NNAMDI KANU, IPOB AND THE BIAFRAN CAUSE -Historical Perspectives and Food for Thought

 - Oliver Chuks Orji
The distant noise and pandemonium caused us to drop everything on our hands and make for the door. As they drew closer, we beheld a mammoth crowd, men and women, old and young with placards raised , chanting, running, half-walking and screaming things like “ All we are saying… give us Biafraaaa!”, all in a call for the release of the leader of the Indigenous People of Biafra( IPOB) and director of Radio Biafra, Nnamdi Kanu who had been apprehended by the DSS.

First, I was stupefied. Yes! Out of curiosity, I had tuned on to the Radio Biafra to listen to Nnamdi Kanu, in his deep baritone voice, roll out threads of invectives and vituperations on the government of Nigeria and their Igbo collaborators whom he refers to as animals in the zoo. I quickly dismissed him as one of those attention seekers taking advantage of the Igbo post-war emotions to enrich himself. I got into arguments with many people who appeared to have got drunk on his recipe.

But the marauding crowd shocked me. It was on Tuesday, 20 October 2015. The Aba Road of Portharcourt, leading from Rumuola to Lagos Bus-stop , and from Ikoku to Rumuokoro witnessed an unusual traffic gridlock. I never knew he had such enormous support. The people were sandwiched between policemen in their trucks and soldiers in their armored tanks, and there was palpable tension. Even this did not deter some of the rampaging youths from locking up business shops and pulling down the Nigerian Flags in some public and private offices, twenty of whom would later be arrested and remanded in prison. The media also reported that similar protests were witnessed in Awka, Asaba, Owerri, Enugu and Aba.

The issue of Biafra has always been a touchy one and a no-go area for the government of Nigeria. In fact, in 1972, the name was expunged by the Federal Military Government of Nigeria from its geographical mention in the map of the Gulf of Guinea as the Bight of Biafra to become the Bight of Bonny.
There have been agitations upon agitations for a Republic of Biafra by some people of the old Eastern Region, after the war-torn defunct republic that lasted from May 1967 to January 1970, was re-annexed to Nigeria at the end the Civil War.

But there are divisions among the people of the defunct Biafra in this struggle. This division was created on May 27, 1967 when Lt. Col. Yakubu Gowon, Nigeria's Military Head of State created twelve states, three of which broke up the Eastern Region, namely: Rivers State, the South Eastern state (renamed Cross-River state) and the East-Central State ( today’s Abia, Enugu, Anambra, Imo and Ebonyi States). This, to Nigeria, was key to winning the civil war which loomed ominously in the horizon. First because it disjointed Biafra’s unit, and second because, the minority tribes in Rivers (especially) saw that as an opportunity to gain autonomy from the Igbos who were the majority and would allegedly enslave them. Not when the bulk of the oil was in their land! And so they accepted a new state and a governor and turned their backs on their brothers during the war!
They have gone on to enjoy their relative autonomy, but their lands continue to lie in waste from oil spillage and pollution, which informs the decision of some of them to revert to the Biafran agitation, since the federal government had betrayed them and denied them resource control.

The Igbos in the East Central State were somewhat trapped and carved off the oil. Col. Ojukwu who was the Military governor of the Eastern Region saw that as the last straw in what had been a persecution and degradation of Igbos by the Federal Military Government. Recall that the pogroms that preceded and followed the counter-coup of July 1966 had seen dismembered and disemboweled bodies of Biafrans, mainly Igbos strewn on the streets of the Northern region.

During the macabre pogrom of September 29, 1966 where 20,000 Igbos were massacred in barracks and streets of the North, Ethnomusicologist Charles Keil, who was visiting Nigeria in 1966, recounted:

“The pogroms I witnessed in Makurdi, Nigeria (late Sept. 1966) were foreshadowed by months of intensive anti-Ibo and anti-Eastern conversations among Tiv, Idoma, Hausa and other Northerners resident in Makurdi, and, fitting a pattern replicated in city after city, the massacres were led by the Nigerian army. Before, during and after the slaughter, Col. Gowan could be heard over the radio issuing 'guarantees of safety' to all Easterners, all citizens of Nigeria, but the intent of the soldiers, the only power that counts in Nigeria now or then, was painfully clear. After counting the disemboweled bodies along the Makurdi road I was escorted back to the city by soldiers who apologized for the stench and explained politely that they were doing me and the world a great favor by eliminating Ibos”

