In this essay we will take time to clarify some areas that seem to confuse some people in the on-going Biafra separatist movement in Nigeria. Over the years, as will be expected; the move for the independence of Biafra has undergone some transformations. These changes seem to have created a sort of mixed messages in the minds of both observers and participants. So, at this point it is really important that we try to clarify some of the seemingly ambiguous aspects of the movement.
It is a fact that for some of the participants, those involved in the struggle, many are finding it difficult to come to terms and accept the obvious realities of these changes when they seem to go against some of their assumed or preconceived notions of what the struggle should be about. This is understandable. But in spite of the genuine appreciation of the position of these colleagues it will be foolish if we should ignore the prevailing obvious new realities and facts as they concern the movement. We can only ask that such individuals will be humble enough to find the sincerity and courage to acknowledge these truths and incontestable facts when they are revealed to them.
Right from the onset we take it for granted that all of us who are involved in this Igbo independence project are concerned with the noble idea and task of establishing a functional and viable society or country. With that in mind we will take it that none of us in this movement is in it for the vain pursuit of an imaginary kingdom based on the fancies of some unrealistic “united states” dreams. Such figments of unreflective imaginations are nothing different from the nightmarish one Nigerian concept, which we are saddled with now. Such unreflective idiocies must be avoided by all means if our aim is to succeed and not just thrive but prosper as a new country.
Igbo is a distinctive language, an ethnic nationality of 50 million, a people with definitive unique identities, a linguistic, cultural and worldview that cannot be confused or mistaken for something else by anyone. This exclusive way of life makes them who they are: Igbo.
In this regard therefore, it is necessary to state plainly that the current non-violent move (starting from the later part of the 1990s to the present, 2018) to separate Biafra from Nigeria, as an independent state is exclusively an Igbo project. It is an effort by the Igbo collective to establish a new country exclusively for and by themselves. And we must quickly add that this desire is just, legitimate and altogether wholesome.
Igbo people in Nigeria have specific autochthonous lands, which they have always occupied from antiquity. In these lands, from primordial time the Igbo have always existed there and passed them on from one generation to the next until this present time. It is the Igbo in these lands so described that want to separate their lands from Nigeria into a new modern country with a sovereign independent status.
It is in this fundamental fact that the key to an unclouded understanding of the scope or dimensions and the identities of the new Biafra and its people lies. This fact clearly defines the contrast that exists between the 1967 Biafran struggle for independence and the current Biafran independence movement. The two may sound alike but there is an unmistakable difference between them. In the 1967 Biafra, the lands and peoples of other ethnic nationalities other than the Igbo were included in the physical geographical map of the Biafran country. Indeed some Igbo lands were excluded in the map of the old Biafra. But in this new Biafra it is only the Igbo ethnic nationality and their lands everywhere that make up the new country. As we go on with this discussion, this position of an Igbo-only Biafra will be further explained.
Relevant changes are often necessitated by prevailing circumstances, new knowledge and newly emerging truths. For the benefit of some of our colleagues in this liberation movement we understand that sometimes it is difficult to embrace necessary changes. Most often it is time that is the primary agent of these changes. In Stephen Hawkins’s A Brief History of Time he talks about how difficult it was for him at the initial stage to convince the scientific world to believe in his Big Bang Theory and how even more difficult it has been for him to dissuade the same group of scientists from believing in many aspects of the same theory.
But the truth is that new knowledge and truths will sometimes emerge to supplant former truths or ideas. It is therefore, not a sign of inferior intelligence or inferior moral standards to review or change one’s positions based on new knowledge and truths. Time and the people themselves must always continually determine and create their own realities based on their prevailing circumstances. And it will always take the painstaking reflective patience of the sincere and honest individual to find enough courage and boldness to accept new truths and new realities as they present themselves.
Alternatively, putting it more bluntly, we must say that it will be a fatal mistake when anyone especially those in the centre of the Biafran movement try to ignore or pretend that nothing changes with the passage of time or that such a fundamental reality on which hinges the total essence of the independence movement will be sorted out later on.
