BIAFRA AS NIGHTMARE AND FANTASY

BY  OKEY NDIBE
Gen. Emeka Ojukwu
I have been distressed beyond words by what has crystallized as an
agitation for Biafra’s divorce from Nigeria. I am disturbed that this
agitation has become another occasion for the Nigerian state to
demonstrate its disdain for the rule of law and the rights of
citizens. I’m appalled by the violence spawned by the actions of the
agitators and the state’s reaction. The immediate impetus for the
violent turn is the continued detention of Nnamdi Kanu, leader of the
Indigenous Peoples of Biafra (IPOB), indeed the rabble rouser-in-chief
of the neo-Biafran cause.
The government ought to release Mr. Kanu immediately, both because
that’s the wisdom of the court and it’s the quickest way to defuse
tension. But Mr. Kanu’s release will not, by itself, erase the
frenzied propagation of Biafra, an idea that represents a nightmare to
some, and a fantasy to others. Sooner or later-sooner, one hopes, than
later Nigeria has to confront the inescapable question of what it
means to be called a Nigerian.
That question (or the reluctance to engage it in any serious and
sustained way) is one reason Nigeria has remained an alien and
alienating idea, and susceptible to frequent acts of rejection by its
ostensible citizens. Periodically, those expressions of everyday
individual resentment and disaffection build into mass resistance.
It’s important to put the agitation for Biafra in the broader context
of Nigerians’ longstanding disillusionment with their country. For the
avoidance of doubt, this is no new phenomenon. Nigeria’s two literary
giants, Wole Soyinka and the late Chinua Achebe, have wrestled with
the confounding matter of Nigeria. A few years ago, Nobel laureate
Soyinka asserted at a series of talks he gave at Harvard University
that there was no nation yet in the space called Nigeria. Years
earlier, Achebe had said to me in an interview that Nigeria had not
yet been founded. Nothing in the two writers’ claims amounted to a
repudiation of Nigeria as such. No, they were making what I’d call
statements of fact. The fact that Nigeria had yet to achieve a sense
of national identity did not imply that such a prospect was doomed.
I’d say that the two writers were warning the rest of us about what
needed to be done in order to translate the abstract, ill-formed idea
called Nigeria into a concrete, organic, salutary and regenerative
reality.
Owing to the ahistorical mindset that shapes much discourse in
Nigeria, some people on both sides of the Biafran debate have
proceeded as if there was something unique or exceptionable about Mr.
Kanu’s separatist advocacy. No, it is a variant of rebellions that
have periodically cropped up since the British cobbled together the
space called Nigeria. In more recent times, such rebellions had
baptized themselves with such names as the Odua Peoples Congress
(OPC), the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) and
in its religionist hue, Boko Haram.
If the current agitation for Biafra has any claim to uniqueness at
all, it lies in the fact that, between 1967 and 1970, Nigeria fought a
thirty-month war to suppress the secession of Biafra. I was a child
during that war, shielded the best way my parents could, but I
experienced the Biafran War’s horrendousness and horrific cost. I saw
firsthand the devastation, on limbs, nerves, dreams and space, that
war wrought. Some historians estimated that more than two million
people perished, most of them children, most from starvation.
Anybody who’s followed my writing for any length of time would know
that, like Soyinka, Achebe and many others, I am not enamored of the
pathological state of Nigeria. I believe Nigeria has been an extremely
prodigal construct, wedded to colossal squandering of lives and other
resources, with little or no positive result.
In June 2014, I published an essay entitled: “Biafra, the Ostrich
Mentality and Nigeria’s Tragedy.” That essay embodied my sense of
utter frustration with Nigeria, a country that could waste the lives
of millions of its people in pursuit of the idea that “to keep Nigeria
one is a task that must be done.”
Let me quote from that essay at some length. I wrote, “There is a
sense in which the name of the malaise afflicting Nigeria is Biafra. I
have argued before and I must do so again that Nigeria’s refusal to
confront and address the sore of the Biafran War is the chief reason
no nation has been able to materialize out of the space called
Nigeria, no peace has been had in that space, and no real progress
much less development has been recorded. As the world watches,
riveted, Nigeria is spinning and spinning in a dizzying, ridiculous,
violent dance, racing ever closer to the edge of that jagged precipice
we have all romanced for fifty-four years if not before.
“The wound called Biafra haunts Nigeria precisely because Nigeria
imagined that it could get over Biafra through cheap sloganeering (no
victor, no vanquished), the mere invocation of the mantra of the Rs-
reconstruction, rehabilitation and reconciliation through silence and
willed forgetfulness indeed, by playing the ostrich.”
“I’m not going to be detained by con- tested, contending accounts of
the Biafran struggle, or even questions pertaining to whether the
quest for secession was inevitable. At minimum, we ought to agree that
Nigeria, from the moment of its British conception, was neither
essential nor natural. It was, above all, convenient and profitable
for the British. And all the logic that informed its constitution made
eminent sense, finally, mostly from the prism of British interests.
“When the British removed their bodies but not necessarily their
spirits and ghosts from the Nigerian space, we all had a historical
duty. That duty was to pause and ask the question, what does Nigeria
mean? It was to determine whether we all the 400 odd ethnic
collectivities that the British bracketed inside the space called
Nigeria wished to maintain the shape of this British design. It was to
discern whether we all the constituent elements of the space felt
sufficiently animated by the prospect of living together, fraternizing
as a people with shared aspirations and common destiny. In the event
that we all found Nigeria an irreducible, compelling proposition, then
we should have hatched out the terms of our coexistence. We should
have sketched out our imagination of Nigeria and spelt out what it
meant to be called a citizen of Nigeria. In other words, we should
have commenced the task of remaking the British-delineated space
called Nigeria into a veritable, vital, and robust nation. Had we done
this, we would have acquired some kind of compass for navigating our
self-fashioned nation towards the direction of our own envisioning.
“We did not as much as attempt to grapple with that arduous, messy,
but inescapable process of nation-formation. We settled for the
British-made illusion. We were content to take the British confection
of a Nigerian idea and run with it. We pretended that there was some
inherent logic to Nigeria, that it was coherent and organic, a full
redemption of some promissory note, almost a divinely designed
imperative.
“Perhaps we shirked this duty out of laziness, a sense of convenience,
or a naïve faith in the British. Perhaps, then, we believed that
Nigeria was a nation just be- cause imperial Britain had seen fit to
outfit the space with roads that linked its different parts as well as
such accouterments of the modern state as postal and telegraph
services, railways, the police, prisons, schools, and a cadre of civil
servants.

