“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.