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Radio Biafra: The challenges of Igbo identity, politics and integration

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Biafra“There is a new Igbo man who was not born in 1966 and neither knows nor cares about Nzeogwu and Ojukwu. There are Igbo men on the street who were never

Biafrans. They were born Nigerians, are Nigerians, but suffer because of the actions of earlier generations. They will soon decide it is better to fight their own war and may find an honorable peace, than to remain in this contemptible state of perpetuity. The Northern bourgeoisie and the Yoruba bourgeoisie have exacted their pound of flesh from the Igbos. For one Sardauna, one Tafawa Balewa, one Akintola and one Okotie-Eboh hundreds of thousands have died and suffered. If this issue is not addressed immediately no conference will solve Nigeria’s problems.”

Now, if you guessed who made the above statement to be a prominent Igbo politician or a foreign observer of Nigerian politics, you guessed wrong. The comment and the ominous warning was made by no less a person than Alhaji Sanusi Lamido Sanusi, former  Governor of the Nigerian Central Bank and present Emir of Kano. 

The above excerpt was part of a paper he presented at the national Conference on the 1999 Constitution, jointly organized by the Network for Justice at the Arewa House, Kaduna on Sept 11-12 1999. In that same speech, while supporting Balarabe Musa’s contention that ‘the Yoruba bourgeoisie are the greatest problem to nation building in Nigeria’, Alhaji Sanusi also remarked that the Igbo people comparatively have made a mark in the history of Nigeria, as the people who successfully prosecuted the first military coup in Nigeria and subverted the constitution, hence they should share some of the blame. 

However he also opined that the nation must realize that the Igbos have more than paid for their foolishness, adding that they have been defeated in war, rendered paupers by monetary fiat, their properties declared abandoned and confiscated, kept out of public sector appointments, deprived of public services and forced to remain in a Nigeria that denies them equity. In a nutshell, he claimed the Northern and the Yoruba bourgeoisie have conspired to keep the Igbos out of the scheme of things. 

At the time these comments were made, there was nothing really news worthy about it because it was common knowledge that the Igbo’s were not receiving and still does not receive a fair deal from the powers that be. The news worthiness was in the person who made the comments, a Northern Hausa/Fulani aristocrat. After the First World War, the victorious powers treated Germany with the same contempt Nigeria is treating the Igbos. But after the Second World War which Germany under Hitler lost again, the allied powers did their best to rebuild Germany. The same was done for Japan under the Marshall plan. 

Comparatively, Nigerian leaders have no sense of history. 45 years since the end of the civil war, the Igbos continue to be marginalized. Just when many prominent Igbo organizations are attempting to appeal to the conscience of our new president and other well-meaning Nigerians about the second class status of the Igbo’s here comes Junaid Mohamed with his idiotic and treasonable comments regarding the Igbo request for restitution and need for another war of secession. 

Talking about reparations and restitution, is it not a sign of double standards, that the Igbo nation which lost more than 2 million of its citizens during the three year war and whose local economies were damaged and their properties declared abandoned have continued to be marginalized and neglected while the Federal government has recently taken or accepted a $1.2 billion loan to rehabilitate the North East and Boko Haram victims? There are some Nigerians who have said the Igbos do not deserve any reparations for a war they brought on themselves. Yet the same people are not saying the same about Boko Haram, a group of Hausa/Fulani Islamic terrorists who are busy killing their fellow northerners.

The reality of our present situation is that many Igbos have come to lose faith in the ability and willingness of other ethnic groups and especially the various Federal governments to fully accept them back into this entity called Nigeria. 45 years since the end of the war, the history of that war is not part of our school curriculum. How can you talk about integration when millions of our young people have no knowledge of what caused that war and what lessons the country has learnt from it? 

