Things About Biafra That President Buhari Cannot Fathom

By Rudolf Ogoo Okonkwo.

Less than 24 hours after the Brexit won the British referendum to leave the European Union, pro-Biafran activists launched Biafrexit, demanding a referendum to leave Nigeria. Moves of this nature irk Nigeria's president, Muhammadu Buhari, and the face-off is creating a perfect storm that is capable of overwhelming the already troubled West African nation.

The resurgence of the separatist Biafran movement is not a new phenomenon. In 1999, a young lawyer, Ralph Uwazurike, of the Movement for the Actualization of the Sovereign State of Biafra (MASSOB), launched his campaign. He was arrested and thrown in jail several times during former president Olusegun Obasanjo’s term as president (1999 to 2007). The basis for Uwazurike’s agitation was that Nigeria had been unfair to the people of the South East, who consequently wanted to assert their right to self-determination as an independent nation of Biafra.

Over the next decade, under the governments of the late Umaru Musa Yar’Adua and of Goodluck Jonathan, the Biafran movement transformed itself. Younger and more aggressive activists emerged from within and from outside MASSOB to form various and sometimes competing Biafran groups. Some of these groups, like the Biafran Zionist Movement (BZM), headed by a British-trained returnee lawyer, Benjamin Onwuka, had a greater sense of urgency than the older, more traditional groups. On 5 November 2012, at a rally in Enugu, the former capital of the defunct Republic of Biafra, which existed from 1967 to 1970, Onwuka called for the independence of Biafra.

On 8 March 2014, the BZM took the drastic step of storming the Enugu State Government House and hoisted the Biafran flag in its precinct as a symbol of the restoration of the independence of the Republic of Biafra. They also stormed the state radio station with the goal of taking it over to declare the re-establishment of Biafra. The government of President Jonathan, generally seen as an ally of the South East, responded by locking up Onwuka and his BZM group. They are still in detention.

To the youth of the South East, long displeased with Nigeria and their place in it, Kanu’s message was music to their ears.

During the same period, a new Biafran group, called the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB), was growing in Europe, where most of its leaders were based. Learning from what befell the BZM, IPOB established their own satellite radio station, called Biafran Radio. IPOB leaders broadcast clandestinely into Nigeria, especially into the heartland of the South East. Over time, its director, Nnamdi Kanu, became a household name.

Kanu was soon touring Europe and America, meeting sympathisers and IPOB members and advancing the message of Biafran restoration as the only way to save the people of South East from what was in his view the unworkable structure of Nigeria. As his fame grew, his rhetoric became increasingly scathing. To the youth of the South East, long displeased with Nigeria and their place in it, Kanu’s message was music to their ears.

Old soldiers never die

The defeat of President Goodluck Jonathan in the 2015 presidential election by General Muhammadu Buhari heightened the perception already amplified by pro-Biafran agitators that Nigeria would return to an era when the people of the South East would be discriminated against, oppressed and persecuted. It set the scene for what happened next.

On one side is a Nigerian government led by one of the army officers who fought in the 1967-1970 Nigeria-Biafra War, in which more than two million people died. On the other is Kanu, born after the war and who has lost hope in Nigeria and its ability to provide a place for the self-actualisation of the people of the South East. Mr Kanu’s uncompromising position is, “Give us Biafra or death.”

The defeat of President Goodluck Jonathan in the 2015 presidential election by General Muhammadu Buhari heightened the perception that Nigeria would return to an era when the people of the South East would be discriminated against.

“If they fail to give us Biafra, Somalia will look like a paradise compared to what will happen to that zoo. It is a promise, it is a pledge and it is also a threat to them,” Kanu told SaharaTV. “If they do not give us Biafra, there will be nothing living in that zoo they call Nigeria; nothing will survive there, I can assure you.”

Kanu’s return and incarceration

On 18 October 2015, Nnamdi Kanu arrived in Nigeria from his base in London and lodged in Golden Tulip Essential Hotel in Ikeja, Lagos. He had broadcast equipment for Radio Biafra with him. Nigeria’s security agents stormed his hotel room and arrested him. He was flown to Abuja and has been held by the government ever since. Several court orders to release him on bail were ignored by the Buhari government. After several changes to charges against him and his case being moved from one court to another, his trial is finally in progress, though very slowly and with many logistical delays.

Since his detention, Kanu has become like the proverbial fly that landed on the scrotum of the nation. For Buhari the dilemma is this: crushing the fly will endanger the testicles but leaving it is a danger too. Kanu’s supporters have been protesting and agitating for his release. There have been several confrontations with the Nigerian police and security agents in which scores of their members have been killed. In a recent damning report, Amnesty International indicted Nigerian security agents for killing unarmed pro-Biafran protesters.

At the same time, militants in the Niger Delta in southern Nigeria, whose goal is to gain control of the oil wealth in their region, have embraced the cause of the Biafran separatists. The unification of these forces in the South would expand the theatre of agitation against the Nigerian state.

An annoyed president

All this has irritated Nigeria’s president beyond measure. In interviews and speeches, whenever he addresses the Biafra issue, he cannot hide his disgust. In his first media interview, he expressed his outrage with Nnamdi Kanu and his agitation, vowing that he would not be released because he might jump bail. “The one you call Kanu, do you know he has two passports One is Nigerian, one is British, and he came into this country without using any passport?” Buhari complained. “Do you know that he brought sophisticated equipment into this country and started broadcasting for Radio Biafra? There is a treason charge against him and I hope the court will listen to the case.”

