I have been waiting for a while to witness a colloquium on Biafra by Biafrans for Biafrans. From such a fest of loyalists, I expected to hear each of them define the word for themselves and the world. But such a thing would never happen because it would ignite a dynamic no Biafran or Nigerian, for that matter, desires.
They will hit a deadlock. One man’s Biafra may be the next woman’s nightmare. For a few people, Biafra may mean Biaxit, or exit from noisome Nigeria. To others, it means simply an Igbo identity, which connotes tribal pride, music and dance, cuisine and couture, romance and rites. It is anaemic until stirred, like old wine lost in a decanter.
To yet another set of people, Biafra simply signifies rebellion, a Pavlovian reflex to defend an identity wherever the matter arises. It could even mean flicking out a knife or toting a gun. It bears no special political register or temperament, but an instinctive assertion of a cultural forte.
Yet for another set, it is rebellion all right, but one shorn of a separatist impulse. These are the forces for restructuring, who loathe secession, but whose emotions align with the Nnamdi Kanu’s.
Part of the problem is that Biafra is not an Igbo word. Unlike similar agitations, like The Kanaks of New Caledonia or Party Quebecois of Canada, Biafra draws its name from a bight that abuts on the Atlantic Ocean. From merely a bight, Biafra evokes a blight of identity. If it were an Igbo word, its meaning might be specific. Yet, there is nothing more specific than the fact that, in its earliest incarnation, it meant secession. Ojukwu evoked his people’s pride, a pride that led to a theatre where they fought and died. But the idea now exhales an ambiguous life.
If it failed then, it has undergone metamorphosis. Some will say metastasis. But whatever form it takes depends on the individual Igbo man’s perception of Nigeria today. So, when Nnamdi Kanu and his other cohorts blare out imprecations about Nigeria, the implications are sometimes lost on us. Is he speaking to the secessionist or the “restructurer”? After any deconstruction, we shall arrive at these two main divides in Igboland. The secessionist, who wants to go. The restructurer, who would stay but in an ambience that affirms his rights.
This kaleidoscope of personas does not come up on the burner of national discourse, or Igbo dialogue. Biafra has been slammed into one bracket: exit from Nigeria. We have to understand this if any progress will furnish our engagement with the south-east.
So, when Acting President Yemi Osinbajo gathered elders in Aso Rock, which Biafra did the invitees stand for. The assumption was that they stood against Biafra, and that the elders held a clue to the quelling of the distemper. The point, though, is that the Igbo elite needs to winnow the disquiet and identify the various groups and see how a meeting of minds can help create a semblance of consensus. Or if a consensus is not possible, we need to know what proportion of the Igbo reject any dialogue.
What we see now is a sort of schizophrenia. Now for Biaxit, now for Nigeria. But no true dialogue is going on. During the American Revolution, Benjamin Franklin said, “the revolution is in the hearts and minds of the American people.” Yet, only a third of Americans wanted to leave. But it was strong enough to edge out England. During the country’s civil war about a century later, the South fought to secede because of slavery. Some of them were also fighting for a cultural identity, the southern idiosyncrasy, the way they speak, eat, love, die and play. The majority did not want war.
This is a serious matter. Those Igbo leaders are clearly afraid of the maelstrom in the east. They are afraid to speak truth to the kanus while the false demagogue rails at his fellow Igbo who worship in a Yoruba man’s church. He speaks about war. He peddles hate and hate words. He asserts Igbo identity only at the expense of others. He “others” the others. Like Jean-Paul Sartre, he believes “hell is other people.”
Yet the governors and political elite pivot towards decency of language and a serenity of vision. These people cannot speak to the turbulent hordes within their region. This tension creates a paralysis for all of us. It is even a bad omen because it allows the reptile in the sewer to morph into a monster. Then it might be too late.
Few remember that the Middle East of today, with such countries as Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, etc were part of the Ottoman Empire. They roiled quietly, sometimes violently, against the state. The empire swaggered, especially under Kemal Attaturk. But it staggered and fell at the end of the First World War. The Allies broke it under the League of Nations, and the countries secured their independence.
We cannot pretend to keep the peace when there is genuine tension. Those calling for secession know that the federation is a fraud, and it needs urgent work. We cannot solve it with the fragile plasters of the rhetoric of reconciliation.
So what is clear is that Biafra suffers from an identity crisis. Until that is resolved, we shall go giddy in a circle. Some of this problem lies in the hypocrisy of the Igbo elite. They know this identity tension, they merely keep quiet. A professor like Ben Nwabueze receives Kanu and tries peevishly to recast him as a restructurer rather than a treasonous bumbling.
They see Kanu go along like the Shakespearean music as the food of love. But they are in thrall while the country “sicken and so die.” What we have is a bad marriage in the east. The sort in which the Biaxiteers and the restructurers are cohabiting as though divorce is remote. In Twelfth Night, the clown Feste quips, “Many a good hanging prevents a bad marriage.”
Unless the bad spirit is hanged, the bad marriage will lead to a divorce action whose consequence no one can predict. In the play, there were a number of comedy of errors as people fall in love with the wrong people until the fairest of all finds out she is in love with a woman disguised as a man.
To hang the bad spirit, a dialogue, open and urgent, is imperative. Or else, they will encourage the other treason peddlers among Arewa youth to issue their own versions of instability. The last time such tension happened, a pogrom burned in the north with many Igbo and southern minorities wiped out. Biafra followed.
This is the time to cut through the disguises. We should know who stands for what. The Presidency must serve as catalyst in this. We cannot continue as liars to ourselves.