"As an Igbo woman in the diaspora, I watch nervously as demonstrators in Nigeria and abroad agitate again for a sovereign Biafra."
Dad and I in Kano during my first holy communion.
I was probably eight the first time I heard about Biafra. It was from an Igbo classmate in elementary school who whispered how “our people” had tried to create their own land, but the Hausas wouldn’t let them. As a young girl who was born and raised in Kano, northern Nigeria, and missed school days because of riots between members of my predominantly Christian Igbo tribe and Hausa Muslims, I grew accustomed to living in fear. At that time, Biafra sounded like a haven, a place where my family would no longer feel like outsiders.
As a child, the failure to create this utopian state was an outrage. But I got older and learned about the failed coup, a poorly planned war and the people who suffered and died as a result. My disillusionment grew upon witnessing how Nigeria’s corruption cuts across all tribes; even Igbo leaders are culprits.
Today, as an Igbo woman in the diaspora, I watch nervously as demonstrators in Nigeria and abroad agitate again for a sovereign Biafra, marching and defiantly waving the flag of the defunct state. My anxiety comes from the fear of seeing history repeat itself. I remember my father’s tales of starving during the war and carrying his kwashiorkor-stricken brother. He was 13 when the conflict began in 1967. Then there was the maternal uncle who stripped himself of his Biafran army uniform at the end of the war in 1970 and ran naked through the woods to escape the wrath of vengeful Nigerian soldiers. How quickly we forget. It seems as if both parties—Biafra supporters and the Nigerian government—failed to learn from past mistakes.
THE BIAFRAN DREAM
The recent protests were triggered by the arrest of pro-Biafra activist Nnamdi Kanu on October 19, 2015, in Lagos. Nigeria’s Department of State Security Services picked up Kanu, the director of the London-based radio station, Radio Biafra, for sedition, ethnic incitement and treasonable felony. Charges President Muhammadu Buharideems fitting as Kanu is notorious for seeking “guns and bullets” to reclaim the Biafran dream and heading the Indigenous People of Biafra, a separatist group that believes inhabitants of South East, areas of South South and the Middle Belt in Nigeria are today “under occupation, servitude and modern day slavery under the Hausa-Fulani controlled Nigerian establishment.”
Civil rights activist Medgar Evers’s words, “you can kill a man, but you can’t kill an idea,” ring true today with the idea of Biafra. Members of my tribe, the third largest in Nigeria, know pro-Biafra sentiments have endured since the end of Nigeria’s bloody 30-month civil war. I’ve spotted Biafran flags at the market in Awka and on streets in Umuahia.
In 1966, after 30,000 Igbos living in northern and parts of Western Nigeria were killed in a series of pogroms at the hands of their ethnic rivals—Hausas and Yorubas, then military governor of the Eastern region and Igbo homeland, Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu urged all Igbos to return home. The pogrom, many call it a genocide, was one of the ripple effects of a bloody coup by mostly Igbo majors who wanted to rid Nigeria’s post-independence civilian government of corrupt politicians. But the coup was dubbed an “Igbo coup” and seen as an attempt by Igbos to dominate Nigeria because the majority of those assassinated were top politicians from other tribes, including two prominent Hausa leaders and founding fathers, Prime Minister Tafawa Balewa and the Sardauna of Sokoto, Ahmadu Bello.
By May 30, 1967, following the 1966 reprisal killings and increased secessionist pressures from his tribesmen, Ojukwu declared the Eastern region an independent sovereign state as the Republic of Biafra. The Nigerian army outnumbered and outgunned the Biafran forces and by the war’s end in January 1970 between one and three million people had died due to the conflict, disease and starvation. The Igboland was left in ruins, Ojukwu fled to Ivory Coast and Biafra was reintegrated into Nigeria. When he returned from exile in 1983, Ojukwu defended his decision to secede during an interview with Independent Television News: “Biafra was created as an act of self-defense,” he said.
“When you start fleeing, once you cross onto this area called ‘Biafra’ you are home,” he added.
