Observance of the 50th Anniversary of the declaration of Biafra on 30 May, 2017 was paradoxical. The event was silent, but doubly loud. The point was made rather bluntly that the Nigeria-Biafra narrative has changed. If the sit-at-home order for the Igbo was a clarion call to non-violent civil disobedience; it achieved maximum effect. Compliance was unprecedented and near 100%. Everyone took notice. This reawakening compels a decoding of the Nigeria-Biafra newfangled narrative in order to grapple with it properly.
What happened? Like most social scientists, I find the natural law of cause-and-effect stimulating. It compels deductive reasoning, rationalization and justifications. So, why do we have Biafran recidivism? What are the causes? What was the tripwire that dredged up such long suppressed emotions? Why have we handled the Biafran issue so carelessly and with levity, as if related agitations were bereft of possible ominous consequences? Well, those averse to history or lessons therefrom, risk huge mistakes. Hoping to wish away a crisis of any sort or magnitude is weak policy disposition. Vexatious national issues that are ignored soon enough fester with dire consequences.
By refusing to draw lessons from history, Nigerian government policymakers, by sheer indifference and at times, bluster bordering on arrogance, gave Biafran recidivism a boost, a cult-like hero and a rallying point in Nnamdi Kanu. The federal government simply overreached in mishandling Kanu’s case. Incarcerating Kanu indefinitely without bail and in violation of the Constitution altered the Nigeria-Biafra narrative dramatically. Kanu’s elongated incarceration served as a metaphor for the indefinite incarceration, suppression, disenfranchisement and marginalization of the Igbo nation via politics and executive fiats. Now certain realities can’t be swept away; and the hands of the clock can’t be turned back. Nigeria’s political leaders will need to confront the emerging architype tactfully, but urgently. The leadership needs to employ the political sagacity of Shehu Shagari and Chuba Okadigbo that led to Emeka Odumegwu Ojukwu’s pardon and return from exile; and adopt Goodluck Jonathan’s obliging spirit that led to Ojukwu being buried with national honours. It’s all about respect, inclusivity and true reconciliation.
Indeed, there was a country called Biafra, which now belongs to the cadre of defunct nations like Tibet, Ceylon, Czechoslovakia, East Germany and Yugoslavia. But the Biafran spirit and conviction subsist. Here is the upshot. For any sixty-something year old, Igbo person like me, the reality breaks down thus: you’ve been a Nigerian for sixty-something years, and a Biafran, for three momentous, but also horrendous years. These are historical facts you cannot redact from memory, from history, or for that matter, from pass-on-down folktales. Moreover separatist agitations are not peculiar to Nigeria; they exist in Angola, Azerbaijan, Canada, Georgia, Russia, Spain, Turkey, and the U.K.
Dialogue has its values. Whereas constructive dialogue may not end Biafran agitations instantly, it will no doubt keep matters on an even keel. Talking about the Biafran problematique is not by any means pandering to presumptive separatists. Such talks do not equate to the Balkanization of Nigeria. Indeed, it is presumptuous, if not dubious, to suggest that those pushing for Biafra have a singular agenda – to breakaway. As Nigerians, all they are saying is that the Igbo have equal rights and should not be subjugated or treated as second class citizens. So, the current impetus for Biafra is primarily an attestation that all is not well with and within Nigeria.
What makes Biafra attractive to many is also offensive and scary to others. Yet the reality is that no Igbo man in his right sense will publicly repudiate the call for Biafra. Paradoxically, many well-placed Igbo personalities don’t canvass openly for Biafra, for fear of reprisals. That is the paradox of Nigeria-Biafra, fifty years later. Contextually, those who consider Biafran agitators as misguided are themselves not thinking through the politics, history and prevalent realities. The traumatic wounds and pains of Biafra are real and linger even after fifty years. The post-war 3Rs (reconstruction, rehabilitation and reconciliation) initiated by Gen. Yakubu Gowon, has been fleeting, if not entirely vacuous. The Igbo have not felt any sense of belonging in Nigeria, as much as they feel vanquished.
Managing the Nigeria-Biafra narrative should be stress-free, if Nigerian policymakers can think clearly. Tackling four issues will ameliorate the present challenges and assuage prevailing Igbo discontent. First, Nigerians should begin the process of adding a sixth state to the south-east geopolitical region to strike a long overdue balance. Second, Nigerians should talk seriously of a Nigerian president of Igbo extraction – note, I did not say an Igbo presidency. These are two distinct nomenclatures and conjure varying degrees of emotive push. Third, Nigerians should commence discussions on the implementation of relative aspects of the 2014 Confab report, including fiscal federalism and devolution of power from the centre to the six geopolitical regions.
Fourth and this is perhaps the simplest, but also the most important. Three million Nigerians or Biafrans died in the civil war from 1967 to 1970. We lost relatives and fellow countrymen on both sides. So, why don’t we institute a Memorial Day of Remembrance for all our war casualties, regardless of the side or ethnicity? As a gesture, let the Memorial Day observance follow the Democracy Day. So, on 29 May, Nigerians will honour her democratic ideals and the next day, May 30; honour all her fallen heroes, regardless of their ethnicity. I suspect there will be some pushback against this proposal, but that is one way of assuaging prevalent demands.
Nigeria should borrow a leaf from existing global best practices. In the U.S., “Memorial Day started as an event to honour Union soldiers who had died during the American Civil War. It was inspired by the way people in the Southern states honoured their dead. After World War I, it was extended to include all men and women who died in any war or military action.” Memorial Day also “honours men and women who died while serving in the U.S. military. Originally known as Decoration Day, it originated in the years following the Civil War and became an official federal holiday in 1971.” Nigeria has nothing to lose by using its legislative mechanisms to preempt possible difficulties or emergent crisis. The beauty of this proposal lies in its simplicity. Such an approach will help rally Nigerians towards a common purpose, toward true patriotism, which stands badly eroded and towards respect for each other’s rights and feelings; something we largely take for granted.
Igbo investments in Nigeria are vast, diverse and domiciled mostly outside Igboland. Disenfranchised as the Igbo feel, there’s cognizance that most Igbo entrepreneurs and wealth creators don’t wish to divest from Nigeria, except as a last resort – that being a referendum-induced secession. That ennui will prevail so long as the Igbo are disenfranchised. What the Igbo seek is to make Nigeria truly equitable. Hence, fair appointments and competition must exist; and security of investment and equitable resource allocation assured. Ironclad guarantees will be needed. Meanwhile, tampering the clamour for Biafra remains a shared responsibility; there can be no conscientious objectors in the quest for an all-inclusive Nigeria. Politics, ethnicity, ideology, religion should not be a basis for action. Instead, patriotism, social justice, equity and peace remain the key drivers. Efforts to mollify Biafra agitations must be collective, and aimed at saving and making Nigeria whole again for all her citizens. Still it bears understanding that democracy in Nigeria cannot prevail absent a united Nigeria.