The tragic chapter of violence is just ended. We are at the dawn of national reconciliation. Once again we have an opportunity to build a new nation. My dear compatriots, we must pay homage to the fallen, to the heroes who have made the supreme sacrifice that we may be able to build a nation, great in justice, fair trade, and industry. – Col Yakubu Gowon
When Colonel Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu, in the wake of the mass pogrom against Igbos living in the northern half of Nigeria, declared an independent State of Biafra in 1967, the Nigerian union was at the brink of bifurcation. The mutual suspicion that had been bred by the sad incidents accompanying the bloody coups of January 15, 1966 and July 28, 1966, had transformed the country into a giant potpourri of confusion. Things had fallen irredeemably apart, and the center could no longer hold.
Ojukwu’s call for self-determination was prompted by the unchecked, systematic mass extermination of Igbos living in Northern Nigeria by their hosts, consequent to the bloody outcomes of the 1966 coups, and the seeming inability of the authorities to arrest the ugly development. The sectarian scapegoating of the Igbos by their northern hosts, and the subsequent genocidal attacks on them, was a pill too bitter to swallow. Left with no other option, all his entreaties for peace having fallen on deaf ears, Colonel Ojukwu, who was the Military Administrator of the Eastern Region, after consultations with other leaders of thought, ordered all Igbos leaving in the north to return home. Soon after, he declared an independent Republic of Biafra; a gambit that was not literally meant to dismember the Nigerian amalgam, but as a stopgap measure to stop the spate of the ethnic cleansing of the Igbos in the north, and possibly bring all parties involved in the imbroglio to the negotiation table to jaw-jaw on the way forward.
Unfortunately, the declaration of independence by the Eastern Region was misconstrued by other constituent units as a literal attempt by the region to completely severe its links with the rest of Nigeria. The subsequent declaration of Police Action by the Colonel Yakubu Gowon led military government, which was supposed to quell what was thought to be a mere uprising, surprisingly snowballed into a destructive three years (July 6, 1967 to January 15, 1970) civil conflagration between Biafra separatist forces and what was left of the Nigerian army. Following one of the most long drawn, most brutal and obfuscating civil conflicts in Africa, Biafran forces, having impressively acquainted themselves and consequent to the mounting humanitarian crisis (between 500,000 and 2 million Biafran civilians died of starvation, according to Wikipedia) that had snuffed out the lives of more victims than actually died (real figures of casualties are sketchy) on the battlefields, finally surrendered to the federal troops in 1970. Thus, a feisty strife that had threatened to consume all the parties involved and reconfigure the country as well was brought to an end.
Yakubu Gowon, Nigeria’s Military Head of State, as part of his post-war confidence building measures, coined the slogan “No Victor, No Vanquished”, a soft-landing strategy that was meant to create a win-win outcome that was expected to calm all frayed nerves. But sadly, nothing further was done by subsequent governments in post-war Nigeria to show that Indigbo had been forgiven for supposedly daring to break up the unholy alliance. Recall the issue of Abandoned Properties owned by Igbos in several parts of the country that have not been recovered by its real owners till today. What about the seizure and confiscation of millions of Pounds belonging to Igbos by banks? What about the stillborn post-war rehabilitation and reconstruction programme that never came to fruition?
The story has not changed, fifty years later. If one may ask, can we confidently beat our hands on our chests to say that the phantom of the civil war has been finally put to rest? Have Indigbo been truly forgiven by the rest of Nigeria? Have Indigbo been fully reintegrated into the mainstream of national life? Are they now safer in Nigeria than was the case prior to the war? Why has it become state policy since the end of the war that no Igbo man/woman should be President of the country, unlike their Hausa-Fulani and Yoruba counterparts who have made it their birthrights to perpetually rule this country? What accounts for the second-class status Indigbo occupy in the Nigerian pantomime? Why has the south-east become the most underdeveloped section of the country? Why is there no noteworthy federal presence in the region? Why the traditional gang ups against Indigbo by other ethnic groups during electoral contests? So many pertinent questions remain unanswered fifty years after one of the most catalytic military deluges in human history.