Back to the point, the state creation, the most immediate cause of the Civil war, angered Ojukwu. It created enmity within Biafrans, which can still be seen today, where a Rivers or Delta man who has an Igbo name and speaks fluent Igbo denies being Igbo. It also meant that the region where Ojukwu was the Military governor was no more existent, and three days later, 30 may, 1967, he declared the Republic of Biafra , retaining the original major tribes of the Igbos, the Ibibio-Efiks, the Ijaws and the Ogojas in its composition . The rest is history.

In addition, the “Biafrans” are divided in their cause for a new republic by the incoherent nature of their agitation. MASSOB disowns IPOB and vice versa. The outcome is that they risk being taken unseriously.

Continuing, the elite politicians of Igbo extraction are not overt in their support for Biafra. First of all, most of them are benefiting from the present set-up and wouldn’t relinquish their comfortable political positions for your Biafra. Any Igbo man who is favourably associated with the current system will come out openly and condemn secessionist movements and support One Nigeria. Ironically, if a new Biafra becomes a reality, it will not be the street protesters, or even Kanu who will form the cornerstone of the new government, but the same Igbo elite politicians. And until they publicly or even covertly join their voices, Biafra will remain a far cry.

Will the struggle continue? Yes! Successive Nigerian governments have not done anything to assuage the sensibilities of the Igbos since the war. International observers, journalists and spies reported the war as a genocide. Several crimes against humanity were committed during the war and some of the perpetrators are still walking the streets, when people like Saddam Hussein, Charles Taylor and Laurent Gbagbo have gone to the Hague because of similar offences. A call for the trying of Nigeria's war criminals have been made by Africa's literary icon, the late Professor Chinua Achebe in his book, There was a Country.

The gory images on televisions worldwide, of the kwashiorkor-induced abdominal protrusion and cadaverous appearance of severely starving Biafran children, offended viewers and were particularly disturbing. It sparked the birth of many NGO’s and relief agencies, some of who were in turn bombed and killed by the Nigerian troops. Starving of the children was a war strategy by the Federal Military Government who blocked food and medicine supply to the Biafran side. One million children were starved to death. My father told of how they had to dig up cassava roots and eat them raw because everyone fled home as the Nigerian troops bombed everywhere, including homes, market places and farms.
Murtala Mohammed’s troops, for example, gathered about 700 civilians in a village in Asaba and killed them all! In wars, you do not target civilians, you target military bases! International aid workers condemned the manner of the killings. There was an opinion that the rest of the country had conspired to wipe out the Igbo people. It was a genocide that was compared to World War II because of the level of humanitarian crises.

British spy and writer, Frederick Forsyth wrote that the Nigerian side fought the war as if it was not a civil war as no nation would desire to destroy one of its own in the manner the Federal Military Government sought to destroy Biafrans. In my opinion, if not for relief agencies that defied the federal food blockade and smuggled food and medicine, almost the whole of Biafran civilians would have starved to death before the surrender.

On 9 September 1968, United States presidential candidate Richard Nixon stated:
“Until now, efforts to relieve the Biafra people have been thwarted by the desire of central government of Nigeria to pursue total and unconditional victory and by the fear of the Ibo people that surrender means wholesale atrocities and genocide. But genocide is what is taking place right now – and starvation is the grim reaper”. (Olawoyin, "Historical Analysis of Nigeria–Biafra Conflict" (1971), pp. 137–139).

That was what Nixon said, but here is what Bruce Mayrock did: on 29 may 1969, he set himself ablaze in the premises of the United Nations Headquarters in New York in protest of the genocide against the nation and people of Biafra. He was a student at the Colombia University and he died the next day.
Some of the perpetrators of these war crimes are still living fat and walking free.