Everything involved in realizing the new country from its flag, whose red-black-and-green colors are reminiscent of Marcus Garvey's UNIA flag, to the Ahiara Declaration, which is the Biafran equivalent of the Declaration of Independence, was rooted in the ideals of Pan-Africanism and Black empowerment. Besides being a haven for mostly Igbos, Ojukwu envisioned a broader appeal for Biafra as outlined in the Ahiara Declaration:
Our struggle is a total and vehement rejection of all those evils, which blighted Nigeria, evils which were bound to lead to the disintegration of that ill-fated federation. Our struggle is not a mere resistance - that would be purely negative. It is a positive commitment to build a healthy, dynamic and progressive state, such as would be the pride of black men the world over.
When the war ended, Nigeria failed to effectively follow through with its peace building efforts—Reconciliation, Reconstruction and Rehabilitation or the Three Rs as they were known then. General Yakubu Gowon, the leader of the Nigerian side, declared, “no victor, no vanquished,” but both sides knew this to be untrue, especially with post-war policies that marginalized the Igbo people. One of which included the institution of a financial policy preventing former Biafrans from accessing prewar personal funds in Nigerian banks. Former Biafrans were permitted to exchange only 20 Biafran pounds for 20 Nigerian pounds.
Then there is the policy of “military neutralization” as mentioned in Dartmouth College professor Ifi Amadiume’s book, The Politics of Memory: Truth, Healing and Social Justice. Measures were taken to curb Igbo military resurgence, such as slowing upward mobility of Igbo officers and excluding Igbo officers from chief military ranks.
Steps like these, including failed promises from past Nigerian leaders to build the region, gradually alienated members of the tribe from the Federal Government. They came off as punishments and suggested a move to check Igbo ambitions lest the civil war repeat itself. Thus, it was no surprise that in September 1999, Igbo lawyer Ralph Uwazuruike created the Movement for the Actualization of the Sovereign State Of Biafra to pursue the Biafran cause through nonviolent means. Other pro-Biafra groups sprung up as well like the Biafra Zionist Movement and Kanu’s IPOB. The Nigerian government, however, turned to violent means to suppress these groups. Members were arrested, allegations of silent killings spread and Uwazuruike was detained and charged with treason on several occasions. As with Uwazuruike, the Federal Government is taking the same heavy-handed approach to squelch Kanu’s Biafran ambitions without addressing their origins and socioeconomic issues in the country that continue to make the Biafra dream attractive.
Nigeria’s festering socioeconomic woes create an environment where separatist groups with different ideologies can thrive—from the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta to Boko Haram, each one promising fellow tribesmen and religious folk what the government has failed to deliver.
In Kanu’s case, the Nigerian government further complicated matters by failing to uphold a court order deeming his arrest unlawful. Since gaining independence from Britain in 1960, Nigeria has had more years of military rule than civilian. Two of the four civilian presidents from the inception of the Fourth Republic were former military generals. While confronting protesters, the Nigerian government failed to realize that stern tactics employed in the past during dictatorial military regimes cannot abide in a civilian government.
Credit: Sigfrid Lundberg
THE DESCENDANTS OF BIAFRA
In 1967, the Biafran dream was created and sustained by intellectuals, writers, scientists and other revolutionaries as Chinua Achebe pointed out in his book, There Was A Country. While there are genuine leftover sentiments from the war, today's movement, however, is rooted in economic inequality, unemployment and political disenfranchisement. A majority of the protesters are young people—descendants of former Biafrans—who did not experience the war, but still fantasize about the nation that could have been. They see Biafra as a way of dissociating themselves from Nigeria, a government that has failed them time and time again, and these protests are a call for self-determination. But, while there are legitimate calls for secession, there are also selfish power-hungry Igbo leaders who have a stake in the realization of Biafra. We know this because in the past Igbo leaders have been guilty of misappropriating and misusing government funds. Even the Ohanaeze Ndigbo, a top Igbo sociopolitical group consisting of Igbo communities within and outside Nigeria, have distanced themselves from the protests, citing similar concerns over its motives.
Politicians and ambitious leaders in Nigeria have mastered the art of dividing and conquering by splitting the populace against itself. They target groups that are ill-informed and gullible. This tactic has proven effective in a country where, as of 2010, fewer than two out of three adults were literate (35 million), a rate expected to have grown by one million or more by the end of 2015.
