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Igbo independence and Biafran identity

In this essay we will take time to clarify some areas that seem to confuse some people in the on-going Biafra separatist movement in Nigeria. Over the years, as will be expected; the move for the independence of Biafra has undergone some transformations

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In this essay we will take time to clarify some areas that seem to confuse some people in the on-going Biafra separatist movement in Nigeria. Over the years, as will be expected; the move for the independence of Biafra has undergone some transformations. These changes seem to have created a sort of mixed messages in the minds of both observers and participants. So, at this point it is really important that we try to clarify some of the seemingly ambiguous aspects of the movement.

It is a fact that for some of the participants, those involved in the struggle, many are finding it difficult to come to terms and accept the obvious realities of these changes when they seem to go against some of their assumed or preconceived notions of what the struggle should be about. This is understandable. But in spite of the genuine appreciation of the position of these colleagues it will be foolish if we should ignore the prevailing obvious new realities and facts as they concern the movement. We can only ask that such individuals will be humble enough to find the sincerity and courage to acknowledge these truths and incontestable facts when they are revealed to them.

Right from the onset we take it for granted that all of us who are involved in this Igbo independence project are concerned with the noble idea and task of establishing a functional and viable society or country. With that in mind we will take it that none of us in this movement is in it for the vain pursuit of an imaginary kingdom based on the fancies of some unrealistic “united states” dreams. Such figments of unreflective imaginations are nothing different from the nightmarish one Nigerian concept, which we are saddled with now. Such unreflective idiocies must be avoided by all means if our aim is to succeed and not just thrive but prosper as a new country.

Igbo is a distinctive language, an ethnic nationality of 50 million, a people with definitive unique identities, a linguistic, cultural and worldview that cannot be confused or mistaken for something else by anyone. This exclusive way of life makes them who they are: Igbo.

In this regard therefore, it is necessary to state plainly that the current non-violent move (starting from the later part of the 1990s to the present, 2018) to separate Biafra from Nigeria, as an independent state is exclusively an Igbo project. It is an effort by the Igbo collective to establish a new country exclusively for and by themselves. And we must quickly add that this desire is just, legitimate and altogether wholesome.

Igbo people in Nigeria have specific autochthonous lands, which they have always occupied from antiquity. In these lands, from primordial time the Igbo have always existed there and passed them on from one generation to the next until this present time. It is the Igbo in these lands so described that want to separate their lands from Nigeria into a new modern country with a sovereign independent status.

It is in this fundamental fact that the key to an unclouded understanding of the scope or dimensions and the identities of the new Biafra and its people lies. This fact clearly defines the contrast that exists between the 1967 Biafran struggle for independence and the current Biafran independence movement. The two may sound alike but there is an unmistakable difference between them. In the 1967 Biafra, the lands and peoples of other ethnic nationalities other than the Igbo were included in the physical geographical map of the Biafran country. Indeed some Igbo lands were excluded in the map of the old Biafra. But in this new Biafra it is only the Igbo ethnic nationality and their lands everywhere that make up the new country. As we go on with this discussion, this position of an Igbo-only Biafra will be further explained.

Relevant changes are often necessitated by prevailing circumstances, new knowledge and newly emerging truths. For the benefit of some of our colleagues in this liberation movement we understand that sometimes it is difficult to embrace necessary changes. Most often it is time that is the primary agent of these changes. In Stephen Hawkins’s A Brief History of Time he talks about how difficult it was for him at the initial stage to convince the scientific world to believe in his Big Bang Theory and how even more difficult it has been for him to dissuade the same group of scientists from believing in many aspects of the same theory.

But the truth is that new knowledge and truths will sometimes emerge to supplant former truths or ideas. It is therefore, not a sign of inferior intelligence or inferior moral standards to review or change one’s positions based on new knowledge and truths. Time and the people themselves must always continually determine and create their own realities based on their prevailing circumstances. And it will always take the painstaking reflective patience of the sincere and honest individual to find enough courage and boldness to accept new truths and new realities as they present themselves.

Alternatively, putting it more bluntly, we must say that it will be a fatal mistake when anyone especially those in the centre of the Biafran movement try to ignore or pretend that nothing changes with the passage of time or that such a fundamental reality on which hinges the total essence of the independence movement will be sorted out later on.

