The ‘Biafra’ Self-Determination Quest

Embracing the armistice of the surrendering generals of the erstwhile ‘Republic of Biafra’, and reabsorbing some of them in the Nigerian military while welcoming back the former ‘Biafrans’ into their home, Nigeria, General Yakubu Gowon in January, 1970 declared, “the so-called rising sun of Biafra has set for ever”. The sovereign state of Biafra under the watch of Colonel (Biafran General) Odumegwu Ojukwu had been flattened and recovered for the Nigerian State. The loss of Biafra was at a huge cost. Chinua Achebe in his controversial but highly revealing “There was a Country” claimed that an estimated 3 million people of Eastern Nigeria, mostly children and women were killed in the tragic Civil War. According to accounts, those that died of starvation and ill-health arising from the blockade by Nigeria, which blocked all Biafran access to food, water, drug and other local and international supplies alone, outnumbered soldiers and civilians killed in real-time battles.
Going by a school of thought, from the way the Nigerian side prosecuted the war against the Igbos and people of Biafra, the massacre could have gone down as one of the worst acts of genocide in history. Overzealous war leaders, including Murtala Mohammed and Benjamin Adekunle were said to have believed more in soft civilian (women and children) targets to weaken the psyche and poise of the enemy and flatten them out for a quicker end to the war. However, the other school of thought holds that war allows for any kind of unmitigated disaster or fatalities, and that the Biafra tragedy in which about two or three million people lost their lives was just a manifestation of that fact.
Biafra, against all expectations lasted for 30 months, showing the resolve of the people to part ways with their brethren in Nigeria. The general belief was that the development in May 1967 was a mere uprising led by a group of ambitious Igbo leaders with Ojukwu, who was in the middle of the fray being the prime suspect. Response to the “uprising” was initially considered a police action until the Biafrans pushed the war to the Nigerian side and even shocked the entire world when Ojukwu’s forces invaded the Midwest region (comprising today’s Edo and Delta states), sending the Governor David Ejoor-led administration packing. The resolute stance to defend “fatherland” changed the attitude of the Nigerians to the war and indeed opened everyone’s eye to the fact that the quest for Biafra was real.
Forty five years after that war however, a section of the Igbo people still seeks the Republic of Biafra, claiming that the Nigerian State had been unfair to the Igbo group in terms of distribution or allocation of national values, including power, resources, revenue and development. This group has cried foul too many times about the integration process of the Igbo people since the end of the Civil War, alleging that the obvious lack of trust for them has led to political marginalization by which the Igbo have never gotten near the seat of power and have continued to play second-fiddle roles in a federal government led by either a Northerner or a Westerner. They have also seen the extent of the falsetto of Nigeria nationhood in which every other major ethnic group would feel more comfortable with someone from a minor Ijaw group to produce a president of the country, while taking the goal post farther and farther away from the Igbo man.
The agitations were initially latent and when they became manifest, they were ragtag and uncoordinated. But Uwazuruike’s Movement for the Sovereign State of Biafra (MASSOB) provided some mobilization and cohesion, although the philosophical and intellectual base was superficial and hollow. But as time went on, the movement gained support of the rich and educated, home and abroad and probably of some powerful politicians and former statesmen that might have been giving the cause a boost from underground. This could be gleaned from the resurrection of the Biafran pound (which this author had physically seen being accepted as a means of exchange along West African coastline and which he had discussed severally on this platform), the return of the Biafran “sunrise” flag and of course the Biafran radio, which had been a thorn in the Nigerian government’s flesh.
There is no doubt about the fact that the Igbo people have always wanted to be a separate nation. Under the UN Charter, which recognizes the cause and agitations of belligerents and promotes the peaceable approach to self-determination of a distinct group of people within geo-political and sovereign entities, they are free and have the right to do so. Eritrea, South Sudan, Western Sahara and several European examples attest to this principle. They all gained self-determination under the careful watch of the UN. The Biafrans can be independent too.
But how should this be done and whether it is necessary at this juncture are the serious matters for Nigeria, Biafra separatists and the world to consider. Under the circumstances of 1966-1967, the Igbos had every reason-legitimately- to leave a Nigeria that did not want them again, that prized the cutting down of officers and men of the Nigerian Army of Igbo extraction in the barracks; that cherished mass murders of Igbo traders, civil servants, pregnant women and children, including those fleeing to Igboland for safety; a Nigeria that had become so resentful of an average Igbo man because of his loudness and arrogance. The Igbo were no longer trusted and this could be as a result of their bragging rights, as they were some of the most educated, industrious and successful people in the newly independent country. They died in their thousands in a wave of violence that culminated in the infamous pogroms in the North and in the orgy of well-orchestrated killings in the Southwestern military barracks led by those that would later become Nigeria’s Head of State.
If the Igbos had genuine cause to secede in 1967, could they be justified today? There are no more pogroms. Igbos live in every part of Nigeria and are successful wherever they are. They own properties, estates and big businesses in places far away from their land. They control significant portion of the formal and informal economies of Lagos, where they even enjoy such rare privileges of becoming commissioners and state house of assembly members. An average Igbo man owns land in the Southwest and North without harassment or molestation (with the reverse being the thinnest of possibility) and many Igbo people have served their fatherland meritoriously, having been given equal opportunities to occupy exalted office of Vice-President, Secretary to the Government of the Federation, Senate President, Minister of the Federal Republic, Central Bank Governor, Ambassadors, and so forth. At this rate, the marginalization and conspiracy theories cannot be comprehended. If an Igbo man has not become president after Nnamdi Azikiwe, who was in actual fact Nigeria’s first president (although ceremonial), it is simply because of demographics and in democracy, numbers count more than anything else. The Igbos have not really presented a strong candidate since the Second Republic and they have not, in truth and fairness, presented a very united front. And when they do, the population is not able to outdo the candidate of strong contenders from the North or Southwest for theirs. It is simple logic.
Incidentally, many educated men, successful Igbo traders and reasonable men of that great land do not see any sense in this Biafra resurgence. They puncture the philosophy of the ‘insurgents’ and distance themselves from the embarrassing charade put up by the separatists. There is apparently no logic behind the current agitation for Biafra. One can only appeal to the discontented section of the Igbo community to embrace this one and only Nigeria and join hands as we all build or rebuild it. But if they must go, it should be negotiated and peacefully settled; but that is if the many rational Igbo people that do not identify themselves with the cause pull their weight behind such a move.
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