Observations On Biafra And Predictions For The Near Future
Abel B.S. Gaiya
One might still remember how the subject of Biafra slowly began to emerge from its fringe status into mainstream media discussion in early 2015. It could have been suspected that the issue would dominate public discourse in the country.
And since the arrest, detention and release of Nnamdi Kanu, the leader of the Indigenous Peoples of Biafra (IPOB), many significant events have been witnessed; and different groups have responded in different ways to these events. It is easy to get carried away by each story. It is therefore important to synthesize all such stories. In other words, inasmuch as we must be aware of each drop of water within the informational river, we need to be cognizant of, and understand, the larger currents and its intricacies.
It would certainly have been most convenient if there was in existence historical and contemporary public opinion data on the Igbo population’s degree of ethno-nationalistic subscription from the early years of Nigeria’s independence till now. This would have provided a basis for analysing the long-run trend in pro-Biafran sentiments and gauge people’s reasons for accepting or detesting the ideal, with significant precision. Such would have been a fitting support for any qualitative analysis; but there is no such data.
Nonetheless, using Google Trend data, it may be observed that the popularity of the subject of Biafra, although very slightly rising in 2012 from its essentially flat – but above null/zero – trend in preceding years, shot up spectacularly from early 2015. The explanation for this pattern is already public: MASSOB initiated the fourth republic rise in pro-Biafran agitation (but remained within fringe status) – quantitatively manifesting as greater [than IPOB] MASSOB search status pre-2014 –, while the protracted detention of Nnamdi Kanu under the Buhari administration helped the post-2014 rise – quantitatively manifesting as an overtake of MASSOB by the IPOB search topic post-2014; more so given that the Biafra search topic variation seems more responsive to the IPOB search topic variation than to the MASSOB topic variation.
The initial fourth republic fringe agitation may simply be explained as resulting from a persistence of the network of foundational conditions which underlay the Biafran ideology – i.e. the marriage between the North and South being a ‘forced’ one facilitated by the British – under which the North was made the ‘head’; the Northern domination over politics and governmental administration at the federal level, as well as the contra-Igbo skew in public office representation; the incompetence of the North in leading the country towards development (with, inter alia, youth unemployment, poverty, cost of doing business, remaining high persistently); the continuous religious repression and crises in the North against people of non-Islamic faiths; the lack of fiscal federalism which has made development elusive and states too dependent upon the centre; the relative lack of federal infrastructural investment in the South East; and so on – summarized by Nnamdi Kanu in the statement “Nigeria is a zoo”.
An added foundation is that the 1999 constitution is deemed illegitimate because it was drafted by a military body without democratic representation; and the reconstruction, rehabilitation and reconciliation of the Eastern region was not carried out uniformly after the civil war. It is therefore unsurprising that the Biafran ideology would survive into the fourth republic, even if it initially had fringe status.
Yet, why did the subject gain so much traction post-2014 more than it had in preceding years? I would argue that the overarching economic, political and social conditions permeating through Nigeria in the post-2014 period fostered the emergence of greater popularity and Igbo appeal or subscription to the Biafran ideal and sympathy for Kanu among the youths.
The drastic decline in the price of crude oil precipitated an economic slump in Nigeria; this is well known. Rising unemployment rate, poverty rate, food and general prices, as well as import restrictions and forex constraints have led to generalized youth disillusionment with the Buhari administration. For the rest of Nigeria, those who do not ask for patience with the administration tend to desire a change in presidency – an endo-Nigerian mindset. However, within the Igbo populace, there is a window for another perspective: The general economic slump has occurred under a Northern Muslim president who has made divisive statements such as the 97% vs 5%; he has engaged in geopolitically skewed political appointments; has been inactive against the Fulani herdsmen attacks in Southern Kaduna and has remained so for such attacks all over Nigeria. This has allowed the pro-Biafran rhetoric to be starkly empirical to many Igbo youths, as their predicament can me linked to contemporary causes in real time. A simple illustration of this is a comment made under a Vanguard online article reporting how Igbo traders were being pressed hard by Buhari’s economic policies, a commenter writes “…these were some of the things Nnamdi Kanu saw yesterday. When he was saying these things on Radio Biafra people said he was speaking propaganda; but day after day the things he said keep manifesting…In all these Biafra is the solution”.
Therefore, the foundational pro-Biafran justifications which underlay the fourth republic fringe agitation have found empirics to be built upon. In other words, the post-2014 socio-economic conditions fostered an easier mediation between empirical reality and Biafran justification. This increased pro-Biafran sentiment was further reinforced by the administration’s counter-judicial protracted arrest and detention of Nnamdi Kanu, as it could easily be referred to as a clear real-time example of Northern repression – with another example being the cases of physical harassment of pro-Biafran demonstrators by the Nigerian security forces.