Buhari argued that Igbo people from the South East were in strategic positions in his cabinet, for example in Labour, Science/Technology, a junior Minister of Petroleum, etc, so they have no reason to complain.

    On another level, for Buhari and his generation of army officers who fought the war, the mere existence of a new Biafran movement is a daily repudiation of their life’s work.

During a visit to the Emir of Kastina in May, Buhari warned pro-Biafrans that he would use all the resources at his disposal to crush any move to divide Nigeria. “For Nigeria to divide now, it is better for all of us to jump into the sea and be drowned,” he said. Though Buhari was about half Kanu’s current age when he fought for Nigeria against Biafra, he has often referred to the pro-Biafran agitators as ‘kids’ who did not see the last war. When an Al Jazeera reporter interviewing the president asked him to watch a clip of Nigerian security personnel brutalizing pro-Biafran activists, the president could not get himself to look at the clip. When Buhari dismisses and admonishes pro-Biafra agitators as “kids who have never seen a war”, he fails to address the things that the “kids” have seen that are now driving them to a path that could lead to a second Nigeria-Biafra civil war. Unless the Nigerian government changes its attitude as well as strategy, it may find itself fighting the “kids” who are fully aware of what killed their fathers in the 1967 – 1970 civil war.

While Buhari’s generation is still in 1960s war mode, there has been a shift on the ground. A great many young Nigerian have read Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s book Half of A Yellow Sun. A lot more have watched the movie version of the book. And with the explosion of Internet connectivity, they now have an idea what war is like, even if it is on TV. The ‘kids’ had a glimpse of how the last war came about; how it was fought and lost. They are fully aware of what has changed and what has not changed in the world from the 1960s to now, including the fact that the sufferings associated with war have remained the same, if not increased.

Beyond Biafra of the Mind

Clearly, there is a generational divide in the resurgent Biafran movement. The Buhari generation who saw the last war cannot fathom why anyone would want to fight another war. As the president said, they can only assume that the young people who lead the current agitation are doing so because they did not see the suffering of the last war. To some extent, many among the older generations in the South East feel the same. The elders in Biafra have mostly subscribed to “Biafra of the Mind,” a philosophy proposed by the late Chukwuemeka Odimegwu Ojukwu, who led the failed 1967-70 bid for a Republic of Biafra.

On another level, for Buhari and his generation of army officers who fought the war, the mere existence of a new Biafran movement is a daily repudiation of their life’s work. They must have patted themselves on the back for managing to keep Nigeria one. But the existence of an active and aggressive pro-Biafran movement puts a lie to that belief.

Why does the idea of Biafra refuse to die?

Since the end of the war in 1970, the Nigerian government failed to take concrete steps to debrief the Nigerian people about the war. No monuments were built to commemorate the war. There was no effort to teach the history of the war to those who did not experience it. There was a crazy belief that by ignoring it, by not mentioning it, it would go away. But that is not how nations heal from such traumatic events. Again and again, all through the 1980s and 1990s, there have been echoes of the crisis that led to the war. There have been dozens of religious and ethnic crises in Northern Nigeria in which the people of the South East were the primary victims, invariably reminding them that the fundamental flaws in the Nigerian nation have not been corrected. Just last month, a 74-year-old woman, Mrs Bridget Agbahieme from the South East, was killed in Kano, North East Nigeria, by a mob of religious fanatics who accused her of blasphemy because she asked a Muslim not to perform ablutions in front of her shop.

One of the persistent complaints of various Biafran groups has been the lopsided appointment to government positions in Nigeria. It has always been a rallying point for those who scrutinise political appointments to look for unfair imbalances. As far as Biafran activists are concerned, Buhari’s record in appointing people of the South East to his government is the worst. When Buhari stood before the United Nations and advocated the right of the Palestinians and the people of Southern Sahara to a nation of their own, the Biafrans were reading his lips. When the Fulani herdsmen of the north attacked southern Nigerian farming communities, the Biafrans were watching Buhari’s reaction. In case after case, Buhari played into their hands with his tepid reaction and absence of sympathy for matters associated with the South East. Invariably, Buhari feeds into the pro-Biafran narrative that his government simply does not care and is, in fact, out to vanquish them.

Speaking to State House staff on his return from a vacation cum medical visit to London recently, Buhari continued to express his frustration with Biafran activists and recall his role in that war. “We were quarrelling with our brothers; we were not fighting an enemy. And now somebody is saying, once again, that he wants Biafra. I think this is because he was not born when there was Biafra. We have to reflect on the historical antecedents to appreciate what is before us now and what we intend to leave for our children and our grandchildren.”

When Buhari talks about “our children” and “our grandchildren” and what to leave for them, he says it as if the children and grandchildren are not here already. In fact, Buhari’s children and grandchildren are present, and they have been diligently observing Buhari’s words, thoughts and actions. They are also talking. It is time for Buhari’s generation to recognise this and have the humility to pause, to step down from the podium and to at least listen to them.

Published by Okpalaeze.

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