Despondency in the country, at the time Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu, leader of the defunct state of Biafra died over a week ago, further amplifies Nigeria’s endangered unity over the unresolved issue of the national question
Langston Hughes, a great African-American poet (1902-1967), in his work entitled, Harlem, summed up the tests, trials, hopes, frustrations and disappointments of African-Americans of his age in a United States, US, that deified freedom but practised racism with the rhetorical question, “What happens to a dream deferred?” He wonders:
Does it dry up
Like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore—
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over—
Like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags
Like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?
These same dilemma, confusion, impasse and bewilderment confront Ndigbo and, indeed, the whole nation today with the inevitable transition of Chukwuemeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu on Saturday, November 26. His mystique life had run its full course when he turned 78 on November 4. His birthday cake cut in absentia by Governor Peter Obi and other close associates at his home, as it has turned out, was the beginning of his rites of passage.
When Ojukwu asked Anambra people in February 2010 to vote Obi for a second term as governor as his last wish, it was clear to discerning minds that for a highly evolved personality like the Ikemba, he knew the end was approaching. Signs of this unavoidable end began its course shortly after the election when Ojukwu, who had the constitution of an ox, slumped during Obi’s thanksgiving service at Onitsha and had to be revived by the bishops. Then shortly after his 77th birthday, he had a stroke and was flown overseas for better medical attention. Though clinically alive till about 3:00 a.m. on November 26, 2011, many elders feel that Ojukwu had since moved on. Though he may have regained some level of consciousness, he never really talked again, leaving Ndigbo without a goodbye.
Olusegun Obasanjo, former president, in his usual brusque manner, captured the essence of the moment, the historical paradigm and cultural milieu of Ikemba’s departure when he said: “In a way, his death marks the end of an era.” The Guardian on Sunday, November 27, 2011, called it “The Final Surrender!” His wife, Bianca, provided further background to his final capitulation: “When the doctors would tell us he wouldn’t make it to morning he would struggle and in the morning he would still be there. But this time, he didn’t struggle; he went peacefully.”
Obasanjo and The Guardian have alluded to the Biafra struggle for self- determination which Ojukwu, then a lieutenant-colonel in the Nigerian army and the military governor of Eastern Region led. However, 44 years after the physical Biafra surrendered, the psychological Biafra, rather than fade away, is waxing stronger because the conflicts and inequalities that led to the emergence of Biafra are still unaddressed. The “No victor, No vanquished” claim and the three Rs – Reconciliation, Rehabilitation and Reintegration – have done very little to heal the sick psyche or assuage the frayed consciousness of Ndigbo who till today insist that they have not recovered from the consequences of the war. While he still lived, Ojukwu’s persona continued to inspire and feed the fire of self determination in not only the Igbo but other ethnic nationalities who now feel that he may not have been wrong after all. Many see him as a great philosopher that foresaw the dystopia that the country has become today, over 40 years ago. Obasanjo wishes his transition would bring this chapter to an end. But the restless streets across the landscape suggest otherwise. Rather, some people are hoping it would inspire a Nigerian Spring.
Dim Chukwuemeka Ojukwu, as he is fondly called, is the living symbol of the Igbo ideals of freedom, courage and enterprise. For Nigeria, he is the symbol of the unresolved issues of nationhood still plaguing the country since independence. For this, he led Ndigbo to war with the rest of Nigeria for 30 months and failed. For this he joined the ruling National Party of Nigeria, NPN, in 1982 and equally failed to find answers from within. Pilloried by critics for joining NPN on return from exile, he explained that he wanted to fight for the Igbo from ‘within’ and not from outside. But within the NPN at that time, 1979 to be precise, and nine years after the civil war, Alex Ekwueme, a young architect had become the nation’s vice-president. Ojukwu and perhaps many other Igbo did not think much of him in terms of political representation of the South-east in the government. When Ojukwu concluded that this philosophy had failed him and his race, he formed the All Progressives Grand Alliance, APGA, to try uniting Ndigbo for a collective bargain for their rights.
These rights had been poignantly presented at the Aburi Summit in Ghana between January 4 and 5, 1967. There were three main items in the agenda: re-organisation of the armed forces, constitutional amendment and the issue of displaced persons. The federal government immediately issued Decree 8, which was supposed to implement the resolutions of The Aburi Accord but it was a travesty. Full blown civil war started on July 6, 1967 because of the federal government application of the Aburi Accord; Ojukwu and the East had insisted: “On Aburi we stand.”
The declaration of the state of Biafra speech by Ojukwu reaffirmed those same issues discussed at Aburi: “Aware that you can no longer be protected in your lives and in your property by any government based outside Eastern Nigeria; Believing that you are born free and have certain inalienable rights which can best be preserved by yourselves; Unwilling to be unfree partners in any association of a political or economical nature...I... do hereby solemnly proclaim that the territory and region known as and called Eastern Nigeria together with her continental shelf and territorial waters shall henceforth be an independent sovereign state of the name and title of “The Republic of Biafra.”
