Biafra: Time to put a closure
Memories of two personalities of Southeastern origin have etched on the psyche of Igbo nation and on the mind of an average Igbo man in Nigeria, including myself. They are Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe, the Owelle of Onitsha and the Biafran warlord, Col. Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu, the Ikemba of Nnewi.
But both represent two opposing phases in the transitional history of Igbo nation or our people. Also, each one of them made influential imprints on the lives of our people, irrespective of whether it was for good or bad. A society or community remembers its own, based on the extent anyone impacted positively on the lives of the people. It is reason, in most African communities, personalities are canonised, deified or elevated to remarkable historical monuments. Legends sprout from such background.
The Ghanaians talk of the Great Kwame Nkrumah and South Africans endearingly worship Nelson Mandela. In Nigeria, South-westerners idolise the late Chief Obafemi Awolowo and Northern Nigerians have erected multiple monuments after the Sardauna of Sokoto and first Premier of Northern Nigeria, Sir Ahmadu Bello.
But I believe what is central to the erection of fond memories around personalities, whether dead or alive, is to espouse and enliven the progressive visions, ideas and legacies they embodied as source of inspiration to the upcoming generation. I consider it absurd and in fact, I have not experienced any community where a son or daughter who brought destruction on his people is immortalised. There is no community of sane people that propagates such retrogressive inclinations.
But I find my people, the Igbo nation, attempting to consciously make this silly historical mistake. Last week, Nigerians converged on Abuja to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Biafra. Personally, I feel there is nothing wrong with such a gathering, to the extent it serves to remind us of the thorny road we once traversed.
The counsels at the forum by respected Nigerians like former President Olusegun Obasanjo on the further pursuit of the Biafran cause were witty and instructive. As a father to us all, he provided better insights into how we can actualise the Biafran dream that boots and guns could not accede to us as a people between 1967 and 1970, during the bloody Nigerian civil war.
However, what I find disconcerting with my kinsmen is the latter-day resurrection of Biafran instincts by people I prefer to brand as over ambitious brothers and a few sisters in the fold. Perhaps, we have failed to learn from history why Ojukwu’s version of a Republic of Biafra failed. And so we are prepared to repeat the same mistakes and thereafter, we begin to cry out to the world, about appalling mass genocide of our people.
I don’t think it’s enough for anyone to garb himself in war-like apron, grab a few desperate youths in the Southeast, arm them with sophisticated weapons and then begin the public march on streets and cities of the Southeast, proclaiming “life or death,” if Nigeria does not concede to our demand of a Biafran state.
If we are prepared to extract Biafran state for ourselves by the dictates of brute force as has become the end game of the Ralph Uwazuruike’s MASSOB or Nnamdi Kanu’s IPOB, then we must have made serious and covert arrangement for it. Only that can save us from the pitfalls that swallowed Ojukwu when he declared what he later discovered was a war he lacked the strength to prosecute to a victorious end.
On the reverse side, if we are adopting the stick approach, we must ensure it is grounded in the ethos of democratic civility, law and decency; the universal conventions prescribed by world bodies, such as the United Nations (UN), European Union (EU), African Union (AU) and the lot. But it is sadly not the case with today’s agitations for secession.
We are overtly applying both the stick and carrot approach simultaneously, a sign of our confusion. I am not convinced that such would work, if a Biafran state at this phase of our history is anything worthwhile to pursue with such vehemence.
But beyond this plank of reasoning, I am tempted to ask myself again, that based on the allusions of legends I made earlier in this piece, where is Ohaneze Ndi’gbo heading with a Biafran state now? Of the two most pronounced figures (Azikiwe and Ojukwu), whose legacies are worth emulating? Is it Ojukwu who by every nuance of assessment can be described as someone who selfishly anchored the massacre of our people and the destruction of our land, human and material resources, or should it be the popular Zik of Africa, who fought to his grave to accord Igbo nation an identity in the configuration and context of unity of Nigeria?
Or is it not more sensible to copy the footsteps of Zik, our modern patriarch, whose vision developed us and deposited worthy legacies of unity and human development and the relics dot our landscape today?
