Senator Enyinnaya Abaribe, the brilliant and brave senator who signed the bail for Nnamdi Kanu’s release delivered perhaps the most perceptive and wisest speech on Igbos and Nigeria last week in Mississippi, United States of America (USA). Every Igbo who cares about the present and the future of our people should read it.
“What I will say here today may come as a surprise to many of you. For those that I will rub the wrong way, I apologize in advance. However, “Ndigbo si na owu onye nke mmadu na ghu ya ahu na agbata ukwu“. If I fail to say the truth about the existential challenges that we face today in our country Nigeria, and how we believe we should face them, then I would not be true to myself and to you who sent me to represent you in the red chamber.
From The Past To Today:
We can situate our position today following the end of the civil war in 1970. Igbos in 1970 were impoverished having lost an estimated 3 million Igbo souls in the war, with a ruined and destroyed landscape and infrastructure. Every Igbo man/woman with savings in the banks before the outbreak of hostilities were pauperised as the military government decreed that one would only get 20 pounds notwithstanding the amount you had. The indigenisation decree was passed in 1972 and no Igbo could participate since all had been reduced to penury.
Today the Igbo have the largest pool of educated Nigerians. In 2007, Imo State had more subscribers to the JAMB UTME exams than the 19 Northern States put together. In 2017, 56 per cent of NYSC members are from the Southeast. Our feat in education means that we now have the army to win the war of competition in a market driven economy. Since 1999, the Southeast states have been the best in all exams.
The largest group of direct domestic investors in Nigeria are from the Southeast. Igbo investments in property in Abuja alone probably has more than any other ethnic group. We are the most travelled in Nigeria. In all parts of Nigeria after the indigenous population, Igbos are the next largest group. We are the largest propertied class of all ethnic groups in Nigeria and despite all this confusion, we have grown the most economically since the inception of the current democracy in Nigeria. We have the richest and largest pool of Nigeria diaspora population.
Taking an example of Lagos State, Ndigbo form a large proportion of the economy of the state. We created the following from nothing; Computer Village in Ikeja; Ladipo Spare Parts market; Alaba Electronic Market; Balogun Int’l Market; Balogun (Trade Fair) International Market; Aspamda Market in FESTAC; Orile Market for house fittings & appliances etc.
All secondhand clothing markets in Lagos. About four markets. The combined turnover daily of these markets run into billions. Lagos State benefits by collecting taxes and now its economy contributes 56% of all VAT collected in Nigeria. Above scenario is replicated in most big cities in Nigeria. Go to Kano, Port Harcourt, Benin City, Kaduna, Sokoto, not to talk of Abuja. Ndigbo are very large players in the economy of all parts of Nigeria. I will return to this.
The Allure Of Biafra:
So, the question is, given all the advantages that we as Ndigbo have in Nigeria, why the clamour by our youths and others for a separate state of Biafra?
The present agitation in the Southeast for a sovereign state of Biafra seems very tempting under the prevailing circumstance given the manifest sectional approach to governance at the center. To some especially the youth and the disadvantaged it is the way to go and when viewed critically you cannot help but to agree with the agitators. Of a truth there is an obvious feeling of alienation within the Nigerian state today. But has this always been the case? Apart from the civil war and the pernicious policies of the military regimes, we have not fared badly during civil rule until presently.
Given that following the civil war, there seemed to have been a glass ceiling in certain professions in Nigeria where it looked as if Igbo should not aspire to. In the police, military etc. But we can posit this as the lingering effects of the war where the victor in a war finds it very difficult to fully integrate the other party they fought with into all areas. In the US for example, I understand that it took a very long time for someone from the southern part of the US several decades after the civil war, which they lost to break the stranglehold of the north for the presidency of the US. (Correct me if I’m wrong).
But come to think of it, Dr Alex Ekwueme became the Vice President of Nigeria barely nine years after the civil war. The glass ceiling was on its way to being broken! The military interregnum from 1993 led by the same Muhammadu Buhari put a hold on this. In the US, Germany, Japan, and other climes deliberate policies were used by governments to build stronger ties among groups and opposing tendencies. This helped to forge a bond within their nations. Nigeria seemed to think that a policy of benign neglect will resolve our problems. Of course, it didn’t, and that’s why we are seeing a resurgence of separatist agitation going on all over the country.
