May 16, 2016

Don’t Blame the Igbos

Map of the dream nation of Biafra
I have never known how fierce the Igbo hatred of the idea of Nigeria is until an Igbo guy said: “can you imagine that Ojukwu was buried with a Nigerian flag? It was a disgrace!” Recently, when two Nigerians, Lesley Nneka Arumah and Tope Folarin, were shortlisted for the 2016 Caine Prize for African writing, I was proud as a Nigerian, and went on to download the stories. I started reading Arumah’s entry to discover that her story was partly set in a nonexistent nation known as Biafra. This, also, is how dire the situation is.

One source of frustration to Igbos is that, as serious as their situation may be, people don’t seem to understand it or pretend not to understand it, thereby dismissing the issue as a triviality each time it is raised.  

We cannot be multi ethnic and not be diverse –it is a paradox. The Biafran issue found its roots in the cultural contrast between the Hausas, who are incorrigible conservatives, on one hand, and the Igbos, who have inborn liberal and republican mannerisms. This is the seed that gave rise to the Biafran idea, as the two failed to blend their contrasting positions. The first effort at nation-building immediately following independence should have been the address of such difficulties that rose, rather than sweeping them under the mat.

We grew up hearing that, for Igbos, there is a ceiling in the Nigerian Army. We hear that it is made so to prevent them from getting too powerful and abusing such powers to actualize the Biafran dream. In Rivers State, there is this town known as Obibo. Someone told me that “Obibo” means “the heart of Igbos.” Obibo was carved out of Imo State (back then) and merged with Rivers State.  My narrator said that the idea was to ensure that Igboland had as limited oil-producing lands as possible.

Foresight is a basic character of good leaders, but we are not so lucky to have that, at least with the series of leaders we have had so far. At times it is not the absence of foresight, it is pure selfishness. In Nigeria, unjust leaders simply dismiss the likely impact of an unjust action by merely saying that “nothing will happen.” The pertinent line of thought should be: why take the action when you know it is unjust? Such assumptions have led to the neglect and underdevelopment of the Niger Delta and the aftermath that we see in the region today. Equally, the Igbo issue is one that has refused to abate because some selfish sections of our society have continued to think that nothing will happen. 

Conscious of our volatile nature when handling tribal or regional issues, the idea of power rotation naturally found a place in our hearts. Since Nigeria is an amalgam of three huge regions, the idea of power rotation should take this into consideration. In the seventeen years since our new democracy it became clear to the Igbos that their region, the southeast, by design, is left out of the equation. This gets every right-thinking Igbo son or daughter into thinking that he or she isn’t a Nigerian. If you not a Nigerian, you have to be something else? It was when I realized this that I ceased to be offended when Igbos start their agitations.  

Igbos often sum up their reasons in the word “marginalization,” but I think that it is precisely the idea of the presidency that is at the heart of it. This is because, in Nigeria, as long as you don’t have political power, you will always be marginalized as it is felt that nothing would happen. If one should drive around federal roads in the middle belt region, where you have a cluster of the smaller tribes, the roads are generally bad, but get better when you cross into any section that falls within the politically powerful states. The denial goes beyond roads to include the locations of federal institutions. For instance, the regional head offices of the Joint Admissions and Matriculation Board, West African Examinations Council, and the Central Bank, were formally all in Jos, Plateau State, but were gradually, and one after the other, moved to Bauchi State. The regional headquarter of the Ministry of Information was also moved from Plateau State to Niger State. The minority tribes may not worry much as long as they can, once in a while, sneak their way into the presidency. It was the case with General Yakubu Gowon and lately, Goodluck Jonathan. The Igbos, however, constitute one of the Big Three, they are more than sand on the sea shores, equally industrious and shouldn’t wait for a chance that will never come. It is demeaning, insulting and places a stigma on them.

I think that we are yet to become a civilized nation, if we think that we can fix issues by ignoring them or using force to suppress them. While Buhari was hosted on Talk to Al Jazeera on the Al Jazeera TV network lately, his host raised the Biafran issue and asked why the agitators cannot be brought to the negotiating table. It is definitely the wisest thing to do, as suppressing the Igbos, who have every reason to be proud of themselves, will not last for long.

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