The Biafra Palaver



Once again, I am tempted to draw inspiration from the music of the late Fela Anikulapo Kuti in my reaction to another contemporary Nigerian tragedy. Given the near excellent economic conditions of the age, Fela was widely regarded as a rebel without a cause! In those days, Nigerians did not require visas to visit Britain. The British encouraged us to visit with tons of our petro-Naira. The Naira was at par, if not even of superior value to the dollar.  Not only that; Fela also hailed from an upper middle class family. His mother was an icon of the campaign for the emancipation of women in Nigeria along with the likes of the late Gambo Sawaba and Margaret Ekpo. 


Still, we must ignore Fela's facade to make sense of his legacy. We must separate the message from the antics of the messenger. The song "Shakara", was a mockery of the uncommon bravado that has become so typical of Nigerians over time, but for the most potent Fela hit of the ages which captures the bare essence of the reaction of Nigerians to the quit order issued by an obscure group of Northern youths to Igbos leaving in the region, we need not look further than his immortal hit titled "Palaver". 


With the somewhat subdued reaction of MASSOB and IPOB, along with their suspected sponsors, it would seem that the agitation for secession was not only a political ploy, it may even have encountered "palaver". As I write this, another group which claimed to represent Oduduwa Republic have also issued the Igbo their own ultimatum, along with the original indigenes of the Federal Capital Territory – the Nigerian version of Native Americans!


But humor apart, there was always the lingering suspicion that the enhanced agitation for Biafra was the Southeast’s reaction to the crippling crisis that trailed the annulment of the June 12 elections, particularly the contrived election of Olusegun Obasanjo, and the emergence of President Goodluck Jonathan in the heat of the militancy in the Niger Delta, albeit in the tragic circumstance of the demise of Umar Yar’Adua.   


As incredible as it may seem, there is equally the view out there that the Boko Haram insurgency was the North’s ploy to ensure that power returned to the North. In an interview on Channels Television last week, a top Abuja-based lawyer from the southeast lamented that the federal government was spending too much money reconstructing the insurgency ravaged North-East even after it “self-destructed” but failed to do the same for the Southeast after the Civil war!  It is in the same vein that some misguided fellows have advised the northern youth to channel their energies towards fighting Boko Haram instead of confronting the agitators for Biafra.


As pathetic and illogical the claim may be, the inference is that Boko Haram was a self-inflicted injury by the north to reclaim power from the south. It completely ignores the political dynamics that resulted in the mergers that produced the APC and sneezes at the Southeast’s own glaring incompetence in forging political alliances.


But if MASSOB and IPOB intended to intimidate anyone, the Northern youths apparently did not read the script. They have laid down the gauntlet and urged MASSOB and IPOB to cross the Rubicon. I have emphasized on the two groups because it is incomprehensible to imagine that all the highly industrious and hardworking people of the Southeast are in support of the two groups even if the near total compliance with their ‘sit at home order’ in the major cities of the Southeast was highly discomforting.


Tellingly, it took a mere press conference from an obscure group of northern youths for the Southeast Governors and the apex Igbo socio-cultural group the Ohanaeze-Ndigbo to suddenly realize the importance of their tangible and intangible assets held in trust by 'animals' in a region MASSOB and IPOB openly derided and likened to a zoo? Why did it take them so long to realize that there could be limits to freedom of expression?


For so long their silence was seen in the north as evidence of their culpability. The quit notice was supposed to be music to their ears if at all the renewed frenzy for the realization of Biafra was genuine.  They openly messaged the ego of Nmandi Kanu, when conventional wisdom dictated that they should have at least attempted to put a stop to his unhelpful rhetoric.


We cannot help but contrast their attitude with those of their counterparts who have put their political careers at risk in their swift condemnation of the quit order. Make no mistake about it, the ultimatum handed out to Igbos to vacate the north by was wrong, and it needs to be said in plain language. But then, so is the hate speech by the likes of Nnamdi Kanu and Ralph Uwazuirike and their methods.

It is within the same context that the unfortunate call for the eviction of Igbos from the North must be situated as unpleasant and dangerous as it is. What I found very troubling was the belated reaction of the mainstream media who seem to have discovered that there could be limits to the freedom of speech. They appeared unperturbed for all the period that Nnamdi Kanu not only assaulted the sensibilities of other ethnic groups in Nigeria, but openly called for the dismemberment of the Nigerian federation by any means necessary, including violence!

The southeast elders including the apex Igbo socio-cultural group also failed or refused to call him to order even when his actions openly violated his bail conditions. He has emerged as a cult figure and rallying point for open rebellion. The governors and Senators from the Southeast lined up for photo opportunities with him and failed to rebuke him even when the ‘sit at home order’ by the IPOB and MASSOB violated the rights of the Igbo and non-Igbo residents of the Southeast to free movement.

It was only after the threat from Kaduna that the media appeared to have rediscovered its solemn responsibilities to the republic, but even so, their grudging condemnation of MASSOB and IPOB – which it must be stressed came only after the reaction of northern leaders to the quit notice - was done almost apologetically.

Even so, I completely disagree with the views of Simon Kolawale in his column for Thisday last weekend where he claimed the impotence of Igbo leaders in the face of the activities of IPOB and MASSOB could be compared to the fear of Northern Leaders in their refusal to oppose the imposition of Sharia law in some northern states some years ago.

With due respect to Kolawole, there is nothing religious in the activities of IPOB and MASSOB despite the late conversion of Kanu to Judaism. A great majority of the Igbos of the Southeast are still Catholics whose Bishops and Cardinals relate closely with the Vatican.  Pope Francis has also demonstrated his aversion to violence and oppression. He, more than any other Pope before him, has done more in his travels to bring about mutual understanding between the world’s two major faiths.  

But even if there is something divine in the appeal for Biafra, its last prophet, the late Odumegwu Ojukwu, openly recanted, and rejected its doctrine years before his demise. And, in one of his last sermons, Ojukwu even warned that it would amount to a calamitous mistake for anyone to attempt the resurrection of Biafra given the enormous suffering it impacted on Nigerians from both sides.

In such a volatile situation pregnant with intolerance, hypocrisy and grandstanding, arresting the so-called association of northern youths could be counter-productive especially since nothing was done to contain the idiocy and reprehensible message of IPOB and MASSOB all these while. While the quit order itself is indefensible, it must also be recognized that northern youths have claimed it was not a call for violence, rather an effort to aid the rapid actualization of the Biafra craved by its sponsors!  Sadly, that is what Nigeria has been reduced to and the security agencies need to thread with caution.

Going by what is happening presently on the dangerous space called the social media, next to good governance that could provide the desired social infrastructure and jobs for the teeming millions for our unemployed youth, what is urgently required are strong laws to prohibit hate speech in whatever guise.

It was the lacuna created by the seeming impotence of our legal system, and the manner it reacted to the provocation of MASSOB and IPOB that was crudely exploited and resulted in the franchising of ultimatums and quit notices. Anyone who denies that is being economical with the truth.