For the Igbos, their one serious quest for the highest office of the land with the prospective candidacy of Dr Alex Ekwueme as the presidential flag bearer of the PDP was squashed by the same Northern and Yoruba political elite when they pushed him aside in favor of Obasanjo who had just come out from prison. A rejection and humiliation Dr Ekwueme will hardly forget. But it was not just Ekwueme; it was the same political cabal telling us they were not ready for an Igbo presidency.

Today, the number of Igbos in the federal civil service has been reduced or has remained stunted over the years. Right now the Yoruba’s who make up 18% 0f the population occupy close to 40 % of all civil service employees, with the 5 other zones sharing the remaining 60%. The same could be said of the defense forces where the North dominates. Just recently the president retired about 4 of the few Igbo Major Generals in the army, while none made the list of the newly appointed service chiefs. Despite having lost the war the Igbo’s have done their utmost to integrate themselves into the socio-economic and political fabric of the country. 

They have migrated to various parts of the country, setting up businesses and owning property, despite being harassed, killed, abused, and in some cases as it was with the Oba of Lagos, asked to go home or drown in a lake. But the Igbo’s, because they have experienced the most and have suffered so much have ceased to hate. Hate is more for those with a slightly guilty conscience and who by chewing on an old hate in times of peace wish to demonstrate how great they were during the war. It is the reason why the Igbo’s are the most adventurers and forgiving Nigerians, willing to live amongst people who once threatened their existence.

Today there is a sense of mistrust, despair and injustice amongst the Igbo’s which is quite understandable. In Jonathan they saw someone who they thought was a kindred spirit, even though he really didn’t do much for them. The rest of the country may criticize them for their voting preference but it was one based on who they thought will best represent their interest. Should they be punished for doing so? Some think they should, but it is my hope that despite President Buhari’s recent assertion during his recent visit to Washington that the 5% who did not vote for him should not expect the same preferential treatment as the 95% who did, cooler heads will prevail. 

While the Igbo’s complain of being discriminated against, other ethnic groups see them as whiners. In Nigeria, our socialization renders us ethnically illiterate .When you add a lack of humility to that illiteracy (because we refuse to accept the obvious) you get the breakdown we so often see when trying to engage in meaningful conversation about ethnic prejudice and discrimination. Studies have shown that groups or people who receive some form of ethnic or racial preferences , most often than not are oblivious to the complaints and concerns of those who are not so privileged. 

In Nigeria today when we talk about FEDERAL CHARACTER, we are talking about a process that is invariably skewed to favor certain groups. A good example is in 2013 when the Federal Ministry of Education released the cut off point for that year’s common entrance exam into Unity colleges. What it revealed was that in the name of federal character some states expressly benefitted more than others. Out of a ceiling of 200, the 5 south eastern states had the following cut off points. Abia 130, Ebonyi 112, Anambra 139, Enugu 134, Imo 138. The numbers were similar for the South western and South-South states. Comparatively these were the cut off numbers for some northern states. Zamfara 4, Yobe 2, Taraba 3, Sokoto 9 and Kebbi 9. The only northern state with a moderately high cut off point of 91 was Kaduna state. 

What the above figures tell us is the absurdity of the continued use of Federal Character, which in my opinion as one prominent Nigerian put it “a celebration of mediocrity” hence both the student who scored 130 and the one who scored 2 will be offered admission supposedly on merit. The northern student with a pass mark of 2 may somehow become a good student, but the point here is that he stands a better chance of getting a better job, possibly a ministerial appointment because of his ethnic group and the federal character principle, while his Igbo counterpart who scored 130 may remain unemployed for a while and may end up being a cab driver on the streets of Aba, Umuahia or Onitsha.

There are some who will say the Igbo’s once had the sway of the federal civil service and the army, especially before the civil war. That may be true but what is not acknowledged is that the Igbo’s just like the Yoruba’s embraced western education early and as such had a highly qualified, literate and educated personnel to occupy those positions. To compensate the north in terms of federal character, many northerners with barely high school education were given top administrative positions. That is not to say many of them did not perform admirably well, the point is that the Igbo’s got those positions by merit than by being beneficiaries of a quota system or a deliberate practice to take care of their own as is the case today .

