It’s been 53 years; 53 long years since Emeka Odumegwu Ojukwu, the Oxford University trained officer of the Nigerian Army declared Biafra an Independent State and announced an immediate secession from Nigeria.
A lot has happened between then and now but a few things remain constant- perhaps even more egregiously now than they were when Ojukwu, motivated by a near unanimous support from the elders of the old Eastern region, made up of large swathes of today’s south east and south south regions, denounced Nigeria and all of what it represented.
A harrowing tale
Sadly, more than five decades after, not much has changed in the geographic expression called Nigeria as Obafemi Awolowo, a foremost Yoruba leader put it. Consider that between 2015 and the first quarter of 2020, several international groups estimate that over 30, 000 Nigerians have been butchered or bombed to death by terrorists and an amalgam of other criminal groups with very little coming from the state by way of response.
If you carefully study the events of the last few years in Southern Kaduna, Benue, Plateau, parts of north west and north east where armed groups invade villages and set homes ablaze in the dead of the night, you will begin to understand that very little or no progress has been made in the march to nationhood and the country has remained on the edge of disintegration, 50 years after the Biafra war ended.
To understand the tragedy presently playing out before our very eyes as represented by these senseless nocturnal and daylight killings, even of infants and vulnerable women, in various parts of the country, we must pay attention to some of the events that preceded the Biafra Declaration of Independence and the significance of that declaration, more than half a century after.
The beginning of a terrible nightmare
Ojukwu and the elders of the old Eastern region believed that the Nigerian state led by Yakubu Gowon could no longer protect the lives and property of the people of the region.
Hundreds of thousands of easterners had been murdered by mobs across several communities and villages in all parts of northern Nigeria including today’s Middle Belt. Easterners, especially Igbos were killed in their homes, in their shops, as they fled to safety and most sacrilegiously, in churches where they had ran to for safety. Mobs set churches on fire in Sokoto and other parts of northern Nigeria with hundreds of easterners dying in great agony.
The mobs across Sokoto, Kadauna, Kano, Bauchi and all over the north had claimed that they were avenging the murder of northern leaders by Kaduna Nzeoguw and his fellow coupists of January 1966. Sadly, no voice of reason within the northern political, cultural and religious establishment chided or tried to restrain the mob for killing innocent people who were neither consulted by Nzeogwu nor made any input to his coup.
The thirst for blood was unquenchable and in open streets, pregnant women had their bellies ripped open and their bodies desecrated. Sadly, the Yakubu Gowon government and the government of northern Nigeria under Hassan Katsina did nothing to stop these mobs or protect the lives of their compatriots.
It was murder unlimited, the type no one in Africa had ever witnessed at the time and in the estimation of many, nothing of such magnitude had happened afterwards.
So with Yakubu Gowon and his band of northern rulers doing nothing to protect easterners after they had murdered Head of state Aguiyi Ironsi and over three hundred officers of Igbo origin, Ojukwu and the elders was left with no choice but to seek the survival of their people by loudly denouncing and severing relationship with Nigeria.
It was something any rational human being was expected to do. You cannot be compatriots with humans who wish to exterminate your race from God’s earth.
Current issues first
The aim of this piece however is not to discuss the legitimacy or otherwise of Ojukwu’s declaration nor the failure of Yakubu Gowon’s Nigeria to live up to the most elementary responsibility of state which is the protection of the life of the citizens.
No, that much has been done by historians and those interested are encouraged to pick various books authored by writers with firsthand experience of the carnage and how the events of those days continue to haunt Nigeria till date. The focus of this presentation however is to look at the events of the present day and perhaps leave you to decide if the Nigerian state hadn’t lost the reason’d’itre of its existence.
National day of mourning in peace times
Earlier in the week, a coalition of civil society groups declared the national day of mourning to honour the memory of the over thirty thousand Nigerians who have been killed in the last few years by various terrorist franchises (it does not matter whether you call them Boko Haram, herdsmen, armed robbers or kidnappers).
They are generally in the business of making life miserable for millions of Nigerians whether at home, in places of worship, schools or on the road. Their business receipts are blood, tears, agonies and heart wrecks. What does it say of the state that in a country not at war, thousands of people are killed for fun every now and again?
While it is sickening to read the death of thousands of thousands of Nigerians in the newspapers, what, for many is most devastating is that very little is done by the state to bring the perpetrators to book.
How about the fact that in places like Kaduna and Katsina, state governors openly admit that funds belonging to tax payers were actually channelled to these murderers as a way of begging them to leave? Just think. Can this happen in any society with some form of decency?
Consider also that while not at war, more people are actually murdered in Nigeria than the casualty figures from war torn countries such as Afghanistan and Syria. Spare a thought also to the truth that fewer people were killed in Somalia without a functional government in the last one year than in Nigeria.
