Biafra, Tribalism and the Nigerian State – How “Our” Dreams can be Realized

by Michael Oluwagbemi II

We have to create a new vision of Nigeria. The people need a new vision of Nigeria; a Nigeria of which people can be proud, and which allows us to raise our heads in the comity of nations.- Professor Bolanle Awe

The subject of tribalism is a touchy subject; in fact, I consider any writer entering the fray trying to voice an opinion to be in a no win situation. Damn if you do, damn if you don’t seem to be the motto either way you go on this subject. In fact, Biafra and how it relates to the spirit of Nigeria is one of such ethnic based issues that still draw out the cave man instinct from all Nigerians. May I however add a caveat at this point to save my head: I was not born until after the Biafran war, I have not lived or slept in any of the 5 Easter Ibo states of Nigeria and I have very far and in-between Igbo friends; the closest I have come to being Igbo are in couple of crushes I have had on some delectable women of Ndigbo extraction in the distant past. Yes, I said it- murder me. In addition to all of these, it is also important to admit that serious pain was inflicted in those years of fratricidal kin killings in our country; indeed, the pain still resides with many today.

The Igbo people of South Eastern Nigeria are by far the most vilified ethnic group in Nigeria today. Their age long rivalry with their western neighbors (the Yoruba) has bruised the Igbo conscience that the word Biafra and Yoruba tends to be diametric opposites. Till this day, many Ibo people continue to attribute the loss of the Biafra war to the Yoruba’s and/or their cult like devotion to their then political leader: an unparalleled politician and philosopher still unmatched today in Nigerian political sphere: Pa Obafemi Awolowo. Unquestionably, many trace the history of this rivalry to the days of Awo and Zik in the Nigerian Youth Movement. But while I will not stand in here to defend Awo, I must say the Igbos always remember the cross carpeting at the constituent assembly that supposedly denied their great leader (Zik) the principal political leadership of the Western Region government to be the highpoint of Yoruba betrayal. Indeed, the supposed refusal of Awo and other Western leaders to embark on carving out Oodua Republic on the outset of the Biafran struggle and Awo’s role in ending the war via a proclamation that “hunger is the best weapon of war” (while serving as Federal Government most powerful civilian leader) also remains indelible in the 21st century Igbo consciousness. While this will never be settled, many Igbos forget Zik’s marriage of convenience with Ahmedu Bello first, and then Shagari that yielded beneficial political positions for Eastern Nigeria in the first and second republics and the seeming betrayal of the progressive cause that they share with their southern neighbors. No doubt, the road of betrayal is a two way lane between these two southern titans and that road stretches from Ibadan to Enugu.

If you think the Igbo-Yoruba relationship is strained, I will ask you to try their relationship with their northern neighbors. The relationship can be at best described as bloody especially post independence. Starting with the first coup that the Hausa-Fulani groups saw as an Igbo attempt to dominate and flip the balance of power agreement between them at independence (note Zik’s absence during the coup, widespread killing of non-Igbo political leaders especially the Northern and Western Premier, and Senate President Orizu’s quick remittance of power to an Officer of Igbo extraction) as not only a betrayal but a first in a streak that culminated in the Igbo nation’s future attempt to secede: which ultimately nailed the coffin of this relationship. Till this day, any Christian versus Muslim strife usually begins with Northern slaying of their Igbo brothers and Igbo retaliation across their cities. From Zaku-Biam to the Kano Crisis to much more recent events the history of this relationship is painted with blood, distrust and backstabbing.

Certainly, this situation does not get better with the Niger Deltans. The Biafra war was an eye opener for the minority ethnic groups that have previously complained about domination by their much more republican, enterprising and educated neighbors. The Biafran attempt to annex Brass, Bonny and other Niger Delta areas without a doubt drew the revulsion of the fractionalized ethnic groups of this area and served to unite them in the face of external aggression; to the extent that today an “Niger Delta” man will undeniably feel more comfortable under an oppressive Nigerian State arrangement than a Biafran nation under which they feel their interests will be undermined. Some have expressly told me of a desire to rather go with an Oodua republic over a Biafra Republic and they will be by no means to express such desires. Certainly, before independence the region of Southern Cameroon (now part of the Republic of Cameroon) voted to have a separate region after complaining of the domineering attitude of the members of the majority Igbo eastern assembly and was granted their request after a walkout from the assembly.

The reasons why the Igbo men are distrusted are varied and wide ranging. To be sure many stereotypes abound: such reasons range from their hidden search to dominate and ability to bond together for common economic interests have been adduced. In fact, some of my Niger Delta brothers have repeatedly talked about the seeming domination of their economy and the anti-competitive behaviors of Igbo traders in their localities- the same can be said of sentiments of the northerners. Whether this is borne out of jealousy or envy is yet to be determined but I can definitely postulate that the Igbo’s prosperity in the commercial sector that has strewn them across various parts of the Nation has earned them a fair share of enemies. In reality, others say the Igbos are generally tribalists that will always place their kinsmen in high powers the moment they get there. They say while you will expect the Yoruba man to try to keep any of his kinsmen out of position of power the moment he gets it (alias pull him down syndrome dog eat dog competition), you will find the Igbo man recruiting them such that any ministry with an Igbo minister is invariably an Igbo ran ministry top to down. Whether this claim is founded in reality is yet to be verified (given contrary evidence in Igbo politics), but what I hear is what I am reporting. In fact, whether other ethnic groups will act any different is very well debatable.

