Biafra: Ndi Igbo and the 50-year Quest for Independence by Akinlabi Omo-Oso

“We  hold  these  truths  to  be  self-evident,  that  all  men  are  created  equal,  that  they  are  endowed  by  their  Creator  with  certain  unalienable  rights,  that  among  these  are  Life,  Liberty  and  the  Pursuit  of  Happiness.”

There  is  a  reason  the  above  quote  is  dubbed  “one  of  the  best-known  sentences  in  the  English  language.”  It  is  because  its  romantic  theme  of  liberty  and  self-determination,  some  250  years  since  it  was  penned,  continues  to  vivify  hearts.  It  has  also  inspired  similar  declarations  across  the  world―from  Belgium  to  Liberia  to  New  Zealand―with  glimmers  of  it   finding  expression  in  Ojukwu’s  secession  speech  for  Biafra.      Biafra―that  idea―that  love  it  or  hate  it,  stakes  a  claim  to  an  important  part  of  Nigerian  history  much  as  Flora  Shaw’s  lack  of  creative  imagination  with  names.

It  is  for  this  reason  of  historical  importance  that  agitation  for  the  Sovereign  State  of  Biafra  cannot  and  must  not  be  understood  only  within  the  context  of  current  events.  If  we  desire  a  thoroughgoing  understanding  of  what  the  issues  are  about,  then  we  must  go  back  in  time:  first,  to  the  wobbly,  self-defeating  political  structure  that  was  cobbled  together  by  the  colonists  and  handed  down  at  independence;  to  the  intrigues  that  led  to  the  military  coup  of  1966  and  which  is  still  referred  to  by  many  as  the  “Igbo  coup”;  then  finally  to  the  tragedy  that  was  the  Civil  War  and  the  mistrust  that  followed.

When  British  colonial  administrators  went  about  excising,  delineating  and  amalgamating  the  conquered  territory  they  cheekily  named  Nigeria,  it  was  with  scornful  disregard  for  the  desires,  needs  and  contribution  of  those  who  would  have  to  keep  this  pact  in  force.

This  marked  the  beginning  of  a  blasé  indifference  on  the  part  of  the  British  towards  future  policies  affecting  the  colony,  and  the  artful  wheeling  and  dealing  that  resulted  in  the  creation  of  a  “balance  of  power”  between  the  North  and  South―a  cynical  policy  that  set  them  up  to  be  more  adversaries  than  partners  in  an  equal  union.

A  union  whose  strength  would  be  tested  when  leading  men  of  the  major  tribes,  except  those  of  the  Igbo,  were  felled  by  military  officers  who  were  majorly  Igbo.  A  union  further  frayed  when  General  Aguiyi-Ironsi,  the  succeeding  Head  of  State  and  Igbo,  failed  to  comprehend  the  “sign  of  the  times,”  and  by  his  indulgent  handling  of  the  coup  plotters  bungled  his  opportunity  to  heal  the  nation  and  halt  the  poison  of  discord  that  was  festering  among  those  who  felt  betrayed.  A  union  that  eventually  lost  its  humanity  when  civilian  population  of  the  Igbo,  innocent  bystanders  themselves,  were  treated  as  of  little  account  and  made  to  pay  with  their  lives  for  errors  committed  by  men  more  powerful  than  them.

These  wounds  have  endured.  The  rancour  has  accreted  and  been  passed  down  like  heirlooms  through  successive  generations.  They  are  heard  in  the  insistence  by  the  Igbo  that  the  Civil  War  and  its  precursor―the  Northern  riots―were  genocidal.  In  their  claim  that  the  reintegration  policies  following  the  Civil  War  was  lip  service  at  best,  seeing  how  the  £20  reconstruction  package  allotted  to  the  Igbo  irrespective  of  their  pre-war  bank  balance  was  punitive.  In  their  persistent  cry  concerning  the  lack  of  federal  infrastructure  in  the  South  East,  and  what  they  believe  is  the  tacit  connivance  of  the  major  blocs  against  an  Igbo  presidency―something  they  feel  is  akin  to  punishment  50  years  running.

While  it  might  be  easy  to  dismiss  these  grievances  as  mere  bellyaching,  pointing  out  the  complicity  of  the  Igbo  in  how  events  unfolded;  we  would  be  remiss  if  we  do  not  permit  ourselves  to  understand  what  these  issues  are  really  about,  and  by  this  token,  profit  by  them  even  if  we  are  not  in  complete  agreement.

