There are three major reasons why indigenous Igbo people should begin to resist the attempt to lead us to accept that the Republic of Biafra was an Igbo attempt to separate from Nigeria. One: Biafran separatists’ quest for an independent republic complicates the legitimate political conversations the Igbo should have been having about their place in Nigeria. Two: These separatist agitations (from MASSOB to IPOB) have become a byword for wasting the lives of Igbo youth in Nigeria, and violently disrupting economic pursuits of the Igbo in most parts of Nigeria. Three: The quest for an independent Republic of Biafra has continued to put a strain on relations between Igbo and distinct indigenous groups that make up not only the defunct Eastern Region but swathes of other indigenous peoples also.
My duty is to attempt to untangle the conceptual mess – and the danger – that the search for an independent republic by Biafra separatists has turned out to be for indigenous Igbo people.
I begin by asserting that, historically and geographically, the Igbo of Nigeria, whether they reside in the South East or live as marginalised groups in Benue, Akwa Ibom, Rivers, Kogi, Edo and Delta states, share no boundaries whatsoever with what was known as the Bight of Biafra. To appreciate this proposition, we have to reflect on how the Republic of Biafra itself came into being.
On May 27, 1967, chiefs, elders and representatives of 20 provinces that made up the defunct Eastern Region gathered in Enugu to deliberate on how their peoples were being massacred in the defunct Northern Region. At the end of their deliberations, they gave the Regional Governor, Col. Chukwuemeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu, a mandate to declare the region a sovereign state to be called the Republic of Biafra. Apart from representatives from the Igbo heartland, signatories to that mandate included elders, chiefs and representatives from the following non-Igbo provinces in the region: Annang, Calabar, Degema, Eket, Ogoja, Opobo, Port Harcourt, Uyo and Yenagoa.
The name of the republic, Biafra, was suggested by Chief Frank-Opigo, an Ijaw traditional leader who was also administrator of Yenagoa Province. This suggested name was well received largely because it could not be claimed by any of the indigenous peoples in the region.
The leaders of the region agreed to work together because of the indiscriminate assault and murder of easterners in Northern Nigeria, which heightened with the countercoup of July 1966. It was easy for all ethnic groups in the region to unite in a self-preservation effort. At the same time, federal authorities put a knife on their unity by dividing the region into three autonomous states (South Eastern, East Central, and Rivers) and appointing military and civilian administrators to run them.
The subsequent clashes between 20 Biafran administrators and three Nigerian governors of the region accounted for the sad stories that we often hear from indigenous peoples of the region on how they were treated during the war. Many of them blame the Igbo for their woes, often without reference to the context in which the war was being strategically prosecuted by both sides.
From the above, it is easy to see that Biafra did not and never exclusively represented the Igbo. Today, we read nonsensical efforts by misguided Igbo to make Biafra look like an Igbo word, deriving from Bia (come) and fra (which they translate as “take”). These efforts are exactly what they are – nonsensical.
Biafra remains a Portuguese word taken from the name of an open bay in the Atlantic coast, which was listed in world maps as Bight of Biafra. Based on location, the Bight of Biafra (renamed Bight of Bonny after the war) encompasses contiguous coasts in the South-South region of Nigeria, Cameroon, Equatorial Guinea, and northern Gabon. In our South-South region, the indigenous peoples who live facing this coast are non-Igbo ethnic groups in Cross River, Akwa Ibom, Bayelsa and parts of Delta. The Igbo heartland shares no boundaries whatsoever with the coast.
This is why it should worry every indigenous Igbo that, once again, recent history and contemporary texts now conflate Biafra as an Igbo bid to separate from Nigeria. It is the same way that the January 1966 coup d’état was successfully sold to the world as an “Igbo coup” leading to a great burden that every Igbo bears today in Nigeria. The current narrative of Biafra as an Igbo project is not helped by the energies exerted in promoting the false notion by Igbo separatist agitators, from MASSOB to IPOB.
It is time to disengage the Igbo quest for justice and equity in the Nigerian federation from this conflation. Let the fact be proclaimed that the Igbo are not Biafrans. The true position is that the Igbo briefly shared this name with various indigenous ethnic groups in the former Eastern Region during the tragic 30-month Nigerian Civil War. In other words, the Igbo got roped into associating with this name only by an accident of history and in agreement with other indigenous peoples of the region.
It should worry every Igbo person that recent history and texts incorrectly refer to Biafra as an exclusive “Igbo attempt” to break away from Nigeria. To make matters worse, Igbo separatist agitators, from MASSOB to IPOB, further compound this narrative by conflating Ojukwu’s prior multi-ethnic quest for a just and equitable Republic of Biafra and the urgent search by indigenous Igbo people for equity and justice in the Nigerian federation. Every effort must be made to henceforth separate the two: It is dangerous to continue to allow legitimate Igbo demand for justice and equity in the Nigerian system to be interpreted by Nigeria as either a quest for Igbo territorial expansion or for secession of indigenous Igbo people from Nigeria.