The circumstances that produced the two Biafras are not the same
We need to make it clear that though this generation of Igbo people take a part of their inspiration from the just and courageous actions of their forebears who rightly fought to be free as Biafrans, but the truth is that the Igbo of the on-going Biafra or Igbo independence movement also have their own unique reasons for embarking on this new project of freedom. Therefore this new business of Biafra or Igbo independence movement is exclusively the project of the present generation of Igbo people and will be fought and won on this generation’s terms and conditions. The old truism that says that every new generation must fight their own battles and win or lose their own victories could not be truer elsewhere than in this instance.

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Briefly, we must mention here, by way of explaining some of those reasons that differentiate the old Biafra from the new: In the past during the 1966 Pogrom the Igbo were not the exclusive victims of the Nigerian government-sponsored killing of unarmed citizens. The other neighbouring ethnic peoples or most of the other people from what was then known as Eastern Region of Nigeria were also among the casualties in the killings. And mostly it was the Pogrom that led to the declaration of an independent state of Biafra from Nigeria with the geographical map of the old Eastern Region serving as the new country’s physical boundaries in 1967. That country of Biafra existed from mid-1967 to the second week of January 1970.

Another important point to note here is that the old Biafra was declared along the then existing Eastern Region administrative territory as established by the British colonial administrators. The boundaries and identities of the people of this new country of Biafra will be determined by the indigenous people, the Igbo by themselves and for themselves.

Just like the presently contested one Nigeria, the old Eastern Region of Nigeria was an arbitrary creation of a foreign colonial power without any due consultation with the natives or consideration of the differences that existed among the native peoples who would be compelled to deal with the consequences of the actions. As it is in Nigeria, the old Eastern Region was made up of peoples with incongruent and irreconcilable worldviews and national aspirations who were forced by the force of colonialism to mix together their fortunes and destinies in one political and administrative structure without the benefit of a commonality of cultural and historical antecedent or heritage which serves to bind a people together and enable them to live in harmony and a progress-promoting environment.

The new Biafra

Due to the continued mistreatment of the Igbo in Nigeria starting from 1970 when the Biafran-Nigerian War ended; the well-documented and publicised marginalisation, persecution and complete exclusion of the Igbo from Nigerian commonwealth and all the affairs of the Nigerian state, a group of Igbo people (known as Ekwenche Research Organisation in the United States) decided in 1996/1997 to revive the quest for the independence of Igbo people from the Nigerian state.

Over the years this quest has evolved but its core agenda remains the same – the determined separation of the Igbo nation and land from Nigeria.

It is important that no one should miss or mix up this fundamental agenda because that is what gives the movement its nature, structure and dimensions. Except the Igbo, this new Biafra has nothing to do with any other ethnic groups in Nigeria, for obvious reasons.

Generally speaking, though the Igbo are adventurous and outgoing, they are not known to be imperialistic or to covet the fortunes, stations or places of other people. It is this national trait of the Igbo, which informs the continued survival of the Igbo practice and reverence for Ikenga Igbo – a belief in the supreme importance of individuals’ personal achievement. The Igbo thrives better when they have the exclusive control of their own space and destiny.

Just as we the Igbo are not interested in the possession or in the sharing of our neighbours’ good fortunes as a result of common citizenship of the same country, we are not pretending to being the redeemers or saviours of these our neighbours either. The Igbo believe that each of their neighbours is capable in their own rights to save, determine and pilot the ship of their own state and destiny by themselves and for themselves.

In Nigeria the only group of people who is resented, despised, hated, persecuted, and generally considered, as the pariah of the state is the Igbo. Just one recent example will suffice here. On 6 June 2017, a group that goes by the name Northern Youth Coalition held a press conference in Kaduna and issued a three-month quit notice to all Igbo people living in what is traditionally known as the northern region. This area covers about 70 percent of the physical map of what is known as Nigeria.

The quit notice, which was backed by the government and people of the north is quite explicit and specifically issued to the Igbo people. In the document that the group read at the press conference it explained clearly why the quit notice was exclusively for the Igbo and not inclusive of other ethnic members of the Nigerian union.

