These are busy times for Nigeria. May is the month of blooms. But in the last week, two parallel celebrations came to underscore the fragility of the Nigerian state, and the hollow rituals of its self-annunciation. First, on May 29, the president like the other presidents before him since the year 2000 when it was initiated by Olusegun Obasanjo, celebrated what it now calls “Democracy Day.” I personally think this a truly annoying misnomer because May 29 carries with it, the germ of a profound national tragedy. It was on May 29 1966 that the Pogrom of Easteners commenced in earnest in Nigeria. On May 29, 1967, General Ojukwu declared the birth of the Sovereign state of Biafra, and announced the excision of the East from the old Federation of Nigeria.
The military coup of January 15, 1966 had truncated the nascent Federal Republic of Nigeria, and installed in its place, a military dictatorship in evolution. It was the evolving nature of this dictatorship that underscored the complex and unfolding drama that led to a civil war. First the January coup, then the counter coup in July, which began with the pogroms staged in the North from May 29th 1966, with the murder of Ironsi and Fajuyi on July 29, and the genocide of the Igbo in the North on September 29, 1966. On May 29, 1967, an exact year to the massacre of the Igbo, and after the reneging of the agreements of the Aburi talks, Odumegwu-Ojukwu, after much reluctance, but mandated by the resolutions of the Eastern Nigerian Consultative Assembly, declared the end of the old Nigerian federation, and the birth of a new republic of Biafra. These events set the stage for the civil war, an event which has more than any other event in Nigerian history, determined the unresolved nature of the Nigerian state. Nigeria remains an “Abiku” nation because it has failed to bury the relentless ghosts of its past. It has refused to bury these ghosts because at the core of its current orientation is a residual fear of the East, especially the Igbo, who are catalysts ironically to the foundation of modern Nigeria.
Following the civil war that ended on January 15, 1970, a series of policies were created to contain the Igbo. First, its territory was radically contained, and Igbo fragmented and pocketed into various powerless minorities in Kogi, Benue, Akwa-Ibom, Cross Rivers, and in some strength in Delta and Rivers state. The resource politics of Nigeria also redefined what was exactly the “Niger Delta.” Today, places like Edo and Ondo call themselves, “Niger Delta.” But the term delta is too often these days lost to Nigerians. Of the Six rivers that make the Niger Delta – Imo, Njaba, Otamiri, Orashi, Qua, and the Nun – five are rivers that criss-cross the Igbo world. The Niger delta is the Igbo world, and the ancient clan of the “Oru,” – one of the five nations of the old Igbo – were always the dwellers and protectors of the sea and waters of the delta, and were traditionally, Marine ecologists.
But the politics of oil in postwar Nigeria sought to excise the Igbo from this product, and made the Igbo world, from which immense national wealth has been derived, marginal beneficiaries of oil wealth, even though right now, soot is beginning to fall from the heavens in the great Igbo city of Port-Harcourt, as it will indeed begin also to rain deadly dust all over the Central and Eastern delta, from the long flaring of gas by the exploiters of oil in Nigeria. The sudden discovery of mind-altering wealth in Nigeria in 1970 led Nigeria to a demonic phase, and drove its elite to frenzy and psychosis. It was no longer about nation-building. It was now about raiding the tireless trough of the gods. If it were about rebuilding the nation, the Igbo would have been powerfully re-integrated, the Igbo scientists that startled the world during the war would have been given the resource and stability to continue their researches for the ultimate benefit of Nigeria. Igbo talents would have been recruited to rebuild the national bureaucracy – the Federal Civil Service – the lynchpin to Nigeria’s national development, based simply on merit. Nigeria would have stopped being a dependency. Her technological base would have been built. Her economic base would have expanded if the Igbo felt a sense of security in postwar Nigeria. Nigeria would today be a great power among nations, and not a nation that is now, more than ever, the world’s greatest sperm donor, with its citizens fleeing from it, and as they run, cursing it with their last hot breath, even as they dust their heels at its thresholds. Goodluck Jonathan would not have, with all the money in his pocket, go from door to door, begging to buy arms with which to fight Boko Haram, and rejected by nations who refused to sell to him. Even Zimbabwe produces its own arms! But the Igbo feel discontented.
