As an Igbo, I feel deeply about Biafra because, inter alia, although I was a toddler when hostilities broke out between Nigeria and the eastern region over fifty years ago it is impossible to erase completely the horrendous memories of that conflict. Besides, there is hardly any family in Biafra, Igboland particularly, that did not lose a loved one and property during the war.
Personally, I lost a sister; my father’s thriving merchant business in Aba and Ugwuocha (Port Harcourt) was devastated, and the family barely managed to survive afterwards. Therefore, for everyone affected by the Biafran war, May 30, 1967 is in an important sense equivalent to 1939 for the Jews or Israelites who, rightly, have continued to commemorate the Nazi holocaust on Jewish people during World War II.
Accordingly, notwithstanding federal government’s irascible attitude to the Indigenous Peoples of Biafra (IPOB) led by Nnamdi Kanu, one must commend the organisation for instituting May 30 annually as a day of remembrance for Biafrans killed during the civil war. A people that forgets the defining moments of its past would eventually go into oblivion.
Still, you do not have to be an Igbo or belong to the defunct eastern region to understand the significance of the very day that Lt. Col. Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu declared the independence of Biafra from Nigeria. The new Biafran nation comprised the states in the present south-east and south-south geopolitical zones.
Litres of ink have been spent by historians, academics, and other interested parties to explain both the remote and immediate causes of the war. But the truth which most members of the sybaritic ruling class in Nigeria has stubbornly refused to take seriously is that Nigeria was created by Britain primarily to bolster her economic interests. British colonial imperialists were certainly not interested in working as equal partners with the various peoples they brought together for the optimum development of the country they named Nigeria.
Instead, they were keen to harness the impressive human and natural resources in the new geopolitical amalgam to build a stronger and resilient economy back home as dictated by white supremacist logic and the imperatives of colonialism. This implies that the continued existence of Nigeria is a clear endorsement by Nigerians of British imperialist designs and their failure to outgrow the template cobbled together by Lord Lugard and the avaricious colonial establishment in the dying days of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th.
Now, British colonial administrators and prominent Nigerian politicians across the country during the nationalist agitation for independence knew that forging a truly united nation from the multiple ethnic nationalities of Nigeria was a very difficult task. The most formidable was how the north with its rustic conservative emirate system based on Islamic theocracy could be blended seamlessly with the largely variegated Christian communities in the south.
Different outcomes of indirect rule in the three major regions of Nigeria ought to have indicated to the British that Project Nigeria would be an unstable proposition right from the start, but they were blinded by the huge economic benefits from exploiting the country through the amalgamation of the “southern lady of means” and the “promising well-conducted youth” or northern Nigeria.
As Max Siollun, a perceptive writer on Nigerian history who sometimes obscures truth in a bizarre quest for “neutrality” observes, “Nigeria [is] so ethnically, religiously and linguistically complex that even some of its leading politicians initially doubted it could constitute a real country.”
I have written severally in this column about how British officials connived with conservative Muslim northern politicians to ensure that the north held on to political power at the centre after independence, especially through manipulating census figures and elections to give northern region demographic superiority political advantage over the south.
Unfortunately, Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe played into the hands of both the British and the north by working hard to create a centralised Nigeria. Dr. Azikiwe’s naivety stemmed from two sources. One, he thought that given the meritorious preeminent position of Ndigbo in key areas of the new Nigeria, the people can hold their own in a united country where merit and excellence prevailed in public life and determined who gets what at all levels of governance.
Two, he envisaged that, as the leading Pan-Nigeria nationalist it was more prestigious to preside over a bigger Nigerian nation than to lead a much smaller geographical space called the eastern region. With the benefit of hindsight, Dr. Azikiwe was gravely mistaken to think that leading members of the northern establishment shared the same liberal democratic principles that he imbibed as an Igbo and from his studies in the United States.
More specifically, Alhaji Ahmadu Bello, Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, and most leading northern politicians were core Muslims; and since the Koran and the Hadith are radioactive to the principles of liberal democracy, the great Zik of Africa failed to notice the perilous implications of working together with political juggernauts from the north when he entered into alliance with the Northern Peoples Congress (NPC) to form a coalition government in 1960.
Let me put it this way: Muslims can deny it till the end of time, but the two most important Islamic literature unabashedly advocate an ideal authoritarian theocracy or caliphate which is incompatible with the principles of liberal democracy and human rights as they are understood today. There are accounts from few prominent Igbo and Yoruba commentators, each blaming Chief Obafemi Awolowo and Azikiwe respectively for failure of the National Council of Nigerian Citizens (NCNC) and Action Group (AG) to provide a united front at independence, which would have automatically left the NPC out in the cold.
The most plausible conclusion that can be distilled from these accounts is that the two respected politicians squandered a great opportunity because given their solid intellectual background and liberal democratic orientation they ought to have put aside their personal differences and worked together. That failure, with the consequent unrelenting northern push for dominance despite the region’s economic stagnation and yawning educational disadvantages, when compared to the south, can be counted as one of the remote causes of the Biafran war.
The military coup of January 15, 1966 is another controversial remote cause of the conflict. A very uncharitable and distorted explanation of the unfortunate event is that it was an Igbo coup meant to launch Igbo domination of the entire country. Of course, those who make this claim are either Igbo haters or are completely ignorant of the relevant facts concerning the coup.
By Douglas Anele
Nwada Ugochinyere Onyechere reporting, Obinwannem