Skip to main content

Ndi Igbo, Leadership, Nationhood, The Nigerian Dilemma aAnd Why We Are All Biafrans By Chido Onumah

October 22, 2016

I am delighted to be with you this evening to share with you this momentous occasion of the 2016 National Convention of Anambra State Association (ASA-USA), the umbrella organization of Anambra indigenes in the United States.

I congratulate you on the milestone of your 15th annual convention and thank you for finding me worthy to share my thoughts on the future of our country, Nigeria. While this may be the state of Anambra convention, I believe, as you rightly noted in your letter of invitation that it offers a platform to discuss matters affecting contemporary agitations in all corners of Nigeria. That is exactly what I will attempt to do during this address.

The theme of your convention is, “Raising the Bars of Leadership to Maximize Progress.” Nowhere is this more apropos than in Nigeria, and Ala Igbo, in particular. Our country and people are in dire need of leadership and progress. As the most populous country in Africa, the largest concentration of black people in the world, Nigeria has let our continent and our race down. To buttress this assertion, at a recent two-day summit on anti-corruption in Abuja, a Kenyan, Prof Patrick Lumumba, a former Director of Kenya Anti-Corruption Commission, pointedly accused Nigeria’s poor leadership of being responsible for the continent’s failure to develop in many critical areas of human development. And many years ago, Chinua Achebe, one of Africa’s very best, remarked that the trouble with Nigeria is simply and squarely the failure of leadership. I shall return to this.

I am happy this event is coming in the month of our independence. It is equally heartwarming that ASA-USA has taken up the challenge to intervene at this critical juncture in our national existence by providing a platform to interrogate the Nigerian reality of the 21 century. Your efforts are worthy of emulation.

In the beginning

Exactly fifty-six years ago this month, the Union Jack, the symbol of the British conquest of the area that would later be known as Nigeria was lowered or so we thought. It took just six years for the outcome of that colonial experiment to unravel. Bitter rivalries among our comprador elite—civilian and military—and the major groups in the country led to a costly thirty-month civil war in which millions of our people died. In my opinion, it was an avoidable war. Regrettably, almost five decades after that war, there have been, as there are still low-intensity wars—or agitations, if you like—going on around the country. How did we get to this regretful situation?

To understand the Nigeria of today, we have to go back to the beginning. Like India, Nigeria could easily have morphed into three or more countries at independence in 1960. It didn’t happen partly because the British colonialists didn’t want it so and partly also because the emergent country was negotiated in such a way that, in the words of historian, Prof. Yakubu Ochefu, in the introduction to the book, Nigeria is Negotiable, “…the region with the least democratic credentials ended up as the driver of a new democratic enterprise…” Whether the historical trajectory of Nigeria would have been different if the reverse had been the case is open to debate, but one thing is certain: that process did not happen by chance; neither was it meant to be short-lived. I have argued elsewhere that in Nigeria, the British colonialists went beyond the pale in what colonialism was meant to achieve.

I have yet to see any other country where the twin evils of colonialism—the rapacious stealing and control of the resources of the “natives” and the psychological conquest and denudation of everything that held a people together—was as concretely manifest as it was in Nigeria. In Nigeria, it was “conquer, divide and rule”. British colonialists ensured that they brought the territories together while the people remained fiercely antagonistic to one another. Of course, without the rapacious incursion of the British, chances are that the different nationalities that were “conquered” to form Nigeria might not have come together. They might also have come together in one form or another. We may never know.

Since we don’t know, perhaps we are better off dealing with the reality of our current circumstance. It has been said that prior to the coming of the colonialists, pre-colonial nations, including the Igbos, had a well-developed and organised socio-political system that was egalitarian. All that came crashing with the advent of colonialism. Some people have argued that once that conquest took place, those nations that existed before colonialism lost their right; not just their right, but every right to assert themselves. It is the same argument that has been canvassed to support the view that, “Nigeria must remain one indivisible country”; that, “the unity of Nigeria is not negotiable”.

Another theory is that Nigeria gained independence on a pan-Nigeria basis after decades of pan-Nigeria anti-colonial struggle. While this is true in some regards, it does little justice to the bigger picture of what transpired during the colonial struggle and the period leading up to independence. Unfortunately, for us, the nationalist forces already depleted and weakened, did not gain control of the country at independence as happened in much of Africa. But the colonial conquest can’t be a sane argument to deny people the right to self-determination because if we do, it would amount to justifying illegality, crime and injustice which were the essence of colonialism.

