...as Nigerians demand solutions to present challenges
By OBINNA EZUGWU
On May 30, 1967, military governor of the defunct Eastern Region of Nigeria, the late Chukwuemeka Odimegwu Ojukwu, in the wake of massacre of Easterners in the North of the country in the aftermath of the July 1966 counter coup led by Northern officers, during which several Igbo officers, including then head of state, General Aguiyi Ironsi, were killed, proclaimed the region as an independent state of Biafra.
The declaration, which was immediately necessitated, in Ojukwu’s view, by the reneging on the Aburi Accord – an agreement reached in Aburi, Ghana between him and the Federal Government then led by General Yakubu Gowon, for a loose federation – and the continued killing of Easterners in the North, led to the a 30-month civil war, by the end the of which an estimated 2.5 million people, mostly civilians, women and children starved, in the Biafra enclave, lay dead. And although armed hostilities ceased in January 15, 1970 with the eventual surrender of Biafra, the ghost of the defunct republic has refused to rest, even as wounds have refused to heal.
With the end of the war came the removal of history in the national school curriculum as the victorious federal side elected, perhaps to bury the memory of Biafra, forever. But 53 years down the road, Biafra remains the most recurring political topic in the country, with the ‘Biafrans’ choosing to remember, even as renewed agitations for the defunct republic has reached crescendo.
Last week, apparently rattled Nigerian presidency in a statement by Garba Shehu, presidential spokesperson, accused the agitators of running massive campaign overseas to discredit Nigeria and the President Muhammadu Buhari government.
The Biafra war has in many ways, refused to end; and has found new battlefield on social media. On May 30, 2020, the day marking the 53rd anniversary of the declaration of the defunct republic, many Easterners took to twitter to mark the day. While those who witnessed the war took turns to narrate experiences, others used the opportunity to reflect on what they see as continued injustices against people of the then republic, particularly the Igbo. BiafraExit hashtag was for the whole day, the number one trend on social media site, Twitter, while it was easily the most discussed topic of Facebook.
But the discussions also brought into sharp focus, the divisions in the country and the damage done to its fabrics by the inability of successive governments to confront the ghost of Biafra and pursue genuine reconciliation. While the victims of the war took time to share experiences, some of those on the other side of the divide saw things differently. Two tweets by a certain Dr. Aloy Chife, an Igbo from Anambra State who survived kwashiokor as a five-year-old during the war, and another user, Young Otutu, portrays this stark contrast.
Dr. Chife via his handle, @ChifeDr had shared a picture of himself and other children looking malnourished after the war, while narrating what they all went through.
“A great number of the children you see in the video below are still alive. 2 million were starved to death but Nigeria has lacked the humanity to acknowledge the genocide,” he said.
“I was 5 when the war ended. And for one year afterwards at lunch break, they marched us to a local dispensary. You extended two cupped palms and received some protein powder. Living at the edge of Igboland we escaped Kwashiorkor. I’m Igbo. And I’ll never forget that.”
But while Chife was talking about the Nigerian state acknowledging the ‘Biafra genocide’ and making amends for the millions of children who died in the war, Otutu who happens to be a Northerner whose mother is from Delta State, seeing things rather differently, argued that the Igbo themselves ought to apologize to ‘Delta’ people,’ in a tweet that generated outrage for its patent falsehood and insensitivity.
“Odumegwu Ojukwu led igbos to a war, he knew he could never win. Then chickened into exile when it was time to surrender came. Till date, his people have never apologised to Deltans for the Asaba massacre. They never tell you this,” he wrote via his handle, @YoungOtutu.
Otutu’s tweet in many ways reflects what has been the response of the successive Nigerians authorities to the feeling of pain by the survivors of the war, which for many explains why the quest for separation has continued more than five decades after the war.
Although the Gowon led victorious Nigerian side proclaimed ‘No Victor, No Vanquished,’ after the war, and announced a policy of Reconstruction, Rehabilitation and Reconciliation, the policy was observed mostly in breach, with real reconstruction happening in the then capital, Lagos while war torn East was largely left to its fate, even as all account holders with substantial amounts in their accounts were given £20.
“There has been marginalization; there has been negligence. They are segregating against the Southeast,” argued Anglican Archbishop of Enugu Ecclesiastical Province, His Grace, Archbishop Emmanuel Chukwuma. “It’s too much, and that’s why people have continued to agitate.”
