast to the Biafra of 1967-70, which was a multi-ethnic nation that included “minorities” like the Efik, Ijaw, Ogoni, Kalabari, etc.

If ever there was a referendum on: (a) Igbos seceding from Nigeria; and (b) whether other ethnic groups in the old Eastern Region would sign up to any new country with an Igbo majority, while it is likely that a majority of Igbos may vote to pull out of Nigeria, the likelihood of other ethnic groups voting to join the Igbos is not very high. But this is purely speculation.

Pro-Biafra Igbos in Berlin
Pro-Biafra Igbos in Berlin

Any agitation for Biafra, should really, for now, focus on just Igbo-speaking people and the areas they currently occupy, until more non-Igbos indicate they want to join in.

Nigeria’s failures as a nation make Biafra an attractive prospect for Igbos on the surface. But it is not an attraction that withstands much scrutiny.

Those in favour of Biafra usually argue that Nigeria, in the words of Obafemi Awolowo, is “a mere geographical expression”. British colonialists, the argument goes, brought together separate nations with nothing in common into this “geographical expression”.

Obafemi Awolowo: Nigeria is a mere geographical expression
Obafemi Awolowo: Nigeria is a mere geographical expression

This argument suggests that the Igbos were a nation before colonial rule, and it is ignorant of Igbo history. Nigeria may well be a “mere geographical expression”, but so is the US – a colonial contraption that was acquired through genocide against Native Americans, conquest and theft of land from Mexico. Italy is also a “geographical expression” of city-states sacrificing their sovereignty to become part of a bigger entity. So is Spain with Basques, Castilians and Catalans. As is the UK, whose constituent countries were conquered by the English. There are separatist movements in Spain and the UK. Democratic principles dictate that such movements should not be suppressed. Instead, a coherent discussion should be encouraged to inform everyone, on whatever side of the debate, about all the issues that come with unity or separation.

The Igbo nationality of today is a product of historical processes that coincided with the advent of colonial rule. Before then, very few among those we now call Igbo people identified themselves as such.

Kenneth Dike and Felicia Ekejiuba wrote in The Aro of South-eastern Nigeria, 1650-1980: A Study of Socio-Economic Formation and Transformation in Nigeria”: “It is often forgotten, or merely mentioned in the footnote, that Igbo is a modern ethnic category which many of the constituent groups have only recently and often reluctantly accepted as their ethnic identity, often on political and administrative grounds. During the period covered by our study, the now twelve million or more ‘Igbo’ distributed over 30,000 square miles of territory east and west of the Niger were variously referred to either as cultural groups (e.g. the Nri, Isuama, Ezza, or Otanzu), or by the ecological zones in which they are found (e.g. Olu or Oru i.e. the riverine people or Adagbe, people of the floodplain); Enugu, people who live on the hills, Aniocha, people who live on heavily leached and eroded solids; Ohozara, people of the savannah; or as occupational groups such as Opi egbe (people who fashion guns), Ndinzu or Umudioka (blacksmiths, artists. and carvers). Since Igbo was used at this time pejoratively to refer to the densely populated uplands, the major sources of slaves, and by extension to slaves, it is not surprisingly that many of these groups have been reluctant to accept the ‘Igbo’ identity.”

Present-day Igboland was then a collection of fiercely independent city-states, village and clan federations. It was historical processes that gave a collective Igbo identity to this loose group of people. Such historical processes are evolving in present-day Nigeria, creating identities that sometimes cut across ethnic lines.

The current clamour for Biafra is also a part of the historical process, but does not address the real reasons why Nigeria is a failed state. Those real reasons are rooted in Nigeria’s colonial past, in which its development was uprooted from local factors and hitched to the bandwagon of an international economic order. This order dictated that Nigeria’s political economy would be geared towards serving foreign interests, first British and then international capital, and not towards addressing the needs of Nigerians.

Frederick Lugard, the colonial governor that amalgamated northern and southern Nigeria into one colony to serve British interests
Frederick Lugard, the colonial governor that amalgamated northern and southern Nigeria into one colony to serve British interests

In such circumstances, true independence and real democracy have been discarded and the status quo is maintained through tyranny, oppression and divisive tactics that prevent the oppressed from facing up to the real reasons for their condition. This order is maintained through a collaboration of local agents and their foreign partners.