Unfortunately, what this belief has spurred is the replacement of one form of colonialism with another. It is this “domestic or internal colonialism” that is at the root of the Nigerian dilemma. That is the basis for the various agitations across the country. To say that much of the troubles of Nigeria are rooted in the colonial structure that was bequeathed at independence would be a terrible understatement. But, there is a limit to which we can hold the colonialists responsible for our troubles. To continue to blame the British is to assume that nations are natural creations. The argument I am making is that nations come into being for various reasons and through different processes.

Of course, we were handed an inequitable structure at independence that needed serious re-engineering. But what did we the inheritors of a disruptive structure do with it? There was no way that structure would have evolved into a united, peaceful and egalitarian nation. While the structure was flawed, the political system of federalism seemed to have suited the emergent nation. Unfortunately, the clash between structure and system would implode the nation sooner than expected. It is in this crucible that the Igbo nation and other nations have had to subsist.  

Ndi Igbo in Nigeria

Like other groups, the Igbos were engaged in the tripartite quest to seize the heart and soul of the emergent nation called Nigeria. While their elite sought political power at the centre, the mass, eager to unleash its potentials, saw the entire nation, rather than a piece of it—not as an estate bequeathed to them by their great-grand father—as a veritable opportunity. Some commentators have tried to explain this “mass exodus”, attributing it to the desire to deal with the challenge of high population density; others have wallowed in the feel-good notion that Igbos are the Jews of Africa, whatever that means!

Once it became clear that the “Pakistanisation” of Nigeria was not going to take place, even if there were attempts to achieve that, the Igbos took the gauntlet and the great dispersal began. It is important to note that wherever Igbos found themselves, they tried to acculturate and excel. They were not afraid to mix, to intermarry, to learn the local language and secure a comfortable life. For those given to cynicism, this can-do spirit was more of a domineering trait, a desire to takeover and control their hosts. There is the argument that the Igbos did not extend the same goodwill that they received outside to non-Igbos in their homeland. Whatever the facts, I don’t think it can fully explain the so-called Igbo threat and, therefore, the anti-Igbo sentiments that gained traction over decades. That sentiment would have severe consequences.

Then the tragic events of January 15, 1966, happened and suddenly all hell broke loose. For a people who had been scapegoated for a long time, it was a convenient alibi to unleash mayhem on an entire race on a scale not witnessed anywhere on the continent. That incident precipitated the civil war and changed so many things, including the psyche of Igbos and their attitude to the Nigerian idea and it still does to this day. For many, that war has not ended. But this is not just an Igbo feeling. Even for those who declared “no victor; no vanquished” the feeling that the Igbos were the people who wanted to “break” Nigeria—and perhaps still want to—persists in official consciousness.

So our people have spent the better of the decades after the civil war trying to fit in, to reassure everyone who cares to listen that we can be trusted and that we are not the unpacified and pathological secessionists that we have been made out to be. We carry the forced guilt around with us. The bitter feeling foisted on us by the state persists. But that civil war ended forty-six years ago. It is high time we put it behind us. We should destroy this idea of victimhood; we are not the only people who have suffered and are still suffering “to keep Nigeria one”. Even if we don’t forget we must forgive. We don’t have to prove anything to anybody. All we need to do is to support the quest by patriotic Nigerians to create a country of equal opportunity and justice not just for Igbos but for everyone who calls Nigeria home; a country where your resourcefulness is unhindered; where your safety—like that of every other Nigerian, irrespective of religious or ethnic colouration—is guaranteed and protected.

In a sense, Igbos can imagine themselves as the catalyst of a new dawn, the face of a new Nigeria that must transform into an inclusive and egalitarian country. You are scattered over the face of the country—and indeed across the world—contributing your quota to the development of your host communities from Aba to Zungeru, from Badagry to Yola, even if there are some of us whose actions and activities have not been stellar. But while we wait on Nigeria to get its act together, we have to put our house in order. After all, charity, they say, begins at home.