“We neglected to pay attention to the fact that, at every opportunity
especially when our ‘nationalist’ figures pressed the case for
Independence, British officials had insisted that Nigeria was not a
nation but a collection of ‘nations.’ In retrospect, we should have
paid attention to the British. They owned the patent
on Nigeria; they knew that they had not achieved a nation indeed, that
they had not intended to achieve one when they set out to cobble
together the space called Nigeria.”
Next week, I will examine the current agitation for a renascent Biafra
as a form of ill-advised adventurism, one that is antithetical to core
Igbo interests, and a too-easy, but ultimately dubious, answer.
Please follow me on twitter @okeyn- dibe

I have been distressed beyond words by what has crystallized as an
agitation for Biafra’s divorce from Nigeria. I am disturbed that this
agitation has become another occasion for the Nigerian state to
demonstrate its disdain for the rule of law and the rights of
citizens. I’m appalled by the violence spawned by the actions of the
agitators and the state’s reaction. The immediate impetus for the
violent turn is the continued detention of Nnamdi Kanu, leader of the
Indigenous Peoples of Biafra (IPOB), indeed the rabble rouser-in-chief
of the neo-Biafran cause.
The government ought to release Mr. Kanu immediately, both because
that’s the wisdom of the court and it’s the quickest way to defuse
tension. But Mr. Kanu’s release will not, by itself, erase the
frenzied propagation of Biafra, an idea that represents a nightmare to
some, and a fantasy to others. Sooner or later-sooner, one hopes, than
later Nigeria has to confront the inescapable question of what it
means to be called a Nigerian.
That question (or the reluctance to engage it in any serious and
sustained way) is one reason Nigeria has remained an alien and
alienating idea, and susceptible to frequent acts of rejection by its
ostensible citizens. Periodically, those expressions of everyday
individual resentment and disaffection build into mass resistance.
It’s important to put the agitation for Biafra in the broader context
of Nigerians’ longstanding disillusionment with their country. For the
avoidance of doubt, this is no new phenomenon. Nigeria’s two literary
giants, Wole Soyinka and the late Chinua Achebe, have wrestled with
the confounding matter of Nigeria. A few years ago, Nobel laureate
Soyinka asserted at a series of talks he gave at Harvard University
that there was no nation yet in the space called Nigeria. Years
earlier, Achebe had said to me in an interview that Nigeria had not
yet been founded. Nothing in the two writers’ claims amounted to a
repudiation of Nigeria as such. No, they were making what I’d call
statements of fact. The fact that Nigeria had yet to achieve a sense
of national identity did not imply that such a prospect was doomed.
I’d say that the two writers were warning the rest of us about what
needed to be done in order to translate the abstract, ill-formed idea
called Nigeria into a concrete, organic, salutary and regenerative
reality.
Owing to the ahistorical mindset that shapes much discourse in
Nigeria, some people on both sides of the Biafran debate have
proceeded as if there was something unique or exceptionable about Mr.
Kanu’s separatist advocacy. No, it is a variant of rebellions that
have periodically cropped up since the British cobbled together the
space called Nigeria. In more recent times, such rebellions had
baptized themselves with such names as the Odua Peoples Congress
(OPC), the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) and
in its religionist hue, Boko Haram.
If the current agitation for Biafra has any claim to uniqueness at
all, it lies in the fact that, between 1967 and 1970, Nigeria fought a
thirty-month war to suppress the secession of Biafra. I was a child
during that war, shielded the best way my parents could, but I
experienced the Biafran War’s horrendousness and horrific cost. I saw
firsthand the devastation, on limbs, nerves, dreams and space, that
war wrought. Some historians estimated that more than two million
people perished, most of them children, most from starvation.
Anybody who’s followed my writing for any length of time would know
that, like Soyinka, Achebe and many others, I am not enamored of the
pathological state of Nigeria. I believe Nigeria has been an extremely
prodigal construct, wedded to colossal squandering of lives and other
resources, with little or no positive result.