But what were the events that led to the war? The military coup of January 1966, led by Major Chukwuma Nzeogwu had led to the killing of the political leaders in the Northern and Western regions with no casualty at all among political leaders in the East. Fearing that the coup led by an Igbo officer was staged to decapitate their leaders, young officers of northern extraction staged a counter-coup in July of the same year in which the beneficiary of the first coup, General Johnson Thomas Umunnakwe Aguiyi-Ironsi, another Igbo man was killed. Along with his killing was the massacre of many Igbo people in the North as part of the reprisal attacks. When Ojukwu would not accept Yakubu Gowon as head of state and concluding that easterners were no longer safe in other parts of the country, he eventually declared that the region had become a separate country.
At the Ahiara Declaration of June 1, 1969 to celebrate the second anniversary of the state of Biafra the same issues of freedom, citizenship and true federalism were amplified. Ahiara explains the principles of the Biafra revolution against the background of existing global conflicts, alliances and hypocrisies of the time. Ojukwu, a history major from Oxford University, London found the Nigerian situation an aberration with the global world order and derided the Whiteman for double standard which he believed was the cause of the inequalities in the country. For instance, he wondered why self-determination, a basic value of United Nations was encouraged elsewhere but made a taboo in Nigeria by the same canvassers of human rights and freedom.
According to Ojukwu, “For us, a revolution is a change - a quick change, a change for the better… A revolution is a forward movement. It is a rapid, forward movement, which improves a people’s standard of living and their material circumstance and purifies and raises their moral tone. It transforms for the better those institutions which are still relevant, and discards those which stand in the way of progress.”
He further explains: “The Biafran Revolution believes in the sanctity of human life and the dignity of the human person. In our society, every human life is holy; every individual person counts. No Biafran wants to be taken for granted or ignored, neither does he ignore or take others for granted. This explains why such degrading practices as begging for alms were unknown in Biafran society. Therefore, all forms of disabilities and inequalities, which reduce the dignity of the individual or destroy his sense of person have no place in the New Biafran Social Order. The Biafran Revolution upholds the dignity of man.”
There was a real zero tolerance for corruption, which was referred to in Biafran parlance as Nigerianism. “Those who exercise power are accountable to the people for the way they use that power. Every individual servant of the People, whether in the Legislature, the Civil Service, the Judiciary, the Police, the Armed Forces, in business or in any other walks of life, is accountable at all times for his work or the work of those under his charge. Where, therefore, a ministry or department runs inefficiently or improperly, its head must accept personal responsibility for such a situation and, depending on the gravity of the failure, must resign or be removed. And where he is proved to have misused his position or trust to enrich himself, the principle of public accountability requires that he be punished severely and his ill-gotten gains taken from him.”
Forty-one years after Biafra, these same issues are the core conflicts still tearing Nigeria apart: social injustice, corruption in public life, tribalism and nepotism, lack of transparency and accountability by public office holders, sanctity of human life, equality of all citizens, security of lives and property, citizenship rights, true federalism and self-determination. Nigeria won the war but in over 40 years of unitary system masquerading as a federal system of government, these issues have not been addressed headlong.
Despite being born into affluence, Ojukwu showed a disdain for primitive accumulation of wealth. At the time, his father, Louis Odumegwu Ojukwu was said to be the richest African of his time but Ojukwu shied away from his father’s business empire and preferred public service. Some people believed that this inclination towards a form of welfarism was why some Biafran elite sabotaged his leadership.
The late warlord had said that, “the state, acting on behalf of the community, can intervene in the disposition of property to the greater advantage of all. Over-acquisitiveness or the inordinate desire to amass wealth is a factor liable to threaten social stability, especially in an under-developed society in which there are not enough material goods to go round. This creates lop-sided development, breeds antagonisms between the haves and the have-nots and undermines the peace and unity of the people. While the Biafran Revolution will foster private economic enterprise and initiative, it should remain constantly alive to the dangers of some citizens accumulating large private fortunes. Property-grabbing, if unchecked by the State, will set the pattern of behaviour for the whole society which begins to attach undue value to money and property.” This has become the case in Nigeria today.
Ojukwu leveraged on the egalitarian nature of Ndigbo. “Anyone with imagination, anyone with integrity, anyone who works hard, can rise to any height.” This same principle, also known as The Great American Dream drove the US to the apex of the comity of nations and inspired Biafra to great innovations that amazed the world. Today, this possibility offered by Biafra is influencing a new nostalgia for Biafra, which now symbolises freedom, creativity, justice and self-reliance.
