One of the concerns about liberal democracy in fragile states is its tendency, in the short to medium terms at least, to aggravate the structures of conflicts in such societies, compounding the challenges in the nation-building process, and even threatening the democracy project itself. The current democratic dispensation in the country has indeed witnessed an upsurge in the number of groups, which in different ways call attention to their alienation from the Nigerian state. I have elsewhere called this phenomenon a ‘de-Nigerianization’ process – the tendency for a number of groups to delink from the Nigerian state into certain primordial identities from where they seek to construct meanings for their existentialist crises. For such groups – Boko Haram, OPC, MASSOB and now Radio Biafra – the Nigerian state is the enemy.
My aim in this piece is to show that the hysteria that some non-Igbos feel whenever the word ‘Biafra’ is mentioned is unnecessary because such people appear to be wedded to only one Biafran narrative (that of secession) whereas the word Biafra actually evokes several narratives. The fact that Biafra embodies several, sometimes conflicting narratives, is one reason why it often evokes powerful feelings among the Igbos – from pacifists whose parents were born after the civil war to those who did not feel that war was the only option left to the Igbos at the time.
The most common Biafran narrative among non- Igbos is that of a people who tried to secede from Nigeria. This is a fact of history. But it is also a narrative that is cast in the simplistic binary of the ‘good guys’ versus the ‘bad guys’. Since history is usually written from the perspective of the winners, the ‘good guys’ in this narrative are those who were on the federal side while the ‘bad guys’ are those who were on the Biafran side.
Biafra is equally a metaphor for alienation from the Nigerian state –without necessarily implying a real desire to delink from the state. When some Igbos talk of Biafra with nostalgia, they could be using it as a code for expressing their alienation from the Nigerian state. I have in several write ups argued that the fundamental problem of the country is the crisis in the country’s nation-building, which has led to a rapid ‘de-Nigerianization’ process. Here the tendency would often be to romanticize Biafra by talking of the El Dorado it would have been if it had succeeded or by exaggerating the innovations and survival strategies in the short-lived Republic. But I do not believe that alienation from the Nigerian state necessarily leads to a desire to de-link from that state – even if the alienated group proclaims secession as its objective. I believe that many separatist groups in the country have a rather inchoate agenda and that threats of separation are sometimes stratagems employed by several groups in the country for bargaining or to call attention to certain conditions. In this sense, part of the Biafran narrative is calling attention to frustrations – without necessarily seriously wanting to de-link from the Nigerian state.
I was born in Oturkpo, Benue state. At the end of the war, my mother returned to Otukpo to sell our house there. I recall her telling us stories of how the rents collected in the house were handed over to her, how her friends gathered to cry and rejoice when she returned after the war and how various sums of money were raised by her old community in Otukpo to help her make a fresh start. There are several such stories of compassion all over Nigeria at the end of the war to help the Igbos, who were then severely disadvantaged, to make a new beginning. This too is part of the Biafran narrative.
Biafra is also about the defeat in war of a hugely proud people, who consider themselves extremely resourceful, if not invincible. Every group of course believes it is the best in several things or has the best culture. But among the Igbos, achievement is revered – which is why it is often called an achievement-oriented culture. In this type of culture, failure is not regarded as an option. This obviously has its flipsides such as a desire to succeed or to be seen to be succeeding by fair or foul means. For instance, if you return home say from Europe or Lagos and say you failed in your business because the people there were hostile, your relatives are likely to retort: “Are you not an Igbo man?”, meaning that you ought to be smart enough to find a way of overcoming that obstacle. For a culture that is driven by such need to achieve and be seen to have achieved, it could be argued that part of the Igbos’ aggressive drive to succeed after the war was a need to compensate for that defeat. In this sense, when the word ‘Biafra’ is brandished, it is a cruel reminder of defeat for a group that sees itself as extremely resourceful. It is like mocking a good boxer for a defeat he suffered in a particular fight. For cultures that prioritize other values – such as community over individual achievements or taking life easy – defeat will not be as humiliating and traumatizing as it is for a group that is driven by the need to achieve and excel. This is perhaps why you also have several Igbos who do not even want to hear the word ‘Biafra’ (whether from their fellow Igbos or not). This too is Biafran narrative.
‘Biafra’ could also be a code for invoking solidarity among Igbos and others who fought on the Biafra side – similar to the way the Yoruba trace their ancestry to the mythical Oduduwa or the way African Americans try to use slavery and blackness to create a sense of solidarity and fellowship among one another or the way some invoke ‘the north’ to galvanize solidarity among people from the north or a sense of nostalgia for a supposed solidarity of the region in the past.
Biafra could equally be used in a neutral, non-ideological and non-political manner to indicate a dark period in our political history in which the former Eastern region tried to secede. Used in this manner, people eschew the ‘good guys’ versus ‘bad guys’ binary by recognizing that both in the events that led to the war and in the prosecution of the war itself, blames could actually go round. Those who use Biafra in a neutral sense are often uncomfortable discussing the war, knowing that war is a nasty business, that stuffs happen during wars and that it is perhaps best not to activate certain memories – on both the sides of the divide. For Biafran narrative from this perspective, one is often advised not to be trapped in the past but to learn useful lessons from the war and move on. For people who see Biafra from this perspective, it is not even necessary for Biafra to be used at all. Everyone should try to forgive and forget and move on.
What is obvious from the above is that the contemporary appropriation of Biafra goes beyond the secessionist bid by the people of the former Eastern Nigerians. Unfortunately for many Nigerians, the only Biafran narrative they know is that of secession and it tends to imbue special suspicion on any group that includes the word ‘Biafra’ in its name. Radio Biafra – just by having the Biafra in its name – on top of the hate speech it is said to spew – panics many. But it is wrong to believe that any group that appropriates the Biafra name is speaking on behalf of the generality of the Igbos or that the majority of Igbos subscribe to the version of Biafra narrative such a group chooses to espouse because there are simply several Biafran narratives.
I have never listened to Radio Biafra (I am not much of a radio person anyway). However my opinion of several separatist groups and those who use hate speech to call attention to grievances they appointed themselves to articulate is that they are often attention seekers who are able to mobilize those that are alienated from the Nigerian state. I had never heard of Mazi Nnamdi Kanu – the assumed proprietor of Radio Biafra – before the hullabaloo. Thanks to too much hysteria and undeserved media attention, the man has become a celebrity of sorts.
In assessing the official response to Radio Biafra, it is important to make a distinction between a separatist or secessionist groups (those who advocate secession and often employ violent means to achieve their objectives) and those who broadcast materials that could be seditious or use hate speech to mobilize support without being violent. Radio Biafra belongs to the latter. The Nigerian Broadcasting Service, the broadcast regulator, could simply have done its work quietly without the media hysteria.
Radio Biafra –despite its unacceptable methods – calls attention to the crisis in the country’s nation-building process. It also raises question about appropriate ways of dealing with hate groups without turning the leaders of such groups into heroes/heroines or driving their ideas underground.
The truth is that there are several groups that have literally de-linked from the Nigerian state across the country and which regards the Nigerian state as the enemy. Unless the crisis in the country’s nation-building process is resolved, solutions thrown at the country’s several problems will either be misunderstood or become also part of the problems.