For the sake of emphasis it needs to be repeated here that over the years that the non-acceptance of Igbo people in Nigeria has remained a consistent systemic and systematic programme of both the government and the private citizens of Nigeria. This programme is not lost on Igbo people therefore, the people have made an immutable resolve to move out from Nigeria and form their own separate sovereign independent state. This resolve is also based on the universally accepted principle of Self Determination as the right of all peoples everywhere.

We need to remind our readers that we believe in the unity of all human peoples everywhere, but we are aware of the fact that not all forms of unity are good for all peoples everywhere. Without looking far to illustrate this point we can only invite our readers to take a quick look at the disastrous unity of one Nigeria. From the Nigerian example it is very clear that the only unity that succeed are those that are based on the understanding that such a people that are being united have a unified sense of purpose, that such a people are united in the common pursuit of unified national aspirations, and yoked together in their common cultural ways and worldviews.

With this conviction that not all forms of unity promote strength, harmony and progress, Igbo people categorically reject any unity that is just for the sake of it. In our opinion, nothing can be weaker than all forms of unity that lack the basic ingredients that foster harmony and progress but instead promote resentment, hatred, death and intolerance.

It is for this reason that we know that any new Biafra that will not take these historical facts and realities into consideration is equally doomed from the start just like the one Nigeria which we are fighting to be extricated from.

At this juncture we need to reassure all Igbo neighbours who are living in the contiguous lands around the Igbo, that we recognise the fact that they too may have their own issues or misgivings about the Nigerian union but we also know that just as it is in the real world, each group has their own unique challenges which is peculiar to them. We also know that just as it is only the one who wears the shoe understands where it pinches, the Igbo do not pretend to know or have the answers to their neighbours’ challenges as it applies to them. As good neighbours, the Igbo are always willing to work in partnership with their neighbours to achieve certain goals such as working jointly together to collectively extricate themselves from Nigeria.

Working together in projects of this nature does not mean that other ethnic nations should subsume their unique national identities in the Igbo identity. Should the need arise where the Igbo neighbours will fight alongside the Igbo to win freedom from Nigeria, it will never result in what some misguided individuals erroneously refer to as the “United States of Biafra.” The present Igbo independence movement is not pursuing any such thing. Despite its faults this present generation of Igbo cherishes with pride their unique Igbo identity which they are prepared to own and preserve while working on continually improving and modernising this their collective heritage to remain relevant and to continuously conform with the universal global standards.

It is in this light that we want to state plainly that this new Igbo-only Biafra will not be a closed society. Although the country will be an exclusive Igbo society and a sovereign country, it will also be an open society that welcomes all-comers from everywhere, without discrimination. For the purpose of emphasis we need to state that this Igbo country will especially be more open and welcoming of those who are mistreated, persecuted or pursued from anywhere. So long as all intending immigrants are willing to come in and be assimilated and ultimately become Igbo by practice and identity, they will always have a home in the Igbo country.

With this understanding it becomes clear that the kind of an Igbo-only state that we are talking about here does not mean a closeted extremist or intolerant state. No, it means a state where an oppressed and persecuted people can be and have their lives and properties and rights protected by a sovereign national power. In this Igbo state all people from anywhere in the world who are escaping oppression, persecution or any such thing can come there and find a home and refuge without discrimination.

In this state – an Igbo state, people of all colours and persuasion can come to this state to dream, achieve and prosper without any hindrances so long as they keep the laws of the land and respect the rights of fellow citizens. It will be a state administered under a continually updated set of predictable rules, regulations, laws and order. It will be far removed from any state where the whims and fancies of one person or a few clique of individuals prevail.

There will never be a reason to exclude anyone who comes into the Igbo state who will be willing to live and abide by the norms of their host society. Igbo ways and ideas are in full conformity with the universal standards and practice and all Igbo everywhere own and identify with them with pride and are ever willing to work hard at the protection, preservation and advancement of this their Igboness as a collective bequeathal to subsequent Igbo generations.

Lastly, we want to reassure all people everywhere that this pursuit to establish a safe haven (a sovereign state) for the Igbo who have always suffered resentment, persecution, discrimination and hatred in the hands of their neighbours is a just and legitimate venture and should be supported by all well-meaning individuals, governments and groups everywhere.

Commentator: Osita Ebiem
He is a social affairs commentator and rights advocate.

