In Alaigbo is not Biafra, OGBUAGU ANIKWE argues for separation of Igbo struggle for equity in Nigeria from separatist agitations for defunct Biafra Republic.

There are three major reasons why indigenous Igbo people should begin to resist the attempt to lead us to accept that the Republic of Biafra was an Igbo attempt to separate from Nigeria.

One: Biafran separatists’ quest for an independent republic complicates the legitimate political conversations the Igbo should have been having about their place in Nigeria.

Two: These separatist agitations (from MASSOB to IPOB) have unfortunately become a byword for wasting the lives of Igbo youth in Nigeria, and violently disrupting economic pursuits of the Igbo in most parts of Nigeria.

Three: The quest for an independent Republic of Biafra has continued to put a strain on relations between Igbo and distinct indigenous groups that make up not only the defunct Eastern Region but swathes of other indigenous peoples outside it as well.

My duty is to attempt to untangle the conceptual mess – and the danger – that the search for another independent republic by Biafra separatists has turned out to be for indigenous Igbo people, Ndigbo. 

I begin by asserting that, historically and geographically, Igbo-speaking people of Nigeria, whether residing in the South East or living as marginalised groups in Benue, Akwa Ibom, Rivers, Kogi, Edo and Delta states, share no boundaries whatsoever with what was known as the Bight of Biafra. To appreciate this proposition, and why Alaigbo is not Biafra, we have to reflect on how the Republic of Biafra itself came into being.

Origin of Repubic of Biafra

On May 27, 1967, chiefs, elders and representatives of 20 provinces that made up the defunct Eastern Region gathered in Enugu to deliberate on how their peoples were being massacred in the defunct Northern Region. At the end of their deliberations, they gave the Regional Governor,  Col. Chukwuemeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu, a mandate to proclaim the region as a sovereign state to be called the Republic of Biafra. Apart from representatives from the Igbo heartland, signatories to that mandate also included elders, chiefs and representatives from non-Igbo provinces of Annang, Calabar, Degema, Eket, Ogoja, Opobo, Port Harcourt, Uyo and Yenagoa. The name of the new Republic, Biafra, was incidentally suggested by Chief Frank-Opigo, an Ijaw traditional leader who was also administrator of Yenagoa Province. This name was well received largely because it could not be claimed by any of the distinct indigenous peoples in the region. 

The leaders of the Region agreed to work together because of the indiscriminate assault and murder of easterners in Northern Nigeria, which heightened with the countercoup of July 1966. It was therefore easy for all ethnic groups in the region to unite in a common self-preservation effort. However, federal authorities immediately put a knife on their unity by dividing the region into three autonomous states (South Eastern, East Central, and Rivers) and appointing military and civilian administrators to run them. Subsequent clashes between the 20 Biafran administrators and the three Nigerian Nigerian governors of the same region accounted for the sad stories that we often hear from indigenous peoples on how they were treated during the war. Many of them blame Igbos for their woes, often without properly appreciating to the context in which the war was being strategically prosecuted by both sides.

From the foregoing, it is easy to see that Biafra is not exclusively Igbo. Today, we read nonsensical efforts by misguided Igbo to make Biafra look like an Igbo word, deriving from Bia (come) and fra (which they translate as “take”). These efforts are exactly what they are – nonsensical. Biafra remains a Portuguese word taken from the name of an open bay in the Atlantic coast, which was listed in world maps as Bight of Biafra. Based on location, the Bight of Biafra (renamed Bight of Bonny after the war) encompasses contiguous coasts in today’s South-South region of Nigeria, Cameroon, Equatorial Guinea, and northern Gabon. In the South-South region, the indigenous peoples who live facing this coast are non-Igbo ethnic groups from Cross River, Akwa Ibom, Bayelsa and parts of Delta.

Alaigbo shares no boundaries with Biafra

The Igbo heartland shares no boundaries whatsoever with the bay called Biafra. This is why it should worry every indigenous Igbo that, once again, recent history and contemporary texts now conflate Biafra not only as an Igbo word but also as an exclusive Igbo bid to separate from Nigeria. It is exactly the same way that the January 1966 coup d’état was successfully sold to the world as an “Igbo coup” leading to the great burden that every Igbo person bears today in Nigeria. The current attempts to contract Biafra to a sole Igbo Project is not helped by the energetic exertions of Igbo separatist agitators, from MASSOB  to IPOB. These separatist efforts have unwittingly conflated legitimate Igbo political quest for equity and justice in the Nigerian federation and the quest for restoration of a vanquished Republic. It is therefore time to disengage the Igbo quest for justice and equity in the Nigerian federation from this conflation.

In doing so, let the fact be proclaimed that Alaigbo is not Biafra. The Igbo only briefly shared this name with various other indigenous ethnic groups of the former Eastern Region during the tragic 30-month Nigerian Civil War. In other words, Igbos and their neighbors got roped into the Biafran association through an accident of history. It should therefore worry every Igbo person that recent history and texts are incorrectly referring to Biafra as an exclusive “Igbo attempt” to break away from Nigeria, an unfortunate development that is being fueled by separatist agitation. The circumstances of Gen. Ojukwu’s prior multi-ethnic quest for a just and equitable Republic of Biafra are remarkably different from current demands by indigenous Igbo people for equity and justice in the Nigerian federation. Every effort should therefore be made to henceforth separate the two: It is dangerous to continue to allow legitimate Igbo demand for justice and equity in the Nigerian system to be interpreted by Nigeria as a quest for Igbo territorial expansion or worse, as another attempt at secession of indigenous Igbo and her unwilling neighbors from Nigeria. 