The only option open to any group of Nigerians interested in genuine independence and development lies in uprooting themselves from the order that was established with colonial force, and fashioning an alternative development model that is geared towards domestic needs, representing the interests of their suffering people. But this does not figure on the Biafran agitation agenda.

As the agitation for Biafra does not appear to be interested in the root causes of Nigerian failure, it runs the risk of replicating Nigeria’s failures within a smaller unit. I once asked some supporters of Biafra at a gathering how they could ensure this new country does not end up being run by a Rochas Okorocha, the governor of Imo State, who has contributed to making Nigeria a failed state. They didn’t have a coherent answer.

The likes of Rochas Okorocha would still rule in Biafra
The likes of Rochas Okorocha would still rule in Biafra

A Biafran state, in all likelihood, would be run by the same political elite in charge in the Igbo states of Nigeria. The same governors, senators, legislators, local government chairmen, etc that have done more than any non-Igbo to make the lives of their people a misery, would still be running things in Biafra. Does anyone really need to lose any sleep to make this sort of cosmetic change a reality?

The International Crisis Group in a 2006 paper called “Nigeria: Want in the midst of plenty” wrote: ‘Throughout its 46 years of independent history – 28 years under military rule – analysts, historians and others have often over-simplified the country in terms of its ethnic divide between Hausa-Fulani, Igbo and Yoruba, or through a religious dichotomy of “the Muslim north against the Christian south”. Demagogues have exploited such social cleavages for their own ends, often fuelling civil strife.

The country’s history since independence suggests, however, that the politicisation of ethnicity and religion and factional mobilisaton along these lines is a direct by-product of the monopolisation of power and assets by ruling elites eager to avoid open and fair competition.’

The agitation for Biafra is based on an over-simplification of Nigeria’s problems. While those problems are real and genuinely lead to resentments, the notion that an ethnically homogenised country removes those problems is a pipe dream that is not grounded in reality.

Many of Nigeria’s problems are related to a few elites hijacking resources that should have been used for the benefit of all. Historian Yusufu Bala Usman wrote: “This process of the enrichment of the few and the impoverishment of the many generates resentments, insecurity and violence. The attempt to channel the resentments away from the rich and powerful who are actually responsible for it, and direct it to take the form of communal ethnic, religious and regional hatreds and phobias, entrenches a particular type politics, most easily described as the politics of fear. This type of politics seriously retards the growth of civic consciousness and civic responsibility necessary for democratic political activity to grow and survive, because it turns politics into a jungle with predator and prey and not an activity by citizens contesting and cooperating in working out the best way of running their affairs.

This type of politics has to be oiled with vast amounts of money largely acquired illegally and is therefore inherently subversive of the rule of law and the supremacy of the Constitution. It is inimical to any form of stability, particularly democratic stability as provided for in our Constitution.”

As Nigerian politicians from all ethnicities have ignored the Nigerian Constitution, which states that the security and welfare of Nigerians should be “the primary purpose of government” at all levels, many Igbos have sought solace in fanciful flights from reality about an Igbo nation, in which the Nigerian “jungle with predator and prey” (or “zoo” as they call it on Radio Biafra) lets “my people go to the land flowing with milk and honey”. There is scant consideration for the strong likelihood that the rulers of that nation would comfortably ignore its constitution as many Igbo rulers are doing in Nigeria.

If the constitution was being respected and upheld, the agitation for Biafra would have not resonated
If the constitution was being respected and upheld, the agitation for Biafra would have not resonated

Those clamouring for Biafra also do not seem to have considered the fact that greater numbers of Igbos are living in other parts of Nigeria than any other ethnic group. Have the Biafran agitators asked for the views of those Igbos outside Igboland? The Igbos, who may have lived all their lives in Lagos, who may wake up and find out that they are no longer Nigerian citizens, may have different views. I have not seen any Biafran agitator or group, and they all claim to be democratic, attempt any survey to establish the extent of the support for their position within the Igbos that they claim to be fighting for.

They all seem to assume they speak for Igbos, without seeking out their views. To be taken seriously, they need to set themselves apart from the anti-democratic ways of Nigerian rulership and take steps to gather solid evidence that their movement has popular support.

One way of gaining support would be to present a credible programme detailing how Nigeria’s economic and political failures could be addressed and not replicated by the creation of Biafra.

The fact that despite the sound and the fury, there is no sound argument on how Biafra would avoid the same problems that plagued Nigeria, demonstrates that the case for Biafra is not based on rationality and critical thinking. It is a case based on emotion and “the politics of fear”.

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