They march, wield sticks, guns and machetes. Their bonfires spark with as much heat as their tongues. They defy law and order in order to define their homegrown law and order. They yell Ojukwu, swear by Biafra, assert independence and, with a streak of martyrdom, roar “death” to Nigeria.
Some see them as rough-hewn, raw, ragtag, even among disaffected Igbo. Others regard them as the seed of a great revolutionary shoot. Many fear them as a throwback to a time of turmoil and butchery. The Nigerian elite, especially from the North, regard them as outlaws with treason in their souls.
Few have seen the diamond in the rough. They are not like Ojukwu, an establishment soldier who rebelled, with well-honed accent and Oxford cadences. So, they think they are mere ragamuffins. But these men mark 50 years of Biafra, not because they want to leave or eye any prospect in that journey. They just want someone up there with empathy and power to call them to a table over Isi ewu or amala or tuwo masara. They want to coexist rather than exit, to be heard rather be herds at home. They don’t want parasites but partners, to toil as equals.
We must look at the life of the ultimate Biafran to tell the story of the new-minted rebels. Emeka Ojukwu grew up an Omo Eko. By many accounts, his Yoruba was, if not as fluent, smoother than his native Igbo. He hugged and smooched the place, schooled in King’s College before he proceeded to Oxford. His father was no less a Lagosian. In commerce and culture, the father immersed himself in the city. He was a sort of Dangote of his day, owning, according to legend, half of Apapa.
Emeka is also known, more in hushed circles, as the offspring of a Hausa-Fulani mother, a fact featured in my novel, My Name Is Okoro. His spoken Hausa was just as autochthonous as his Yoruba. Emeka loved Lagos. He was, in spirit, at one with the temper of the contraption called Nigeria. In a variegated pool of haters, he clasped the ethnic other in a fraternal warmth. He contained the Nigerian contradiction and multitudes in blood and soul.
Yet, when crisis erupted in the 1960’s, history mocked not only us. It mocked the man it threw up. Ojukwu disdained Gowon. He was no superior officer. Yet, the northern establishment lofted Gowon above him as the supreme commander of the army. Ojukwu loathed Gowon before he fell out with Nigeria. His personal ambition meshed with the injustice with which Nigeria oppressed his Igbo folks.
He rose to the occasion in rhetoric, with an exterior of rage and a charisma unmatched in all of the Eastern Region, or even Nigeria. Frederick Forsythe, no neutral in matters Ojukwu, compared him in stature and even temperament with some of the great soldier-statesmen in history, including Washington and Charles de Gaulle.
When the war started, however, the Omo Eko could not conceal his ferment. First, we may say, he was not a good general. He had Nigeria in a corner when his army roared out of the East. But he did not head straight to Lagos. He probably was like Mark Anthony of Ancient Rome.
Anthony, like Ojukwu, was buff, athletic, of royal bearing, confident, a paragon of the lady’s fantasy. But Ojukwu, like his Roman counterpart, was a failure as a general. He wore his army thin, roaming and riding roughshod in the Midwest, while his Nigerian counterpart still regarded him as a police action. If his army rumbled forth to Lagos, it might have been a walkover.
But he dithered until the federal troops coalesced and formed a redoubtable force to repulse him at Ore. Mark Anthony did not want to attack Egypt because he loved a woman, Cleopatra, a femme fatale, who charmed him into suicide. Ojukwu’s Cleopatra during the war was Lagos, or Nigeria. If his project was Biafra, he already had it. He only needed to defend it. Rather he wanted to decapitate Gowon, and win Lagos. He would then become the head of state? That would make his Biafra a soap bubble.
So, while many Igbo soldiers were fighting ravenously for Biafra, Ojukwu was a leader, but not a true believer or convert. A tender Nigeria coiled covert in his loins. This was not a fact he could admit to himself, even if he asked himself. Perhaps he was a great general, but not against his femme fatale, Nigeria. Anthony craved Egypt with its mammoth resources. He knew he loved Cleopatra. In Shakespeare’s rendering, Anthony and Cleopatra, Anthony is besotted by the fatal charms of his captor. So, he says, “Kingdoms are clay, our dungy earth alike feeds beast as man.” Biafra became his clay. But before Anthony says that, he declares, as Ojukwu might have said of Nigeria without hearing himself: “Here is my space.”
It is for that space that IPOB and MASSOB clamour as they nudge the polity. They see themselves as Ojukwu reborn. In the Napoleonic era, young men were enthralled by the exploits of the “little general.” They wanted to be little Napoleons. They wanted to be ordinary people who rose to significance, what German philosopher Nietzsche calls the superman. In his nihilistic classic, Crime and Punishment, Fyodor Dostoevsky’s character Raskolnikov confesses that he wants to be a Napoleon. He represented the youth of the day.
So are the youth of IPOB and MASSOB. They want Nigeria. They love Nigeria. They just want Nigeria to return that passion. Violence is not the way to do it. That, tragically, seems what they know.
Ojukwu came back to Nigeria not to join a rebel party or even an anti-establishment one. He became an NPN partisan, calling for “a new direction” in the East. He spent most of the rest of his life in Lagos. If Lagos marks 50, this year also marks 50 years since Ojukwu was separated from his love: Lagos.