The next topic of interest is why the Igbo elites have largely remained silent/passive on the Igbo marginalization and secession matter, at least relative to the youths. I find it convenient to categorize this class into the business elites, political elites and cultural elites (comprising elders and traditional rulers).
Gordon Onuoha, notes that at the inception of MASSOB in 1999, many prominent Igbo politicians, legislators, South East governors and the Ohanaeze Ndigbo distanced themselves from the movement. I propose that, for the Igbos generally, those closer in temporality to the civil war have tended to be disengaged from the ideal of secession, as the typical response against renewed Biafran agitation is that the youths did not experience the horrors of the civil war. Yet perhaps there are other factors other than war-phobia involved.
One such may be that the business elites, since 1970 are relatively comfortable under the present Nigerian contraption given the cross-regional business interests and access to large market demand. The political elites, although not achieving presidency, are fairly integrated – no matter how imperfectly – into Nigerian party politics and public office-holding – i.e. the Igbo political marginalization phenomenon is significant enough to incite periodic ‘spurts’ of discontent and desire for ‘restructuring’ at a low average level, but not repressive enough to incite continuous full-fledged practical activism among the Igbo political class. A co-founder of Radio Biafra observes that “a lot of Igbo elites – the top politicians, businessmen and women – are not identifying with the struggle because they are not feeling the pains or injustice we are talking about…they are the…wealthy that do not feel or suffer what the people are feeling or suffering. They are the ones benefitting from the government…” This passivity of the political elite is strongly noticed by the pro-Biafran agitators, as exemplified by Joseph Afokwalam’s piece on The Biafra Times. It is therefore easy to see why the Igbo elites have been less agitated relative to Igbo youths.
For the traditional category of the cultural elites, perhaps there has been greater latent pro-Biafranism lurking within the class than exists in other classes. This could be why the chairman of the South East Traditional Rulers Council has expressed pro-Biafrian support. However, there may be an ideological difference between the traditional rulers and the elders which is beyond the scope of this article.
Nevertheless, because of the increasing reach of the Biafran appeal among the Igbo youths, the Igbo elites can no longer keep silent, and cannot make any strictly anti-Biafran statements due to the extensive youth subscription to the ideal. In other words, the youths have blown the pipe, and the elites now must dance to the tune. This has played out as a generalized rise in elite commentaries against Igbo marginalization. For instance, the Ohanaeze Ndigbo spoke out against Igbo political marginalization within the Buhari administration and is becoming more vocal about the need for systemic restructuring. We also see it in some sections of the Igbo political class when the South East senate caucus, with the involvement of the deputy senate president, reportedly played a significant role in the release Nnamdi Kanu, and the unanimous decision taken by South East governors “to wade into all issues of self-determination by the pro-Biafra groups in the zone”.
However, this does not mean that the Igbo elites are now the drivers of the present Igbo fight for change. Like Reverend Ejike Mbaka has said, the journey for Biafran agitation should be spear-headed by the Igbo elites. Even by 1967, all major political players, and many traditional rulers and clergy in Eastern Nigeria were part of the Biafran separatist movement. And as Chudi Offodie writes, Biafra was “motivated and sustained by the Biafra intelligentsia. Current efforts at a rebirth of Biafra suffer from a lack of this essential characteristic”. Although what has occurred in recent times is a youth-triggered agitation amid elite passivity – with the Grand Patron of Biafra War Veterans pointing out that Kanu failed to consult widely with Igbo elders on the issue –, the increasing elite proactivity points towards the elites moving forward to take their positions as leaders on the subject. However, it may be predicted that the unique authoritative status which IPOB – or rather, Kanu – enjoys on the Biafran struggle and his ideological inflexibility which prevents him compromising on the Biafran ideal would likely create repeated frictions between the pro-Biafran heterodoxy and the Igbo elite orthodoxy. This would translate into a battle between these two groups to maintain the position of leadership. This unique status enjoyed by Kanu is illustrated by his being referred to as ‘supreme leader’, and Kanu’s lawyer reportedly making the statement that “Nnamdi Kanu is Biafra and Biafra is Nnamdi Kanu”. An example of such friction going on in real time is Kanu’s unilateral call for Igbos to boycott Anambra gubernatorial elections in contrast to the will of Ohanaeze and the Igbo political class.
Google Trend search data further suggest that although both Ohanaeze and IPOB have seen a rise in Google search frequency (with IPOB’s occurring more steeply and earlier), IPOB remains more popular (among youths, as internet use demographics would entail) than Ohanaeze, and perhaps more relevant in directing the activities of pro-Biafra youths than Ohanaeze. Still, the increasing general activity within the Igbo elite class, as well as the increasing impetus for coordination between the Igbo elites and intelligentsia – exemplified by the Ohanaeze call for Southern governors to meet on regular basis to discuss issues affecting Southern Nigeria and the drive to create a regional advisory and planning committee – means that the Igbo elites are indeed rising up.