Fast forward to the civil rule era starting from 1999. Nobody would accuse Presidents Obasanjo, late Yar’adua, or Jonathan of what seemed like sectionalism as state policy. A look at the pattern of appointments by President Obasanjo evinced the fact of an all-inclusive government from all parts of the country. Same as President Yar’adua. President Jonathan took it a step further by appointing the first Igbo chief of army staff, first Igbo secretary to the federal government, coordinating minister for the economy etc. In fact, one of the criticisms we face today in Nigeria is to explain why should this agitation for separation be under President Buhari when it was not done under the previous administration? However, that criticism is not true. Recall that under President Obasanjo and Yar’adua there was MASSOB, which was managed much better than today.
However, you will recall that when this government came into place, President Buhari went to the US where he made a most unfortunate statement that was widely condemned at that time. He reportedly said that he doesn’t need to bother about the 5% that didn’t vote for him but will rather concern himself with the 97% that voted for him. I had at the time the statement was made raised concern that such declaration from an elected President sounds discriminatory and may create the impression that our elected President Buhari is sending a message to those who didn’t vote for him that he will be partial in his decision making. Unfortunately, it seems also that the people who are in and around the president didn’t advise him properly.
They left him to make appointments and take decisions that gave the impression that there are some parts of the country that are not supposed to be part of Nigeria. Little wonder that our youths feeling left out and not having anything to give them hope in Nigeria, started believing that a separate country would be better. But I say it is NOT. I will come to this later.
I recall that in November of 2016, after seeing how things were going, the Southeast caucus of the Senate sought for and got an appointment with President Buhari. Our discussion centered on the Southeast perception of not being part of this administration thereby giving rise to our people feeling disconnected from the government. We pointed out that it should be a cause for concern if a major part of the country is not represented in the security architecture of the country in addition to other critical sectors from the inception of the administration. We were promised that our concerns would be looked into. Sadly, this was not done till today.
Our country Nigeria is supposed to be for inclusion; for making sure that everyone makes his or her input into its affairs. Allowing such fairness and equity to prevail in a plural society like ours will make us a bigger and better nation. Today that is not the case. Either as a deliberate act as it seems or a willful omission geared towards achieving a pre-determined goal, Ndigbo have been pushed to the fringes of the Nigerian Union in so many ways by the present government. The unfortunate scenario is enough for one to ask the hypothetical question…. why am I here?
As much as the music of separatism stirs the soul, one must ask the question; is relapsing into a sovereign state of Biafra the optimum option or is it a restructuring of the state such that all the federating units would have greater autonomy in the mold of a near quasi self-determination the better option? When these two options are posed; a sovereign state of Biafra or restructured Nigeria, the position of most Nigerians as of today is for the latter.
Apart from the problem of even determining the boundaries of the state of Biafra and the multifarious and multifaceted problems a simplistic solution such as Biafra poses, perhaps it makes more sense for those who have tasted war to be a little more discerning when matters affecting their race comes up in Nigeria. Nigerians have been known to come together to use the Igbo head to break coconuts (apologies to late Abiola).
Despite the problems that befell the Yoruba race following the annulment of the June 12 elections, they didn’t seek to break out of Nigeria despite some of them calling for an Oduduwa country. They simply used the sympathies of other Nigerians to create an economic haven for themselves, which has led to massive relocation of industries by all Nigerians to Lagos and Ogun States. They also got the Presidency of Nigeria.
Our brothers from the Niger Delta have not sought to go away either. They also got the Presidency of Nigeria. However, we seem to be in the unfortunate position of seeming to drag the Niger Delta into a Biafra unwanted by them. The agitation for Biafra and how it was being prosecuted by IPOB has rather elicited hate and disdain for our people from other ethnic groups notwithstanding that they may have been nursing such tendencies. The agitation as championed by IPOB somehow gave muscle to traditional traducers of Ndigbo to spew out hate and envious vituperations. This was exemplified by the October 1st quit notice given to Igbos to leave the North by the so-called Arewa youths, which persons are yet to be arrested for hate speech and breaching the law. They claimed to be responding to our own hate speeches etc.
