By Joseph Inyama (Uniport Debate Chamber)
Researcher, & Writer
Port Harcourt, Nigeria.
All Right Reserved.
This paper examines the secessionist agitations in Nigeria and the legitimacy of the Biafran self-determination struggle. Emphasis is placed on the series of events leading to Nigeria’s independence, the Biafran war, and the attempts to foster unity among the various groups that make up Nigeria. This work also provides a way forward towards sustainable peace, and unity in Nigeria. The central argument in this paper, is how best Nigeria in view of the demands of 21st century governance can overcome her ethnic differences, in order to build a stronger Nation truly bound in freedom, peace, and unity.
Nigeria is a country with great historical and cultural heritage. It is unarguably Africa’s most populous country, as well as the most populous black Nation, with over 250 ethnic groups and distant languages. Following the outcome of the 1885 Berlin Conference the area of West Africa that would later become Nigeria was ceded to Great Britain.
The introduction of indirect rule system by the British colonial government laid the foundation for division, nepotism that characterized the post-independence politics of Nigeria and this has always put a question mark on the concepts of unity inNigeria. The colonial government under Lord Frederick Lugard however went ahead to amalgamate the southern and northern protectorate to form what we have today as Nigeria. This false unity did not put into consideration the feelings and thoughts of the various ethnic groups that would later become the citizens of Nigeria. The implication of this political chess game on the future socio-political atmosphere of Nigeria was not also put into consideration. Hence the sound of independence bell in Nigeria on October 1, 1960 set the stage for the deconstruction Nigeria’s myths of unity as evident in the series of political crisis, and secessionist agitations that rocked the Nigerian boat shortly after independence. It is important to point out that before independence, the rapid exposure of the scholars of Igbo, and Yoruba extraction equipped them to be at the forefront of the call for self-government. However, ethnic distrust, fear of economic, and political marginalisation, lack of unified voice in view of national struggle culminated into the jostle for political favour over the choice of which ethnic group will produce the leader of the would be independent Nigeria. Thus the struggle changed from a united front against the forces of colonialism, to inter-ethnic struggle over which region takes over the reign of leadership in the post-colonial Nigeria. Therefore by the dawn of independence, the stage was already set for what would later be known in history as the Biafran secessionist war/the Nigerian civil war. In view of the increasing distrust among the political leaders of the various region, and the rich endowment of natural resources in Southern Nigeria, the British colonial government therefore, decided to leave power in the hands of Northern Nigeria who they viewed as their trusted ally. This they ensured by creating a political structure that made Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe, the President and ceremonial Head, a role that can be likened to the role of Queen of England, and then made Alhaji Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, the Prime Minister, saddling him with the constitutional responsibilities of leading Nigeria. This political strategy, the British colonial government thought will consolidate on the positive legacies of colonialism and ultimately keep Nigeria together.
The Birth of the Struggle.
A Nigerian proverb tells us that a man who does not know where the rain began to beat him cannot say where he dried his body. (Achebe, 2012). The rain of secession that is beating Nigeria today began on the January 1, 1914 forced marriage of the Northern and Southern protectorate. The first Republic leaders like Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe, Alhaji Tafawa Balewa, Chief Obafemi Awolowo, Dr. Okotie Eboh, etc, were much engrossed with the independence politics, rather than sitting together to resolve some of the conflicting socio-political issues that will pose a serious threat to the unity of Nigeria in the years following independence, this is because Nigeria’s independence was without any defining national ideology that addresses the issues of marginalisation and unity, therefore shortly after independence ethnic tension, and resentment grew like wild fire in a harmattan season especially against the Igbos. “Nigeria will probably achieve consensus on no other matter than their common resentment against the Igbos” (Achebe C. 2012, P.74). Similarly according to Paul Anger in Achebe’s (There Was A Country: A Personal History of Biafra, P.74-75). He explains;
With unparalleled rapidity, the Igbos advanced fastest in the shortest period of time of all Nigeria’s ethnic groups. Like the Jews, to whom they have frequently been likened, they progressed despite being a minority in the country, filling the ranks of the nation’s educated prosperous upper classes. It was not long before the educational and economic progress of the Igbos led to their becoming the major source of administrators, managers, technicians, civil servants for the country, occupying senior positions out of proportions to their numbers. Particularly with respect to the federal public service and the government statutory corporations. This led to the accusations of an Igbo monopoly of essential services to the exclusion of other ethnic groups.
His explanations throws more light on the high level of resentment against the Igbos, consequently shortly after independence, corruption, ethnic prejudice, marginalisation of the minorities, massacre of the Igbos in Northern Nigeria, and the silence of the government in the face of the pogrom, culminated into the brutal Biafra war of secession/Nigerian civil war. It is historically important to also note that some Hausa/Fulani settlers in Eastern Nigeria were also killed by the Igbos in revenge for the death of their kindred in the North. The war to the Biafrans was a liberation struggle, and freedom from an oppressive leadership that seeks to exterminate them, while to the Nigerian government it was a war to keep the country united against the forces of separation.
The Biafran Secessionist War.
