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Biafra Day: Towards a Unified Theory of Igbo Politics

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As the commemoration of Biafra Day begins to become a unifying event for the Igbos, it is apt to contemplate ways to reconcile the divergent tendencies in Igbo politics and find a central tendency that assuages Igbo yearning for self-determination with minimal political risks. The approach that best recommends itself is that of radical restructuring within the context of Nigeria.

By Chudi Okoye

It is May 30th today, and it is a day for Biafra invocations. This date, May 30th, is beginning to become something of a calendar shrine, an uninstitutionalized day of commemoration for politically conscious Igbo people, at home or in the diaspora. The leading Igbo emancipation groups – the assertedly non-violent MASSOB (Movement for the Actualization of the Sovereign State of Biafra) and the more militant IPOB (Indigenous People of Biafra), among others – are willing it into reality as a commemorative day for the Igbo race.

It was on this day, 54 years ago, that Lt. Colonel Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu, aged just 33 and at the time in his fifteenth month as the military governor of Eastern Nigeria, proclaimed into existence the sovereign Republic of Biafra. The hastily announced nation-state would subsist for a little over two-and-a-half years, hanging on by grit and sheer force of will, despite facing near isolation and unimaginable war hardships.

Ojukwu breathed Biafra into being with this bracing excerpt of words:

Fellow countrymen and women, you, the people of Eastern Nigeria:

Conscious of the supreme authority of Almighty God over all mankind, of your duty to yourselves and posterity;

Aware that you can no longer be protected in your lives and in your property by any Government based outside Eastern Nigeria; ………

Determined to dissolve all political and other ties between you and the former Federal Republic of Nigeria; ………..

Affirming your trust and confidence in me;

Having mandated me to proclaim on your behalf, and in your name, that Eastern Nigeria be a sovereign independent Republic,

Now, therefore, I, Lieutenant-Colonel Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu, Military Governor of Eastern Nigeria, by virtue of the authority and pursuant to the principles recited above, do hereby solemnly proclaim that the territory and region known as and called Eastern Nigeria together with her continental shelf and territorial waters shall henceforth be an independent sovereign state of the name and title of “The Republic of Biafra”.

Ojukwu’s ostensibly confident tone as he proclaimed Biafra belied the utter improbability of the new state. The crisis that culminated in Biafran secession had been brewing for months, following the military coup of January 1966; the installation of a new military government under the politically maladroit Igbo, Major General Johnson Aguiyi-Ironsi; the brutal Northern counter-coup that took place in July, six tumultuous months after the first coup; the purging of Igbos in the military high command; and the pogrom of Igbo people mainly in northern parts of Nigeria. Biafran secession was an ineluctable consequence of an insurmountable pressure piled upon the Igbos as postcolonial Nigeria disintegrated. What were a persecuted people to do? What options did a hounded horde have in the haze of anomie?

But secession would produce extremely devastating consequences for the Igbos who had made great advances from colonial times under the enlightened leadership of Nnamdi Azikiwe and other luminaries, and ultimately for Nigeria as well.

Consequent upon the proclamation of Biafra, war was declared by Nigeria. The war was prosecuted by an over-matching Nigeria, supported with cool calculation by some of the world’s leading military powers including the United Kingdom, Russia, China and others. For its part, the ill-prepared and impecunious Biafra managed to scoop up diplomatic recognition and meagre support from some emergent, low-tier countries including Gabon, Haiti, Ivory Coast, Tanzania, and Zambia. Moral support and varied levels of assistance – though not diplomatic recognition – also trickled in from other countries including France, Spain, Portugal, Norway, South Africa, and even Vatican City. As war wore on, there was also spirited assistance from non-state actors like Médecins Sans Frontières, U.S. Catholic Relief Services, Holy Ghost Fathers of Ireland and a few others horrified by the level of Biafran suffering.

It was an unsuggestable match-up. Biafra collapsed after thirty agonizing months under the weight of its own improbability. Outnumbered, out-provisioned, out-gunned, the Biafran side threw in the towel in January 1970, after their brave war leader, Emeka Ojukwu, took an inevitable flight into exile.

By most estimates Biafra lost close to three million lives, mostly civilian lives. Lives that had not perished were malnourished, victims of a deliberate, internationally orchestrated program of economic sabotage prosecuted by a side which believed that starvation of children was a legitimate tool of war. The war engendered a massive destruction of physical and social infrastructure in Igboland, a complete devastation of the regional economy, and a massive moral dislocation. There is not as yet a proper historicization of that war, no proper delineation of the atrocities inflicted upon the Igbo people.