The war-phobia is a powerful deterrent against pro-Biafran agitation among those who have such a phobia. This is further reinforced by the real threat of war given the Northern domination of the military and the military psychology exemplified by the Tukur Buratai’s (Chief of Army Staff) statement “you can’t divide Nigeria in my time” – which, as an aside, is potentially also a warning to any democratic president who attempts to allow any perceivably secessionist concession (i.e. the military and the Northern political elites could risk a war to keep Nigeria ‘together’); even the alleged use of EFCC to target Ike Ekwemeradu and orchestrate his replacement as deputy senate president for his alleged role in the release of Kanu is emblematic of the powers that be which are averse to any pro-Biafran action taken within the federal political orthodoxy.
Many of the youths, however, have relatively little war-phobia or even realism as to the degree of militaristic repression they would receive if the Biafran agitation is taken too far, even democratically – e.g. through a referendum. Hence they are less callous about calling for secession first, rather than restructuring. Although this is not yet observable too clearly at present, this youth-elite psycho-social divide would likely become starker in the future, and it would be difficult to reconcile the elite moderation/conservatism with the youth radicalism, especially when the radical youths suspect the Igbo elites of being sell-outs and would therefore be defiant of their appeals. For instance, we hear the Ohanaeze youths demanding for an Igbo presidency in 2019 “or Biafra 2020”, and vowing to reject any attempt to restructure conducted under a Northern presidency; while on the other hand, it does seem that Ohanaeze, Igbo political and traditional leaders are neither interested in a referendum or secession, but complain about marginalization and the need for restructuring.
At the scale of the general Igbo population, Elliot Uko, the national president of Igbo Youths Movement (IYM), is clear that the majority of Igbos, although empathizing with the “Biafran boys”, do not believe in secession as the only solution. He describes them as “sitting on the fence” and would only side with the pro-Biafran forces if the Federal government applies force, given that “the Biafran boys are their sons, cousins, brothers…” Similarly, I would argue that one condition which could facilitate the dissolution of the youth-elite ideological divide and see rapid generalized Igbo convergence towards Biafranism is heightened non-state physical attacks against Igbos and/or state-led militaristic repression – which, as Amnesty International’s report indicates has been occurring, and so a mere expansion of such repression and/or mainstream media exposure of the scale of cases would suffice – which would boost the exigency of moving away from the Nigerian contraption. An implementation of the ‘Kaduna declaration/threat’ on an adequately extensive scale could possibly provide such impetus for rapid generalized subscription to Biafranism, though a shift among elites would likely be lagging unless the Nigerian state itself becomes the attacker through militaristic action or is ineffective in quelling such attacks.
An additional point I would like to state is that the 2019 election presents a catch 22 situation for Nigeria. Even if the Igbo people can produce a formidable presidential candidate – which is highly unlikely due to the confluence of Igbo coordination failure, national electorate adversity against an Igbo presidency, and opposition from the Northern political class due to the combination of the North’s demand for a continuance of the North’s presidential ‘turn’ since Yar’adua and a Northern ideological opposition to an Igbo presidency – who would win the election, this would likely trigger a wave of ‘opposition’ physical attacks against Igbos in the North. This would then likely accelerate the pro-Biafran agitation and could even slowly or rapidly transform it into armed conflict contingent upon physical retaliation by the pro-Biafrans, or any Igbo persons at all; yet pro-Biafran physical retaliation may initially be lacking if the chosen strategy is to appear victimized and defenceless to garner sympathy internationally and domestically.
If, on the other hand, an Igbo presidency is not secured in 2019, this reinforces the pro-Biafran narrative of Igbo marginalization and gives impetus for greater Igbo subscription to Biafranism. Therefore, no matter the outcome, I predict that the pro-Biafran agitation would likely accelerate dramatically after the 2019 presidential elections. Nonetheless, the latter scenario may be ameliorated if concrete steps are taken to attempt a restructure of the nation, notwithstanding the pro-Biafran rejection of any such action. If the package is adequate, it may serve to quell the pro-Biafran tendencies of those Igbos who are still ‘on the fence’ on the issue. Yet, even if a restructure package is proposed – for instance, based on the 2014 national convention –, the overseeing president faces significant challenge on both sides: The pro-Biafrans’ would obstinately reject any proposed restructure, which would be in resistance to the moderation of the Igbo elites; and the socio-poltico-economic ‘hawks’ among the Northern elites – who are comfortable with the present unequal socio-politico-economic equilibrium – would likely frustrate the procedural and political support for conclusions and implementation of a restructure package. These hawks typically take the Igbo marginalization narrative and need for restructuring as unserious jabber, as Nasir El-Rufai has. For many, the North presently benefits, in terms of input/output (revenue contribution/allocation) ratios from the current fiscal arrangement, and thus there are fiscal reasons why it would be opposed to any talk of re-organization. There could thus even be a broader Northern opposition to any restructuring which could translate to violence against Igbos.