Biafra as focal point for fresh perspectives of Nigeria

Image Credit: Goya Bauwens via Flickr.

In the past few months, there has a resurgence of Biafra in Nigeria by a group known as Indigenous Peoples of Biafra (IPOB), led by Nnamdi Kanu. Interestingly, the new agitation began in the diaspora, in the United Kingdom where Kanu is a citizen, through Radio Biafra. Using easily accessible social media platforms and broadcast technology, IPOB was able to reach thousands of Igbos and non-Igbos across Nigeria and the world. IPOB has been variously described as a breakaway faction of another pro-Igbo group, the Movement for the Actualization of the Sovereign State of Biafra or MASSOB.

Kanu is now in Nigeria, where he was briefly imprisoned by the Nigerian state for a year and a half. The government charged him with treason; in some of his speeches he told supporters, “We need guns and we need bullets.” The trial is ongoing.

Since the truncation of the march to a democratic Nigeria in 1993 by the military junta of General Ibrahim Babangida, there continues to be a resurgence of ethnic agitations for self-determination and in the case of IPOB, secession from Nigeria. The reason for such resurgence is often dominated by cries of marginalization and in some cases domination of power. The aggrieved point to the fact that the presidency of Nigeria has been dominated by the Hausa/Fulanis, an ethnic group mainly in the north. The election in 2015 of Muhammad Buhari, considered a member of the northern elite, further heightened the agitation for self-determination or secession by various groups from the south, IPOB in the southeast and Niger Delta Avengers in the south-south. More importantly, control of Nigeria’s oil resources in the Niger Delta often get inserted into the agitation for self-determination or secession either by groups within the Niger Delta or those outside of the region.

Narratives of belonging most times dominate this form of insertion and who can claim membership in whatever country emerges from the rubbles of Nigeria. For example, in the map circulated on the Internet, the entire Niger Delta region is incorporated into Biafra by IPOB and the response of different groups in the Niger Delta had been to dissociate itself from such a map while also lending support to the IPOB agitation as a legitimate struggle against Nigeria. The insertion of Niger Delta by IPOB in the proposed Biafra Republic is understandable considering the fact that the Niger Delta produces the wealth that Nigeria relies on in running its mono-economy—an economy heavily dependent on oil extraction. The Niger Delta was also central to the prosecution of the civil war, also known as Nigeria-Biafra war, between 1967 and 1970, the period when oil extraction started taking a deep root in the socio-economic and political life of Nigeria.

However, what is missing in the conversation around the resurgence of Biafra currently is how the structure of the economy creates spaces of violence and oppression of the majority of the Nigerian population. It is the structure of the capitalist economy that puts the commonwealth of Nigerians in the hands of a few elite. The elite beneficiaries of the Nigerian commonwealth cut across all ethnic groups because capitalist exploitation defies ethnic colouration. Therefore, the many years of marginalization and disfranchisement of the greater majority of the Nigerian populace from the structure of the economy shapes today’s agitation for self-determination and secession. The elite class have been in power since independence and continue to recycle themselves while sometimes tokenistically co-opting a few into their fold. The dominance of a rampaging neoliberal economic and political practice, and the absence of a coherent and coordinated opposition in Nigeria further compounds the problem for the Nigerian populace. The absence of a sound and strategic opposition to a structurally deficient economic system that could shape the discourse of power and resources further creates a space where those economically and politically disenfranchised look for creative ways of survival. Thus, agitation for secession and self-determination is symptomatic of a system that remains ineffective in addressing the problems of the people of Nigeria.

In the two decades preceding the advent of the current pseudo-democratic system, particularly the 1980s and 1990s, the Nigerian left was the formidable intellectual and political opposition to elite greed and capitalist exploitation. The many organizations formed by the broad Nigerian left were able to generate a particular discourse that put social inequality and elite mismanagement of the nation’s human and material resources at the core of the problems within the Nigerian state. The rise of neoliberal economic and political practices and its resultant effect on left politics has seen the rise of NGOism, which represents a particular space that fails to account for why and how people are socially and politically disenfranchised.

The ascendancy of ethnic agitation cannot be disconnected from how neoliberal economic and political practices of the last three decades have continuously taken away the wealth of the people and concentrated it in the hands of the few. The rich are getting richer in Nigeria while the poor are left to fend for themselves. The irony of it all is that when a few elite lose power at the centre, the poor become the pawns that are used to whip up ethnic and religious sentiment.

Not surprising, then, that Atiku Abubakar, the former vice president, is clamoring for the restructuring of the federation. At the same time, it should worry us that Ohaneze Ndigbo, an elite Igbo organization,  whose members have always collaborated with other elites to decimate Nigeria’s commonwealth are today throwing their support behind IPOB. To those who are familiar with the different epochs of struggle in Nigeria, this is no surprise.

In the 1990s, various left organizations converged to form the Campaign for Democracy and the Democratic Alternative as platforms within which power could be wrestled from the elite. The latter responded by forming its own National Democratic Coalition, NADECO, and when democracy was finally won, NADECO members took credit for it and positioned themselves as the leaders of the new republic. The struggle for a truly democratic Nigeria was lost at that point and the outcome is what we are witnessing today.

To be clear, IPOB, NDA and other ethnic organizations have the right to self-determine whether they want to be part of Nigeria or form their own independent republic. However, it is important to ask questions that could help us engage in a healthy conversation as we mark the 50th anniversary of the beginning of the Nigeria-Biafra war.

Omolade Adunbi

Omolade Adunbi, an anthropologist, teaches at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. He is author of Oil Wealth and Insurgency in Nigeria.

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