Their sense of discontent has been incremental. Today, people remind the Igbo that they are not the only people who feel marginalized and discontented by Nigeria’s failures. The Igbo remind these Nigerians that Igbo discontentment is not only about the fact of their marginalization as a major ethnic group in Nigeria, but that the rest of Nigeria in their fight against the Igbo supervised the failure of Nigeria as a nation. The Igbo feel themselves now forced to be part of a great mediocrity. The Igbo feel themselves belittled by Nigeria and insulted by its condition. They feel the weight of their talent, and the burden on their people of the impossibility of being part of the kind of nation that would be worthy of their talent, industry, and purpose. The Igbo are a proud people who feel themselves among the best of God’s creation. They had a small reprieve between 1979 and 1983. From 1983-1999, the Igbo felt their greatest sense of alienation. The military era symbolized by the triumvirate of Buhari-Babangida- Abacha, pressed home the condition of the Igbo as a “defeated people.” But the Igbo feel themselves “undefeated.” They feel Nigeria is a millstone on their neck. Other Nigerians say, well, if you feel that special, so why have you not enacted this technological miracle in Igbo land? It is a fair question. The Igbo of course point to their individual achievements. The Igbo have long ignored Nigeria, and talented Igbo have chosen to direct their energy not towards service to Nigeria but to private business and wealth creation. Talented Igbo no longer feel the call to public service; they live in quiet despair, making the best of their personal lives, and when they can, sending their children out of Nigeria, to live their dreams. They leave the public space to their “third eleven,” who carry on as best they could.
They no longer concern themselves with the advancement of Nigeria, but wait for its demise. But it has become increasingly clear too to a new generation that quiet despair has its limits. As nations begin to close their borders to immigrants, the new generation of Igbo are beginning to see the writing on the wall. But their discontent, mirroring the discontent of their fathers, is driving them towards recovering a memory of their past, and seeking to establish a nation for themselves where they would be free to build the republic of their dream, and a nation that they would feel worthy of their great talent as a people. This is the meaning of the movement for a new Biafra. It is a movement which has forced the Igbo, and all Nigerians to remember, and not to forget as Nigeria wishes to forget, the great atrocities committed against the Igbo, which is driving them to make a final break with Nigeria. On May 30, IPOB asked Igbo to stay at home in a symbolic day of memorial for the Igbo killed both in the Pogroms and in the war. This call to stay at home, registered great success and response in the East. While President Buhari was busy marking his day of democracy, Igbo were busy mourning their dead.
This more than anything shows that Nigeria has two powerfully distinct stories, for while some celebrate, others mourn. No nation can come to any good with two spirits residing inside it; two irreconcilable, and powerful ideas of freedom, for liberty is man’s greatest drive. Nigeria cannot repress that quest for true liberty by the Igbo, who were always known as a “freedom loving people” – folk who have no kings, whose only king is an idea – the idea, that each man is lord and master to himself/herself and forbidden by their “Chi” to bow to another.
Two things are therefore possible, one is for Nigeria to return to the basic foundations of its own history and declare November 16, as enshrined in the Republican Constitution of 1963, as Nigeria’s Day of the Republic, the day on which we celebrate liberty and democracy, in honor also of the leader of its liberation movement in the 20th century, Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe.
And as an act of ablution, the National Assembly must declare May 29, not “Democracy Day,” but a national day of mourning with the Igbo as a sign of Nigeria’s reconciliation with Ndi Igbo. The Igbo on their part, must strive to return spiritually to Nigeria, and rebuild this nation as their historical inheritance.