As an Igbo man I have spent a considerable amount of time wandering what it means to be an Igbo man in a country that proclaims national unity and practices the principle of Federal character yet deeply divided by ethnicity and ethnic privileges. Years ago as a young college graduate, who graduated top of his class at the University of Benin, I tried to get a job at UBA (United Bank Of Africa ) but was rejected by the recruitment manager who told me that I did not have a degree in Finance or banking. Yet as I left his office I saw a staff member I knew from the north who had studied Islamic Studies. 

I tried to get into the Immigration service but was told the quota for my state was full. I even tried to get into the Navy but was also told the quota for my state was again full. Even here in New York I could not escape the prejudice, favoritism and the federal character principle I experienced in Nigeria. After I had completed a Master’s program in International Relations, having written a thesis on ‘Nigeria’s Voting pattern At the UN” I thought I could get a job with the Nigerian UN Mission. After attending an interview during which one of the interviewers told me I was the most qualified, one of the 2 positions available was given to   lady I am told who studied Theatre Arts. 

I am sure there are thousands of young Igbo men and women who have similar stories to tell, so mine is not unique. However it has become necessary to tell it as it epitomizes some of the reasons for this renewed agitation by some Igbo’s for Biafra and a possible secession. It is this obvious denial of justice, of equity and fair play that has given rise to these reactive, pervasive elements in the Igbo nation in demanding for autonomy and self-government.

Now despite the continued use of the FEDERAL CHARACTER principle which has not always favored us and our claim of marginalization, which to a large extent is true and incontrovertible, the question remains, has it reached such proportions that some through Radio Biafra should start clamoring for secession? The answer is unequivocally no. There are some who say the Igbos should close the book on lamentations. I happen not to be so inclined; hence I believe their lamentations even though real does not warrant all this talk about a new Biafra. Besides, public opinion among Igbo’s, if opinions in social media are anything to go by, does not indicate any appreciable support for this fool hardiness, despite the fact that there are good reasons for it.

There are several reasons why this venture cannot see the light of day. For starters the 5 south eastern states that will make up the core of a new Biafran nation is landlocked. We have no direct access to the Atlantic. Today as one Mr Kalu O. Kalu recently pointed out, Nigeria’s food basket is in the North. We basically import most of our food items from the north, namely tomatoes, onions, beef, goat, etc. Our agricultural industry in the South East is completely dead and moribund. We can no longer produce enough Cassava or garri, a staple food item in the south east. Our young men have abandoned farming. Everyone is now a trader. All we do is import all kinds of stuff and in return produce nothing and export nothing.

The above notwithstanding, our biggest handicap is our people and the quality of Igbo leadership we have today. If I may ask a rhetorical question: Who amongst our present Governors, ex-governors , ministers, etc. in comparison is equal  in terms of national stature, vision, honesty, integrity and sense of duty  with any of our post-colonial leaders, namely Ojukwu, Dr Michael Okpara, Dr Akanu Ibiam and Nnamdi Azikiwe, just to mention a few? 

Is it Owelle Rojas Okorocha, Governor of Imo state who according a recently online published report (true or false) is revealed to have over $1.5 billion in a U.S bank account ,after just 4 years in office or is it the former governor of Abia state T A Orji who is reported to have stolen billions of the state’s money  or ex- Governor Martin Elechi of Ebonyi state  and Nnamani of Enugu state, both of whom who have been invited to appear before the EFCC , just to mention these three? 

Who amongst them will be considered for future Igbo leadership? 

The reality is that post-Independence Igbo leaders such as those mentioned earlier do not exist anymore. In their place we have leaders who will readily mortgage their people and their conscience for personal aggrandizement and monetary gain. Today we have a new group of Igbo leaders who are mostly crooks, charlatans, cocktail sipping political prostitutes who would sell their Igbo compatriots for the right sum of money, contract or federal appointment. The dilemma and grim reality of our predicament is that the quality or our elected or appointed representatives are lacking in any appreciation of what it takes to be a leader. It is for this reason that a majority of the Abia people are invested in the present on-going election tribunal proceedings in the state. A new crop of leaders like Dr Alex Otti is what the Igbo’s need. A change of leadership, of foresight and of integrity.