First,  the  intransigeant  stance  of  the  federal  government  in  blotting  out  of  history  lessons  any  real  discussion  about  this  part  of  our  history  under  the  guise  of  national  unity  is  not  a  course  of  wisdom.  For  how  could  we  possibly  prevent  the  repetition  of  old  mistakes  if  we  are  ignorant  of  them?  Tightly  controlling  historical  narrative  does  no  one  any  favours,  because  the  best  way  to  refute  an  account  of  events  is  to  render  your  own  list  of  facts;  this  aids  the  conversation  and  allows  for  ever  more  robust  dialogue.

Take  the  American  Civil  War  as  an  example,  150  years  since  its  end  and  many  southerners  still  refer  to  it  as  “the  war  of  northern  aggression.”  To  commemorate  the  deeds  of  confederate  generals  whom  these  southerners  see  as  heroes,  they  put  up  statues  in  their  honour  despite  how  distasteful  they  are  to  African-Americans,  to  whom  these  men  stand  as  symbols  of  oppression  since  they  went  to  war  so  they  could  protect  their  right  to  keep  them  in  slavery!                          Divergent  opinions  about  the  same  matter  hence,  is  never  a  reason  for  its  suppression;  just  as  pretending  that  something  never  happened  is  not  the  same  as  forgetting  it  ever  did.

Second,  that  one  is  displeased  with  something  should  not  preclude  its  expression.  “I  detest  what  you  say,”  charged  Voltaire,  “but  I  will  defend  to  the  death  your  right  to  say  it.”

It  is  on  this  precept  that  free  speech  is  founded,  and  free  speech  is  one  of  the  tripods  of  a  true  democracy.  In  this  vein,  should  Nnamdi  Kanu  and  other  agitators  be  given  free  rein  to  do  as  they  please?  Yes.  But  only  within  the  ambit  of  the  law  and  within  the  jurisdiction  of  their  rights.  For  why  should  a  government  be  trusted  that  does  not  respect  the  limits  of  its  own  social  contract  to  the  people  it  serves?  That  of  being  the  protector  of  the  law  not  its  abuser.

It  is  true  that  the  government  has  the  constitutional  right  to  protect  and  preserve  the  entity  called  Nigeria.  What’s  more?  It  has  the  backing  of  the  law  to  bring  down  the  full  weight  of  its  power  and  influence  on  any  who  dares  threaten  this  existence―but  yet  again,  only  within  its  prescribed  boundaries.

Never! Never  must  the  government  be  seen  to  be  parochial,  pandering  to  the  sentiments  of  a  section  of  the  country,  or  be  unduly  over-handed  in  the  discharge  of  its  duties.  Keeping  quiet  because  we  are  not  the  ones  in  the  eye  of  the  storm  only  emboldens  the  entrenchment  of  evil,  and  weakens  our  own  support  system  when  similar  winds  blow  our  way.  But  even  more,  it  makes  a  mockery  of  the  martyrs  of  democracy―brave  souls  who  looked  death  in  the  eye  so  that  we  may  speak  and  act  without  fear.

Finally,  the  questions  to  be  asked  are  these:  is  the  call  for  secession  a  legitimate  one?  Who  or  what  gives  legitimacy  to  the  quest  for  self-determination  by  a  people?  Is  it  the  government,  the  people  by  virtue  of  their  humanity  and  the  rights  that  attend  it,  or  the  cooperation  and  approval  of  the  other  parties  to  the  existing  contract?                             What  are  the  underlying  reasons  for  this  quest,  and  might  it  be  better  managed  if  these  issues  are  considered  honestly  and  humbly  without  cynicism?

 How  does  a  landlocked  Biafra  hope  to  carry  on  commerce  with  the  rest  of  the  world?  How  do  they  hope  to  sweeten  the  deal  for  the  non-Igbo  coastal  tribes,  who  now  that  they  have  tasted  the  sweet  nectar  of  self-expression  will  be  vassals  no  more?  How  have  the  leaders  of  Ndigbo  shown  themselves  worthy  of  higher  responsibilities  having  proven  faithful  with  little?  And  how  well  do  the  ideals  and  progress  of  the  proposed  country  reflect  today  in  the  attitudes,  plan  and  activities  of  the  South  East  region?

These  are  good  questions  to  ask  and  find  satisfying  answers  to,  lest  we  deploy  the  superior  strength  of  “federal  might”  or  get  drunk  on  that  which  may  be  nothing  more  than  a  chimera,  only  to  heedlessly  and  irresponsibly  create  a  situation  that  should  never have  been.

This impressive piece was written by Akinlabi Omo-Oso, an engineer by the day as well as an incredible writer any other time. 

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