5th March, 2012
A Tribute by Professor Wole Soyinka
Having mandated me to proclaim on your behalf, and in your name, that Eastern Nigeria be a sovereign independent Republic, now, therefore I, Lieutenant Colonel Chukwuemeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu, Military Governor of Eastern Nigeria, by virtue of the authority, and pursuant to the principles recited above, do hereby solemnly proclaim that the territory and region known as and called Eastern Nigeria together with her continental shelf and territorial waters, shall, henceforth, be an independent sovereign state of the name and title of The Republic of Biafra.
With these words, on May 30 of the year 1967, a young, bearded man, thirty-four years of age in a fledgling nation that was barely seven years old, plunged that nation into hitherto uncharted waters, and inserted a battalion of question marks into the presumptions of nation-being on more levels than one. That declaration was not merely historic, it re-wrote the more familiar trajectories of colonialism even as it implicitly served notice on the sacrosanct order of imperial givens. It moved the unarticulated question: “When is a nation?” away from simplistic political parameters – away from mere nomenclature and habitude – to the more critical arena of morality and internal obligations. It served notice on the conscience of the world, ripped apart the hollow claims of inheritance and replaced them with the hitherto subordinate, yet logical assertiveness of a ‘people’s will’. Young and old, the literate and the uneducated, urban sophisticates and rural dwellers, citizen and soldier – all were compelled to re-examine their own situating in a world of close inter-relations and distant ideological blocs, bringing many back to that basic question: Just when is a nation?
Throughout world history, many have died for, but without an awareness of the existential centrality of that question. The Biafran act of secession was one that could claim that its people had direct and absolute intimacy with the negative corollary of that question. Their brutal, immediately antecedent circumstances ensured that they could provide one or more truthful and urgent answers to the obverse of the question, which would then read: When is a nation not? Chukuwemeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu, thrown by Destiny onto that critical moment of truth as a leader, became the voice, the actualising agent of their overwhelming recognition. He heard the answers given to an interrogatory that proceeded from gross human violation, and he responded as became a leader. In so doing, he challenged the pietisms of former colonial masters and the sanctimoniousness of much of the world. He challenged an opportunist construct of nationhood, mostly externally imposed, and sought to replace it, under the most harrowing circumstances, with a vital proposition that answered the purpose of humanity – which is not merely to survive, but to exist in dignity. The world might cavil, the ideologues of undialectical unity might shake their head in dubious appraisal and denounce it as reckless adventurism. This, however, was his reading, and even the most implacable enemy would hardly deny that his position transcended individual judgment, that it rested firmly on the collective will of a people who only awaited, and demanded the decisiveness of responsive leadership.
Even today, many will admit that, in this very nation, that question remains unresolved, that more and more voices are probing that question, that all over the world, certainly within our own continent, multitudes are braving impossible odds, conceding immense sacrifices to contest the facile and complacent answer which proposes that whatever is, is divinely ordered, thus conferring the mantle of divinity on those whose spatial contrivances, called nations, continue to creak at the seams and consume human lives in their millions. Their mission is to preserve a sacrosanct order that was never accorded human legitimacy, as if it is not the very humanity that grants authority to the cohesion of any inert piece of real estate and thus, only such humanity contains, and can exercise a moral will, in designating it a habitable and productive entity that truly deserves the designation of – nation-being.
Humanity must be allowed to make its errors. Indeed, errors are the unregistered provisions in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. There are however degrees and qualities of errors, and the most lamentable of these are those that proceed from the lack of courage to interrogate whatever humanity has merely happened upon, or has been imposed upon us as thinking humans, failure to accept the resultant clamour, and the antecedents, of this clamour for change. This is what constitutes a primal error, a deficiency in responsive capabilities, a condition of mental enslavement.
Change is not an absolute however, but is acknowledged to be the product of human curiosity, observation, creativity and transformative intelligence. Nor should Change imply, of necessity, the destruction of what is viable, what amplifies the virtues that already make us human, or bind us together in a common pursuit of the amelioration of existence. Where stagnation, retrogression, or diminution of those very virtues, those very progressive qualities that make even self-fulfilment possible, stare a people in the face however, then, surely, the imperative of Change becomes irresistible, and its horizons exert the pressure of inevitability. That immense call fell upon the shoulders of our comrade Chukwuemeka, and he responded in the manner we all know, for better or ill, but he was not found wanting in the hour of decision.
The errors of Biafra are what we hear plenty of. Only rarely, with dismissive condescension, are rightly attributed those achievements against overwhelming odds that gave rise to that ancient adage: Necessity is the mother of invention, or even – Sweet are the uses of adversity. There were indeed cruelties here also, on Biafran soil, as on her opposing side, and there was needless prolongation of human suffering. Biafra became a byword for paranoia. There were policies that pushed Biafra deeper and deeper into a self-dug bunker, from where the world became a blank surrounding, closing in, despite apertures that were clearly visible to many, even from within. A leader must accept responsibility for all such failings, with perhaps the meagre consolation that, throughout the history of conflicts, and especially of conflicts based on a righteous perception of wrongs, such has been the fate of the beleaguered. But it would be a greater injustice from us if we fail in the apportionment of the positive, such as a rare inspirational leadership that held a people together and aroused an unprecedented level of creative adjustments, of practical inventiveness, the like of which has yet to be recorded on our continent. What a pity that policy and suspicion have led to the squandering of such bequests!
The regrets, individual and collective, the triumph of the dominance of human spirit, no longer matter to the man whose passage among us we are gathered here to commemorate, any more than the very questioning of structures of human co-habitation. He who lived to embrace, to share bread and salt with his once implacable enemies, is no longer with us, yet he remains among us. What we celebrate above all is that, in his lifetime, bitterness did turn several pages towards the chapter of Reconciliation but – has it truly brought mutual understanding? Let us reflect on that question carefully today – yes, a full half-century later – as we bid goodbye to one who did not flinch from the burden of choice, but boldly answered the summons of history. As the saying goes, the rest is also – history.