The hatred or fear the courageous Igbo nation draw can also be read across message boards on the internet. The favorite past time is to find one or two Hausa commentator or Niger Deltan net visitor to involve in spar with so called “irrendist” mob of the Igbo nation pushing the Biafran Agenda on their faces. They duke it out all the time on the World Wide Web.The context of Biafran is never seen as a realization of the dream of self determination like the Niger Deltans or the federalist tendencies of the Yoruba but is always seen in the light of domination. While the Yoruba(s) are routinely accused of cultural arrogance they somehow escape this stigma of trying to dominate- how? Why?

Nigeria is by no means an Igbo phobic nation; definitely, many of Nigeria’s heroes and nationalists have been Igbo men. But as someone curiously established recently most of them cannot claim to be 100% Ndigbo. Many were “buttered and bred” in distant lands but this is by no means an accident. Men like the Great Zik of Africa, born in Zungeru and raised in Lagos spoke Nigeria’s three major languages fluently and had the tact of a Hausa man and the unrivalled schmooze political acumen of a Lagos boy. Kaduna Nzeogwu was another Igbo son that was

truly Nigerian in every sense of the word as well as another much more closely associated with the rebellion i.e. the Ikemba himself, Ojukwu: raised as a rich son of a Lagos based businessman, he learnt the ways of the Yoruba people early on and continues to be domiciled ordinarily in this part of he country. Indeed, the Igbo traditionally are spread around the country, giving the ability to learn and absorb the traditions and way of others while preserving their identity. Certainly, this strength has drawn the criticisms of some and disdain of others – with many accusing them of not assimilating their local culture and being quick to identify with the Igbo cause i.e. Biafra.

Undeniably, the issue of the Biafra War remains a point of departure between the Igbos and their other brothers in the Nigerian federation. As it is, I found out the hard way that Biafra is still alive in the minds of many Igbo men and women – especially the young ones of my generation that did not witness the fratricidal killings that took place in our nation for three years.One of my Igbo acquaintances indeed pointed out succinctly one day that he is first a Biafran before anything else and holds no allegiance to the Nigerian federation. While I saw the futility in convincing him otherwise, I must confess that my attitude to him (at least outside the shores of our country) changed from that day onwards. Apparently, he is no more my countryman by his own analogy. Transferring this sentiment, I realize why Biafra continues to be a sore point in Nigeria’s political history. Many Nigerians perceive the average Igbo man or woman to be extremely divisive; usually being the first to introduce tribal differences in rather mundane apolitical or political discourses; pointing how “outsider” you are when you happen to be found in the midst of two or more of them. Some even say they won’t give their daughters out to marry a foreigner- the sentiments are strong and continues to build across the Niger and Benue.

Today, the eastern part of Nigeria is a hot bed of secessionist sentiments rooted in a feeling of being left behind. Infrastructure is crumbling and development projects are sparse and in between. In fact, while other parts of Nigeria can be self sustaining in terms of agricultural production and food, food security continues to be the under-belly of any proposed Biafran nation. For as Awo rightly pointed out back in the 60s, food remains the biggest weapon in the arsenal of the Nigerian nation pointed at the heart of Igbo land. The land is indeed infertile suffering from long years of persistent cultivation and pressured by the high population density of the area; more so, when the capital votes for agriculture is distributed from the center the Igbo nation continues to account for a minute proportion; whether this is by design or by coincidence is a subject I will leave for discerning minds.

But if you think external aggression or discrimination is the ultimate undermining of the Igbo nation- think again. Today, the major lights of the federation’s economic reform policy are by every definition “would be Biafrans”. But on the surface while in the world of gone-go Nigerian politics you will expect this to translate to better policies directed at this zone, it will disappoint any observer to note that the Igbo nation will rather fight itself than develop itself. From the fights for Senate President that have produced up to five leaders in the Senate in the space of six years- an average of one every year, it will not be too long before every red cap chief in the senate uses the prefix: Ex Senate president before his name. As a matter of actual fact, there is constant antagonizing relationship between the federal senators and their governors especially those from the South Eastern part: a new word has entered the lexicon of Igbo politicians it is called the “Abuja people”. The “Abuja people” and home people indeed seem never to agree at least according to Ex-Governor Ngige in his famous interview granted on What elevates this lack of cooperation to an art is the back stabbing that is ongoing on the issue of Igbo Presidency or not. While the decision is made in broad daylight to work towards the “common aspiration” of the Igbo man, you will be surprised to note that not less than 50% of OBJ backers for a third term are sons of Biafra. Oh yes, from Maduekwe to the chief of Corporate Nigerian- I mean, the beer drinking, stupor riddled Odimegwu. From godfather Uba to Chris Offor and even the Irukwu led Ohaneze; OBJ can always count on the support of this part of the country since 1999 to present. But does it matter? Has this not been the modus operandi of Nigerian-Biafran politics from, day one? Does every Biafran politician have a price?

