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Time to call the question of Biafra

Professor Olúfẹ́mi Táíwò

Can somebody please remind me, again, why Nnamdi Kanu is still sitting in jail? Of course, I know the various charges that have been leveled against him. And I am not one to pooh-pooh the charges or suggest that they lack merit. But the larger and deeper issue from which arose the charges that he faces is the one that has prompted the reflections in this piece.

Kanu’s ultimate crime is that he dared call for the secession of a part of the country that styles itself “Biafra” from the rest of Nigeria. What I propose to address here is the idea that it is a crime, per se, to call for the break-up of the entity called Nigeria. I plan to call into question this orientation. I am firmly of the opinion that, based on what we know right now, every day that Kanu spends in jail is an injustice.

Let me be clear. I don’t know Kanu. From the profile of him that I have read, he does not strike me as a genuine freedom fighter and a lot of his responses to his current situation smacks too much of rank opportunism and borderline cowardice. But, as every serious democrat knows, it is precisely when we find people odious that our commitment to ideas and the freedom to express them is tested and requires demonstration.

We fought a civil war provoked by the declaration of secession by what then was the Eastern Region that, as a result, became the Republic of Biafra. In the aftermath, the rest of the country rose in defense of the political and territorial integrity of the Nigerian state. Whatever one feels about the war, it was a pivotal moment, a defining moment for Nigeria. Regardless of how the country originated, like similar situations in history, the war became a watershed, a moment when the very existence of the country was consecrated in blood. It was almost as if there were enough of us Nigerians then convinced of the worth and necessity of the experiment that we were willing to shed precious blood “to keep Nigeria one”.

As in similar situations in history, the task for those of us who survived the war, victor or vanquished, was to ensure that our blood was not shed in vain, that the untold suffering of Biafran children was not for naught, and that the cost exacted by our need to stay together would impel us to build a country that would by now be on the path to realizing its billing as the greatest “black” nation on earth!

No one denies that this is a dream that remains deferred. Worse, as a result of repeated misrule by the military and the collective irresponsibility of our politicians and intellectuals, all the gains of the civil war, the promise of solidifying the unity of the country and creating a supranationality—the true outcome of the national question—of which all Nigerians would be proud remains elusive.

What ought to have been a glorious opportunity for a brand-new country was aborted and alienation from the very idea of Nigeria became magnified. The leaders of the secessionist bid, the Igbo nation, especially a significant portion of its leadership, never reconciled with the idea of Nigeria. At intervals since then, with different degrees of severity, the demand for separation from Nigeria and the inauguration of an Igbo-denominated Republic of Biafra has become a permanent feature of the Nigerian political scape.

For a long time, the Movement for the Actualization of the Sovereign State of Biafra (MASSOB) was the spearhead of this agitation. A younger generation, impatient with what they see as the snail pace at which MASSOB has been moving towards the actualisation of their dream of a sovereign republic, organized under the aegis of the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) under the leadership of NnamdiKanu. It is the activism of this group that has resulted in the charges against and the incarceration of Kanu.

What is of moment in this discussion is that since Kanu’s shenanigans made national news the question of Biafra has become topical again. As I said above, just as it is the business of non-governing parties to plot the ouster of an incumbent government at the next election, a multi-nation State like Nigeria cannot preempt the constituting units from contemplating and acting towards restructuring be that the break-up of particular states within it—mistakenly dubbed “creation of states” in current parlance—or the excision of specific units from it. The emergence of new states should not be by fiat. The say-so of the residents of the existing state and that of the proposed state should be established through serious campaign for and against, with cases made by the respective sides towards swaying public opinion in favour of their preferences. We no longer live in a dictatorship where some unrepresentative decision-makers dictate where and when new states should emerge. This is the fallacy of depending on so-called “National Conferences” or even amendments to a constitution that never had any popular inputs in its origination.

In other words, any law against secession is a futility where a section is desperate and\or alienated enough to attempt secession. A people who are willing to die by their thousands are not likely forever to be kept away from their goal unless serious efforts are made to make separation less appealing and belonging in the existing state more desirable.

