by Edmund Obilo
Nigeria is fifty-seven but, the crises of nationhood holding it down is linked to its failure to resolve its epidemic scourge of ethnic suspicion.
The Igbo question in this regards remains one of the most destabilizing character of the Nigerian state. There is also the Yoruba, Hausa-Fulani and the Niger Delta questions. Genuine answers are needed if the state is to transcend the ills that continue to drag it in the direction of disunity.
The fundamental definers of the Igbo question are issues at the heart of the demand of the Igbos in the Nigerian state. They stem from the dislocation of the people from their guiding philosophy of a loose and organized community relationship and the foisting upon them a political system that dictates from outside their destiny.
At the height of the Nigerian Civil War, the leader of Biafra Col. Odumekwu Ojukwu, on June 1, 1969, in a speech to further rally his people around the idea of Biafra, delivered the Ahiara declaration. The declaration was written by the National Guidance Committee of Biafra chaired by the eminent scholar Chinua Achebe. Achebe in his 2012 book “There Was a Country” opines that their business was “to write a kind of constitution for Biafra – a promulgation of the fundamental principles upon which the government and people of Biafra would operate”.
Delivered in the Biafran town of Ahiara, the declaration remains one of the most progressive national philosophies in Africa and was modeled on Tanzanian’s President, Julius Nyerere’s 1967 Arusha Declaration. It is radical in intent and philosophically revolutionary. A critical analysis of the declaration shows the drawback of the Nigerian system owing to the social formation and logic imposed on it by the colonial system of government.
The document is a deep reflection on the journey of Igbo people from the period of violence and massacres of the Igbos in northern Nigeria that degenerated into the bloody Nigerian Civil War. Its principles are hinged on the pre-colonial concept of Igbo society and ideas behind the current agitation of the Igbo within Nigeria. It marked an epoch of idealism that took stock of the social and political movements of the Biafran nation from the date Ojukwu declared a sovereign nation out of the burdened Nigerian state. In it, is the future aspiration of the Igbo borne out of a bloody experience. The goal of the writers of the document was to create a hopeful, prosperous, just and happy society achieved through a struggle against the forces of religion, injustice, racism, colonialism, corruption and oppression. It envisaged a state with a new character and structure.
The outlook of Igbo people as explained in the introductory part of the declaration is such that defines colour as a parameter for expressing human feelings of love and hate. In this case, the colour black representing the Biafran humanity, failed to attract the sympathy of western civilizations represented by Britain and other western powers accused of supporting the “Nigerian crime of genocide” against Igbo people. Ndigbo note that despite fighting “in the highest traditions of Christian civilization”, western powers “the very custodians of this civilization” joined forces with the Muslim Hausa-Fulani oligarchy to decimate the people and land of Biafra during the Nigerian civil war.
In this protestation is the question of religion, a factor fundamental to the understanding of the Igbo notion of Nigeria. It finds its eminent embellishment in the Igbo opposition to the dominance of the Nigerian state by the Muslim north that controlled political power. Here, the Igbo insist on being immune from the Islamic contagion championed by the Arabs from the Near-East that swept through the Sahara to northern Nigeria. It is stated in the document that “the Biafran struggle is a resistance of Arab-Muslim expansionism”. Biafra refuses to buckle at “militant Arabism” as an instrument of attaining political power.
The document traces the Igbo problem to different factors, one of which is racism.
Biafran leader Col. Emeka Ojukwu
Igbos argue that “if all the things that have happened to us had happened to another people who are not black… the world response would surely have been different”. It states that the world showed little or no concern about the killing of some 50,000 people of Igbo origin in northern Nigeria in 1966.
The letters of the declaration identified imperialism and colonialism as the traditional scourges of the black man that blighted the nationalistic aspiration of Nigeria. Igbo people therefore seeks to defeat these forces and chart a course to build a healthy, dynamic and progressive state that would be the pride of the Blackman in the global system.
Being a revolutionary aspiration of the Igbo, the Ahiara declaration boldly highlighted the need for Africa to “build progressive states that ensure the reign of social and economic justice and the rule of law”. The document justified the breakaway from the Nigerian state on the ground that the leadership of the Hausa-Fulani feudal aristocracy preferred anarchy and injustice, by which the basic human rights and liberties of the Igbo was violated. Such violation resulted in the brave exercise of the Igbo inalienable right to self determination as his only remaining hope of survival.