It is sad to point out that our political elite have failed woefully. Squeamish and selfish as always, they have failed to read the mood of the nation and to act in the interest of the majority of our people. For a mess of pottage or an opportunity to be—in the words of Wole Soyinka—appendices to power, they are ever ready to cut their people loose. Let me cite an example. Sometime in January this year after I appeared as a guest at a programme that featured ex-President Olusegun Obasanjo to mark the 50th anniversary of the January 15, 1996, a young man, a lawyer, approached me to discuss his plans to mark the 50th anniversary of the death of Nigeria’s first head of state, Gen. Johnson Thomas Umunnakwe Aguiyi-Ironsi. I thought it was not only a brilliant idea but a brave one. Even though I was extremely busy as I was in the middle of editing my latest book, We Are All Biafrans, I volunteered to help out in any way I could, including reaching out to potential supporters of the project. He told me he had a few people in mind but that his challenge was how to put the proposal together to make it acceptable. I immediately asked him to send me a draft which he did. In a week or two, I was able to rework it to suit his vision.

He passed the new proposal to a former governor of one of the South-east states. After many weeks of waiting, he received a favourable response to the effect that the proposal was not only great but implementable and that he would get back to us. Then the trauma began. For weeks, we didn’t hear from this former “Excellency”. We were patient. When we finally did, Mr. ex-Governor informed us that he was away and also needed to consult. He assured my friend that his consultation had yielded fruit as the people he spoke with were interested in the project.

We thought we had something going and started making our own little plans. When we didn’t hear from the ex-governor again after a while, I pressured my friend to find out what was happening. He made several attempts. Then one evening, my friend walked into the office looking sullen. He then announced the sad news: that our fire-spiting ex-governor had chickened out. His reason: he was being “watched”. I couldn’t understand it but I wasn’t completely surprised considering that the treachery of the Igbo elite is legendary. I thought of a Plan B to reach out to the government of Abia State, Ironsi’s home state, considering that I know a member of the state executive council. That effort met a brick wall.  To cut a long a long story, July 29 came and went and there was no whimper, not from the Abia State government, not from the so-called Igbo leaders, not from the Igbo elite for whom that occasion provided a real opportunity to interrogate the Nigerian reality.

Remember, part of the reasons those who murdered Ironsi—some of them still very much around and enjoying the fruits of their “labour”—gave was that he had gone against the principles on which Nigeria was founded; that he sought to turn the country into a unitary state, a treasonable offence by all estimation. Now, fifty years after Ironsi’s death, is the country, whether under military or civilian rule, not being run as a unitary state? Which of you gathered here today remembers the Nigerian Army celebrating the 50th anniversary of the assassination of its first supreme commander or the Nigerian state remembering the country’s first military head of state? It was as if Ironsi didn’t matter, as if he was a footnote in the history of Nigeria. He might as well be. Unfortunately, the current Igbo elite that is largely devoid of mindfulness and perception and propelled only by crass materialism has helped sustain this notion. As a result, we can only remember or celebrate what our hegemonic ruling class wants us to remember and celebrate.

The attitude of our squirming ex-governor captures the essence of the Igbo elite and their response to the Nigerian conundrum. But what are they afraid of? It is their inability to take a principled position on Nigeria that has created opportunity for the rising anxieties currently going on in Igboland and the need to fill the yawning leadership gap in that section of Nigeria. And you would also notice that as a people, we have for long not been able to raise a charismatic and visionary leader around whom the entire Igbo would rally for positive leadership. This is because the soul of our elite has been corrupted by greed and self-enrichment. In fact, in his last interview with the Nigerian Television Authority (NTA) before he passed on, Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu, put the absence of a rallying figure in Igboland to nothing but the unmitigated love of money by the Igbo elite.    

Nigeria’s leadership conundrum

I talked about Achebe and his view on leadership much earlier in this address. We all remember his little book, The Trouble with Nigeria, where he observed that, “The trouble with Nigeria is simply and squarely a failure of leadership. There is nothing basically wrong with the Nigerian character. There is nothing wrong with the Nigerian land or climate or water or air or anything else. The Nigerian problem is the unwillingness or inability of its leaders to rise to the responsibility, to the challenge of personal example which are the hallmarks of true leadership.” It is difficult to disagree with Achebe. To poor leadership, we could add corruption and we would have arrived at the twin evils that have held Nigeria hostage for decades.