South Sudan went through two cycles of bloody civil wars before separation from Sudan was effected. Eritrea fought for an even longer period even though theirs was not a secessionist enterprise. For seventy years, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) pretended that “the national question”, as it was then styled, had been put to bed. Then the Berlin Wall came down, there was a failed military coup and, just like that, the Soviet Union was no more. Not long thereafter we discovered that Yugoslavia was no more than a house of cards. And the small state of Czechoslovakia showed us that size has nothing to do with complexity and attending fissiparous tendencies where different nations, yes, nations, cohere uneasily within a single state.

I have cited the preceding examples to show that the Nigerian experience is neither unique nor particularly intractable in the annals of the comparative experiences of other multi-nation states in the world. Centrifugal tendencies are inherent in their very being. The only difference in the Nigerian case is our penchant for playing ostrich and believing, firmly ensconced in the sorcerer’s cove that our country, nay, continent has become, that if we repeat enough the non-negotiability of our unity or affirm interminably our unity, things will be so. It is a pity that this is how and what we have become.

The path of reason is to acknowledge the fact that Nigeria, like the preponderant proportion of countries in the world, is not, repeat, not a nation-state. It is a multi-nation state. It may ultimately become a nation after several generations of living together and evolving common myths, usages, language even, That Nigeria is not and has never been a nation is not a flaw. It is just brute fact. It shares this fate with the United Kingdom, Switzerland, China, Russia, Belgium, Canada, India, and others. This is not the place to dilate on the theoretical foundations of the claim just stated.

This brings us to the fact that Nigeria is an artificial country that was put together by non-Nigerians. No one sought the consent of the people that were literally gaveled into existence as “Nigerians” when the state was originally constituted. There is a sense in which one can argue that the original emergence of Nigerians was the equivalent of kidnapping.

Yes, some may argue that, at independence, we could have freed ourselves from the forced identity foisted on us by our colonizers. And there, definitely, were such tendencies both before and after independence. Furthermore, it could be argued that, as indicated above, the civil war was another watershed for cementing our living together in the context of one country.

Unfortunately, since this contraption of a country was handed over to us, there has not been a time that we have sat down as a people to determine what kind of country we would like to be, what would be the terms of engagement for its federating peoples, what the internal relations should be amongst its diverse nations and how its federating units should be constituted and, when circumstances demand, reconstituted over time.

The only time a reconstitution was undertaken under a democratic dispensation was the perfidious scheme that led to the creation of the Midwest Region in 1963, not out of any principle, but to undermine a particular political party. All other restructuring efforts have been done by diktat of diverse military rulers.

It seems as if the main reasons for staying together have been fear of a break-up, the oil-money induced opportunism of the elite in the post-war period, and the all-knowing arrogance of military misrule.

Given what I just said, there is a very simple solution to the question of Biafra and others across the country. As we might say in parliamentary parlance, it is way past time to call the question of Biafra.

As things stand, the only issues to be resolved are the following:

1.Formulate rules for how the constituent nations that make up Nigeria are to federate

2.Formulate rules for establishing how state boundaries are to be set and redrawn when there are agitations for reconstituting those boundaries

3.Set the conditions for what percentage of those who live in an existing state must indicate a desire to form a separate state or be completely excised from Nigeria, as a whole, before such a wish can be effected

4.Only with (3) can we establish the popularity of MASSOB or IPOB amongst Igbo people and whether the boundaries of Biafra will extend over the old Eastern Region or just states currently dominate by Igbo elements.

5.Relief must be provided for those who elect to stay with the existing unit. Similarly, just like the majority electing to have its way, the minorities within their spatial boundaries may be granted veto powers unless certain iron-clad guarantees be given for the continuing viability of their cultural identity and practices within the new unit.

When (1) though (5) shall have been satisfied and the requisite percentage of Igbo elect to leave, that choice should be respected and amicable separation be enacted.

I am tired of hearing about how Igbo or any other people want to leave Nigeria. Let us put the rules in place. Let those who wish to go, go in peace and let those who remain on mutually agreed terms proceed with their collective lives, too.

  • Olúfẹ́mi Táíwò teaches at the Africana Studies and Research Center, Cornell University, Ithaca, NY, U.S.A.


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About the author

Sydney Chesterfield

Poet, Playwright, Philosopher, Humanitarian, mad lover of children and unflinching fighter for equality on all grounds viz. Women's rights, child rights, sine die.

Twitter: @syd_field