WHEN more than a hundred youth corps members visited him in Daura, Katsina State, during the last Sallah break, President Muhammadu Buhari took the opportunity to engage them on the unending controversy of Biafra. Reports of the visit did not indicate that the corps members raised the issue, and indeed could not have, seeing they were not all of Igbo origin. But apparently, the president had thought of making a policy statement relevant to youths, one of which was the agitation for a sovereign state of Biafra. The president’s Daura statement was not the first time he would speak on Biafra, nor the first time in Daura he would put his foot down on the matter. The first time was a gaffe he made when he paid a courtesy visit to the Emir of Daura, during which he suggested that no one could push him (the president) and his people out of Nigeria.

 Last Sallah’s statement before the corpers was this time not a gaffe. It was simply a reiteration of his stubborn and sentimental resolve on the Biafra subject. “I walked on my foot for most of the 30 months that we fought the Nigeria-Biafra civil war, in which at least 2 million Nigerians were killed,” he began testily. “We were made by our leaders to go and fight Biafra not because of money or oil — because oil was not a critical factor then — but because of one Nigeria. So, if leadership at various levels failed, it was not the fault of the rest of Nigerians who have no quarrel with one another. So, please tell your colleagues that we must be together to build this country. It is big enough for us and potentially big enough in terms of resources.”

 The problem now is not whether Biafra agitators are right or wrong. The problem is not even whether President Buhari’s account of his role in the civil war is inspiring or not. Nor whether he made sense or not when he talked about the bigness and ample resources of Nigeria being capable of accommodating everyone. The problem, it seems, is whether appeal to sentiment can obviate the clamour for Biafra; whether forceful statements denouncing Biafra and asserting that the unity of the country was non-negotiable were enough to terminate any thought of Biafra. There are many people who fought for the unity of Nigeria, who even emerged as heroes from the war, but who have decided to add their voices to the need to renegotiate the bases for peaceful co-existence in Nigeria. The president is not superior to them, nor they to him.

 Furthermore, by his repeated references to his role as a soldier during the war, and by insinuating a ‘we versus them’ mentality into the controversy, the president is not helping the Biafra and restructuring discourses at all. He has done nothing, nor appears prepared to do anything, to show his willingness to examine the bases of the Biafra agitation, or any other agitation for that matter. It is not clear how he hopes to settle the matter when he does not give any indication he understands the reasons propelling the Biafra idea. There is nothing wrong with him opposing the idea of secession or of Biafra; but there is everything wrong with the way he has shut his mind from the controversy completely, almost as if he thinks that should push come to shove he could get the country forcefully united behind him against Biafra. It won’t happen.

 Apart from the controversy unfortunately polarising roughly along North-South lines, a deep and dispassionate look at the Biafra matter would easily show that too many things about Nigeria have changed, thereby predisposing the country to the many schisms it is experiencing today. More schisms will arise tomorrow. Rather than adopt a honest and forthright view of the country’s political, social and economic problems, and instead of provoking a visionary and futuristic examination of those problems with a view to anticipating and resolving them, Nigerian leaders have unwisely stuck to the templates of the past and suggested force could always do what reason cannot. They are wrong. And President Buhari is even wronger to keep eschewing reason and dialogue whenever crises such as Biafra agitation and Niger Delta militancy rear their heads.

 Until Nigerian leaders honestly acknowledge that they have failed to build a nation anchored on an idea and identity around which the people can aggregate their various and sometimes conflicting aspirations, Nigerians will continue to gravitate towards their primordial identities with the attendant negative consequences to national unity. Force cannot fill that yawning chasm that has done havoc to the country’s progress and stability. Let President Buhari therefore begin to embrace reason and dialogue, for no amount of sermonising and threat will destroy the idea of Biafra that seems to entice a generation unruffled by the experience of the war.

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