The Biafran state pursuit of the principle of economic and social justice and the rule of law was perceived by the west as an attempt to achieve its kind of society which the Biafran accused it of not wanting for the blackman. The west from the document wants the black of Africa to remain in perpetual poverty and in a state of conflict for continued exploitation by the big powers. The revolution the Igbo then declared in 1969 was a “confrontation between Negro nationalism and white imperialism”. The Igbo people wondered why self determination was good for the Greeks in 1822, Belgians in 1830 and Eastern Europeans that broke out of the Ottoman Empire, and was not good for Biafrans. In a statement against colonialism, they frowned at the forceful attempt to make them surrender their existence as a people to the integrity of the ramshackle creation (Nigeria) that has no justification either in history or in the freely expressed wishes of its constituents.
In a blatant expression of disgust, the Ahira Declaration traced the problem of Africa to the period of slave trade that established the continent as a “field for exploitation” and economic gain – “it suited them to transport and transplant millions of the flower of our manhood for the purpose of exploiting the Americas and the west Indies”. After slave trade came colonization. The people of Igbo land see this period as the episode that culminated in the carving up of the continent of Africa into “artificial states designed purely to minister to white economic interest”. In the desperate attempts to maintain the artificial states they accused the colonialists of creating the illusion of political independence by installing puppets as leaders to retain control of the economy of Africa.
The declaration envisages a political, economic and social system drafted by Africans for themselves devoid of the political manipulation of the west and implemented to provide African solution to African problems. It encapsulates foreign policy as a critical factor in repositioning Africa including the Igbo aspiration and wishes that inept and unimaginative leadership foisted on the Africa by the West is brought down and replaced by purposeful leadership capable of challenging the economic exploitation of trans-national corporations own by western countries. The need to stand up to “regional and continental organizations which provide a front for the manipulation of the imperialist powers; organizations which are therefore unable to respond to African problems in a truly African manner” was stressed. This means that the declaration is also a foreign policy tool as it highlights the benefit that will accrue from a foreign policy posture that addresses the national interest of African states.
Fredrick Forsyth in his 1982 book “Emeka” affirms that at its proclamation, the Ahiara Declaration became “the political and moral philosophy of Biafra”. He furthers states that the principles of the document sought to describe a new kind of society on the face of Africa. The intention was to create a system of co-equality of the constituent units, build and grow a democratic, republican and egalitarian society, with a vibrant education, health, agriculture and industrial systems. The principles of the rule of law, social contract, and division of power were proposed in the declaration.
On the economic side, the declaration is a concise document for national development. It recognizes the impediments of the economies of African states, asserting that since the last 15th century, the European world has treated the African continent as field of exploitation. It states that the policies of the West in Africa have for long been determined to a very great extent, by their greed for economic gain. The document suggests the determination for sustained high level of growth and transformation in Biafra. The break-away country was not going to remain at the margin of power and influence globally, the reason the spirit of the letters of the declaration signals the resolve by the leadership of Biafra to push through sustainable economic and political initiatives aimed at lifting millions of its people out of poverty and making the country have hegemonic influence in Africa with global significance.
The declaration’s insight was that the development of science and technology is the guaranteed path to advancement. Biafran science and technology at this time was alive. It crumbled after the war because the Nigeria state was not interested in exploring it further.
The outlook at the time was to put the acts of the people of Igbo land together and rewrite its political and economic history. A new outlook different from what the Nigerian state was, was required to launch the revolution of the industrial sector by improving the scientific and technological base of Biafra. Corruption impedes development and was to be tackled with all seriousness.
Ojukwu’s impression of Nigeria that made him declare the state of Biafra, is given credence by Nigeria’s situation years after the war. Nigeria is a country where the elites of the various tribal groupings use political power for their own benefit, leaving the common people to wallow in their common poverty. The Nigerian political elite uses corrupt process to enrich his or herself. Ojukwu identified this in the declaration by stating that the Nigerian state is “corrupt as unprogressive and as oppressive and irreformable as the Ottoman Empire was in Eastern Europe”. Nothing has changed.
Ojukwu having discovered that some Biafran officials were also corrupt accused them of failure to discard their Nigerianness. This aspect of the declaration is an indication that beyond the issue of ethnicity, the Igbo man was corrupt like the other tribes in the Nigerian state, therefore needed a new mindset.