There are three reasons why it is dangerous for Ndigbo who seek equity and justice being denied them in Nigeria to continue to use the name of Biafra to prosecute their demand. First, have we forgotten that the Republic of Biafra was defeated in a war and that leaders of the defeated republic agreed to erase the name from the Nigerian map? Was it not the late Major-Gen. Philip Effiong who, on behalf of the secessionists, minced no words when he declared that, with effect from January 15, 1970, “the Republic of Biafra, hereby ceases to exist”? Didn’t Effiong sign the instrument of surrender that ended the 30-month war, and the Republic of Biafra? Second, did we forget that Nigeria further obliterated any traces of this name from the history books by renaming the former Bight of Biafra as Bight of Bonny? And third, didn’t the Supreme Leader of the republic himself, Gen. Odumegwu-Ojukwu, declare on his return from exile that we should forever perish the thought of pursuing another physical Biafran Republic? Did he not recommend, instead, that we should pursue a rapid development of Igboland in the spirit of Biafra, what he called the “Biafra of the mind”?

Challenge of separatist rhetoric

The challenge we face today is from separatist groups that have refused to leave the past. They still dream of a united, post-war, multi-ethnic republic and are even casting further afield for territories to add to the original Eastern Region. Living in the past is not bad, if this results in current and future efforts concentrated on rebuilding and consolidating Igbo cultural identity, Igbo economy and infrastructure, and refining and improving on past Igbo scientific and technological breakthroughs. Incidentally, all of this can be achieved without separatist or any other type of violent agitations. Separatists continue to get it wrong and to needlessly endanger Igbo indigenous people with their impatient rhetoric and bravado. They progress in error by using violent – and virulent – rhetoric to seek to disengage their “Biafra” from Nigeria, ignoring the reality that Igbos have other separate and distinct indigenous neighbors who are no longer part of the defunct Eastern Region. Separatist rhetoric denies these neighbours the respect and recognition they deserve as independent peoples with different cultures and ways of life. It also fails to realise that our collective histories have cut the ties that previously bound the Igbo with their neighbors in the former Eastern Region.

History is important. Just as the Igbo look back to their past and feel justified anger on how Nigeria has treated and continues to treat them, each of their neighbours also has a past that they rue today. This past, for example, fills our Anioma cousins with great sorrow when they think of the bestiality visited on them by federal forces during the war. In the same way, Ikwerres believe that they suffered during the war because of their perceived filial relationship with the Igbo. Efiks and Ibibios have their own stories of woe to tell about mistreatment by Biafran soldiers during the War. Taken together, the Igbo and her neighbours deserve a space to reflect on their past and to decide on how they will vote whenever Nigerians agree or are forced to agree to a referendum on the future of their union. For each group, this decision should neither be stampeded nor should it be tied to an emotional return to a dead Republic.

There is a more urgent reason why Igbos should think twice about romanticizing about the painful past. It is true that our neighbours suffered a lot from the Biafran misadventure. Still, nothing in our neighbours’ experiences compares to what the Igbo ethnic group suffered – and has continued to suffer – by foolishly clinging to this accursed name. Has it not become clear to everyone that Biafra is now a metaphor for Igbo genocide, massacres and youth elimination that have continued to this day? In the name of Biafra, the Igbo were killed in their hundreds of thousands in the 1960s, leading up to a civil war that claimed an estimated three million more lives. Today, the agitation for Biafra has become an excuse for federal security forces to spill the blood of unarmed indigenous Igbo youths. The assault and killings persist principally because of those who are launching self-concept battles for a phantom indpendent Republic, battles that are easilytermed as secessionist attempts and efforts at Igbo territorial expansion. Foolishness is carrying out the same actions that fail time and again, expecting a different outcome each time.

The battle for Justice in Alaigbo

The battle to ensure that Nigeria treats Igbos justly and equitably will succeed more from a united political and economic effort than from a violent struggle without arms or strategy. Rather than well-thought-out political and economic strategies to redress what the world already recognizes as injustices and inequity visited on Igbo indigenous people in the Nigerian federation, why continue with self-concept battles that not only continue the violence against the Igbo but also undermine local and international media and political pressures? The battle is better fought on the politcal than on a military plane. The ground for equity or separation is also being watered by a bumbling and nepotistic leadership, promoting a common, multi-ethnic pursuit of the same goal.

At the end of the day, I should think that the last thing the Igbo want today is to be caught unprepared, not ready to hit the ground running, should separation become inevitable. And separation will surely come to Nigeria, even if this takes another hundred years to be actualized. In anticipation of this eventuality, we see meticulous preparation by the core North and from our brothers in the West, while others indigenous groups bicker among themselves or indulge in self-concept battles. And so we ask: At what point should the Igbo detach from chasing the quixotic windmill called Biafra and squarely face the challenge of developing Alaigbo? And without further waste of the youth manpower we need for the onerous task ahead?