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Strictly Personal

As a continent, we must confront the emergency of our failure to learn, By Joachim Buwembo

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“As a nation, we must confront the emergency of our failure to learn!” well-circulated news clips showed veteran Kenyan opposition leader Raila Odinga saying, in reaction to the (lack of) preparedness despite accurate warnings of the floods that by the time he spoke had claimed some 200 lives in the country.

Baba, as Raila is popularly known, must have used the words “as a nation” advisedly for, at the time he was speaking, helicopters were evacuating (wealthy) foreigners from flooded sites as the Kenyan citizens continued drowning.

But Baba might as well have said “as a continent” because of the tendency to watch disaster coming and doing nothing happens in other African countries.

The question then is whether African leaders are doing their best to prevent or contain disasters and, second, the accurately predictable ones occasioned by climate change. The third question is if the best by African leaders is good enough.

If not, then the fourth question is what can be done without alarming the leaders who might become defensive and suspicious of those asking legitimate questions about the protection of life, property and infrastructure. The fifth question is how their capacity to learn can be created by the famous (or notorious) capacity-building workshops.

But, before proceeding, we need to answer a sixth question: Whether failure to learn is an emergency. Failure to learn prevails, otherwise we wouldn’t be acting like the hazards of climate change are unknown phenomena.

I spent a whole year at the beginning of the last decade flying into African capitals from my Nairobi base in service of UNDP and the International Centre for Journalism, training journalists on climate change reporting but, more significantly, lobbying and securing the commitment of chief editors to give priority to the menace threatening humanity.

And there were several senior journalists on the programme, ensuring that the major media in all countries on the continent were reached.

So, even if African leaders were occupied with “more important issues” than climatic threats to lives and livelihoods, if the media had kept highlighting the climate issues beyond reporting about big people periodically meeting in fancy venues to talk about it, the public would be demanding more serious preparedness by their governments. Having to endure senseless but predictable deaths and destruction of infrastructure is, indeed, an emergency.

The seventh question is, who will bell the cat? Who will tell the naked emperors (to be fair some are dressed) that they are naked?

A protocol official who was managing a visiting royal’s schedule once whispered his agonising experience when the foreign monarch overslept after sampling some local somethings, and the mere thought of disturbing the royal sleep was considered sacrilege by the royal entourage, yet the host counterpart was waiting and the clock was ticking away past their meeting time.

The protocol officer had to cause some commotion in the many-star hotel, causing a diplomatic incident to prevent a diplomatic crisis. It takes unusual steps to bell a naked emperor.

Yet the answer to the seventh question already exists: The African Union can, and should, bell the cat. The AU was not created to be a social club for naked emperors; it is meant to make Africa work. But Africa cannot work with the prevailing obstacles to its working: our “Emergency of Failure to Learn!” Don’t abbreviate it, those suffering EFL may think you are talking about a European Football League.

Only last week, Uganda’s National Environment Management Authority (Nema) announced to our largely inattentive public and authorities that the pollution over Kampala is approaching crisis level. The Nema boss reeled off some head-reeling data in particulates per million, summarising it by saying the air over Kampala is eight times above WHO’s permissible levels.

The authorities and public continued yawning.But the Nema fellows dutifully put it clearly that air pollution is now the world’s single leading killer, claiming six to seven million lives annually, about the same number Covid killed in two years, and far more than malaria, HIV, road accidents or anything you can think of.

Nema named Uganda’s top polluters that kill 31,000 a year as vehicles, boda boda, and domestic cooking (charcoal and wood).

When we overcome the EFL and start tackling our EFT (not electronic funds transfer but Emergency of Failure to Think), we may direct the huge electricity quantities we generate but don’t consume to free cooking energy for the urban poor and to mass public transport, thus addressing the identified top causes of death in Uganda.

Nema can talk on but, for as long as we don’t handle our EFL and EFT, their alarm bells won’t move us.

Buwembo is a Kampala-based journalist. E-mail:buwembo@gmail.com

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Strictly Personal

If I were put in charge of a $15m African kitty, I’d first deworm children, By Charles Onyango-Obbo

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One of my favourite stories on pan-African action (or in this case inaction), one I will never tire of repeating, comes from 2002, when the discredited Organisation of African Unity, was rebranded into an ambitious, new African Union (AU).