The declaration also noted the importance of strong institutions like the judiciary, legislature, and police force for example, as primary in the pursuit and allocation of good values necessary for the progressive administration of the state.
Having given a breakdown of the ambition of the Igbos before they capitulated in a civil war that caused the death of more than a million people, it can said that the coming of colonialism and European styled political administration, saw the Igbos competing with other ethnic groups brought together into one state without their consent, for the survival of their identity. This struggle threw up serious animosities that led to the bloody Nigerian civil war.
The defining issues of the war and subsequent agitations are religion, ethnicity, injustice, racism, colonialism, corruption and oppression. The others are rule of law, good governance and self determination.
These definers were as result of the failure of the Nigerian state to respond adequately to the crises of its federalism through a process of “building out” and “building in”. Doing this will be learning from history.
History is vital in understanding the character of the state. The renowned scholar and author of the books, The End of History, and The Origin of Political Order, Francis Fukuyama said “things that happened hundreds or even thousands of years ago continue to exert major influence on the nature of politics”. To him, the understanding of the functioning of institutions is contingent on the knowledge of their origins and the forces that created them. This notion is critical in the resolution of the Nigerian question.
For example, unlike the Hausa/Fulani and Yoruba administrative systems, pre- colonial Igbo system was not centralized, hierarchical or monarchical. The Igbo respected age and leadership to some extent came from elders, however respect was balanced by the belief that birth did not confer on any man special privileges.
The Igbo displayed individualistic, egalitarian and republican attitude, with every man believing in his ability for leadership. The system offered the willing, strong and ambitious the ability to rise and impact society. The Igbo society was therefore intensely democratic, but it suffered from the rancor associated with societies with loose leadership structures unlike centralized systems with powerful leaders that command the respect of the followers.
It was a segmentary political system driven by competiveness and wealth. Stability was achieved by balancing small groups against each other.
Therefore, the amalgamation of 1914 that fussed the Igbo, Hausa/Fulani, Yoruba and other minority tribes into one “nation” was made perhaps unknowingly to pit the tribes against themselves considering their pre-colonial social and political behaviours.
From the above, the trans-Atlantic slave trade and the subsequent colonial exploits of Europeans, laid the ground work for the dislocation of the Igbo people from their natural path of development, thus forcing them into a political alliance that foisted on them a foreign political system.
Post colonial Nigeria established on the principle of divide-and-rule further exacerbated the fragile unity of Nigeria, ending in bloody civil war. Attempts to address the problems have been fraught with insincerity, suspicion and ethnic strives, with one of the consequences being the continuous call for self determination by Igbo separatists.
Nigeria’s, foundation was laid on the premise of suspicion between the north and
the south. It was extremely initiated and pursued in the interest of the colonialists. After Oct 1st 1960, when it was expected that Nigeria would rally its people and draft policies geared towards development, it began a descent into traditional frontiers that further divided it.
Authors like Mazrui and Kirk-Green believe that by preserving Northern Nigeria especially as an area of cultural authenticity and autonomy, with its own strong institutions, Britain inadvertently contributed to the forces which culminated in the Nigerian civil war.
Richard Bourne in his new book “Nigeria- A New History of a Turbulent Century” gave historical examples along this line.
Having said that, I agree with the notion that “the deepening regionalism, and the manifest contradictions in the regional system constituted the most damaging legacy of colonial rule”.
One side of the argument is that the British had no choice but to maintain the North’s decisive numerical advantage, as it was the sole defense against political and economic domination by the South.
Fred Onyeoziri said that “one consequence of this British protection is that the whole nation never benefitted from a fuller social integration of the major sections of the country”.
To Obaro Ikime a renowned professor of history, the 1939 British action that conferred on the North a favoured status which was reflected in the Independence Constitution, made ‘the East and West to become fierce competitors in national politics, a situation which the North exploited to a great advantage in the politics of decolonization and of the years 1960 – 67’.
Ikime says the hostility between the North, which has been more able to act politically together, and the South, which has never been a political expression, has been a notable feature of Nigeria’s National Question.
What is the take away in this argument? It is that the restructuring of the Nigerian state is a task that must be done.
Separatist groups in Igboland should mobilize the Igbo nation for a new Igbo leadership to address the problems of their people. This means they should subsumed their agitation for a sovereign state of Biafra into an intensive struggle to restructure the Nigerian state to allow for the self determination of the Igbo people within a Nigerian project.