What frightened me most was Kanu’s speech at the 2015 World Igbo Convention. The clip offers a rare insight into the character of the leader that pro-Biafra agitators picked to rally behind. From remarking on how he’d take advantage of America’s liberal gun laws to “shoot dead” anyone at the conference who helped Buhari secure his presidency, he went on to demand ammunition by inciting fear against Hausa dominance. Befuddling his audience with doublespeak, Kanu failed to outline benefits for future Biafran veterans, and resorted to preying on the religious and familial feelings of Igbos in the diaspora.
It’s been less than a year since president Buhari assumed office, it is, therefore, too soon for pro-Biafra agitators to express disillusion with a government that has barely had time to serve them, in support of a leader with no clear-cut vision or strategy on how to achieve Biafra. The first time in 1967, it seemed like Igbos had no choice. Now we do and if an independence referendum ever becomes an option, it’d be unwise to vote for a new nation with poor leadership.
This dissatisfaction and impatience with the country is felt throughout Nigeria, and oftentimes Igbos choose to channel their discontent towards "Biafranism."
However, Igbos, at this time, have no true visionary or charismatic leaders to ground their emotions and guide them. Perhaps Biafranism need not be a struggle for an independent nation, but one for independent minds, a movement focused on self-reliance, empowering Igbo communities intellectually, and restoring pride and a sense of brotherhood. Or as one questioner said during the Igbo conference, “all politics are local… Before we talk about what the Hausas are doing to us, what are we doing to clean our house?”
Instead of encouraging a society where the Biafran subject is taboo, the Nigerian government should be honest about its place in the country’s history and take better steps to collaborate with the Igbo community, develop the region and eliminate policies of distrust that make Igbos feel inferior. Dialoguing with leaders of separatist groups, hearing their grievances and instituting effective peace and reconciliation agreements can help bring healing to Nigeria and prevent future groups from hijacking the Biafra narrative for personal aims. Historians from both sides—Nigeria and former Biafra—need to properly document the civil war and teach it as part of our nation’s history in schools throughout the country. You can either take charge of the story and the country’s role in it or someone else will do it for you.
Economically, it is not in the best interests of the Igbo community to consider breaking away from Nigeria. Today, 45 years after the civil war, Igbos are scattered throughout the country, holding jobs, running businesses and conducting investments far away from the Igbo homeland. Some of them are relatives and family friends whose sources of livelihood are inextricably tied to the rest of the country. Like my father, they share no pro-Biafra sentiments and distrust the protests today. “There are some people sponsoring those protests to divert attention from Buhari’s ongoing probe,” my father told me on the phone recently in reference to the president’s all-out war against corrupt officials. He used to run his own hospital in Kano, but migrated back to the southeast after the 2012 Boko Haram attacks. He reiterated the words of Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka that when you fight corruption, it fights back hard. “The Igbo people can’t keep following these brainwashing types [of leaders]. Since when have we held our representatives in the Senate and House of Reps responsible regarding what they have done for their constituents? Those are the people we should be asking questions.”
Today I’m a hurting Igbo woman and a heartbroken Nigerian, but I’ll admit that I began to hope again when Buhari assumed office in May 2015. I do not think that to be Igbo is to be Biafran. My father was a Biafran, a citizen of a sovereign entity called “Biafra”. I never was. There were moments as a child and even as an adult when I wished that Biafra had succeeded in the past, only because I was exhausted with Nigeria’s failures. But that was the Biafra of Ojukwu, Alexander Madiebo, Chinua Achebe, Christopher Okigbo, Nnamdi Azikwe and countless intellectuals and visionaries not the farce that is playing out on the streets of Onitsha and the Igbo heartland. I’ve always loved and admired my people’s resilience and ambition, but we must find a way to be both Igbo and Nigerian. It is in our best interests to reconcile, not deny, these dual identities (it is also in the interests of other tribes throughout Nigeria, if we are to ever attain unity in diversity).
Biafra will always be an integral part of Nigeria’s history and as Soyinka points out the idea of Biafra will never die, but Nigeria needs to restructure itself in a way that no one wants to leave.
Chidinma Irene Nwoye is a freelance journalist based in New York City and a graduate of the Columbia Journalism School. She has written for Slate magazine and the Village Voice and enjoys covering African affairs and the intersection between politics and arts and culture. Follow her on Twitter @irenecnwoye.