LET me say it, once again: I do not support the hysteria for Biafra. I am not sure Nnamdi Kanu fully understands the subject well enough to give us a picture of what to expect if wishes were horses and beggars could ride. But as an Igbo man I fully share the sentiments that are driving the protests.
The difference between these young people and me is that while they have surrendered to the heat of emotion and are being propelled by it, those of us who are more experienced and schooled in Nigerian affairs (part of which is the Biafra sub-plot) know that when faced with tough challenges, sentiment can never produce positive results.
This has been the approach of the Igbo elite since 1994, a period of our post-war history when the military had made the Igbo totally inconsequential in Nigerian politics. In the June 12, 1993 presidential election based on the military-decreed two party system, the Igbos were reduced to mere spectators in the fight between the North and the West for power.
But through strategic political plots, active involvement in the processes and patience, the Igbos had become reasonably grounded enough by 2011, that they played a leading role in the election of President Goodluck Jonathan as president of Nigeria in spite of the North’s ardent drive to grab power from him. Igbos did it by deliberately disqualifying themselves from running for president or vice in any major political party, and proceeding to dump their block votes for Jonathan. They repeated the feat in 2015, and thus were able to recover to a reasonable extent, the trust of their Minority neighbours in the South-South. The Igbos carefully built up what is now known in Nigerian politics as the South East and South-South platform; a political partnership that could become a major decider in Nigerian politics if sustained.
After the war, the Igbos and their Minority neighbours fought to outdo each other for second fiddle positions and crumbs, thus putting the North in the pole position of choosing whom to pick in their power tussle with the Yorubas. They were never able to produce block votes, and were seen as people having little electoral value in spite of their large population. 2011 and 2015 changed that perception because the Igbos acted in one accord with their South-South neighbours. This political tag-team could play a decisive role in choosing which Northerner will occupy the presidency in 2019. After that, anything is possible for the Igbos.
Most countries which survive civil wars take deliberate steps to heal the wounds. Looking at the United States, who would have thought that it once fought a bitter five-year civil war? The Nigerian civil war lasted for “only” 29 months. Yet, no section of America is made to feel less American than the others. America chose to heal their wounds of war to the point that you can hardly notice the scars. But here in Nigeria, we only covered the wound with bandages and deliberately allowed it to suppurate beneath. Some Nigerians actually feel entitled to keep the “gains” they made through the war.
This mentality is very high among the surviving senior military officers who fought for the federal side. After the war, they went on a freebooting spree, seizing the political and economic future of the country. They wrote decrees and took large swathes of land. Some became chicken farmers while others became cow farmers. They shared the oil wealth of the country among themselves and their friends foreign and local. Two of them (General Olusegun Obasanjo and Major General Muhammadu Buhari) have recycled themselves as our leaders. After plotting coups and ruling as military dictators, they came back as elected leaders.
This recycling of the civil war generals has not allowed the Nigerian war wounds to heal. Each time they came back, the Igbos are transported back to immediate post-war years when they had to endure terribly annoying political and economic exclusion.
On the other hand, presidents who were not combatants during the war were far more willing to carry everyone along. President Shehu Shagari picked an Igbo VP barely nine years after the war. President Umaru Yar’ Adua released many oil wells seized from Abia and Imo States by Obasanjo in 1976 back to them and took firm steps that showed he was truly a national leader. President Jonathan actually brought out the Nigerian Army to give former Biafra leader Chief Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu a presidential burial! These made the Igbo man to have a sense of belonging.
The emergence of General Muhammadu Buhari as the presidential candidate of the All Progressives Congress (APC) sounded the red alert to the Igbos that another win-the-war general was on his way back to power, just when the Igbos had begun to find their feet in the system. The Igbos did not vote for Buhari, not because of any hatred of his person. He had a good reputation as a man of integrity, but he also had a bad reputation as an extremely provincial ex-civil war commander. He was seen as the man who torpedoed the imminent emergence of Dr. Alex Ekwueme as Nigeria’s president in 1987.
Buhari went ahead to win the presidency. Rather than reassure the Igbos and other Doubting Thomases that they were wrong, he went to America and propounded his controversial “97%/5%” formula of non-inclusive government, which favours Northern Muslims. In appointing ministers, he empowered those who made him president.
It was the feeling of alienation stoked among the Igbos that Nnamdi Kanu’s Radio Biafra fed on to spark off the ongoing protests for “freedom”. The youth are tired of second class citizenship.
Still, Biafra is not the answer. We must join hands to conclusively retire the civil war generals in 2019. No former soldier should ever lead Nigeria again. They have no sense of shame, regret, accommodation or good conscience to build a nation where no one is oppressed.