When it comes to the Igbo people themselves, the Igbo nation whose star blazed brightly and persistently no longer exists. The present Igbo audience is fractured and disunited with the creation of more states out of the old East Central State. The ugliness of our politics and ethnic fault lines have also deepened. A few years ago the ex-Abia state Governor, T A Orji sent packing from the state civil service all Abia non indigenes, something that was unthinkable in the past. Even today in Abia state, as a result of the last gubernatorial elections, there exists a growing dichotomy and distrust between people from the old Bende region and the Ngwa community. 

A few days ago, an Abia State temporary Local Government council chairman in the person of one Ginger Onusibe is reported to have said a lot of people will have been killed in the city of Aba if the present governor had lost the election. This is what our Igbo politics have degenerated to. As expected the Governor did not come out to condemn that statement by his kinsman or even remove him from office. That says a lot about the caliber of leaders we have today.  I am told similar problems exist between various communities in other Igbo states, a development which is not a good recipe for the realization of the new Biafra.

Generally, as a people, the Igbo’s are their own worst enemy. Collectively as an ethnic group we are known to be incapable of agreeing on anything, unite behind any idea or project or follow one leader. We are an exceptional people, whose virtues of hard work and enterprise celebrated by us is the vices despised by other ethnic groups. Most times we are also guilty of the hate we attract to ourselves. We continuously pull each other down even in our individual families The Igbo man of today is a far cry from past Igbo generations .The paradox of our time in history is that we have more college graduates, but narrower viewpoints, more degrees but less sense, more knowledge but less judgment. We have multiplied our possessions but reduced our values. We talk too much, love too seldom and hate too much. We have become so docile that we let leaders like Ex -Governor T A Orji of Abia State steal our money, misrule us for 8 years, render us impoverish, ride roughshod all over us and still rig his way to the senate. As the saying goes ‘a nation of sheep will beget a government of wolves’. 

It is on the basis of this background that I join the many others who have come out to call on proprietors of Radio Biafra to proceed with caution before they cause a political backlash that will not do us any good. Rather than continue this fruitless and dangerous escapade, the station should rather concentrate on exposing the malfeasance of our leaders , educate our people on the need for them to look inwards and invest in their home states like Innoson motors has done and Dr Ogah of masters Energy plans to do in Uturu. The time has come for us to stop investing in places where they don’t treat us with respect or appreciate our contribution to their economy. Some of us build million naira mansions in Lagos, Abuja and other far flung places yet go home at Christmas time to our little village huts. 

We have more than 3 million Igbo children going to school in Lagos and its environs , most of whom if relocated to the East will create an educational and economic bonanza in terms of school supplies, new school constructions and more job opportunities for teachers etc. We have fully-owned Igbo banks that can relocate their headquarters to the east thereby creating a new financial haven. Let us clamor for the dredging of the River Niger, and the construction of a rail system from Calabar to Aba and Onitsha, that way our importers can make the effective use of the Calabar and Port Harcourt ports. It is also high time we get our priorities right by voting for the right candidates at election time. People with vision and integrity. Leaders who will put to better use our resources by building and equipping our schools, hospitals and the provision of basic infrastructure. 

As I mentioned in a previous article, we should do what the Jews have done here in the United States. To some extent they are marginalized. At some point in the past they received the same racist treatment as American blacks. There was a time after the Second World War when Jewish professors from Germany could only teach in black colleges. The predominantly white colleges will not offer them jobs. Even today it is highly improbable that a Jew can be elected president of the United States, though not impossible. Despite their small number, every politician who wants to run for national office must seek Jewish support to succeed. 