Between September, 1966-May 1967, there were several incidents of massacre of Igbos across the northern region, yet Gen. Gowon led federal government did little, or nothing to address the issue. By mid-1966, there were unwritten consensuses among Northern soldiers that there would be a July rematch with their Igbo colleagues in retaliation of the killings of the Northern political elites in the January 15, 1966 coup. In view of their numerical strength in the infantry, it was crystal clear that a revenge coup by Northern soldiers would have a drastic effect on the unity and stability of Nigeria. Although the then Head of State, Major Gen. Aguiyi Ironsi made several efforts to placate the North, through the promotion of soldiers of Northern origin, yet they were determined on matching their words with action. For instance, one of the newly promoted Lt. Col. Murtala Mohammed was not placated, in an unguarded outburst in the presence of Igbo officers; he referred to the Head of State, Maj. Gen. Aguiyi Ironsi as a “Fool”. In the long run, the counter coup was carried out on July 29, 1966, resulting to the humiliation and the eventual brutal murder of Maj. Gen. Ironsi, and Lt. Col. Fajuyi, in Ibadan. (Madiebo, 1980). This happened because of the ethnic coloration of post-independence politics. After the death of Maj. Gen. Ironsi, the most senior officer to take over as the Head of State was Brigadier Babafemi Ogundipe, but the coup plotters threatened to secede if they were not allowed to install a leadership of their choice. The De-facto coup leader Lt-Col. Murtala Muhammed insisted that they be allowed to choose the new Head of State as that is the only condition for cease fire. (N.U.Akpan, The Struggle For Secession). The breakdown of order and discipline in the military within this period resulted in the unabated continuous torture, and gruesome killings of Igbo soldiers and civilians in the north. Consequently Lt. Col. Ojukwu the then Governor of Eastern Nigeria called on the Igbos in the North to begin to make their way back to the Eastern Nigeria where the security of their lives and properties can be guaranteed. These happenings in no doubt undermined the concept of unity in the new nation. In response to Lt.Col. Ojukwu’s call, Igbos began to make there way back to their region, but not without encountering several deadly ambush laid in different routes by Northern soldiers. It is against this backdrop that Lt. Col. Ojukwu declared the secession of the Igbos from Nigeria on May 30, 1967. In view of the above, one will observe that the Igbos were brutally massacred by fellow citizens. Thus the concept of unity in Nigeria is better expressed in words, not in action. The unity of Nigeria therefore is expressed in the rich natural resources of the South; unity is further expressed in sports, cultural heritage, etc. However when it comes to political leadership, and economic opportunities, a very big chasm exist between the Northern, and the Southern Nigeria. To be more precise the North believes that political leadership in Nigeria is their manifest destiny. Issues bordering on resource control, marginalization of the minorities, political leadership, and social justice were also other factors that culminated into the Biafran secessionist war that lasted between May 31, 1967- January 12,1970.
The Road to Sustainable Peace, and Unity.
Everything that is happening in the world today is playing out in Nigeria at the micro level. About 49 years after the war, issues bordering on self-determination, leadership, marginalisation of the minorities, etc, are still the bane to unity and national development. More so, the imbalance nature of the federation with the North having a preponderance influence over other federating units, the continuous rivalry between the Hausa/Fulani ethnic group, and the Igbos are further challenges hindering the place of peace in the present day Nigeria, consequently resulting to the resurgence of all kinds of secessionist agitations within the Igbo ethnic nationality to liberate, and emancipate the socio-political conditions of the Igbos. This is evident in Ralph Uwazurike led Movement for Actualization of Sovereign State of Biafra (MASSOB), and later the Nnamdi Kanu led Independent People of Biafra (IPOB) secessionist agitation which is the trending socio-political issue in Nigeria today following the arrest of Nnamdi Kanu in October, 2015 and his continuing incarceration by the Nigerian government. The big question therefore is; where did they Nigerian government get it wrong with the Biafra agitators? This time calls for a shift in thinking. We need more of inter-ethnic relationships championed by a responsible leadership. Hence Nigeria as a matter of necessity will have to adopt the following suggestions as a way forward:
The time is ripe for us to tackle the challenges of these agitations with new paradigms that will ensure lasting peace. In tackling present challenges we need to talk, and we had better not lie. None of the regions were there to negotiate the terms of 1914 amalgamation. The implication is that, there will always be ethnic tension among the various groups in Nigeria. Therefore, we have reason to come together to articulate a feasible framework that will determine Nigeria’s collective existence, and survival as a nation. There have been reports of several commissions that looked into the question of minority marginalization, e.g. Willink Minorities Commission, 1957. There are also reports of number of conferences whose recommendations were not adopted e.g. the Abacha conference of 1994, and the Jonathan sovereign national conference of 2014. More so, following the inconclusive nature, and controversies that have trailed national dialogues on Nigeria’s foundation principle and national unity till date. I think it is time to make an exception to the political argument that Nigeria’s unity is not negotiable. The Biafran secessionist agitation is a vital area that requires negotiation.
Addressing the Issues with the Biafra Agitators.
