The many complications of Biafra


Simon Kolawole

I would say the campaign for Biafra has never been this intense since the end of the Nigerian Civil War in 1970. Although the Movement for the Actualisation of the Sovereign State of Biafra (MASSOB), founded in 1999 by Chief Ralph Uwazuruike, gave President Olusegun Obasanjo quite some headache ahead of the 2003 elections, the Mazi Nnamdi Kanu-led Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) appears to be more formidable financially and militarily. What IPOB started as a series of street protests in Port Harcourt in 2015 has grown into what may now be classified by crisis experts as a full-blown insurgency. IPOB wants to force the exit of Nd’Igbo from the Nigerian federation.

Did I just say “exit of Nd’Igbo”? That is one complication with the separatist campaign. Not all Igbo are pro-Biafra, even if they are not bold enough to say so openly possibly because they could be attacked on the streets. The anti-Biafra Igbo would rather be part of Nigeria despite their misgivings and reservations. Some want a restructured, not a balkanised, country. I admit that there has been a growing pro-Biafra sentiment since President Muhammadu Buhari came to power, unlike under President Goodluck Jonathan who gave key positions to Igbo appointees. But despite the disenchantment with Buhari, there is yet no clear-cut consensus among Igbo on the way forward.

There is also no consensus on what constitutes Biafra, which is a complication as well. The Biafra declared by Dim Chukwuemeka Ojukwu in 1967 was the Eastern region, made of today’s Igbo states of Abia, Anambra, Ebonyi, Enugu and Imo, plus what we now have as Akwa Ibom, Bayelsa, Cross River and Rivers states in the south-south. The original Biafra, therefore, was not just for Igbo, even if it didn’t catch on. Biafra, by the way, was the name of the bight (bend) off the coast of Calabar, Cross River, in the Gulf of Guinea. (Fun fact: Biafra, also called Mafra, and Lagos are names of Portuguese towns. Portugal had a great influence on West African coastlines in slave trade days.)

The Bight of Biafra is now called the Bight of Bonny, but the political Biafra has survived the name change. The map of Biafra drawn by IPOB encompasses all the south-east and south-south states. I see this as a complication because I do not get the sense that there is unanimity among the south-south to be part of Biafra. This was also a thorny issue when Biafra was declared in 1967: the eastern minorities were not fully on board. The south-south minorities in today’s Akwa Ibom, Bayelsa, Cross River and Rivers states had always politically aligned with the core north since 1960. They only broke ranks in 2015 apparently because President Goodluck Jonathan, from Bayelsa, was on the ballot.

As far as I know, the common campaign in the south-south, specifically since 1998, has been for resource control, not Biafra or another break-away country. The region is rich in oil, the oxygen that has kept Nigeria breathing for decades. Everybody knows how strategic the region is to the survival of Nigeria — in the absence of any bigger source of public revenue and forex. Biafra needs the south-south not just for the oil but also to avoid being landlocked: not having direct access to the sea is a massive disadvantage for any economy. It will be complicated for IPOB to draw a Biafra map without the south-south, yet there is no strong indication that the minorities want to be on the Biafra train.

Another complication is what I would call the “burden of relocation”. Igbo people are spread over the country. It is estimated that there are over 11 million Igbo in northern Nigeria alone. Add that to the figures in the south-west and south-south. Would they remain in Nigeria if Biafra is actualised? From the experience of the Civil War, the answer would be negative. There was a forced exodus to the east when war was about to break out in 1967. If over 20 million Igbo (my estimate) would stay back in the “new” Nigeria after the actualisation of Biafra, would that not defeat the purpose? Would Igbo feel “at home” in the “new” Nigeria? Or would they be better off going to live in Biafra?

It gets more complicated considering the investments Igbo people have made all over Nigeria. Is it in Lagos, where they co-dominate commerce and are founders or MDs of big companies, or in Abuja, where they have the largest footprints on real estate? One of the sad highlights of the Civil War was the issue of abandoned property. Igbo people returned to their former abodes to discover that their assets had been expropriated. Although their savings in Nigerian banks were intact, they were unhappy that the government only offered them a flat twenty Nigerian pounds as compensation for the bundles of the Biafran pounds they returned with. It is a major topic of discussion till this day.

If Biafra eventually succeeds, it will, at best, be a novel political experiment. This is yet another complication, a big one at that. Nd’Igbo were never under one political system or central authority before colonial rule. National integration, which Nigeria has been struggling with since 1914, may turn out to be one of the biggest challenges for Biafra as well. As with other ethnic groups in Nigeria, there are internal divisions among Nd’Igbo that require deft political management. Otherwise, they would become a distraction to the building of Biafra. In almost all Igbo states, one zone or the other is complaining of marginalisation in the sharing of political offices and projects. It is human nature.

For instance, Enugu North wants to keep the governorship in 2023 after Chief Ifeanyi Ugwuanyi must have done eight straight years. Some insist it is the turn of Enugu East. The Igbo Nsukka United Forum (INUF) recently issued a statement saying Nsukka has 60 per cent of the state population (this population factor again!) but that its part of Enugu North has been marginalised by successive governors. So, Enugu North should keep the governorship, but this time it will be for the Nsukka part. In Imo state, Owerri zone says it is marginalised by Okigwe and Orlu zones. In the end, Biafra may have to adopt a form of “federal character” in order to address glaring internal inequalities.