There are three things that make it dangerous for Igbo indigenous people who seek equity and justice in Nigeria to ever use the name of Biafra to prosecute the effort. The Republic of Biafra was defeated in a war. Leaders of the defeated republic went further to erase the name from the Nigerian map. The first to do so was the late Major-Gen. Philip Effiong who, on behalf of the secessionists, minced no words when he declared that, with effect from January 15, 1970, “the Republic of Biafra, hereby ceases to exist.”
Effiong signed the instrument of surrender that ended the 30-month war.
Second, the Federal Government further obliterated any traces by renaming the former Bight of Biafra as Bight of Bonny.
Third, the Supreme Leader of the republic himself, Gen. Odumegwu-Ojukwu, declared on his return from exile that we should perish the thought of ever pursuing another physical republic called Biafra. He recommended, instead, a rapid development of Igboland that employs a “Biafra of the mind” approach.
The difficulty that Igbo face today is what to do with separatist groups that have refused to leave the past. They still dream of a united, post-war, multi-ethnic republic and are even casting further afield for territories to add to the original Eastern Region. Living in the past is not bad, if this results in current and future efforts concentrated on rebuilding and consolidating Igbo cultural identity, Igbo economy and infrastructure, and refining and improving on past Igbo scientific and technological breakthroughs. Ironically, all of this can be achieved without separatist or any other type of agitations.
Separatists continue to get it wrong and needlessly endanger Igbo indigenous people with their impatient rhetoric. In my view, they progress in error by threatening to disengage “Biafra” from Nigeria.
This threat ignores the fact that Igbos have separate and distinct indigenous peoples who are no longer part of the defunct Eastern Region. Separatist narrative, unfortunately, denies these neighbours the respect and recognition they deserve as independent peoples with different cultures and ways of life.
The threat also fails to realise that the past has cut the ties that previously bound the Igbo with other indigenous peoples of the former Eastern Region. Just as the Igbo look back at their past and feel justified anger at how Nigeria has treated and continues to treat them, each of their neighbours also has a past that they rue today.
This past, for example, fills our Anioma cousins with great sorrow when they think of the bestiality visited on them by federal forces during the war. In the same way, Ikwerres believe that they suffered during the war because of their perceived filial relationship with the Igbo. Efiks and Ibibios have their own stories of woe about mistreatment by Biafran soldiers during the Wwar.
Taken together, the Igbo and their neighbours deserve a space to reflect on their past and decide how they will vote whenever Nigerians agree or are forced to agree to a referendum on the future of their union. For each group, this decision should neither be stampeded nor should it be tied to an emotional return to a dead republic called Biafra.
For the Igbo, there is an urgent reason to do away with romanticizing about the past that Biafra represents.
It is true that our neighbours suffered a lot from the Biafran misadventure. Still, nothing in our neighbours’ experiences compares to what the Igbo ethnic group suffered – and has continued to suffer – by foolishly clinging to this accursed name. Biafra has become for the Igbos a metaphor for genocide, massacre and youth killings that have continued to this day.
In the name of Biafra, the Igbo were killed in their hundreds of thousands in the 1960s, leading up to a civil war that claimed an estimated three million more lives. Today, the agitation for Biafra has become an excuse for federal security forces to unleash violence and spill the blood of unarmed indigenous Igbo youths.
The killings persist because ill-conceived self-concept battles for a Biafran Republic are easily made to appear as attempts at Igbo territorial expansion.
Foolishness is carrying out the same actions that fail time and again, expecting a different outcome each time. Rather than well-thought-out political and economic strategies to redress what the world already recognizes as injustices and inequity visited on Igbo indigenous people in the Nigerian federation, these self-concept battles not only continue the violence against the Igbo ethnic group but also undermine the media and political conversations we should relentlessly pursue on the place of the Igbo in the Nigerian federation.
They also fail to read the clear sign that a bumbling and nepotistic leadership waters the ground for common multi-ethnic pursuit of separation, much more than unilateral demands and agitations.
I should think that the last thing the Igbo want today is to be caught unprepared, not ready to hit the ground running, should separation become inevitable. And separation will surely come to Nigeria, even if this takes another hundred years to be actualized. In anticipation for this eventuality, we see meticulous preparation by the core North and from our brothers in the West, while others bicker among themselves or indulge in self-concept separatist battles.
At what point should the Igbo detach from chasing the quixotic windmill called Biafra and squarely face the challenge of developing Alaigbo? And without further waste of the youth manpower we need for the onerous task ahead?