Juxtaposing the body languages of the several federal governments ( both civilian and military) that have stirred Nigeria’s ship of state since the post-wars years, against the repugnant conditions of Indigbo in contemporary Nigeria, it would not be out of place to conclude that there is a deliberate, well-orchestrated stratagem by the victorious ethnic groups in the civil war to keep Igbos far away from the accouterments of power and all its associated dividends. Rather than addressing the grievances that culminated in the war, successive federal governments have further robbed pepper into an already festering sore. The “No Victor, No Vanquished” slogan has turned out to be nothing but a mere ruse; a high-sounding catchphrase that was meant to deaden the resilient Igbo spirit of resistance; a placatory strategy, so to speak.
The truth is that the issues – inequality of the regions, nepotism, unequal representation, ethnicity, insecurity, cronyism, over centralization of power etc – that led to the Civil war are still here with us, and if care is not taken may speed up the eruption of a final and potentially more devastating inferno that could most likely sound the death knell for the Nigerian State as currently constituted. The failures of successive governments to address, with intent to redress, these anomalies, are responsible for the festering crisis currently heating up the polity, threatening to blow it to smithereens.
The recent resurgence in calls for an Independent State of Biafra are borne out of the collective conviction by disgruntled members of a section of the country that they deserve a better deal from the current arrangement. Pro-Biafra groups such as the Nnamdi Kanu led Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB), the Movement for the Actualization of the Sovereign State of Biafra (MASSOB) and other associations of similar mien are the contemporary conduits through which Indigbo have continued the struggle for greater stake in the Nigerian project – ignore the contrary rhetoric of politicians of Igbo stock. Just like Colonel Ojuwkwu was forced to do in 1967, consequent to the mass slaughtering of Igbos in the north, the pro-Biafra forces are challenging (though nonviolently) what they perceive as the continued vassal status of Indigbo in contemporary Nigeria. Like Ojukwu, they believe the best way forward for them is to be given the freedom to freely and fully determine their future themselves; they want self-determination.
Being republicans by nature, Indigbo see their plebeian status in the Nigerian Caste system as a completely unacceptable anomaly that must be resisted and redressed; as a preposterous, rank, slavish and villainous condition, to say the least. Indigbo are individualistic by nature; they depend on no one, but themselves. Freedom is deeply etched in their DNA. This obviously accounts for their dissatisfaction with the disdainful manner they are being treated in Nigeria. They are angry that, despite the contributions of their ancestors to Nigeria’s independence struggles, they are being treated like aliens by those with whom they are supposed to be coheirs of the republic. This kind of anger cannot be doused by force. No gun can silence this spirit.
What Indigbo are asking for is not different from what other marginalized sections of the country are asking for. They want autonomy to run their affairs and determine their future. They want to be given room to express their undoubted potentials. They want a truly Federal Republic of Nigeria where All Nigerians are treated as equals and are allowed to pursue the greatest happiness without restrictions. They want a restructured Nigeria where the regions are equally delineated. They are calling for inclusiveness, justice, equity and fair play; calling for freedom from all encumbrances that have delayed the full realization of Nigeria’s huge potentials. Is that too much to ask for?
There will be no positive peace in Nigeria until the pinpricks of war – insensitive leadership, bigotry, inequality, intolerance of opposition etc – are completely eradicated. Nigeria will continue to wobble, fumble, huff and puff until all germane national questions are answered. Nigeria will continue groping in the dark until those occupying the bastions of power, irrespective of primordial considerations, begin to work assiduously and altruistically towards uniting all disaffected groups under one national umbrella. There will be no peace in Nigeria until all the groups in the country are truly reconciled. Only purposeful leadership can bring about the realization of this ideal.
*** Jude Obuseh is the Executive Director of Conflict Prevention and Peace Building Initiative (CPPBI)