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FROM A BIAFRA VETERAN

July 02, 2017

This is essentially an exercise in rhetoric since we, Igbos in diaspora, cannot seriously influence what is happening in Nigeria right now as long as we stay physically away from the fray. It is being put forward in the spirit of the Catholic motto of St. Thomas Aquinas, Quantum potes, tantum aude: “Dare to do (now) whatever you feel is in your power!”

Fifty years ago, the moon stood still (as it did for Louis Armstrong on “Blueberry Hill”) while the sun of Biafra rose in all its majesty, albeit a majesty that was drenched in the blood of pogrom and war. That sun set on January 20, 1970; but, as with all things celestial, its rhythm is cyclic. Or is it?

Now that everyone can see Nigeria is not just incorrigible but totally moribund, talk is welling once again of Biafra-II. Heady talk! To borrow from the rhapsodic song, “Scotland The Brave,” such talk sets the blood a-leaping high in the spirits of the old Biafra men. Men like yours truly!!!

But talk is cheap! As one who fought and bled in Biafra’s glorious uniform almost through the entire 30 months of the brutal Nigerian Civil War (and who stands ready to don that uniform again if the fates will allow the renewed sacrifice of this tired senior citizen) I feel it my duty to squeak up as we begin to get caught up in roiling Biafra sentiments.

Some Nigerians in diaspora view themselves as temporary exiles from Nigeria—even if their sojourn abroad has been extended by continuing disgust with the sordid mess back home. Others, however, have given up altogether and now regard themselves as emigrants from Nigeria. I have, regretfully, drifted from the former category to the latter: only the revived prospect of Biafra could perhaps ever incline my heart and my feet again to the shores of West Africa. For me, then, Biafra is not a matter for casual yearning or flippant advocacy; it would be the final cause of my eventful life.

Here’s a brief glance in the rear-view mirror. Before jumping with both feet into the maelstrom of the Biafra War I was a student in Lagos; I was on vacation in Kaduna during the “Araba” riots that ignited genocide and war. As a teenager fleeing for my life on one of the last trains out of the North, I experienced sheer terror as our train was stopped dead on its track, just past midnight, in the very middle of the Makurdi bridge over River Benue (to forestall any desperadoes jumping out of the windows). Grim-faced soldiers of the Nigerian Army scanned us eyeball-to-eyeball, seeking fugitive Nigerian soldiers of Eastern origin to be fed to the guns of summary execution which were barking in the background, on the banks of that river. I shudder to remember that night.

Barely two months later, I finished my A-Levels and fled Lagos for Biafra with two colleagues and an intrepid taxi driver whom we paid extra — only to undergo the same terror-soaked ordeal again, but this time in reverse. At the Onitsha bridgehead Biafran soldiers decided to shoot us for trying to cross from “enemy territory” while the first guns of war were booming at Obollo-Afor. I became so enraged that, when the soldiers released us, I changed my destination on the spur of the moment, went straight to Enugu, and volunteered for officer training at the Hill Top School of Infantry — just to show those wild-eyed soldiers I was no “Bloody Idle Coward.” Our morning roadwork anthem was: Ma ogbo anyi ejeghi agha, onye ga eje? (“If our peers don’t go to war, who the heck will?”)

My wife once said I have nine lives. She should know: for, starting as a war-wearied Biafran patriot herself when we met in 1968, she shielded and nurtured me through those turbulent, teenage years of bush war to my current status as a “jaded, cranky senior.” Nine lives, perhaps, but I do believe I expended eight of them before, during, and immediately following the Biafra War, as narrated in my autobiography: “Seeing the World in Black-and-White.” So I know a thing or two: Like Kenny Rogers I “know when to hold them, when to fold them, when to walk away…” More to the point, I know when to urge caution.

