Nationhood and the struggle for Biafra

Biafran activists protest in London outside the British parliament. Image Credit: Alisdare Hickson via Flickr.

Since the arrest of Nnamdi Kanu, the leader of Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB), by the operatives of the Nigerian Department of State Security (DSS) in October 2015, public protests have intensified, both in Nigeria and its diaspora, calling for the independence of Biafra. The demands include an appeal to the Nigerian government to conduct a referendum on independence. Kanu has since been released from prison (in April this year), but the protests continue: the goal, after all, is the separation of Biafra from Nigeria.

The demand for Biafra and the clampdown on the agitators by the Nigerian government brings the 1967-1970 Nigeria-Biafra War back to individual and collective memories. On May 30 2017, a stayaway call by Kanu, dubbed “Stay at home”, paralyzed five southeastern states of Nigeria where Igbos predominate. The day marked 50 years since the declaration of independence of the Republic of Biafra by Xolonel Chukwuemeka Ojukwu in 1967. The continuing struggle for the sovereignty of Biafra 50 years after only suggests that nationhood is not a forgotten idea among the Igbos.

Four years after that declaration, Ojukwu fled into exile and a new commander-in-chief, General Philip Effiong, surrendered to Nigerian president, General Yakubu Gowon. By then about three million Biafran lives had been lost in the genocidal war. General Gowon declared his “No victor, No vanquished” slogan and announced a three-point agenda of “Reconciliation, Rehabilitation and Reconstruction.” The objective was to maintain a united Nigeria.

It can be argued that Gowon’s three point plan did little to promote any of the three Rs. Igbo properties in other parts of the country were confiscated or seized in cases of “abandoned properties”;  bank accounts of most Igbo men and women who had declared for Biafra during the war were frozen; and as B.J. Audu states, military officers and men from Eastern Nigeria, who, out of no fault of their own, fought on the Biafra side, found their names either removed from the lists of officers of the Nigerian army, air force and navy or were not entitled to either pension or gratuities.

Nevertheless, the Igbo have come out of this sordid experience stronger. Collectively, they have rebuilt their communities and surpassed other groups in Nigeria in at least four areas: technological innovation, international migration, intellectual prowess and economic prosperity.

Before and during the war, Biafrans locally manufactured most of the weapons and other machineries used against Nigerian forces. They refined petroleum crude locally, built roads, airstrips and bunkers, and repaired vehicles. Igbos emerged as the only manufacturers of cars and other electronic products from Nigeria. As far back as the 1980s, it was common for Nigerians to refer to local technology products as “Ibo made.” Igbos are also known among the wider Nigerian population to be adept at commerce and entrepreneurial pursuit. As Ndubisi Nwafor-Ejelinma notes, more than any other Nigerian group, Igbos own businesses and conduct commercial activities in every part of the country and around the globe.

The war caused the displacement of a great number of Igbos from their ancestral homes to many parts of the world. Post war economics in Nigeria have seen this migration trend continue and remittances from expatriate Igbos are used to rebuild Igbo communities, while contributing to the Nigerian economy as a whole. The Igbo well represented in the faculties of many universities around the world. Many Igbo writers engaged the Nigeria-Biafra war in their works, as way of documenting the tragedy for the future generations and to remind the world of the effect of genocidal war on the human psyche.

For two decades, there has been a sustained agitation for secession of the Biafra by a vanguard dominated by Movement for the Actualization for the Sovereign State of Biafra (MASSOB) and IPOB. Smaller groups like Eastern Peoples Congress (EPC), Biafra Peoples National Council (BPNC), Biafra Liberation League (BLL) and, recently, the Biafra Independence Movement (BIM), add their voices to the call. Anti-secession groups are also active. Igbo youths against the call for Igbo nationhood have formed the Igbo for Nigeria Movement (INM) under the leadership of Mazi Ifeanyi Igwe. The Njiko Igbo Movement (NIM), founded by Igbo politicians and led by Orji Uzor Kalu, works to secure a Nigerian president of Igbo background.

Still it is probable that an independent Biafra may be realized if the current wave of non-violent protests is sustained. Since neither the MASSOB leader, Ralph Nwazuruike nor Kanu are beneficiaries of political position or financial gain to date, their sustained demand for Biafra nation may be genuine after all.

Rantimi Jays Julius-Adeoye

Rantimi Jays Julius-Adeoye is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Theatre and Film Studies, Redeemer’s University (RUN) in Nigeria.

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