The past one week has been an eye-opener for many. They couldn’t help but notice an uncanny similarity between what President Muhammadu Buhari and the IPOB leadership did within the past seven days. It, however, began on June 10, when the President, in a widely viewed television interview, dismissed the Igbo as an inconsequential ethnic group, a mere dot in a circle with no access to the sea that would warrant a serious quest for independence. On September 9, exactly three months later, he more or less recanted the statement in Owerri, the Imo State capital. Addressing a group of South East leaders that Governor Hope Uzodinma sprang on him, the President suddenly sounded conciliatory. The summary of what he said was that Igbo are precious to Nigeria and it would be tragic if they should leave.
Three days later, it was IPOB’s turn. A spokesperson issued another martial command for residents of the South East region to stay indoors on September 14. However, on the evening of the September 14 that he decreed for rest, he released a frantic message, doubling down on previous bluster and washing his hands off the foul air his henchmen released as they attempted to enforce his decree. The summary of what he said in the second statement: Residents of the South East are so precious that anyone attempting to intimidate them with sit-at-home orders will be served a potion reserved for “saboteurs” and “traitors.”
What tempered the tough talk of the powerful and mighty? We may never know. What we do know is that this is a powerful lesson on the dangers of impetuosity when dealing with peoples and groups. When not moderated, impetuosity leads to a harvest of tears and blood. And, when the wounds are left to fester, the will to fight solidifies, many more will die and it may take centuries to resolve, if ever.
From our last week’s excursion into the story of nationalist agitations, the Catalans of Spain have been at it for almost 100 years now. Generations rise to pick it up and continue the fight. The Irish have been at it for much longer, 104 years and counting. In Africa, the Sahrawi people began their own agitation for a separation from Morocco in 1971, a year after Biafra 1.0 ended. Unlike Biafra, the United Nations has sanctioned the right to self-determination for people of Western Sahara. Still, they are a long way from attaining an independent Sahrawi Republic, 50 years and thousands of deaths later.
Separatist agitation is not a tea party or a walk in the park. Every President must leave with a body count of thousands of citizens that must die fighting against or defending the separatist desire. Separatist leaders must live to account for thousands (or millions, as in the case of Biafra) that will die after joining to defend their right to self-determination. The least that leaders of opposing sides could do is to exercise caution in their speeches and actions, knowing that words have power to heal and to kill. In conflict situations, the power to kill is preponderant, especially when impetuosity rules the leader.
Again, and for IPOB, they must recognize that the difference between Biafra 1.0 and what they are fighting for today is as clear as crystal. Biafra 1.0 was a fight for survival of a people intentionally targeted for elimination. Military and civilian mobs fell on people from the Eastern Region and sought to wipe them off the face of the earth, to avenge what they considered as an unjust murder of their political leaders. There was no form of bestiality that was not tried, including ripping babies from their mother’s womb and squashing them before dispatching their mothers to hell.
This is a far cry from what Fulani herders are doing in local communities as they contest land and water rights with farmers all over the country. As far as we know, no religious group has declared fatwa on any ethnic group in Nigeria. Apart from the menace of herdsmen, which many states are managing quite well, the biggest angst of IPOB separatists is the disproportionate share of Nigerian resources by those at the helm. If this is the case, then we are faced with a political challenge that we are thinking of solving through the military battlefield.
History, however, teaches us that a group’s political advantage is never permanent in a democracy. History also tells us that the Igbo have the capacity to wipe out economic disadvantages. There is, therefore, no reason to suppose that the current troubles of the Igbo, which are also the trouble that other disadvantaged ethnic groups face at this moment, will last forever.
Everyone knows that the solution to giving the Igbo their rightful place in Nigeria is a question of unity among the various interests and forces struggling for economic and political freedom. Nigerian Independence struggle succeeded because the nationalists recognized the need to carry along every segment of its emerging society. Southern politicians bent over backwards to accommodate and allay fears of their northern compatriots that they could meet with undue disadvantages. How many battles can IPOB fight at the same time? Can it risk the revolt of its sympathizers with this mindless enforcement of sit-ins any day that the whim catches them? From where I sit to observe, it is obvious that the zeal for independence has blinded a few to the reality that separatist agitation is not a 100-metre dash but a long-distance race.
The IPOB leadership should consider making haste slowly. They should know that, without a game plan, without an extensive, inclusive mobilization effort, without strategic engagement with the Igbo political, cultural, business and intellectual class, and without war chest nor weapons to prosecute a long-drawn-out war, they are merely setting up captive Igbo youths to be used for target practice by security operatives. No amount of radio propaganda nor big, bad talk could ever win the prize. Again, history is our guide.
Radio propaganda didn’t work during the Civil War, when regional professionals and veterans straddled the airwaves, and trained professional soldiers manned the field engagements. Biafran soldiers were outnumbered and outgunned. Propaganda and big talk will not work when a group that does not have an arsenal and with no external sovereign support launches into violent separatist agitation.
A better and strategic battle is one that focuses on current members of the political class, because most have refused to drink from the wisdom of their forebears. Despite being hated by voters for their self-seeking tendencies, this class succeeds at every election cycle. They are able to use state resources they salted away to buy youth muscle for election duties. They also compromise election officials who look the other way while they thumbprint their way to victory from their living rooms.
IPOB has shown capacity to neutralize this youth muscle and force corrupt election officials to walk the straight and narrow. It should use this powerful goodwill for good. IPOB could sponsor and support the election of selfless individuals into public office, knowing that they will not compromise the common interest.
Finally, all political struggles, including separatist agitations, are eventually resolved at the negotiation table. There are many and divergent strategies to arrive at this table, but arrival at the table is a key part of the strategic objectives that every leader must accommodate in his or her plan. This was the major point of departure between Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe and Chief Emeka Odumegwu Ojukwu, the reason Zik pulled out when he found he could no longer reason with Ikemba.
It was also the reason Zik was easily persuaded to return to politics in 1979, to prove the point that the Igbo can be easily reintegrated into the Nigerian polity using political skills and a united front to negotiate. Ndigbo, under the skillful guidance of Zik, returned to the table of policy decision-making less than 10 years after the war. There is no reason to suppose that Zik’s miracle of 1979 can never be repeated. It is a political game after all, and not a war – and it requires astute political warriors supported by current contending interests and forces to play and win it.
Next week: In our final entry, we examine the challenge of arriving at a meeting point between the contending interests and forces in Igboland and how this challenge can be met and overcome.