After the war, Gowon declared the hollow, “ No Victor, No vanquished” and introduced the NYSC for reintegration of the ethnic groups and for peace, but the war-torn East lay in waste with no effort to reconstruct it. Today, we hear billions of dollars are being ear-marked for rebuilding the Northeast and taking care of internally displaced persons, but children of Biafra were left to perish in one of the worst humanitarian crises since World War II.
Furthermore, Igbo business men who had millions of pounds in Nigerian banks before the war were given only twenty naira after the war. Everyone received #20 regardless of what you had. Owners of property, including houses and businesses in Rivers state were denied access to them post-war, as the Rivers Government declared them “abandoned property”. They have been lost to the people of the state till date.

Most painfully, there have been no Igbo presidents since Ironsi. In my opinion, this is expected, with some of the Nigerian warlords still alive. Aware of the level of dehumanization they meted out to Igbos during the war, they are apprehensive that given the opportunity, an Igbo president would want a revenge or go for a fresh secession attempt. By so doing, successive Nigerian governments have not given the Igbos any reason to heal. They have constantly given them reasons to renew their resolve and they continue to be hopeful.

According to the UK’s International Business times:

“Pro-Biafrans cite the expiration of a so-called "amalgamation contract" as one of the reasons to justify their will to separate from the rest of Nigeria.
The contract was issued by Britain during the colonization era and aimed at integrating people from the north and the south within 100 years since it was issued despite cultural, religious and economic differences among the various ethnic groups.
The contract, now at the National Archive of London, was created in 1914 by Frederick John Dealtry Lugard, the governor general of modern-day Nigeria. The document, opposed by the political class and the media in Lagos, expired in 2014.”

Will Biafra come to pass? Not as it is being gone about now. A national discussion about it should be activated. The North needs to accept it. Perhaps a change of name other than Biafra should be pursued. People like Obasanjo, Gowon and Babangida who were key players in the war would not be alive to see another Republic of Biafra. It would hurt their military pride. It would mean that Biafra ended up winning!
But I also believe that if the Igboman is made to believe that Nigeria also belongs to him through reintegration into the federal government, creation of a confederation for easy governance and maximization of the potentials of the federating units and an Igbo-friendly Nigeria, there would be no need for the agitations for secession. The last national confab became a waste with all the billions spent.

If the above cannot be done, then, we should work with the advice of our own president, Mohammadu Buhari in his address to the 70th UN Assembly on 28/9/2015, thus quoted verbatim:

“Mr President,
27. As we engage in these annual debates, we need remind ourselves of the principles that led to the founding of the United Nations. Among those are peaceful coexistence and self-determination of peoples. In this context, Mr. President, the unresolved question of self-determination for the Palestinian people and those of Western Sahara, both nations having been adjusted by the United Nations as qualifying for this inalienable right must now be assured and fulfilled without any further delay or obstacle.
28. The international community has come to pin its hopes on resolving the Palestinian issue through the two – states solution which recognises the legitimate right of each state to exist in peace and security. The world has no more excuses or reasons to delay the implementation of the long list of Security Council resolutions on this question. Neither do we have the moral right to deny any people their freedom or condemn them indefinitely to occupation and blockade”

Self-determination! That’s what Kanu is fighting for. That is what the Catalans in Spain are fighting for, and that is what Scotland fought for, but were wooed back by the UK.
I have a feeling Nnamdi Kanu returned to Nigeria just after Buhari made that speech, knowing he would be arrested, to ridicule his sermon on self-determination.
But is he the right man to lead this struggle for Biafra with the way he flays and pillories even respected people of Igboland? Food for thought!

“Biafrans” should ask for a referendum to determine how serious their people are with secession and to sort out those who no longer want to be part of it. Igbo politicians should make the sacrifice of leading the way, eschewing their selfish interests.

Finally, you will not see many educated people on the streets shouting Biafra, but it is in the consciences of every Igbo man. The memory of the war and our continued denial of the top positions can not just be wished away. If you continue asking, you will be told an uncle, aunt, grandfather or grandmother who was killed during the war. Young people will continue to read the history and weep for the blood of 2-3 million Igbos killed in the war.
The Biafran people of Eastern Nigeria need some sort of closure!

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