We are pleaded upon to be reasonable for once. I know many will chastise me for the position I have taken. But maybe, they are yet to come face to face with the harshness of the vagaries of life and so, we feel it is easy to fetch knives, bows and arrows and guns to proclaim Biafran state on the streets. I am sure, for many more, when they hear counselling, such as “no nation survives two civil wars,” like some elements in Ndi’gbo are pushing, so crudely, it sounds to them like echoes of distant drums.
But I wish to use this platform to remind us of our failings as a people. Any society or community that aspires to progress, downplays its retrogressive past. It is not positive thinking to continue to emulate the virtues of Ojukwu. The respected army officer has lived his life and in his own time and passed unto eternity in blissful ease. He made mistakes, committed blunders and confined us to the fate we now face, and desperately trying to extricate ourselves. But I don’t think it is plausible for us to continue to fashion our destinies after such an idol or his visions.
What has stopped us from striving to live the more positive and progressive life of the Great Zik of Africa. Today, this great nationalist and Pan-Africanist and whatever he represented; the positive values have been buried by us. I nearly wept when I read the motion for the establishment of Nnamdi Azikiwe Foundation by Chiedozie Alex Ogbonnia.
He said: “For reasons that cannot be explained, we seem to have ignored the necessity of establishing a foundation in memory of the great Nnamdi Azikiwe. By all definitions and descriptions, Nnamdi Azikiwe is a hero, not just in Igboland, but also in Nigeria and beyond.”
These are issues that should preoccupy our minds. A foundation was coming for Nnamdi Azikiwe decades after his contemporaries in the Southwest or the North had theirs established for them by their own people. Yet he was a son who made bold marks on the sands of time. Zik was the first President and Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces of the Federal Republic of independent Nigeria. He was known as a Pan-Africanist; radical and irrepressible journalist, nationalist, party leader, legislator, minister, premier, Senate President and Governor-General, who lived for Igbo nation and Africans generally.
An extremely very proud descendant of the Igbo race, Azikiwe’s lifestyle influenced and propelled hundreds of Igbo graduates to enlist in the public service with his support in post- independence Nigeria.
He lived and defended the Igbo self-worth. For instance, at the 13th Annual Assembly of the Ibo Union, held in Owerri Hall, Enugu on December 19, 1954, Azikiwe decried the verbal attacks on his people and berated security for their inaction.
The Zik of Africa vehemently argued for self-determination by the establishment of an Ibo state to place the Igbo on a pedestal equal to other ethnic groupings that comprise Nigeria and the Cameroons, but emphasising the indivisibility of Nigeria.
Desirous of development and unity among his people, Azikiwe initiated and promoted Ibo unions and town unions in all the Igbo communities, which later blossomed and embarked on development projects. These unions also assisted brilliant Igbo natives to gain admission into Nigerian and foreign universities.
When the Biafran war raged, Azikiwe delivered a speech at Oxford University on February 16, 1969, where he outlined a 14-point peace plan for implementation by a United Nations (UN) Peace Keeping Force. He made frantic efforts to resolve the conflict, though both the UN and the Federal Government of Nigeria rejected the proposals as unworkable. But at least, he expressed his desire for peace.
But in contrast, Ojukwu negated all that the Great Zik represented in respect of unity, peace and development of Igbo nation. But unfortunately, we are more interested in copying his legacies. The events of January 15, 1966 putsch led by Major Kaduna Nzeogwu could not have necessarily exploded into a civil war. But unfortunately, Ojukwu exploited this incident to settle a personal score with the then Head of State, Gen. Yakubu Gowon.
My understanding of it was more of an egoistic battle of sophistry between Col. Ojukwu and Gen. Gowon. And he had to drag his kinsmen into it to give it a broader patronage and sympathy.
Have we imagined that it could have been excusable for Ojukwu to go to war without widespread dialogue and approval of his people? Can we excuse him for declaring a Biafran Republic which he knew would lead to war, without stocking himself with arms and ammunition or consulting widely and seeking the approval of the community he wanted to protect through war? It is the same mistake we want to repeat today.
And Col. Ojukwu sneaked away into self-exile, when it became evident he could no longer sustain the fire he ignited; while hunger and disease killed thousands of our people as a consequence of the war. I think we need to be more circumspect today, than ever. We have licked the dried wounds of Biafra for too long.
- Ibekwe writes from the University of Nigeria Nsukka (UNN), Enugu State.