In conclusion, there is no doubt that the Igbo nation has made great strides in the federation of Nigeria. In fact, it is possible for me to make the case that more than any other ethnic group they have contributed to the economic well being of regions far beyond their birthplace. But it is also true that this have not translated to serious political power and/or sense of belonging in the federation. While this feeling boils over as we march towards the next transition to another government it is my hope that it will be a time of reflection for “Biafrans” and “Non-Biafrans” alike. Nigeria can never be a nation until the mistrust and fundamental dislocation in our polity is not addressed. We cannot build our nation on slogans of “Going On With One Nigeria” alone; it will need to be built on a foundation of harmony and love.

It is also true that forgiveness must go hand in hand with acts by Nigeria to honor the sacrifice of the nightmarish years that almost undermined our oneness ; ways we can honors our heroes past on both sides of that conflict include building an enduring memorial in the nation’s capital for our war dead. To this end a befitting war shrine will suffice listing the names of all the casualties of that war – civilians and military alike. In addition to these, the current ambivalence of our education system to teaching history especially the history of the civil war will need to be tackled head on. The events that led to the war should be taught neutrally and objectively from primary upward to tertiary institutions of our country; an understanding of these events to the prism of the retrospection and introspection will reveal that killing ourselves was needless after all and will help improve the understanding and reduce existing tension across the land.

While the past is riddled with testimonies of travails and failure to stretch our hands of fellowship across the banks of the Niger and Benue, what we need at this moment in time are bridge builders. People willing to build bridges either in their private capacity or public role as leaders; this must start from our individual families and homes before it can be borne in our public sphere. Use of divisive language or colorful speeches that is laden with ethnic racialism should be eschewed. You, my Chinedu brother must give me your Chinyere sister for marriage and I will gladly give up my nice Kemi. Marriage and trade are better ways to express our feelings between the Hausa-Fulani North and the Igbo South Eastern Nigeria. Let us love and trade not fight and kill. It is true that the Biafran spirit cannot die, but it is also a fact that the Biafran nation can find its place in a free and fair Nigerian federation of brother striving towards a common goal. A goal founded on ideals of social democracy and communal capitalism- one of live and let’s live; only then can the ideals of Biafran be realized and that of Nigeria be advanced. For though tribe and tongue may differ, in brotherhood we stand; Nigeria, we hail thee.

Last Line:

Patriotism is proud of a country’s virtues and eager to correct its deficiencies; it also acknowledges the legitimate patriotism of other countries, with their own specific virtues. The pride of nationalism, however, trumpets its country’s virtues and denies its deficiencies, while it is contemptuous toward the virtues of other countries. It wants to be, and proclaims itself to be, “the greatest,” but greatness is not required of a country; only goodness is.” Sydney J. Harris

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4 comments May 10, 2006 - 6:22 pm


To understand the sentiments of an Igbo youth, you have to see the Nigerian society in the eyes of the Igbo youth. This is what we see: unfair allocation of Nigerian resources meant to ostracize the Igbos. It is subliminal but it is there. Like you said, you have never spent any time in any Ibo state. Try it. You will see hundreds and hundreds of underdeveloped towns and cities, many left to rot. Ibos usually band together to provide basics for their towns such as water and electricity, while the federal government (and state)leave these communities to fend for themselves. The military does not have as many Ibo officers as I would like to see. Many top posts in the past were not occupied by Ibos. (Though I am glad this is changing gradually). The Igbo youth is angry – not because we are being emotionally manipulated, but because unlike our mothers and fathers, we are not bothered by what was or what could have been, but what it is supposed to be.

anthony williams May 9, 2006 - 10:45 pm

Exellent piece. Exact sentiment of many Nigerians both at home and abroad.

prince kennedy Iyoha May 9, 2006 - 8:15 pm

Mr Michael Oluwagbemi II.

Your analogy of the sociological problems and its origin is absolutely correct. The Ibo tribe will not have been singing separation, if they are in better political and economic situations in the present Nigeria, though they the Ibos provoked this very same situation on their attempt to put the country under their control by eliminating other ethnic groups holding political positions before the coup. However, we will be reaching a rung conclusion if we assume, that the entire Ibo youths, supports the call for an Ndigbo nation.

Many Ibo youth men and women are contributing their very best to the socio-political and economic developments of Nigeria. Some few politicians, that could not find their feet in this present political era, are looking forward to play on the sentiments of innocent young men and women of the eastern parts of Nigeria. Such personalities, will not be present to dance to the music, when the worst befall our nation, they will be far away with their families enjoying themselves, while those they once called their own will be dancing and sweating without rest to the music.

We are confidence that through education, many will realise the secret plain of the so called elites that used the common men to the persona benefits

Anonymous May 9, 2006 - 10:51 am

Excellent! Got me emotional too. Well done Michael.


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