3rd December, 2015
By Henry Chukwuemeka Onyema
There are people, both Nigerians and non-Nigerians, who are using the recent pro-Biafra agitations in parts of Nigeria as an opportunity to express their vitriolic hatred for the Igbo. You only need to read some of their stuff both online and in print to realize that, if they could, they would continue the July-September 1966 massacres of the Igbo until the ethnic group ceases to exist. For these set of people, the Igbo are Nigeria’s problem and the final situation just might be the ultimate of all measures drawn up since the British colonial days to reduce the Igbo to hewers of wood and fetchers of water.
To be candid, I do not think Nnamdi Kanu, Ralph Uwazurike and their groups have the solutions to the problems of the Igbo. The Biafra state they seek does not reflect the dreams of a generation of Nigerians who fought and died from July 1967 to January 1970. These people’s antics make me doubt if their Biafra will be a home for ALL Igbo and non-Igbo Eastern Nigerians, if it comes to pass. Their democratic credentials is suspicious. Ojukwu, even at the height of the civil war, never sought to grab what is today parts of Benue State by coercion or convoluted reasoning. This might be a kingdom-building exercise capitalizing on the very real and justified grievances of the Igbo.
But then every coin has two sides. Secession and separatism have been a recurring decimal in Nigerian politics since the 1950s. The nature of the birth and midwifing of Nigeria by the British and subsequent maintenance of the imperialist status quo by Nigerian leaders ensured that dissatisfaction and friction will reign in and among the entities that make up Nigeria. Once perceived privileges are threatened, secessionist sentiments run hot. Once threats of domination or radical altering of power structures are perceived, injustices become seemingly irredeemable. Then the dam of secessionist agitation breaks. Let us examine this verifiable historical record.
The 1953 Kano Riots which were remotely caused by the Northern People’s Congress, the Northern region’s dominant party’s opposition to Southern Nigerian parties’ call for independence in 1956 fuelled Northern demands for secession at the constitutional conference that midwifed the 1954 constitution. The dominant Hausa-Fulani political elite of the North were pacified by the British assigning to the North fifty percent of the seats in the House of Representatives. Between 1953 and 1957, the Yoruba-dominant political party, Action Group, also stoked the secessionist fire. Obafemi Awolowo, the Premier of the West and Action Group leader, demanded at the conferences running up to independence that Lagos remain part of the West or his people would secede. It took British intervention and the support of both the Northern and Eastern regions to excise Lagos from the West and retain it as the country’s capital and stop Awolowo from seceding.
At the conference that led up to the 1954 constitution, Awolowo called for the inclusion of a secessionist clause in the new constitution. Any region that wanted could leave the union. But the proposal failed because the three regions were not united on the issue. While Ahmadu Bello of the North supported it, Nnamdi Azikiwe of the East disagreed. In retrospect, did Azikiwe, the pan-Nigerian, make a big mistake?
The 1960s only strengthened potential secession as the independent country stumbled from crisis to crisis till the January 1966 coup. The guy who first gave military expression to his bid to take his people out of Nigeria was Isaac Adaka Jasper Boro. In February 1966, this Ijaw ex-policeman, Chemistry student of the University of Nigeria and radical, declared the Niger Delta Republic over much of what is currently Bayelsa and parts of Rivers states. The then Igbo head of state, General Aguiyi-Ironsi, had to send troops from the unit of Major John Obienu, an Igbo army officer who backed out of the January coup, to flush out the secessionists from the creeks. After 12 days, Boro and company surrendered. They were later freed by General Gowon and Boro died during the civil war fighting, ironically, for Nigeria against Biafra because he felt his Ijaw people would be dominated by the Igbo in Biafra.
The June 12, 1993 election and the crisis it brewed nearly led to the emergence of the Oduduwa Republic. Believe it, the Far North (North-East and North-West) might have seceded if the 2015 elections had swung in Jonathan’s favour. Lest we forget, when the July 1966 coup plotters led by Major Murtala Muhammed struck, their aim was to take the North out of a supposedly Igbo-dominated Nigeria. The British and the Americans stopped them because of their strategic interests in Nigeria. Gowon became the Head of State and his August 1, 1966 speech remains an eternal testimony of what might have been if the original coup plotters achieved their aim.
—TO BE CONTINUED
—Onyema, a historian and writer, is the chief creative officer of the 2-4 henritz writing agency in Lagos. Email: [email protected]