If there was one thing Nigeria needed so much at independence, it was selfless, visionary, and nationalistic leadership that would have helped in forging a nation out of the contraption that was bequeathed to us by the colonialists. The explanation for our current crisis can be found in the failure of our rulers since independence to build a nation out of the disparate groups that make up Nigeria.

Let me bring this argument of poor leadership a little closer home. Look at the states in the South-east of Nigeria and how charlatans, rogue godfathers and scoundrels posing as statesmen, have taken over the political landscape. Like their counterparts at the national level, they have left no one in doubt that being in power is all about how to feather their nests. So, everywhere you go in the streets of Owerri, Aba, Ontisha, etc., it is the same challenge: bad roads, heaps of garbage, dilapidated schools and decrepit hospitals, where they exist. Hopelessness and unemployment stalk the region while the youth have nothing to look forward to other than a life of crime and desperation. Once known for excelling in education, the region is gradually losing its coveted position in this regard thanks to a leadership that has very little appreciation of the value of education.

Alarmingly, in a June 3, 2016, story, Daily Trust newspaper reported the following statistics about education budget in Nigeria: “The southwest zone’s spending on education for the year (minus Ondo State) is N178.41 billion (12.71 percent) of its N1.4 trillion total expenditure. It is followed by the northwest zone which earmarked N174.28 billion (15.53 percent) of its total budget of N1.12 trillion for education. Only N85 billion (12.57 percent) of the northeast’s total budget of N676 billion is allocated to education. The north central zone’s approved budget for education is N101.71 billion (14.86 percent) of its cumulative budget of N684 billion. The south-south region has a total budget for education of N100.99 billion (6.25 percent) of its N1.6 trillion total budget. The southeast’s states of Anambra, Enugu and Ebonyi have earmarked only N13 billion for education. There are no figures for Abia and Imo states. The zone has a combined budget of N490 billion.”

According to the report, “Lagos is the only state in the country with three-digit budget on education. It’s spending N113.37 billion of its budget on education. Its expenditure is higher than the regional education budgets of the northeast, north-central, south-south, and southeast. Other big spenders after Lagos are Cross River (N53.01billion), Jigawa (N43.5 billion), Ogun (N40.1 billion), Sokoto (N34.5 billion), Kaduna (N29.99 billion), Borno (N27 billion), Bauchi (N26.7 billion),  Kano (N23.65 billion) and Katsina (N20.68 billion). Small spenders with less expenditure for education are: Ekiti (N1.5 billion), Kogi (N2.36 billion), Anambra (N3 billion), Taraba (N3.4 billion), Enugu and Bayelsa (N4 billion each), Niger (N4.29 billion), Ebonyi (N6 billion), Gombe (N6.2 billion), and Zamfara (N6.96 billion).”

Nothing could be more depressing. While the budget figures for education across Nigeria are generally low, the situation in the south-east is quite pathetic. But if you think this is shocking wait until you hear the story of the imperial majesty, Rochas Okorocha, who rules as governor of my home state, Imo, where civil servants have gone for months without salaries and pensioners are collapsing and dying on queues just to receive what is due them, even with the billions of naira bailout the state received from the federal government. The alleged misuse of that bailout is currently a source of disquiet in the state. This is how The Punch newspaper (April 23, 2016) reported the story: “N338bn bailout: Benue, Imo diverted funds—ICPC report.”

We should recall that the bailout fund by the federal government as announced by the Vice President, Prof Yemi Osinbajo, who heads the National Economic Council, is supposed to be a “loan repayable at an interest rate of nine per cent over a 20-year period and it is ‘solely for the purpose of paying the backlog of salaries’.” The report by the Independent Corrupt Practices and Other Related Offences Commission (ICPC) stated that, “Imo State applied for and received bailout funds of N26, 806, 430, 000.00 from the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) which were domiciled with two commercial banks namely Fidelity and Zenith banks. In the course of analysis, it was discovered that some transfers were made into certain Imo State Government accounts which are not related to salaries and emoluments as follows: N2bn paid into a Government Account; N2bn into an Imo State Project account; N2bn transferred into microfinance bank; and a management fee of N21, 017, 810.00 was paid into an unspecified account.”

