Why (Not) Biafra

by Okey Ndibe

I believe that a nation need not be a fixed, immutable entity, but a living organism, susceptible (in keeping with laid out procedures and according to the wish of its constituent elements) to growth or contraction. As a principle, then, I subscribe to the idea that any group of people may choose to terminate their membership in any particular political community called a nation.

questionIt behooves one to underline this principle from the outset as one considers the implications of the current agitation for the rebirth of Biafra as a sovereign national entity apart from Nigeria. If the Igbo—or any other ethno-cultural aggregation for that matter—truly, deeply aspire to organize themselves as a separate nation, and if the majority of them establish the fact of this yearning in a credible referendum, I’d insist on their right to actualize their ambition. For, as my opening statement reveals, I don’t think for a moment that there’s anything sacred about the way Nigeria, or any nation, is currently mapped.

Having said that, I’d also argue that the quest for Biafra, emotionally invigorating as it is for its champions and supporters, represents a colossal mistake.

Why do I insist on this point?

Let’s look at the case for Biafran self-determination as its most vociferous proponents have elaborated it. They declare, these fervent hankerers after Biafra, that it’s the answer to the systematic subjugation of the Igbo within the Nigerian collectivity. They draw attention to the virtual absence of Federal investment in the Igbo states, extrapolating from that reality the implication that Nigeria is inhospitable to Igbo well being and interests. They remark on Nigeria’s narrative of unrelenting failure, its record of unmet or low expectations, and its dim prospects—and suggest that Igbo enterprise and ambition are hampered by a pathological Nigeria. They blame the current state of underdevelopment in Igboland on an irredeemably diseased Nigeria. They point to irreconcilable cultural differences between the Igbo and certain other sectors of Nigeria. In the specific context of President Muhammadu Buhari’s administration, they point to the exclusion of the Igbo from key political posts.

For Biafran agitators, the path from the foregoing diagnoses to Biafra is imperative. In fact, Biafra, it is claimed, is logical, natural and beyond any form of interrogation or serious disputation.

It is difficult to argue with the anthology of grievances that the pro-Biafra activists have compiled. I am willing to allow that the Igbo, before and after the Biafran War, have borne the brunt of Nigeria’s desultory history. Let’s take the arbitrary, but significant, example of the post-war indigenization policy. Designed to achieve that effect or not, the reality is that the policy resulted in significant economic disempowerment—even devastation—of the Igbo.

Yet, there’s a parallel point that begs to be made. It is this: that, in the end, Nigeria as currently conceived and structured has not served any Nigerian group. This was the central stipulation of my essay last week. Nigerians inherited a shell of a “nation” from the British and then took it for granted that we had a coherent, vibrant national community. We never paused to pose questions about the kind of polity we wished to build, or what it meant to be called a Nigerian.

This abdication, I suggest, is at the heart of Nigerians’ disillusionment with Nigeria. Nigeria is a woeful place because all segments of Nigeria—the Igbo included—have failed at the task of collaborating across ethnic, religious and class lines to build a better, nobler model of a country. It would be impossible to find a credible narrative of Nigeria’s dysfunction—economic, social, political and cultural—in which the Igbo play no role.

The Igbo are just as deeply implicated as any other ethno-religious group in the moral and cultural crises that bedevil Nigeria. Such symptoms as veneration of illicitly acquired wealth, disdain for intellectual endowment, justification of unethical conduct, including betrayal of public trust, are as rooted in Igboland as in other parts of Nigeria.

If this were not the case, then the Igbo-dominant areas of Nigeria would exemplify lofty leadership, accountability and development. This is hardly the case. Igbo political figures are just as prone to the depraved pursuit of materialism as their fellows from other ethnic groups. And some Igbo are as guilty as members of other ethnic groups in defending or justifying graft, corruption and incompetence by public officials on ethnic grounds. It is hardly the case, for example, that Igbo individuals or groups hold Igbo public officials, at the local government, state or national levels, to exemplary scrutiny or censure.

On the positive side of the ledger, the Igbo have never been shy to test out the promissory note implicit in the idea of Nigeria. They have taken their entrepreneurial spirit and innovative acumen to the width and breadth of Nigeria, setting up businesses and taking up challenges in different parts of Nigeria. Despite the frustrations of life in Nigeria—and this frustration affects every sector of the country’s myriad ethnicities—the Igbo thrive best when their industry is unleashed on a larger canvas. The attainment of Biafra would entail, almost certainly, the transfer of hundreds of billions of naira of Igbo financial wealth and assets currently held outside of Igboland. Should Biafra become a reality, millions of admirably adventuresome Igbo would be compelled to relocate to a relatively tight, near-claustrophobic homeland.

Beyond such considerations, there is little historical evidence that Biafra, as such, is a viable answer to the questions articulated by the most vociferous Biafranists. The idea of Igbo or southeast unity—or the potential for it—is a myth. There are long established hostilities between Igbo within and between different states. In America, I am aware of Igbo town associations that have split into three or more factions—and they hail from the same natal community! If Biafra emerged today as a separate nation, enlightened Igbo would be burdened with the duty of mending rifts that run deep.

The example of South Sudan reminds us that achieving the dreams of self-determination is not always a guarantee of living happily ever after. Since voting overwhelmingly to approve a referendum to become an independent state, South Sudan has been embroiled in a plethora of civil wars that have claimed thousands of lives and displaced many. One isn’t saying that Biafra would go the same way—only that it is a grave error to assert that Biafra is the answer.

A lot of those pushing for Biafra were born after the war that bore the name of their fantasy. For them, then, Biafra was simply and purely an idyllic paradise, aborted by Nigeria with great help from an unlikely coalition of British, European and American firepower and diplomatic muscle. True, Biafra embodied the aspirations of a people who felt unjustly besieged. But any history of Biafra that neglects to explore some of the abuses perpetrated by some Biafran officials would be a whitewash.

Given the current pitch of the pro-Biafra lobby, it is tempting to view a dubious stance as nothing short of a scandal. But I’d suggest that—when the broader interests of the Igbo are considered—the case for Igbo’s continued commitment to the (admittedly flawed) Nigeria frame becomes even more salient. It was no wonder that the late Biafran leader, Emeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu, stated in an interview years ago that he would only lead another war to keep Nigeria one. His statement, which to my knowledge he never repudiated, was a product of sober and strategic thinking.

By itself, Biafra is not the answer, any more than Nigeria is a bankrupt case. The achievement of Biafra, by itself, would do nothing to address the morass of injustice, of the privatization of public resources by the privileged few, or the existence of inequalities.

I’d propose that the Igbo expend their breath and energy in pushing for a conversation about the essential terms of engagement in a vital Nigeria. Such a conversation would spell out the character of Nigeria’s federalism, and begin the process of reshaping Nigeria, for the first time, into a true nation.


Please follow me on twitter @ okeyndibe

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