In 1999, an Okigwe, Imo State born, Indian trained lawyer, Chief Ralph Uwazurike leveraged on this feeling of marginalisation by successive military governments after the war to form the Movement for the Actualisation of Sovereign State of Biafra (MASSOB), promising to deliver Biafra from Nigeria. The movement attracted good following in the Southeast, with protest matches held by members in Onitsha, Aba, Okigwe and elsewhere in the zone. But it was ultimately crushed by the government of Olusegun Obasanjo who deployed the military to shoot members of the group at sight.
MASSOB now exists on the fringes, but it served as the springboard for the new wave of pro Biafra agitations. In 2012, Umuahia, Abia State born, United Kingdom based Mazi Nnamdi Kanu broke away from the group to form the Indigenous Peoples of Biafra (IPOB), using a private radio station, Radio Biafra to broadcast pro Biafra messages.
And while he was largely ignored by the government of Goodluck Jonathan, the Muhammadu Buhari administration arrested him in August 2015 on treason charges. The arrest, however, mostly served to give him huge publicity. By the time he was released in April 2017, the government, having previously failed to release him despite court orders for his release, had only succeeded in making him an international activist. He became the new face of an agitation that has now reached crescendo, helped, many say, by President Buhari’s lopsidedness and especially perceived targeting of the Igbo.
“The issue of Biafra is about marginalization of the Southeast; it is about the Southeast being voiceless; it is about Southeast not being recognized in the Nigerian context by the successive governments of the country,” said Chief Anselm Njoku, leader Southeast APC Forum, Lagos.
“Jonathan’s government did not even do better for the zone. Go and look at the amount of money he spent in the various zones of the country, Southeast is the least. In some cases, four times less. You see the quest for Biafra nation and the broadcast is to tell Nigeria that Southeast exists, and it is a civil protest because they are not carrying arms.”
With his release, Kanu put added impetus to his agitation. His Umuahia home became a mecca of sorts, with thousands of his followers going to pay him homage daily. The Buhari government responded by deploying soldiers to the Southeast in an operation termed Python Dance, in the wake of which, several individuals were killed, mostly bystanders.
The government proceeded to ban Kanu’s IPOB, proscribing it as a terrorist organisation. But it was a move widely criticised, given that the group remained largely peaceful without arms and the same government has looked away from the murders committed by armed herdsmen.
“The injustice can be seen also in the way agitators have been treated,” noted Bishop Chukwuma. “You proscribe IPOB because they are agitating, meanwhile if you have equity and Southeast is given their due, then there would be no need of proscribing IPOB, which of course is unfortunate, because IPOB is not as dangerous as Fulani herdsmen that they ought to have declared terrorists.”
Yet for spokesperson for Alaigbo Development Foundation (ADF), Chief Abia Onyike, the agitation for Biafra is bound to continue as according to him, people have right to agitate.
“The quest for self determination is an inalienable right, and there is a specific provision in the United Nations Charter on Human and Peoples Rights which embodies in it that no human being or group should be oppressed to the extent that they are denied basic political rights. It has become eminently self evident in the Nigerian case that the Igbo people have been earmarked for not only extermination but also not to be allowed to be in charge of their own affairs,” Onyike said.
“And you are talking about one of the 10 largest ethnic groups in the world. The Igbo ethnic nationality is large and substantial; it has enormous influence in the world. Any plans of emasculating and liquidating the Igbo; or marginalizing them – these are the things that give rise to the struggle for self determination.
“I mean, it is a natural instinct. Even if you want to kill somebody, the person must struggle before being killed. It is natural. The rise in self determination struggle; the resurgence goes to demonstrate that the Igbo have not been integrated into the Nigerian state. And the way the leaders of Nigeria, especially the Hausa/Fulani and Yoruba hegemony have been behaving towards them shows that they want to enslave them, and as far as you continue to play politics of enslavement, they will continue to react; they will continue to revolt against it and the idea of Biafra will continue to be very popular among them,”
“And like I said before, the Igbo are very large group, not minding the national population census that has always been fraudulent and used as a strategy for exercising political hegemony. They don’t want to be scientific; they come with the politics of oppressing the Igbo ethnic nationality through census. But the actual population of the Igbo presently is about 75 million which makes it larger than the population of any other existing independent African country, including Ethiopia which is the highest after Nigeria.”