Nigeria was expected to be better after it’s tragic, genocidal civil war came to a dramatic close in 1970. It was called a civil war just because it was fought amongst compatriots. Yet, in concept, execution and dimension, there was nothing civil about it. It was vicious, attritional and sans any compatriot spirit.
There was no guarantee that Igbos or Biafrans would survive the war or its aftermaths. Yet, in the end, and counting to today, the very instinct for self-preservation and an unparalleled spirit of private enterprise plus quantum street wisdom ensured that the people not only survived, they reconciled and moved on, hanging their hopes on a better Nigeria.
But today, and more than at any other time since the end of that war, Nigeria is pedaling back to the same evils that brought that war. Those that feel that they have conquered the federation and its opportunities have no qualms and thus incapable appreciating the permanent damage they are doing to the diminishing prospects for OneNigeria.
With the way post-war Nigeria was unilaterally structured to the advantage of one part and the ebullience with which such advantage is now being pursued, it will be naive and duplicitous to think that there will be absence of dissent. Like nature itself, dissent does not exist in a vacuum. It erupts as a natural reaction to injustice of state against citizen. In such instance, it is the state (not the dissenter) that is stoking the fire of dissent, of separatism.
A nation enjoys healthy and unifying democracy only if its leaders are willing to go beyond the narrow interests of their ethnic stock and direct their vision to the common good. This is the main reason self-determination passions waned throughout the Obasanjo, Yar’Adua and Jonathan eras but soared exponentially in the present era. The first salvo was fired by the President himself when he uttered that infamous 97 versus 5 per cent, a treasonous declaration that quickly gained traction and merciless implementation to this day.
When tribalism is the most powerful drive in a diverse society, democracy and national unity suffer or merely exist as shadows of themselves, or worse – by fiat and state violence. Good leaders have to have enough big heart to accommodate all. They have to be able to walk away from their little tribal enclaves to embrace all hues. They have to find compromises and common grounds that can build a system that accommodates all.
Unfortunately, however, Nigeria has been thrust into a crucial moment where how you voted in the 2015 and 2019 presidential elections (plus the tribe you belong to) are the most important considerations for enjoying the most basic rights of citizenship. Even murderous terrorists, some of them foreign, are treated better. In such a scenario, there is going to be a backlash, a popular resistance, best exemplified by an Nnamdi Kanu that is not too cowed to tell you it cannot be that way.
It is sad that the vision of the moment seems to be of a Nigeria that is feudal and terroristic, with a criminal version of federalism and an ethnic patriarchy aimed at enforcing a fraudulent unity on their own terms. This sad reality is the greater danger to the oneness of Nigeria than Nnamdi Kanu and the devoted millions that follow him. To be sure, Kanu was, in all ramifications, a committed Nigerian patriot until his hands were forced.
We saw this same wave in 1967 and it got nobody nowhere. Not the losers, not the winners. As it now seems, everybody – losers or winners – have become losers because the same 1967 mentality of we-versus-them (97versus5) was suddenly exhumed and recast in a new wave of extremism driven by the Nigerian state itself. And to make it worse, when you dissent – even without arms – you die. If you’re lucky, you get maimed for life, jailed or end up in exile.
This is what Nigeria’s founding fathers feared more than 50 years ago. This is what propelled them to find some compatriot comfort only in a pure federation that guaranteed quantum autonomy to the regions. And this why, when the first evils erupted, Aburi was proposed as the only sensible and ultimate solution. So, even as regional autonomy was destroyed and Aburi was rejected, their spirits abided and lived on for a day like this.
Thus, Nigeria as presently constituted, is the reason for Biafra – the abiding spirit that is propelling the phenomenon of Nnamdi Kanu. So, to think that Kanu will relent without weighty concessions smacks of infantile arrogance and crass naivety. It is a fact of history that gutsy and idealistic men like him are built of the sterner stuff; sterner than military tanks; sterner than any oppressor. And now, they are in the millions and still counting.
Therefore, the phenomenon of Biafra is not driven by any other thing than a similar spirit that had propelled Nigeria to Independence. You can’t proscribe a spirit; you can’t call it treason or terrorism; and you can’t suppress it by levying lethal violence at the slightest whim. Your only sensible option is to engage it with dialogue and compromise.
Aloy Ejimakor, a lawyer, writes from Alaigbo