One of the highlights of Mr. Okorocha’s first term in office was the destruction of the central library—an iconic structure that served many of my generation and beyond—in the city centre, replacing it with a personal cathedral. Last week, The Sunday Sun (October 16, 2016) carried a story describing the condition of the roads in Imo State. Quoting a resident from Umuguma in Owerri West Council Area, the newspaper noted: “All the access roads in and out of the state have collapsed. You can’t drive through the Hospital Road right now because it has become a nightmare in this rainy season. The contractor hired to expand the road has long abandoned it. Also, the other alternative access to Umuguma which is a World Bank assisted project has equally collapsed. So, whenever it rains, people are stranded.” We are doing this to ourselves; not the people in Abuja doing it to us. The Owelle of the Universe, as Mr. Okorocha fancies himself, has run the state as a fiefdom and only recently announced, according to a report in Thisday newspaper, that he had yet to decide on his successor in 2019 amongst his loyalists whom he described as his true “children”, and that the Imo people would know at the appropriate time.

That is the nature of our democracy and what our people have to deal with. A man is in power for eight years with nothing to show for his misrule and on his departure, he appoints his chief of staff, son-in-law or anybody else he fancies as his successor. It doesn’t matter what the people think or what the polls say. I have been asked several times who should be blamed for this development: the rulers or the ruled? Why don’t we hold our rulers in Igboland and in other parts of the country to account? I think this is a legitimate question. And we ought to. But there is also another question which is, how did we end up with these kinds of rulers? The answer for me lies in the political structure of the country. We have a system that is driven more by money and patronage than anything else.

While I agree that poor leadership and corruption are pivotal in understanding the tragedy that is Nigeria, to focus only on these two issues would amount to not seeing the forest for the trees. Undoubtedly, there is something wrong with, if not the Nigerian land, but the structure of the country. There is a sense in which the Nigerian dilemma throws up the kind of leaders we see in the South-east and across the country. Elections are rigged. People have no control of the process. These distortions—a product of our perverted structure—throw up the likes of Okorocha and make it impossible for the people to truly have a say in who governs them. My argument, therefore, is that we need serious devolution of power so that people wherever they are in Nigeria will take their destiny in their own hands, socially, economically and politically.

We can only get the right leaders if we get our politics right and that itself is dependent on a number of factors, including how equitable and just our country is.

The crisis of nationhood

It was Kwame Nkrumah, father of modern Ghana and the country’s first prime minister who popularized the saying, “Seek ye first the political kingdom and all things shall be added unto you.” Nkrumah was referring to the importance of decolonization and self-rule as a prelude to the development of Ghana, nay Africa. Much of the cohesion and inclusivity that Ghana enjoys today can be attributed to his foresight. We can apply Nkrumah’s theory to the crisis in Nigeria; except, in our own case, the refrain should be, “Seek ye first the kingdom of nationhood and every other thing shall be added unto you.”

It is the fact that we have been unable to forge a nation out of Nigeria that is at the root of all our problems. The young Nigerian rising literary star and author of the widely acclaimed The Fishermen, Chigozie Obioma, captured the mood succinctly in an interview with Newsweek Europe recently when he noted, “Nigerians do not believe in the idea of Nigeria because they know it was somebody else’s idea.” If a nation is an idea—and I think all nations are—what is the idea of Nigeria?

According to the historian and philosopher, Chinweizu, “Nigeria is not a nation but a noyau, i.e., a society of inward antagonism, one held together by mutual internal antagonism, one which could not carry on if its members had no fellow members to hate. And if we want to end the troubles of the Nigerians, we must dig deeper to find the fundamental causes.” That is the idea of Nigeria—a country built on mutual internal antagonism. Essentially, the country was rigged to fail. But we can also recreate the idea of a nation whether it is its arbitrariness, mutual antagonism, or shared hatred for one another. That is the challenge that we all face. 

Earlier in this speech, I alluded to the fact that Nigeria could have been three or more countries at independence in 1960. It didn’t happen. So what we had was what Ali Mazrui, one of Africa's most famous political scientists, described as mega-Nigeria in a 2004 essay titled, “The Path to Nigeria's Greatness: Between Exceptionalism and Typicality” to mark the 90th anniversary of the amalgamation of Nigeria. According to Mazrui, “There are indeed certain attributes which make Nigeria strikingly unique in Africa—setting it apart in configuration from all other African countries.”