So you now ask: what is the value of government in Nigeria if despite the humongous budget for security every year, Nigerians are slaughtered at will with very little consequences? Did I even forget to mention that these deaths include those caused by policemen (SARS, MOPOL, Plain clothes, Black and Black, Blue on Black), soldiers and other security agents?
The Nigerian Police, it is estimated, kill hundreds of Nigerians extra-judiciously annually and international groups such as the Amnesty
International have been documenting the number of Nigerian who fell to police bullets over the last few years. The annual human rights reports detailing police relationship with the Nigerian citizens is always a depressing read.
The soldiers? Theirs is a pathetic story. They are both victims and aggressors. In 2015, hundreds of followers of Islamic scholar, Ibraheem El Zakzaky, including members of his own family were killed by operatives of the Nigerian military for “blocking the army chief of staff’s convoy.” Think about that for a moment. Close to one thousand people lost their lives because they blocked the road and a public servant paid with money pooled from tax payers could not use the highway.
Where else have you heard that? But do not be quick to scream. You have not heard the worst. Are you also aware that it took a detailed report from Bloomberg for Nigerians to realise that thousands of soldiers killed by Boko Haram terrorists were buried in unmarked graves in the north east without even the courtesy of informing their families or even next-of-kin.
These soldiers hardly get their death benefits and they are forgotten as if they never lived. I can’t think of a greater dishonour to someone who paid the ultimate price. But then, you can hardly find honour and the Nigerian military establishment in one sentence- not since 1966.
One victory, two sides
Nigeria’s failures go beyond just refusing to rise to the demands of nationhood. It is legion and stares you in the face wherever you look. Often times I ask myself, why did anyone risk his life to keep Nigeria one? The offspring of so many of the men who committed genocide fighting for one Nigeria or goading those who did are largely without jobs, they are likely to be found amongst the hundred million or so people who live below the poverty line and basic amenities like health, education, water supply, quality roads are considered luxury good way beyond the reach of their short hands.
May I however admit that not everyone who fought to extinguish the Biafran dream is living in squalor. No. A few days ago also, Twitter, the social media space favoured by elite Nigerians was awash with images of Rolls Royce, Ferrari, Mercedes and other luxury cars belonging to sons and daughters of a few northern oligarchs celebrating the Muslim Eid festival.
Yes, there are very few living in obscene opulence in the country while scores of millions swim in abject poverty. Interestingly, so many of those posing in front of their Bentleys in Maitama and Asokoro areas of Abuja and elite residences in Kaduna, Kano and Sokoto were those whose fathers, grand fathers or close relatives probably led battalions (or mobs depending on where it happened or how you interpret things) to murder women and children in their sleep, in school or inside churches.
But then, there are so many other victors whose children live in squalor, lost to drugs and certainly convinced that their parents made a mistake fighting against unarmed communities in the late 60s.
As we reflect on the significance of Biafra and the tragedy of nationhood in Nigeria, it would be apt to understand that beyond being a physical space; Biafra was essentially an idea. Yes, so much attention has been paid to the physical territory under Biafra, the oil wealth and what else? Maybe the identity and culture of the people. However Biafra is way beyond all of these.
It is an idea
As someone whose father fought in the war to stop the plot to wipe our race off the earth, I can say with some measure of certainty that so much of the arguments on the essence or significance of Biafra have been directed wrongly. Biafra was never about the oil in the Niger Delta, it has little to do with Ojukwu’s ego or the domineering instincts of the Igbo man.
It was largely about the idea that man by his very nature has the freewill to choose his destiny under any given circumstance. It was an intrinsic reaction against injustice, a rejection of oppression and a repudiation of the philosophy that human lives can be wasted at little or no provocation.
The easterners saw the failure represented by Nigeria and convinced themselves that it was best they separate themselves from the mess before it engulfs all of Africa. That someone elected to kill a people for opting to take their own destiny in their hands remains an unsolved puzzle till today.
Fifty years after the physical identity of Biafra was crushed, the idea itself lives on and you find it all over the world. The surviving children of those who fought and died to keep our race going are out again asking hard questions.
What does Nigeria represent? Should anyone express any fealty to a nation state that watches idly by while thousands of its citizens are killed by religious, social and ethnic lunatics?
Does it make sense to identify with a country that cannot provide its citizens the very basics of existence? What kind of society will give itself to the rulership of a fellow who does not care what happens to those under him?
Should anyone be honest in a country whose identity is built on lies, leadership structure formed on deceit and its relationship with the citizenry a product of fraud? Interestingly, these tough questions are no longer asked exclusively in Enugu or Owerri.
Millions are seeking answers to these questions in Benue, Kaduna, Kogi, Plateau and in several other places where thousands were killed by mobs and street urchins in military uniform fifty three years ago.
Sadly, nobody in Abuja can sincerely provide an answer to any or all of these questions.
It is only a matter of time. A lie, no matter how long it runs will eventually be overtaken by the truth. An idea never dies. It only changes form.
By Dodoh Okafor