The agitators feel that they have been marginalized in the federation of the present day Nigeria, so they want to exercise their right to self-determination. The questions again: is this feasible under the present democratic set up? Can they survive on their own without the support or linkages to other ethnic groups and regions? Are they right to continue with this agitations? The answers to these questions are simple and straight; the International covenant on civil and political rights papers, in tandem with UN Charter part 1, article 1 states, “All people have the right of self-determination. By virtue of that right, they freely determine political status and freely pursue their economic, socio-cultural development. In no case may a people be deprived of its own means of subsistence. The states parties to the present covenant, including those having responsibility for the administration on non-self-Governing and Trust Territories shall promote the realisation of the right to self-determination, and shall respect that right, in conformity with the provisions of the Charter of the United Nations”. This therefore answers the question of the legitimacy of the Biafra agitators. As long as these agitations are conducted in a non-violent manner, it is legitimate and must be accommodated by the government in power. Therefore all of those that have been incarcerated because of their demand for self-determination should be promptly released and let the issues be tabled for discussion. Nothing is impossible on the table of negotiation, the likes of Nnamdi Kanu and hundreds of Biafran protesters that are currently been detained by the Nigerian government should henceforth be released. According to Gianpieri Petriglieri “We cannot win a war on intolerance. We can only respect each other out of it”. It is easy to remain speechless, scream, or strike when words do not suffice. But talking is what we need now, especially about what might be hard to hear.
Change in Leadership Style.
The Biafran agitations and other relative struggles in Nigeria calls for a leadership that will not be in a hurry to please the establishment, a leadership that will not be pushed around by the political elites in other to maintain the status quo, but the type of leadership that will examine and analyze situations thoroughly before proffering and implementing solutions. Also this time calls for an intelligent leadership that will be far above the partisanship of ethnicity and religion. Quoting Gianpieri Petriglieri again as published in the Harvard Business Review “fostering civilization means cultivating our commitment to respect them within and between groups. For that we need not more effective, but humane leaders, less conflicting ones. Leaders who can hold on their voice, and help others find theirs; when it feels riskier to do so, there are plenty of good tribal leaders already, we need more of civilized leaders instead”.
A Call For A Referendum.
The Biafran Nation has earned a right to a poll in order to understand how deep and serious agitation for separation from Nigeria truly runs. It will be in the overall interest of Biafran Nation in particular, and Nigeria at large to address this issue once and for all. Nigeria must stand up to the realities that the civil war did not buy us peace and unity. War does not guarantee peace, but social justice and equity do.
Has there been a true reconciliation, rehabilitation, and reintegration 49 years after the war? If no, what are the issues? Can these issues be passed on to the people to decide through a referendum? Why not try to explain the position of the federation nicely to the people; the advantage of a diverse, united, and strong Nation, over a small country in the comity of nations. Perhaps the people need to understand more of what they stand to lose if the Niger Delta, for example, refuses to go along with the Biafrans. Why not the Nigerian government try to explain to the greatest migrant tribe (Igbos) in the nation outside the Fulani herdsmen, of how difficult it will be for them to criss-cross the nation if the split takes place. But this decision however rests with the people and not through the suppressive force of the government and its security agencies. This is why the referendum is a very important suggestion for a way forward towards a united Nigeria. Not too long ago the United Kingdom of Britain experienced such challenges from the people of Scotland which was settled through a people’s referendum. The Nigerian government should tow this path in other to end these secessionist agitations Gowon’s “No Victor, No Vanquish” declaration after the war faces a reality check in today’s Nigeria. If there was indeed “No Victor, No Vanquish” then Nigeria must be prepared to give listening ear to those who claim that their future lies outside the Nigerian state. To deny them a fair hearing is to tacitly imply that the Vanquished will air their views, and the Victor will have their way.
The Nigerian leaders need to do more to promote national consciousness among citizens in other to eradicate the ethnic sentiments that has always pitch each region against the other. There is no question that a strong and compelling case can be made for Nigeria’s unity, and that there are sound historical, economic, and socio-political reasons why a united Nigeria makes sense. No one can however, make the case for Nigeria’s unity to the Biafran nation more effectively than the Igbo sons and daughters who believe in the ideology, dreams, and the promise of a united Nigeria. Nigeria therefore have to trust in the ability of the Igbo nation to make this ultimate choice.
Achebe, C. (2012), “There Was A Country; A Personal History of Biafra” Penguin Group (USA) Inc, 175, Hudson Street, N/Y
Akpan N.U. (1972), “The Struggle For Secession”
Madiebo A.A. (1980), “The Nigeria Revolution and The Biafra War”, Fourth Dimension Publishers, USA. ISBN 9781561173.
Odumeegwu C. O. (1989) “Because I am Involved” , Spectrum books, Ibadan.
2. News Papers and Magazines.
The Guardian Newspapers, October 2, 2015.
Vanguard Newspapers, September 30, 2010.
Vanguard Newspapers, Novermber 24, 2015.
Sahara Reporters, January 10, 2016.
SpeechLogAfrica-Achives August 16, 2013.