In June 2014, I published an essay entitled: “Biafra, the Ostrich
Mentality and Nigeria’s Tragedy.” That essay embodied my sense of
utter frustration with Nigeria, a country that could waste the lives
of millions of its people in pursuit of the idea that “to keep Nigeria
one is a task that must be done.”
Let me quote from that essay at some length. I wrote, “There is a
sense in which the name of the malaise afflicting Nigeria is Biafra. I
have argued before and I must do so again that Nigeria’s refusal to
confront and address the sore of the Biafran War is the chief reason
no nation has been able to materialize out of the space called
Nigeria, no peace has been had in that space, and no real progress
much less development has been recorded. As the world watches,
riveted, Nigeria is spinning and spinning in a dizzying, ridiculous,
violent dance, racing ever closer to the edge of that jagged precipice
we have all romanced for fifty-four years if not before.
“The wound called Biafra haunts Nigeria precisely because Nigeria
imagined that it could get over Biafra through cheap sloganeering (no
victor, no vanquished), the mere invocation of the mantra of the Rs-
reconstruction, rehabilitation and reconciliation through silence and
willed forgetfulness indeed, by playing the ostrich.”
“I’m not going to be detained by con- tested, contending accounts of
the Biafran struggle, or even questions pertaining to whether the
quest for secession was inevitable. At minimum, we ought to agree that
Nigeria, from the moment of its British conception, was neither
essential nor natural. It was, above all, convenient and profitable
for the British. And all the logic that informed its constitution made
eminent sense, finally, mostly from the prism of British interests.
“When the British removed their bodies but not necessarily their
spirits and ghosts from the Nigerian space, we all had a historical
duty. That duty was to pause and ask the question, what does Nigeria
mean? It was to determine whether we all the 400 odd ethnic
collectivities that the British bracketed inside the space called
Nigeria wished to maintain the shape of this British design. It was to
discern whether we all the constituent elements of the space felt
sufficiently animated by the prospect of living together, fraternizing
as a people with shared aspirations and common destiny. In the event
that we all found Nigeria an irreducible, compelling proposition, then
we should have hatched out the terms of our coexistence. We should
have sketched out our imagination of Nigeria and spelt out what it
meant to be called a citizen of Nigeria. In other words, we should
have commenced the task of remaking the British-delineated space
called Nigeria into a veritable, vital, and robust nation. Had we done
this, we would have acquired some kind of compass for navigating our
self-fashioned nation towards the direction of our own envisioning.
“We did not as much as attempt to grapple with that arduous, messy,
but inescapable process of nation-formation. We settled for the
British-made illusion. We were content to take the British confection
of a Nigerian idea and run with it. We pretended that there was some
inherent logic to Nigeria, that it was coherent and organic, a full
redemption of some promissory note, almost a divinely designed
imperative.
“Perhaps we shirked this duty out of laziness, a sense of convenience,
or a naïve faith in the British. Perhaps, then, we believed that
Nigeria was a nation just be- cause imperial Britain had seen fit to
outfit the space with roads that linked its different parts as well as
such accouterments of the modern state as postal and telegraph
services, railways, the police, prisons, schools, and a cadre of civil
servants.

“We neglected to pay attention to the fact that, at every opportunity
especially when our ‘nationalist’ figures pressed the case for
Independence, British officials had insisted that Nigeria was not a
nation but a collection of ‘nations.’ In retrospect, we should have
paid attention to the British. They owned the patent
on Nigeria; they knew that they had not achieved a nation indeed, that
they had not intended to achieve one when they set out to cobble
together the space called Nigeria.”
Next week, I will examine the current agitation for a renascent Biafra
as a form of ill-advised adventurism, one that is antithetical to core
Igbo interests, and a too-easy, but ultimately dubious, answer.

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