by Obi Nwaknma
THIS week, on July 6, it would be exactly forty years since the Federal forces launched a two-pronged military attack on the peoples of the old Eastern Nigeria, from Nsukka and Garkem, which effectively began the civil war in 1967.
The Eastern Region had seceded from the old federation of Nigeria, and declared itself a new country, the Peoples Republic of Biafra. This was a remarkable development, especially for a people, who had led the anti-colonial nationalist liberation movement, invested much of their energy to create a united Nigeria, and a modern nation state, basically coined the term, “unity in diversity” as the guiding principle of their Nigerian vision, and made remarkable political and economic compromises to ensure the emergence of a free, liberated, Nigerian state.
But the tide had turned from the January 15 putsch led by Emmanuel Ifeajuna, and mostly Igbo officers, like Chukwuma Nzeogwu operating from the Kaduna end, and the northern counter-coup of July 29, led by Murtala Muhammed and officers like T.Y. Danjuma. The death toll from January to September 1966 was horrendous. But its most remarkable outcome was the character of what has been described as the northern “revenge coup.”
It not only initiated a massacre of southern Nigerians, particularly Igbo officers and men, in the barracks, but the killing spilled into the streets, and into the private homes of easterners, living across the North, and parts of western Nigeria. The organized killings of easterners in relentless waves of the pogrom from May 1966 to September 1966, has been fully documented, and presented, first at the Onyuike Atrocities Commission in Enugu in 1967, and years later at the Justice Oputa Commission in Abuja in 2002.
It was in the backdrop of these waves of killings and great waves of return to the East, that it became quite clear to the Igbo particularly, that the very concept of Nigeria needs to be fundamentally renegotiated. But while Odumegwu-Ojukwu, and other leaders of the East were examining their alternatives in 1966, positions were equally hardening in Lagos, then the epicentre of Nigeria’s political power. But a slight possibility of reconciliation occurred when the Ghanaian General Akufo brokered a meeting in Aburi, which brought together, the key players, and the various factions in the Nigerian crisis early in January 1967.
The Aburi conference paved way to a number of keystone resolutions, the agreements upon which was framed, a sense of the new national realities, and the spirit of which still haunts Nigeria, for the Aburi accord truly still holds the true future and survival of Nigeria as both a federation and a country. The current clamour for constitutional review, and of restructuring, stems from the fall outs and distortions occasioned by the illegalities of 1966/67, that subverted the foundational frameworks of the Independence constitution of 1960, and the Republican charter of 1963, upon which a free Nigeria was founded and consecrated.
The Eastern Regional authorities went home from Aburi, and prepared for operationalizing the Aburi agreements, but what was seen to amount to a perfidious repudiation of the key elements of the agreement kicked the can down the road of an epic conflict. In the event, seeing that the leadership of the eastern region had dug in on its position, the Nigerian end peremptorily announced the creation of twelve states without consultation or plebiscitory authority, thus setting the tone for Odumegwu-Ojukwu, having been thus mandated by the Eastern Consultative
Assembly, declared the Eastern Region, the Republic of Biafra, with its sign of the Rising Sun.
The grim battles were fought, and the end came in 1970, and the peace settled on a “No Victor, No Vanquished” resolution. This in sum is the story of the most emblematic moment of Nigeria’s postcolonial history, and the event that continues to reproduce and haunt its meaning of nation, because the ghosts are not yet buried.
The Igbo, and much of the minority peoples of Eastern Nigeria, and the old Midwest, have since complained, and have variously, frequently raised objection to a sense of their lands as still occupied territories, where oil production activities have made many wealthy Nigerians, but left those on whose lands the resource is found, mostly impoverished.
It is quite remarkable that most of these areas in the former Eastern and Midwestern regions, which were the theatres of the last civil war, remain the most economically and infrastructurally underdeveloped areas in contemporary Nigeria, and mostly by deliberate federal government policy since the end of the war in 1970. As for the Igbo, much ink has been expended on their sense of oppression and deliberate alienation from the Nigerian polity, and the official methods that have been perfected to reduce Igbo significance and contribution, and the benefits of citizenship in the Nigeria to which they returned freely in 1970.
This sense of alienation was precisely what has inspired the agitations in the Niger Delta, and in the Igbo areas, where pro-Biafra sentiments have recently arisen, and whose more public face is a lawyer called Ralph Uwazurike, who has led the group called MASSOB.
The unique thing about MASSOB is its methods of non-violence, a means by which it has conducted, and indeed organized Igbo public opinion, to register their desire for either equality or justice in Nigeria, or peaceful separation. In my view, there is absolutely nothing wrong with the MASSOB position. It is a legitimate and democratic stance, and it is within the rights fundamentally enshrined in the UN charter in 1945.
The demonization of MASSOB cannot obscure this very fact, because, frankly, there is nothing absolutely sacrosanct about Nigeria. The only thing that is sacrosanct is the life in it, and the dignity accorded to that life. As part of its sweeping operations against various radical nationalist movements within Nigeria, the Obasanjo government arrested and detained Uwazurike, and Dr. Fasehun, Gani Adams, and Asari Dokubo, leaders of the Yoruba OPC movement and the Niger Delta Peoples Volunteer Force, respectively. The last two are not pacifist movements. The Obasanjo government nevertheless, released the OPC leaders, and only recently, as part of his gestures to the Niger Delta, the Yar Ardua government released Asari Dokubo.
One commends all that. But the question is: what about Ralph Uwazurike? Last week Senator Uche Chukwumerije introduced the question of his release to the Senate, and it was shot down. Ralph Uwazurike’s case again re-emphasizes the case that the Igbo make about discrimination. The Nigerian authorities often act, it seems, with deliberate intentions to insult the Igbo, although many well-meaning Igbo have never failed to point out that the silence of the Igbo people is not from an inability to act with ferocity.
It is that most Igbo are willing to thread the path of peace and reason, until it becomes clear that such options are exhausted. But the Ralph Uwazurike case, his continued detention is unacceptable in the light of the federal government’s general gestures.
He not only has a right to his beliefs, and to his freedoms, but given the non-violent nature of his movement, he cannot be said to advocate violence against the authorities. But it seems that Uwazurike is wrong, only in the sense that the federal government hearkens first to those who present their arms with their colours, against those who merely use their mouths and their wit in political agitation. All well meaning Nigerians must demand the release of Ralph Uwazurike, because it is right and proper that he returns home to his family and people.