The issues of national unity, ethnicity and true federalism raised by Ojukwu and Biafra are still the issues dictating the tone and temper of Nigerian politics and policies. In 1994, these issues took the centre stage at the Constitutional Conference. In 1998, they influenced the adoption of the six geo-political zones as a compromise arrangement to assuage the grievances of the restless ethnic nationalities. These same issues have led to rise of ethnic pressure groups that refer to themselves as freedom fighters. In the South-east, the Movement for the Actualisation of the Sovereign State of Biafra, MASSOB, was formed by Ralph Uwazurike to address the continued marginalisation of Ndigbo. In the South-west, Frederick Fasehun formed the Odua Peoples Congress, OPC, to campaign for self-determination for the Yoruba following the criminal annulment of the June 12, 1993 presidential election won by late Moshood Abiola, a multi-millionaire businessman, by the regime of self-styled military president, General Ibrahim Babangida. It was adjudged worldwide as Nigeria’s freest and fairest election. As Fasehun did not appear militant enough for the restless youth, among other factors, a virulent faction led by Gani Adams emerged and to fight for control of the South-west. In the South-south, the Ijaw Youth Congress, IYC, issued the Kaiama Declaration in 1998, affirming self-determination and resource control for the Niger Delta.
Prior to this, Ken Saro-Wiwa had confronted the Nigerian state for these same inequalities weighing heavily against his Ogoni people. Saro-Wiwa was against Ojukwu and Biafra, and celebrated the defeat of Biafra by naming the Port Harcourt Stadium Liberation Stadium. He also wrote the book On A Darkling Plain to support the onslaught against Biafra. However, he later admitted that the problem was not Ojukwu and Biafra but an inherent system of injustice, which robbed Peter to pay Paul. He fought against the system and was finally consumed by the system in a famous judicial murder when he was hanged on November 10, 1995, by the Sani Abacha junta. Sixteen years after Saro-Wiwa, the Movement for the Survival of Ogoni People, MOSOP, which he formed to fight for the right of Ogoni people to a fair deal within Nigeria is still very active and campaigning for same. They issued The Ogoni Bill of Rights which demands full participation for the Ogonis in the national economy and states the conditions of cooperation.
Even before Biafra, Isaac Boro, an Ijaw from present Bayelsa State was the first person to take up arms against the Nigerian nation for marginalising his people. He formed the Niger Delta Volunteer Service, NDVS, in 1966 and declared an independent state for the Ijaw, the fourth largest ethnic group in Nigeria. His revolution lasted only 12 days before it was quashed by the Nigerian state but he had made his point. He was arrested for treason but released during the civil war to fight against those he thought were the oppressors. As a major in the Nigerian Army he was killed in Port Harcourt towards the end of the war in circumstances highly suspected to have been murder.
In 2003, political differences led to the resurrection of Boro’s NDVS by Asari Dokubo to defend himself and later the Niger Delta against emasculation by the Nigerian state. Dokubo renamed it the Niger Delta People’s Volunteer Force, NDPVF, and youths who shared the same ideals flocked to him in the creeks. This led to the saga of renewed Niger Delta struggle which brought the nation’s economy to its knees. The impasse was resolved by late president, Umaru Yar’Adua with his successful amnesty programme.
Even today, beyond the amnesty, the core issues still remain unresolved. Uwazurike told the magazine last Wednesday that uncertainty still prevails in the country: “We must continue with the quest for the realisation of Biafra; more so now that nobody knows the direction that Nigeria is going because of Boko Haram and other insurgencies.” Under these circumstances, Uwazurike thinks that, “What Ndigbo should do is to prepare themselves for the inevitable bifurcation of Nigeria which will happen in no distant time, going by what is happening in the country now.”
Afenifere, the apex Yoruba socio-cultural organisation stated that Ojukwu “remained a strong advocate for the concept of true federalism which he saw as a foundation for a stable virile nation.” Afenifere admonishes Nigeria not to play the ostrich: “Beyond lamenting his demise, we call on our rulers, Ndigbo and all Nigerians to ruminate on what changes they can effect to make Nigeria a more effective, stable and united nation in the interest of the common people of this nation.”
Amanze Obi, chairman of the editorial board of The Sun newspapers, notes that Biafra has remained “an abiding philosophy” for Ndigbo because 41 years after Biafra, “the feelings have not changed... the factors that led to Biafra have not changed.”
Segun Olusola, a veteran broadcaster and founder, Africa Refugee Foundation, is of the view that Ojukwu taught Nigerians a lesson in self-reliance. “None of us anticipated that the war he fought against the fatherland would last that long. Until I myself served in Enugu as the zonal managing director of the Nigerian Television Authority, I had not lived among people who were involved in the war,” he told the magazine, adding: “I cannot forget that lesson in self-reliance.” He said within the then eastern enclave, they designed new structures and produced new facilities. In Olusola’s opinion, this suggests that there are talents and resources wasting away in different parts of the country. Due to some kind of fear, past leaders failed to leverage on the Biafran ingenuity and enterprise to industrialise the country.
Joe Achuzie, one of the masterminds of Biafran technology of self-reliance says that today Ndigbo are still suffering from the consequences of the civil war. “The mere fact that everywhere you go in Nigeria today the Igbo man is still facing practically the same conditions he faced then suggests that nothing has changed... It goes without saying. East, West, North or South, whichever way you look, the marginalisation is glaring.”
That and, of course, many others are the challenges facing the nation today.
Additional report by RAYMOND MORDI