Nevertheless, the pro-Biafra Igbo feel they would be better off leaving Nigeria. They say Nd’Igbo have been systematically marginalised since the war ended in 1970. Ironically, Nigeria used to be a shining example of accelerated reintegration after a civil war. By 1979, Ebitu Ukiwe and Ndubuisi Kanu — two Igbo military officers who fought for Biafra — had been appointed governors of Lagos state, then the capital of Nigeria; Dr Alex Ekwueme had become the vice-president (No 2); and Chief Edwin Ume-Ezeoke had become the speaker (No 4). Igbo aligned with the north in the first and second republics. In fact, Alhaji Bashir Tofa’s VP pick in 1993 was Dr Sylvester Ugoh, an Igbo.

Actually, Yoruba used to tease Igbo as playing “second fiddle” to Hausa/Fulani. Dr Chuba Okadigbo once replied: “Second fiddle is better than no fiddle.” So, what went wrong between Nd’Igbo and the north? My theory, among others, is that the emergence of the Niger Delta as a frontline political force significantly disadvantaged the south-east in the power equilibrium. By the “tripod” convention, an Igbo would naturally have been VP to President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua, a Fulani, in 2007 after Chief Olusegun Obasanjo, a Yoruba, had been president for eight years. And that means an Igbo, not an Ijaw, would have automatically become president upon Yar’Adua’s death in 2010.

As things stand today, I have a feeling that if the Nigerian government is sure only Nd’Igbo will secede, there would be no serious attempt to hold them back. But if the federal government shows any sign of allowing Nd’Igbo to exit, there is every likelihood that other regions will see that as an opportunity to go. That would be the end of Nigeria as we know it. This, to me, is the biggest complication for Biafra. It is not only Nd’Igbo that will leave; Yoruba, led by Sunday Igboho, as well as the south-south may seize the opportunity to secede. No president would watch Nigeria disintegrate without putting up a fight. For this reason alone, Buhari would do anything to stop Biafra.

Personally, I do not want Nd’Igbo to leave the union. I believe in one Nigeria. I love diversity. It can be a source of strength and a stepping stone to greatness. But my opinion is of no relevance in the scheme of things. My Igbo friends have consistently argued that they feel unwanted in Nigeria; that federal character and quota system were designed to cheat them; that because they do not have the same number of states and LGAs as other ethnic groups, they are systematically marginalised by the configuration; and that they have been schemed out of presidency. In sum, Nd’Igbo are unhappy. Whether or not they are pro- or anti-Biafra, these are perennial issues that cannot be wished away.

I have always secretly desired a political solution: a power rotation arrangement in which the rest of Nigeria will freely work together to deliver a president of Igbo blood. I was dreaming that the PDP and APC would, by consensus, zone presidency to the south-east. That means head or tail, Nd’Igbo would win. This, in my thinking, would at least address a long-standing emotive issue. As I often argue privately, an Igbo would do no worse than a Yoruba or Fulani as president. The world will not end because an Igbo is president of Nigeria. But I must admit that the activities and rhetoric of IPOB and its Eastern Security Network (ESN) have made things very, very complicated politically.

Clearly, we are in an awkward situation. On the one hand, there may be no Biafra without another civil war, and I think we have seen enough bloodshed in Nigeria to last us a lifetime. We don’t need another war. African wars are bestial. If you doubt me, read about the wars in Liberia, Sierra Leone, Ethiopia and Somalia. On the other hand, how long can we continue to keep an ethnic group in a union against their will? We cannot dismiss or downplay the misgivings of Nd’Igbo. That would be most unhelpful. While actualising Biafra may have its complications, keeping an unhappy people in the union is also going to be challenging. Is there no middle-road solution somewhere? Crossroads.

And four other things…

Press censorship

The attempt to bring online media, including virtual and digital newspapers, under the purview of the National Broadcasting Commission (NBC) is going to be problematic. All newspapers have online arms and the Nigerian government is now trying to subject them to NBC control. NBC is for broadcasting, no matter how we try to twist its functions. More so, broadcast frequencies belong to the government and are auctioned directly to stations by the government. Newspapers have never been regulated by the broadcasting commission, not even under the military. It won’t work. This spineless parliament may pass the bill but another parliament will repeal it. Quote me. Waste.

School security

Another week, another school abductions. On Thursday, gunmen kidnapped students at the Federal Government College, Birnin-Yauri, Kebbi state. One of the students was killed as the military tried to rescue them. The bandits know what they are doing: by targeting the young people in schools, they surely hope to get maximum publicity and extract maximum ransom. They have raised the stakes by targeting higher institutions of learning. I will keep appreciating the effort of the security agencies in this overwhelming situation, but we need to double our efforts and speed up whatever we are doing to secure schools (and the country at large). Nigerians just have to stop living in fear. Paralysing.

Covid warning

Anybody playing close attention to the COVID-19 pandemic will agree that we are not yet out of the woods, even though Nigerians appear to think otherwise. Not only have we largely ignored the vaccine (no thanks to the fake news-peddling pastors and conspiracy theorists), we are not even so keen on observing the basic safety measures such as using face mask and physical distancing. It’s either we think COVID is not an African problem or we have become fatalistic. But let it be known to all that there is no natural immunity for Africans. Congo is now overwhelmed. You don’t have to take the jab, but you need to think about the vulnerable people. Keep safe to keep others safe. Please.

VP on the spot

Have you seen the memes making the round, seeking to portray Vice-President Yemi Osinbajo as “speechless” amidst all the drama going on in government? I guess some people are trying to push him into confrontation with President Buhari and I hope he is wise enough not to take the bait. Those who encouraged Vice-President Atiku Abubakar to take on President Olusegun Obasanjo ahead of the 2003 election have not been able to help him salvage his political fortune till today. If Osinbajo disagrees with Buhari’s actions, he will be wise enough to whisper his opinion into his ears rather than go and shout on the mountain as some people want him to do. Discretion.


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