Indeed, other people seem to want to see us fall into the trap for them to use us to solve their own problems with Nigeria. That notwithstanding, we as political leaders from the Southeast were unequivocal in asserting that that the rights of Ndigbo to peaceful and democratic engagements must be respected. On this score we made it clear that no amount of threat will cow Ndigbo from consistently demanding for an equitable, fair, and just society within the Nigerian State. We also cautioned our youths on their vituperative calls and employed the Igbo concept of “bu uzo chu fuo Ufu, tutu ta wa Okuko uta“! This of course was misunderstood by other Nigerians as support rather than constructive engagement.
Why Not Biafra?
We believe that the best way to go given our situation today is to look before we leap. We must not be pushed to abandon our huge contribution to the modern Nigerian state. As we pointed out in the beginning of this paper, Ndigbo have been the single ethnic group that have welded the country Nigeria together given our way of life as sojourners everywhere in Nigeria, West Africa, Africa, and the world. I dare say that we make up to 50 per cent or more of Nigerians in the US. The question is why would we look to confine ourselves to a small landlocked entity when we have the whole of Nigeria to cavort in?
I have deliberately left out of this discussion the practical impossibility of even getting our brothers from the Niger Delta to go with us in this quest. Not to talk of the Idoma or the Kogi that we insist are part of us. One thing seems to elude our people when these questions are posed. We look at the determination of the present government to treat us dismissively and feel that it is well-nigh an impossible task to get our wish for a just society, but we fail to look at the historical evidence before us.
When the 97% vs 5% controversy erupted, I told our people that my people the Ngwa says that “Ohu afor abughi ndu ebighi ebi“. Governments come and go. PDP government lost election and quit the stage for this APC government. Who says they cannot also lose? Why are we then acting as if it’s the end of the world? The maximum any government can stay is two term totaling eight years. “Obughi ndu ebighi ebi“!
Restructuring is an idea whose time has come, and it will happen. Biafra should be a last option, only after every other avenue to realise a restructured Nigeria where every component part is allowed a measure of autonomy and self-determination fails. Let me state here that if the dominant view in Nigeria is for restructuring, then that should be the minimum that Ndigbo should demand, so that every component part of this country can substantially harness its resources and develop at its own pace.
Do not forget that the breached Aburi accord was about restructuring and today this call has garnered overwhelming momentum even from quarters that hitherto opposed it. Just recently former President Ibrahim Babangida, former Vice President Atiku Abubakar and lately Asiwaju Bola Tinubu and a host of others have joined the fray. Restructuring has become a singsong, which we must explore vigorously. Even the ruling APC has set up a committee led by Governor el-Rufai to bring about a considered view on it. Forget the fact that it was part of their manifesto. The fact is that the discussion is on, as it should be.
I recall that in August, the Igbo political elite, Ohaneze, Governors, National Assembly Caucus met in Enugu and affirmed that the terms of our marriage in Nigeria is stifling to everybody and therefore we must have another look at it. That position has not changed but has in fact been reinforced by the agreement by other parts of Nigeria that it is time to look at the matter as evidenced by the Southwest Political Summit where they endorsed restructuring back to the 1963 constitution.
To me the strident calls by IPOB for a referendum should be seen as a legitimate demand to compel the state to see the urgency of having a second look at our marriage, with the ultimate aim of enthroning equity and fairness, where our people will no longer be treated as second class citizens in Nigeria. Though the methods may be misconstrued, the true colour of the agitation would have come out had there been a concerted effort at dialogue. The agitations give fillip to the Igbo idiom…”Ma Opara emeghi nkpotu, agaghi ilughi ya Nwanyi “.