What I have to say is delicate; and perhaps it’s best prefixed with Shakespeare’s great aphorism that “There’s a tide in the affairs of men, which, taken at flood, leads on to fortune….” We are yet very far from the frenzied and volatile mood of May-July 1967. The Biafra affair was at full tide in those months, and it is to the eternal shame of the powers that they left us in a lurch to twist in the wind, until our tide began to ebb. But even if we could recapture today the manic spirit of 1967 that was engendered by imminent mortal danger, there is one vital ingredient that would still be missing from the Biafra circumstances of 1967. I am alluding to the realities of geopolitics: not as we would want them to be, but as they actually exist today.

In addition to the dizzying height of emotion that buoyed us into the Republic of Biafra in 1967, one crucial ingredient lacking today is the vast demographic sweep of that same tide among almost all the ethnic groups of the East. In 1967 the spirit of Biafra carried along nearly everyone in the then Eastern Region. Admittedly, some people were more enthusiastic than others, but ALL were caught up in the logic of the moment because ALL could agree that Easterners had been lumped together as “Nyamiri” (Igbos) and subjected to indiscriminate butchery. Not so today.

It avails us nothing to wring our hands about how and why the various peoples of the eastern states of Nigeria no longer think, much less act, in tandem. (One must admit that Gowon’s splitting of the East into states was a powerful divide-and-conquer ploy that destroyed the glue of inter-ethnic and even intra-ethnic affinity in the East — as in other areas of Nigeria — and that destruction cannot be reversed!) Nobody needs telling now that the closest neighbors of Igbos today may not see eye-to-eye with us on such weighty issues as dissolving Nigeria, or what to put in place after dissolution. Put simply, the para-Igbo ethnic entities that are contiguous with the Igbo nation were carried into Biafra in 1967 by the momentum of events. That is not likely to happen again: they are not likely to go with us Igbos again if push came to shove. Heck, we cannot even take for granted full solidarity with peripheral Igbos. (One hesitates to name them here; it is a fraught topic. Suffice it to point out that quite a few peoples who identified themselves as Igbos before 1967 no longer do so today!)

We cannot hijack and co-opt our neighbors at gunpoint (and thereby unleash another bloody birth for Biafra-II). The likeliest route to secession this time is plebiscite. There are ample precedents now for the rest of the world to encourage that route and support its outcome. Democracy implies the right to choose one’s future, and democracy is now firmly planted in the human consciousness as the wave of the future. Happily, also, plebiscite is being touted by all serious participants in the growing discourse about Biafra-II. But, unhappily, the most probable outcome of such exercise is that Igbos would have to go it alone.

Then what? What kind of rump republic would we have in Biafra-II? Devoid of mineral resources — especially the liquid type — it would be dependent on agriculture for its survival until serious industrial capacity emerged (over future centuries). This was the precise secondary aim of Gowon’s gerrymandering towards the end of the civil war, in addition to the primary aim of weakening ethnic cohesion by sowing dissention. Now, what lands would we cultivate? Arguably the Igbo nation is the most densely populated in Nigeria. In most villages and hamlets it is not possible for a strong man to fling a rock in any direction and not hit somebody’s house; and a man is lucky to find a spare acre on which to build his house these days! Secondly, shorn of all seaports, Biafra-II would be totally landlocked: like Botswana, Malawi, or Switzerland, if our neighbors should decide to form their own separate republics — surrounding us but not necessarily in synchrony with, or even sympathetic to, us. Or perhaps more like hapless Lesotho if our neighbors choose to stay in a hollowed-out Nigeria and constitute a thorn in our side, engulfing us as the amoeba engulfs its meal.

As a pedagogue by avocation, it grieves me to provide an analysis without suggesting a solution; but, in truth, I can think of none. Except to say that whatever the solution to a post-Nigeria scenario, it has to be worked out with our neighbors, not in isolation — no matter how sorely we are provoked again. Some of our neighbors may not like us (and that feeling surely is mutual: some of them are no more likeable than rattlesnakes and warthogs!) but they do have self-interests which can overlap ours under some circumstances. Those circumstances must be carefully explored and encouraged by us. Once bitten, twice shy we must be.

Linus Uzodimma Ogbuji