The circumstances that produced the two Biafras are not the same
We need to make it clear that though this generation of Igbo people take a part of their inspiration from the just and courageous actions of their forebears who rightly fought to be free as Biafrans, but the truth is that the Igbo of the on-going Biafra or Igbo independence movement also have their own unique reasons for embarking on this new project of freedom. Therefore this new business of Biafra or Igbo independence movement is exclusively the project of the present generation of Igbo people and will be fought and won on this generation’s terms and conditions. The old truism that says that every new generation must fight their own battles and win or lose their own victories could not be truer elsewhere than in this instance.
Briefly, we must mention here, by way of explaining some of those reasons that differentiate the old Biafra from the new: In the past during the 1966 Pogrom the Igbo were not the exclusive victims of the Nigerian government-sponsored killing of unarmed citizens. The other neighbouring ethnic peoples or most of the other people from what was then known as Eastern Region of Nigeria were also among the casualties in the killings. And mostly it was the Pogrom that led to the declaration of an independent state of Biafra from Nigeria with the geographical map of the old Eastern Region serving as the new country’s physical boundaries in 1967. That country of Biafra existed from mid-1967 to the second week of January 1970.
Another important point to note here is that the old Biafra was declared along the then existing Eastern Region administrative territory as established by the British colonial administrators. The boundaries and identities of the people of this new country of Biafra will be determined by the indigenous people, the Igbo by themselves and for themselves.
Just like the presently contested one Nigeria, the old Eastern Region of Nigeria was an arbitrary creation of a foreign colonial power without any due consultation with the natives or consideration of the differences that existed among the native peoples who would be compelled to deal with the consequences of the actions. As it is in Nigeria, the old Eastern Region was made up of peoples with incongruent and irreconcilable worldviews and national aspirations who were forced by the force of colonialism to mix together their fortunes and destinies in one political and administrative structure without the benefit of a commonality of cultural and historical antecedent or heritage which serves to bind a people together and enable them to live in harmony and a progress-promoting environment.
The new Biafra
Due to the continued mistreatment of the Igbo in Nigeria starting from 1970 when the Biafran-Nigerian War ended; the well-documented and publicised marginalisation, persecution and complete exclusion of the Igbo from Nigerian commonwealth and all the affairs of the Nigerian state, a group of Igbo people (known as Ekwenche Research Organisation in the United States) decided in 1996/1997 to revive the quest for the independence of Igbo people from the Nigerian state. Over the years this quest has evolved but its core agenda remains the same – the determined separation of the Igbo nation and land from Nigeria.
It is important that no one should miss or mix up this fundamental agenda because that is what gives the movement its nature, structure and dimensions. Except the Igbo, this new Biafra has nothing to do with any other ethnic groups in Nigeria, for obvious reasons.
Generally speaking, though the Igbo are adventurous and outgoing, they are not known to be imperialistic or to covet the fortunes, stations or places of other people. It is this national trait of the Igbo, which informs the continued survival of the Igbo practice and reverence for Ikenga Igbo – a belief in the supreme importance of individuals’ personal achievement. The Igbo thrives better when they have the exclusive control of their own space and destiny.
Just as we the Igbo are not interested in the possession or in the sharing of our neighbours’ good fortunes as a result of common citizenship of the same country, we are not pretending to being the redeemers or saviours of these our neighbours either. The Igbo believe that each of their neighbours is capable in their own rights to save, determine and pilot the ship of their own state and destiny by themselves and for themselves.
In Nigeria the only group of people who is resented, despised, hated, persecuted, and generally considered, as the pariah of the state is the Igbo. Just one recent example will suffice here. On 6 June 2017, a group that goes by the name Northern Youth Coalition held a press conference in Kaduna and issued a three-month quit notice to all Igbo people living in what is traditionally known as the northern region. This area covers about 70 percent of the physical map of what is known as Nigeria. [[i]]
The quit notice, which was backed by the government and people of the north is quite explicit and specifically issued to the Igbo people. In the document that the group read at the press conference it explained clearly why the quit notice was exclusively for the Igbo and not inclusive of other ethnic members of the Nigerian union.
