On Nigeria, Biafra and the Future of a Nation

We say this a lot, that Nigeria has no vision driving it. But the truth is, there are visions driving Nigeria, they’re just driving the country in competing directions. There is the ‘one Nigeria’ nationalistic/free market based politics with a healthy amount of ethnic competition driving the whole thing. This vision of Nigeria is anchored in Lagos, with outposts in cities like PHC, IB, Abuja, Aba, Kaduna, Calabar, and Kano. It’s the general vision of middle class Nigerians, and includes the pro-center, pro-regionalization and whatever else crowd that may be opposed in the details, but generally agreed in a secular, united Nigerian state in the big picture.

There is the strong pro-Muslim, sharia friendly vision of a strongly theocratic state that exists as a vehicle of political Islam, and is tied directly to the transcendent beliefs of its citizens, a la Saudi Arabia (or Iran, for Shi’ite Muslims). The anchor of this vision is essentially the North, including Abuja, Kano, Sokoto, Zaria and co all the way to Borno. It’s also a mutated version of this vision that has spawned the cancer known as Boko Haram, whose methods most Nigerians of all stripes have vehemently spoken out against, even those who may sympathize with their ostensible goals.

There is the separatist vision who simply want the ship that is the Nigerian state broken up into separate floats free to do whatever they want. These are the ones who simply do not think a Nigerian state is a good idea and want out of what they see as a ‘British invention’ in order to make their own way under other political banners or arrangements, many of them based on some form of ethnic nationalism. This vision has its strongest base in the East for historical and other reasons, including the strong emotional resonance of the Biafran Republic as well as the real and perceived failures of the Nigerian state, but it also finds currency in the Delta, among the OPC crowd in the Southwest and even the Arewa folks in the North to a much lesser extent.

This is the crux of Nigeria’s situation right now. There are several smaller sentiments, like those who would return to our traditional monarchies, dictatorships, whatever else but usually they can be fit under one of the preceding banners. When the eminent statesman Awo said that Nigeria is a mere geographic expression, this is what he meant. A nation is not the land it exists on, a nation is an idea. The Jews were a nation even when they had no land of their own because there was a clearly defined set of ideas and in their case, ancestral ties that united them under the banner known as ‘Jew’. In the same vein, there was a legal framework backed by certain ideas that were codified into the word American which made them a nation regardless of the multiplicity of race, ethnicity and prior national affiliations that the people brought with them. The United Kingdom was a union of more than four nations under one supranation created by the British crown, which has then defined the notion of Britishness in a readily identifiable set of ideas, culture, values and institutions at the top of which sit the Monarchy and the Church of England. A nation is always a marriage of ideas, values and a vision. There might be tensions among it’s components (like US vs the South, or UK with Scots or Irish) but there is always a hegemony or dominance of the primary vision and ideas that represent that nation. But When you say ‘Nigeria’, other than the geographic location you referenced and the fact that there are a group of people who come from there, there is no set ideas and values which you are invoking.

You see, any sufficiently developed nation is the kernel of a civilization. Random city states became a unified Greek nation which spawned a Hellenic empire. A city on seven hills called Roma stitched disparate peoples of the Italian peninsula into a unified nation that spread Roman civilization across the world. Germany, France, Spain, Britain and now America have all spawned nations that expanded their dominant ideas into the world as empires. An empire isn’t merely a political entity, because if it were, America would not qualify. What it is, however, is the recognizable body of ideas which represent those people cast outwards to influence the world around them. Greek ideas of science, scholarship and art eventually put Alexandria, the most Greek of cities, on the edge of Egypt. Roman conceptions of justice, military service, statesmanship and the role and rights of citizens were so recognizable that Paul of Tarsus in the Bible invoked the well understood right of a citizen to appeal to Ceasar. In today’s world, people invoke human rights, liberty, democracy and rule of law, conceptions that say America almost as much as apple pie (even if it did not originate with them). So ultimately, a nation or a civilization rests in the minds of its people. What vision is in the minds of Nigerians? What do we inveigh when we call on that term? There is a Yoruba worldview, and an Igbo one, and a Fulani one, with stark differences in what they see in the world and how they see it. What is the Nigerian worldview? That is what dictates what we see in our nation and our place in the world, including our responsibility to it.

The people who agitate for Biafra today do so for reasons I can understand. They have little to do with Buhari,  (MASSOB was active for years since 1999, and Kanu started his rants long before Buhari’s presidency) although his presidency may have exacerbated things.  In truth, the Biafran sentiment never ever really died. However, the ideas it rests on are, to be a little generous, outdated. In plain fact, they’re just wrong. This isn’t the era when a tiny, majority Igbo nation is the answer to anything. It hasn’t been in close to 100 years, and not simply because the British created Nigeria. We are just living in a modern world where life demands a certain scale in order to be advantageous. Outside the obvious feasibility issues of a Biafran republic (land scarcity, port geography and dependence on Northern agriculture to feed and grow a population that long outgrew all but the most retarded person’s hope of situating them within the small space that would be a Biafran republic), there is the real fact that the vision of a Biafran republic is a reactionary step back into an imaginary past. Africa, with its fragmented ethnicities needs bigger, not smaller, political vehicles in order to achieve the scale of influence the world of today demands. A Biafran republic, as currently imagined, would not last a week. It took inhuman bravery, ingenuity and resilience to hold Ojukwu’s Biafra in a war for about three years and we know how that ended. I’m sure we are still just as brave, just as ingenious and resourceful. But no amount of ingenuity and doggedness will overcome reality. An Igbo proverb says that just because a lad is strong does not mean you should ask him to bear a boulder. ‘Biafra’ has few (if any) defensible seaports, no agricultural basin, and a too large population that is dispersed nationally right now which masks how untenable it is to bring and keep them all back ‘home’. Our abilities and resources are better pledged in the service of a cause which will not end in futility. We need to abandon the fantasy of ethnic independence and work towards bigger, more sustainable poltical vehicles. However, in the interest of stability, we can stitch those larger nations while giving full recognition and room to the complexity of their make up, something that our current arrangement does not do sufficiently. A majority Muslim, agrarian north can weave it’s own socio-political framework that lets it express the minds of its people with full autonomiy and partial independence, while pledging allegiance to a collective political front that also includes a highly industrial Christian south and West to the point that they may largely feel like different countries even though they retain a unified poltical banner (essentially a confederation, or highly decentralized federation). To quote a fairly popular thinker, the same rules for a lion and a donkey would be oppressive to both, which is the system we are currently laboring under.