As a people they have invested in education. They have the best lawyers and doctors money can buy. They control Hollywood, and the financial industry. All over the country they have set up numerous Jewish organizations that provide all kinds of assistance to Jewish citizenry. Together, they have survived as a people despite being hated and despised in Eastern Europe, Western Europe and the Middle-East. All these they have done by looking inwards, relying on themselves, each other and their ingenuity. Despite being marginalized, the Igbo’s can do the same in Nigeria.

It is time all this crazy talk about Biafra should be handled with care. Even the Ojukwu, I knew and worked for as his aide would not want to be identified with this radio station, at least not publicly if he were to be alive today. For those who knew him, despite his love for the Igbo nation, Ojukwu was in his heart a true nationalist, who believed in the unity of the country. All he wanted was for every Nigerian to be treated fairly and for the Igbo’s to be accepted and treated as full Nigerians. Who knows, someday in future Nigeria as presently composed may cease to exist, because of our cultural, religious and linguistic differences, not to talk of the fact that ours is a geographical merger and marriage of obvious incompatible bedfellows.  

Not that I hope that it happens, but I see a situation where if and when the oil runs out, the north can say to us ‘to your tents oh Israel”, mindful that they never wanted independence or amalgamation of the North and South in the first place until the British convinced them it would be to their advantage hence a 5% Fulani ethnic group have continued to dominate a 25 % Hausa, 19 % Yoruba and 18% Igbo ethnic nationalities as well as the entire Nigeria’s political landscape since independence. If and when the north decides to leave with the Yoruba following suit as we have nothing much in common, our Biafra may then become a reality, but not anytime soon. 

It is therefore imperative and incumbent on our present and future Igbo leaders to develop the economies of the South Eastern states, explore, repair and forge relations with the South-South, improve local revenue sourcing and stop going cap in hand all the time to the federal government for funds. More important there should be an increased demand and clamor for Nigeria to practice true federalism because the version of federalism we are practicing today is a sham. It is my belief that true federalism will cure most of our political problems in addition to giving every ethnic group a degree of autonomy and self-governance. It is also my fervent hope that someday the President or the National Assembly will pass a law to officially remove the term “State of Origin” from our national discourse, our employment forms and in all forms of officialdom where it raises its ugly head and replace it with ‘Place of Birth”, so as to enhance real  integration. Let us de-emphasize statehood and emphasis one’s place of birth. 

An Igbo child born in Sokoto and who even speaks Hausa should be able to say, I am from Sokoto state but of Igbo origin. Vice versa, a child born of Yoruba parents in Enugu state should be able to claim citizenship of that state, get a job and even contest for elective office. Some may say I am day dreaming, but it is possible. All we need is the courage of our leaders to act and the magnanimity of Nigerians to accept the new reality. It is what obtains here in the United States and it has worked well for them. 

Former American Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton was born in Chicago, married a man called Bill Clinton from the state of Arkansas, contested for the US Senate from New York after living there for one year to establish residency and now contesting for the democratic party nomination for President. We might as well copy the good things about their system since we have decided to practice their presidential form of governance.  If we can find the courage to do just this one single act, we will reap a bountiful harvest of ethnic and national contentment and maybe, just maybe, there will be less talk about Biafra, if the federal government will in addition address the issue of marginalization by the Igbos, implement some reparations and restitution of the South east as is presently being done for the North east suffering from the Boko Haram attacks. 

All they need to address is the underlying issues and reasons behind this new and intensified agitation for Biafra than hoping the issue will suddenly go away for it will not. An aggrieved people will never continue to remain silent subdued and patient. History has shown that such pent up grievance have a way of turning to violence. A man who is held down cannot remain on the ground forever, at some point he will make an effort to stand up, assisted or by the will power of force if necessary. Hopefully Nigeria’s situation will not come to that.

Nnanna Ijomah BSc, MA (International Relations) a resident of New York City was a former Assistant to Emeka Ojukwu; Nna2ijomah@aol.com

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