Still, the most surprising curve in the accounting of that cataclysmic conflict is not the ultimate victory of an imperialist-backed behemoth, Nigeria. Not in the least! Rather, it is the inventiveness of an inchoate Biafran force, which for the most comprised an amorphous rabble of untrained kids only a few months before the outbreak of war in elementary and secondary schools. It is in the grit and plucky fortitude of a persecuted population, blockaded towards oblivion by a brutal behemoth, so that necessary supplies and supply routes were wantonly destroyed. It is in the relatively rapid recovery of a pulverized Igbo people who shook off post-conflict traumatizations such as the confiscation of their properties through the abandoned property policy; the sequestration of their bank deposits, allowing every Igbo depositor only a 20-pound credit whatever their prewar balance; a devious policy of indigenization which parceled off state assets into private hands at a time most Igbos had little bidding potential; and various forms of victimization visited upon them even as the Nigerian government smilingly declared a bogus policy of ‘No Victor, No Vanquished’.

These are the inimitable graphs of that devastating war. They are a monument to the resilience of the Igbo race. But they are also a reason for persistent disarticulation in the practice of Igbo politics.

Biafra and Igbo Political Divergence

The speed of Igbo recovery from the traumas of a crushing civil war can be termed nothing but a miracle of modern history. From the pit of post-war despondency through a plethora of punishing policy promulgations, the Igbos have picked themselves up and are, without doubt, holding their own in diverse spheres of social life in Nigeria, from commerce and industry to finance to entertainment, academia and beyond.

And yet, even with the indubitable evidence of Igbo resurgence in the social spheres, there is little doubt that Igbos have been politically marginalized, unable yet to persuade a fretful Nigeria to trust them with real powers. Although Igbos are among the three largest ethnic groups in Nigeria, no one from the core Igbo territory, since Nigeria’s independence in 1960, has managed to make it to the position of head of federal government. None, except for Aguiyi-Ironsi’s chaotic 194-day stint as military head of state which ended in his ignominious murder by northern soldiers. (Nnamdi Azikiwe was only a ceremonial president in the First Republic). There was the four-year stint of Alex Ekwueme as Shehu Shagari’s vice-president in the Second Republic; but that’s just it: he was VP. There has been a string of Senate presidencies, although not since 2007. And Edwin Ume-Ezeoke was Speaker of the Federal House of Reps between 1979 and 1983. That’s it really. Other than being bequeathed the barest minimum of constitutionally stipulated roles, the Igbos are in the main locked out of power at the federal level, often passed over in strategic federal appointments, or occasionally plucked up to serve in some plum role at the pleasure of the hegemonic North.

Those who have ruled Nigeria: Near exclusion of Igbos

This blatant marginalization has left the Igbos politically befuddled, their politics muddled by bouts of desperation, indecision, bad calculations and sheer chicanery. At the national level, Igbo politics lacks gravitational force, resulting in the relegation of Igbo strategic interest by a magnitude equal to the square of the distance of Igboland from the center of political gravity. The material consequences of Igbo political marginalization are evident in the paucity of federal investment in Igboland, in the inequitable allocation of resources and political goods to the Igbo area. But there are also impalpable consequences, seen in the beggaring of Igbo political psyche and the vulgarization of Igbo political character. Worse, there is a sense of siege with heavy military presence and the ubiquity of police checkpoints in Igboland, one study by Intersociety finding that Nigerian security forces extort as much as $100 million per annum from the rash of illegal roadblocks mounted in Igboland.

Among the politically conscious Igbo there is a pervading sense of subjugation and persecution which feels not unlike a low-intensity continuation of the civil war. But although this perception is pervasive, it has produced differing shades of political sensibility among the Igbos, and thus a dizzying kaleidoscope of political praxis.

I would wager that most Igbos celebrate the idea of Biafranism, or at least they recognize its utility as an ontological concept, as a code for the spiritual unification of the highly itinerant Igbo people. Biafranism serves, or could serve, as an organizing principle for Igboness.

However, it is in the operationalization of Biafra as a political project that Igbo consensus disintegrates. As far as I can make out (see my conceptual sketch) there are five discrete political tendencies in Igboland today. There are, first, some extremely conservative Igbo types who want to remain in Nigeria under the present constitutional structure. These types believe that the Igbos could yet become ascendant in Nigeria, due in part to their national dispersion and also their rising economic prosperity. There are others, not unlike folks from some other Nigerian ethnic groups, who want significant devolution of powers to the states. They point out constitutional incongruities such as state governors being considered the chief security officers of their states but having no control of the security forces. The recent call by southern governors for devolution of more powers to the states, as we earlier reported in Awka Times, probably falls under this category. But then there are others, thirdly, who seek not just devolution of powers but actual change of the federal structure, from the present 36 states to a regional structure, perhaps based on the six geopolitical zones or some re-aggregation of the zones. And then there are the separatists who want nothing other than ‘Biafran’ excision from Nigeria. Even among these separatists, there is a divergence between the ethnic minimalists who simply want self-determination for the core Igbo states, and the regional maximalists dreaming of a pan-Igbo sovereign state which will encompass the Igbo-speaking parts of the South South geopolitical zone and even some parts of the southern fringe of the North Central zone.