Our people are saying this union is stifling us, and we are making a lot of noise so we can find a solution. The solution I think can be found in a restructured Nigeria. The beauty of it is that while we can enjoy near wholesale autonomy, our people as itinerant businesspeople could have an unrestrained space in a larger market provided by a united Nigeria. We should not be swayed by what we think is the attraction of an exclusive opportunity to be provided by a sovereign Biafra. No. That would box us into a tiny corner, which has its own challenges, which would prove overwhelming as time goes on. This is a topic for another day.
Diaspora Igbos And Us:
One of the problems those of us who attempt to show a direction to our people at home is the near universal disdain that some of our brother Ndigbo in Diaspora have for our leaders and elected representatives at home. Nowhere is it more apposite than in this matter of Biafra agitation. While some of our brothers/sisters here in the comfort of their homes seems to urge our youths through their utterances and actions to use unconstitutional means and disparage other ethnic groups that which actions seems to alienate us from our neighbors and the Nigerian state, we the leaders at home have been left with the task of intervening in such a manner to dissuade the government from deploying the coercive instruments of state against the agitators. The aim was to stop bloodshed and waste of human lives. We have lost enough from the civil war. Those egging our youths on from here do not seem to appreciate this fact.
Most distressing is the labeling of those who disagree with their positions as “cowards, saboteurs, Hausa slaves etc”. This tends to discourage those who genuinely strive to lead our people through a very distressing period in our history as a nation. Nnia Nwodo as President of Ohaneze has been vilified for taking a stand for restructuring in Nigeria for Ndigbo, a position agreed by all of us in the earlier summit I referenced. Governors come in for bashing every day. As for us legislators, we have been called all sorts of names such as ‘legislooters’ etc.
Yet, when it came to taking a stand at ground zero, to bail Kanu; to reject the Federal Government ascribing Terrorism to IPOB, we are the people doing so and we never hesitated to say that agitation in every clime is constitutional. We take the bullets from other ethnic groups and the government for standing firm and demanding that Nigerians should be left to talk to each other about the best way forward without preconditions. We would use this opportunity plead with our internet warriors who stay here in their comfort zone here that our Igbo say, “ma Opara nzuzu adighi nwuo, Opara ma izu aga beghi ibichi ezi“.
Some Final Thoughts:
Why are we not Investing at Home? Lack of Infrastructure. Should we continue to blame the Federal Government for the dilapidated infrastructures in Ala Igbo? What of our home governments in Igbo States? Sam Mbakwe of blessed memory did not wait for the Federal Government before undertaking massive rebuilding of old Imo State. We think that we have not given our best to our people with the little we got.
Nowhere have we hurt ourselves and investment in Ala Igbo than in the insecurity pervading all parts of our homeland. Of course, the latest imbroglio in Abia especially in Aba and Umuahia has worsened matters. We run the risk of undoing all the efforts made in promoting ‘made in Aba’ that we had embarked on as a catalyst for growth in Ala Igbo. Industries have relocated from Ala Igbo to other parts of Nigeria especially Lagos and Ogun States because of the very serious insecurity such as kidnapping and armed robbery faced by those who invest at home. We cannot be looking for investors and yet make our place not conducive to investment.
Unemployment is the single biggest problem we have in Ala Igbo today. Before this time due to our domestic investments and industry, this was not a very big problem but due to the dis-investment going on today in Ala Igbo today we are faced with an existential problem in our hand. Diaspora Igbo’s have to assist us to also invest at home despite the problems and reduce the unemployment in Ala Igbo. Once we get Ala Igbo right the frustrations that fuel the agitation in ala Igbo will be dampened. What we have playing out in the world today is a knowledge economy. Oil is going out of fashion. As I pointed out earlier, we are poised through our educational exploits in Nigeria to dominate the economy of tomorrow. Why would we turn a blind eye to this emerging scenario?
In ending let me quote what the great son of Igbo land, the great Zik of Africa said about himself: “Despite the mythic heights to which he was raised, Azikiwe was nothing if not pragmatic, a realist, always conscious of his limits and ever eager to extract all that was possible from that limited horizon“.
May we be guided by such humble thoughts as we seek a better Nigeria for us all. What we should look for is a Biafra of the Mind like some have suggested in order to play our role in the emerging Nigeria that will come. © Senator Enyinnaya Abaribe