For the sake of emphasis it needs to be repeated here that over the years that the non-acceptance of Igbo people in Nigeria has remained a consistent systemic and systematic programme of both the government and the private citizens of Nigeria. This programme is not lost on Igbo people therefore, the people have made an immutable resolve to move out from Nigeria and form their own separate sovereign independent state. This resolve is also based on the universally accepted principle of Self Determination as the right of all peoples everywhere.
We need to remind our readers that we believe in the unity of all human peoples everywhere, but we are aware of the fact that not all forms of unity are good for all peoples everywhere. Without looking far to illustrate this point we can only invite our readers to take a quick look at the disastrous unity of one Nigeria. From the Nigerian example it is very clear that the only unity that succeed are those that are based on the understanding that such a people that are being united have a unified sense of purpose, that such a people are united in the common pursuit of unified national aspirations, and yoked together in their common cultural ways and worldviews. With this conviction that not all forms of unity promote strength, harmony and progress, Igbo people categorically reject any unity that is just for the sake of it. In our opinion, nothing can be weaker than all forms of unity that lack the basic ingredients that foster harmony and progress but instead promote resentment, hatred, death and intolerance.
It is for this reason that we know that any new Biafra that will not take these historical facts and realities into consideration is equally doomed from the start just like the one Nigeria which we are fighting to be extricated from.
At this juncture we need to reassure all Igbo neighbours who are living in the contiguous lands around the Igbo, that we recognise the fact that they too may have their own issues or misgivings about the Nigerian union but we also know that just as it is in the real world, each group has their own unique challenges which is peculiar to them. We also know that just as it is only the one who wears the shoe understands where it pinches, the Igbo do not pretend to know or have the answers to their neighbours’ challenges as it applies to them. As good neighbours, the Igbo are always willing to work in partnership with their neighbours to achieve certain goals such as working jointly together to collectively extricate themselves from Nigeria.
Working together in projects of this nature does not mean that other ethnic nations should subsume their unique national identities in the Igbo identity. Should the need arise where the Igbo neighbours will fight alongside the Igbo to win freedom from Nigeria, it will never result in what some misguided individuals erroneously refer to as the “United States of Biafra.” The present Igbo independence movement is not pursuing any such thing. Despite its faults this present generation of Igbo cherishes with pride their unique Igbo identity which they are prepared to own and preserve while working on continually improving and modernising this their collective heritage to remain relevant and to continuously conform with the universal global standards.
It is in this light that we want to state plainly that this new Igbo-only Biafra will not be a closed society. Although the country will be an exclusive Igbo society and a sovereign country, it will also be an open society that welcomes all-comers from everywhere, without discrimination. For the purpose of emphasis we need to state that this Igbo country will especially be more open and welcoming of those who are mistreated, persecuted or pursued from anywhere. So long as all intending immigrants are willing to come in and be assimilated and ultimately become Igbo by practice and identity, they will always have a home in the Igbo country.
With this understanding it becomes clear that the kind of an Igbo-only state that we are talking about here does not mean a closeted extremist or intolerant state. No, it means a state where an oppressed and persecuted people can be and have their lives and properties and rights protected by a sovereign national power. In this Igbo state all people from anywhere in the world who are escaping oppression, persecution or any such thing can come there and find a home and refuge without discrimination. In this state – an Igbo state, people of all colours and persuasion can come to this state to dream, achieve and prosper without any hindrances so long as they keep the laws of the land and respect the rights of fellow citizens. It will be a state administered under a continually updated set of predictable rules, regulations, laws and order. It will be far removed from any state where the whims and fancies of one person or a few clique of individuals prevail.
There will never be a reason to exclude anyone who comes into the Igbo state who will be willing to live and abide by the norms of their host society. Igbo ways and ideas are in full conformity with the universal standards and practice and all Igbo everywhere own and identify with them with pride and are ever willing to work hard at the protection, preservation and advancement of this their Igboness as a collective bequeathal to subsequent Igbo generations.
Lastly, we want to reassure all people everywhere that this pursuit to establish a safe haven (a sovereign state) for the Igbo who have always suffered resentment, persecution, discrimination and hatred in the hands of their neighbours is a just and legitimate venture and should be supported by all well-meaning individuals, governments and groups everywhere.
* Osita Ebiem is a social affairs commentator and rights advocate.