These divergent mental models and political tendencies are at the root of Igbo political disorientation. It is not clear which of these tendencies will prevail in the end. However, we might learn some lessons from the history of the ancient Israelites who faced similar political rupture, and who are a culture often associated with the Igbos.

Jewish Parallels

Roman imperialism arrived in Judea with Roman conquest of the independent Hasmonean monarchy and the capture of Jerusalem in 63 BC by the Roman general, Pompey. There were three strands of Jewish response to Roman imperialism: (1) sacerdotal and elite retainership, seen with the acquiescence of Temple leadership (scribes and priests) and the role of Herod as a vassal (client) king; (2) the stance of the revolutionary zealots who mounted a radical opposition to imperialism, their actions in the end leading to Roman destruction of the Second Temple in 70 AD (the Babylonians had destroyed the First Temple in 586 BC) and the massacre of the Sicarii rebels at Masada three years later in 73 AD; and then (3), an insidious peasant-focused communalist apocalypticism, preached by Jesus the Nazarene, which anticipated the eventual destruction of Roman imperialism along with the dispossession of the compromised Jewish aristocracy, and the elevation of the downtrodden under a new Heavenly authority, with Jesus himself at the helm. Some historians argue that it was the Jesus sect and its pacifist approach that ultimately prevailed.

In the narrow sense of Jewish history, this claim is technically incorrect. The Jews remained in bondage long after the death of Jesus whom they never fully embraced as Messiah anyway. They remained under Roman colonialism until 313 AD, then came under Byzantine rule (313-636 AD), Arab rule (636-1099 AD), Crusader domination (1099-1291 AD), Mamluk rule (1291-1516 AD), Ottoman rule (1517-1917 AD), and British rule (1918-48 AD). In other words, the Jewish people remained under foreign domination for about 1,915 years after the death of Jesus! Even now, 73 years after the establishment of the independent state of Israel in 1948, you could make a case that the Jewish state is propped up, if not quite by American imperialism, but at least by the protections of Pax Americana.

Still, one could say that in some sense the Jesus sect did ‘win’ in the end – not in Israel itself but out there in the gentile world. This was achieved through a reverse assimilation and conscription of imperial power starting with Emperor Constantine the Great. As some scholars have argued, Christ may have founded the religious sect that later became Christianity, but it was primarily Paul that turned it into a transnational movement and Emperor Constantine that laid the foundation for the emergence of Christendom. From the Edict of Milan in 313 AD which decreed tolerance for Christianity, to the Council of Nicea in 325 AD which established the Christian canon and the orthodoxy of Christ’s divinity (thus rejecting the claim of the Arians to the contrary), to the inauguration of Christendom with the Edict of Thessalonica in 380 AD which made Nicene Christianity the state religion of the Roman Empire, producing a succession of Christian emperors in Europe. Even now, 1,640 years on, you could argue that although the fortunes of Christendom ebbed and flowed in the intervening period, it retains a hold on the world’s pre-eminent powers.

Lesson for the Igbos

There is a poignant lesson for the Igbos in the Jewish experience, as the Igbos themselves confront the specter of pseudo-imperialist rule in the Nigerian political formation. The triumphant Jesus sect was a sort of central tendency betwixt the conservative and the radical extremes of Jewish politics. There is also such a central tendency in the spectrum of Igbo political sentiment today, as I have outlined here. That central tendency consists in a rejection of the conformist and gradualist approach of what I call the “Ardent Nigerianistas” and the “Dauntless Devolutionists”. It also implies a rejection of the radical “Ethnic Separatists” and “Linguistic Separatists” with their uncompromising “Biafrexit” agenda.

There is only one workable approach for the Igbos in the current conjuncture, an approach that could assuage the yearning for self-determination but avoids the potential disruptions likely to attend insurgent separatism. This is the approach of cautious radicalism, offering the Igbos regional autonomy but also the bounties of belonging in a bigger political tent. Biafra agitation is not just a yearning for self-determination. It is also a critique of Nigerian stagnation, an expression of disgust at the failure of Nigeria which was once considered the beacon of the Black Diaspora. The only approach that affords the Igbos an opportunity to pull Nigeria up to its potential is that which allows the Igbos to develop at their own pace. The recommended approach, superior to all other Igbo political tendencies, is that of the “Radical Restructurists”.

The Igbos would best serve themselves, Nigeria and the Black world by gravitating towards the central tendency of radical restructuring.

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