There were many big hitters in African statehouses then. Talking of those who have had the grace to step down or leave honourably after electoral or political defeat, or have departed, in Nigeria we had Olusegun Obasanjo, a force of nature. Cerebral and studious Thabo Mbeki was chief in South Africa. In Ethiopia, the brass-knuckled and searingly intellectual Meles Zenawi ruled the roost.

In Tanzania, there was the personable and thoughtful Ben Mkapa. In Botswana, there was Festus Mogae, a leader who had a way of bringing out the best in people. In Senegal, we had Abdoulaye Wade, fresh in office, and years before he went rogue.

And those are just a few.

This club of men (there were no women at the high table) brought forth the AU. At that time, there was a lot of frustration about the portrayal of Africa in international media, we decided we must “tell our own story” to the world. The AU, therefore, decided to boost the struggling Pan-African New Agency (Pana) network.

The members were asked to write cheques or pledges for it. There were millions of dollars offered by the South Africans and Nigerians of our continent. Then, as at every party, a disruptive guest made a play. Rwanda, then still roiled by the genocide against the Tutsi of 1994, offered the least money; a few tens of thousand dollars.

There were embarrassed looks all around. Some probably thought it should just have kept is mouth shut, and not made a fool of itself with its ka-money. Kigali sat unflustered. Maybe it knew something the rest didn’t.

The meeting ended, and everyone went their merry way. Pana sat and waited for the cheques to come. The big talkers didn’t walk the talk. Hardly any came, and in the sums that were pledged. Except one. The cheque from Rwanda came in the exact amount it was promised. The smallest pledge became Pana’s biggest payday.

The joke is that it was used to pay terminal benefits for Pana staff. They would have gone home empty-pocketed.

We revive this peculiarly African moment (many a deep-pocketed African will happily contribute $300 to your wedding but not 50 cents to build a school or set up a scholarship fund), to campaign for the creation of small and beautiful African things.

It was brought on by the announcement by South Korea that it had joined the African Summit bandwagon, and is shortly hosting a South Korea-Africa Summit — like the US, China, the UK, the European Union, Japan, India, Russia, Italy, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey do.

Apart from the AU, whose summits are in danger of turning into dubious talk shops, outside of limited regional bloc events, there is no Pan-African platform that brings the continent’s leaders together.

The AU summits are not a solutions enterprise, partly because over 60 percent of its budget is funded by non-African development partners. You can’t seriously say you are going to set up a $500 million African climate crisis fund in the hope that some Europeans will put up the money.

It’s possible to reprise the Rwanda-Pana pledge episode; a convention of African leaders and important institutions on the continent for a “Small Initiatives, Big Impact Compact”. It would be a barebones summit. In the first one, leaders would come to kickstart it by investing seed money.

The rule would be that no country would be allowed to put up more than $100,000 — far, far less than it costs some presidents and their delegations to attend one day of an AU summit.

There would also be no pledges. Everyone would come with a certified cheque that cannot bounce, or hard cash in a bag. After all, some of our leaders are no strangers to travelling around with sacks from which they hand out cash like they were sweets.

If 54 states (we will exempt the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic for special circumstances) contribute $75,000 each, that is a good $4.05 million.

If just 200 of the bigger pan-African institutions such as the African Development Bank, Afrexim Bank, the giant companies such as MTN, Safaricom, East African Breweries, Nedbank, De Beers, Dangote, Orascom in Egypt, Attijariwafa Bank in Morocco, to name a few, each ponied up $75,000 each, that’s a cool $15 million just for the first year alone.

There will be a lot of imagination necessary to create magic out of it all, no doubt, but if I were asked to manage the project, I would immediately offer one small, beautiful thing to do.

After putting aside money for reasonable expenses to be paid at the end (a man has to eat) — which would be posted on a public website like all other expenditures — I would set out on a programme to get the most needy African children a dose of deworming tablets. Would do it all over for a couple of years.

Impact? Big. I read that people who received two to three additional years of childhood deworming experience an increase of 14 percent in consumption expenditure, 13 percent in hourly earnings, and nine percent in non-agricultural work hours.

At the next convention, I would report back, and possibly dazzle with the names, and photographs, of all the children who got the treatment. Other than the shopping opportunity, the US-Africa Summit would have nothing on that.

Charles Onyango-Obbo is a journalist, writer, and curator of the “Wall of Great Africans”. X@cobbo3

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