The advantage of such a political arrangement is that it would be flexible enough to absorb radically different peoples without losing it’s essential character (The U.S started that way and got more united over time. The E.U. is evolving similarly although it’s a much looser economic vehicle). We could absorb more countries and more peoples and expand the network of nationalities and ethnicities that exist under that banner without losing the main focus of what it represents.

And what would it represent? Remember my initial position that a nation is a vehicle for ideas and values which are recognizable to all who belong to it? Well, what are the ideas we believe strongly enough and agree with each other enough, that are also transcendental enough to build our nation on? There are a few, which can be tested out through dialogue and congresses held across the nation in order to create a national constitution that captures or creates a workable structure and foundation for the country. Personally I prefer a mix of Black nationalism and a Pan-Africanist Nigeria where all our micro and macro cultures are held together by a political union of a diverse intellectual and cultural aristocracy governing through an ethnicity based parliament with a prime minister who can only make decisions on foreign policy, national defense, international trade and monetary policy while leaving each component society to fashion its existence as it pleases. It’s a kind of mix of a federal, parliamentary and monarchical system where our subnations remain autonomous, but elect a ‘National Council’ or parliament to make laws in the above stated areas which in turn elects a prime minister who enforces that law. At the same time, we could create an entirely new office of Head of State and elected Monarch which would be a lifetime position with a mandate simply to culturally represent and reinforce the idea of a united Nigerian nation, absent any individual ethnic allegiance. Even his/her royal name might be abstracted to reflect that, for instance it could be named His or Her Royal Highness Wazobia I, Head of State of Nigeria. And I unashamedly prefer the Nigerian state so constituted to spread its influence across the continent.That is just my idea. I don’t assume it’s the best or that it answers all the questions of our national existence, but that’s the point of constitutional congresses and deliberations.

Every nation labors under an imperative it tries to actualize. China’s imperative is to be the master of the Orient, and build its status as a world power. Germany and UK compete for European (and in the past, global) industrial and economic hegemony. America’s imperative at the moment is to maintain it’s freedom at home and it’s economic, intellectual and military dominance globally. Nigeria’s natural imperative is to be the Black world’s Big Brother. The African continent and the entire Black world is our domain. Our foundational principle recognized this, as reflected in the ideas of our fathers around our Independence. Our leaders once labored towards it, as evidenced by Festival of Arts and Culture, our material support of South African activism, anti apartheid and Southern African independence efforts, our interventions in Sierra Leone, Liberia and Sudan. However, as our economic fortunes and political stability eroded, we lost sight of that. So instead of banding our hands together at home in order to rise for the Black nation all over the world, we have focused on internal wranglings.

It’s high time we settled our situation at home, crafted a vehicle that welcomes all our diverse people into a politically stable union, and focused on the real work of building a nation that can actualize the ideals and interests of the Black world on the global stage. We are 180 million strong. We represent the Black world’s most realistic hope of a major power. Let’s get to that.

In case it’s not clear from all I’ve said so far, I want my brothers and sisters who want Biafra to understand one thing: I get where you’re coming from but that path is no longer enough. We, as a people, Igbo and not, have gone way past that point, and going back to it because of your frustrations with the Nigerian state is not the answer. The call of the past, like the subconscious yearning to return to an imagined state of innocence or glory is strong, but it’s a mirage. Ask those who fought in the War and lived under the government of Biafra (my parents and uncles were among them). If they will tell you (many of them refuse to discuss it but mine did), they will tell you that visions of Biafran independence might stir the blood, but the issues you imagine you want to run away from in Nigeria will follow you there unless you do the real task of solving them, working through them, and emerging on the side of the future. Nigeria can contain us all, if we get it right. Running away is not an answer, and it’s not the direction the world needs us to go.

The world demands and requires a united, diverse Nigeria that is stronger precisely because it’s differences are baked in and allowed to color it’s constitution while it’s readiness to do the work ahead is fully expressed and lived up to. We are stuck in the middle of that tunnel where we are neither united nor separate but the answer is to work and walk forward, not go back. We are not ones to run away from challenges.

I’ve said my piece.

Igbo ga-adi.(Long live the Igbo)

Obodo anyi nile ga-adi. (Long live all our nationalities).

Nigeria ga-adi. (Long Live Nigeria).


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