For Mazrui, “The exceptionalism of Nigeria includes, of course, the huge size of its population in relation to its neighbors. It is by far the most populous country in Africa. This is a central aspect of the 1914 amalgamation. The next country in size on the African continent is Egypt, and yet Egypt is only a little more than half of Nigeria's population. Nigeria's exceptionalism also includes the combination of immense human resources (youthful and potentially gifted population) with immense natural resources (led by oil and gas). In 1914, Lord Lugard knew about Nigeria's palm oil. Nigeria's other oil, petroleum, had yet to reveal itself. Perhaps it is also part of Nigeria's exceptionalism that it has not just one pivotal ethnic group in a national configuration but three. Uganda has one pivotal group, the Baganda. Kenya has in reality two outstanding pivotal groups—the Luo and Kikuyu.  Senegal's outstanding pivotal group is the Wolof. Is Nigeria exceptional in having three very large pivot ethnic groups, each with a dazzling record of achievement?” Finally, for Mazrui, Nigeria is exceptional in having those three civilizations (Africanity, Islam and the West) almost equal in power.

So, why has this propitious exceptionalism not worked for Nigeria? It hasn’t because the idea of Nigeria is premised on conquest; conquest of people and conquest of resources. Essentially, it is Nigeria’s other oil, petroleum, to use Mazrui’s words—rather than the desire to promote its exceptionalism—that would define the idea of Nigeria. It was evident in the politics on both sides of the civil war; we see it in the asinine comments about the origin of the oil and who actually owns it. Then there are sundry other issues. There is hardly a collective vision. As a people, we can’t even agree on what constitutes corruption, for example, without it taking ethnic or religious colouration. That in itself explains the level of the mindless corruption in Nigeria and why we haven’t been able to conduct something as simple as a national census, without goats and chickens raising eyebrows about the outcome. 

Can mega-Nigeria work? I think it can. Will it work? That would depend on Nigerians. The idea of the Nigerian nation is one based on conquest by British colonizers and sustained by internal colonialism. Almost six decades after independence, we are still at the mercy of those who saw themselves as heirs to the colonialists, who fancied the new Nigeria as their personal barnyard—bequeathed to them by their forebears—rather than a collective property. This hegemonic feeling of entitlement can only breed discontent and tension. But, nobody or group should feel they love Nigeria more than other groups. Or that they have a greater stake in this country than others. We can’t build a united Nigeria under these circumstances. National integration can only happen when we believe and accept that all parts of Nigeria are equal stakeholders in the survival of the country. That is the only way we can appreciate and respect each other and therefore create opportunities for a collective attitude towards remaking Nigeria.

The Nigerian dilemma: Is Nigeria negotiable, or why we should restructure

Over the years, we have heard the rulers of Nigeria make definite pronouncements on the structure and future of the country. How many times have we heard the expression, “The unity of Nigeria is not negotiable” or “We fought a civil war to keep Nigeria one.” Of course, when you hear these words, the question to ask should be, for whose interest or benefit? The expression “Nigeria is not negotiable” conveys a feeling that Nigeria is an eternal construct, your perfect nation. But we all know that nations are not eternal constructs; neither is Nigeria a perfect nation. So, if we agree that no nation—neither Nigeria nor the country where we are gathered today, with all its strength and progress—is perfect, why should it be a crime to attempt to interrogate our contemporary reality?

The issue of getting the Nigerian federation right or better still restructuring Nigeria has become a very touchy issue, one that has thrown up all kinds of wild ideas. Only recently, a former Minister of Education, former Vice-Chancellor of the Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria, and member of the Northern Elders Forum (NEF), Prof. Ango Abdullahi, was reported by the Punch newspaper (August 31, 2016) as saying, “If Nigerians have found it difficult to live together in peace, the component units should find it convenient to go their separate ways,” adding that if the amalgamation of the country in 1914 by Lord Lugard was a mistake, “each region should go separately”. How convenient! We can see and feel the sarcasm dripping from Prof. Abdullahi’s posers. I am sure the learned professor knows that Nigerians going “their separate ways” is not going to happen, at least not the way he has posed the question. Not because there are no Nigerians who want “each region” to go “their separate ways”, but because there are those who still think it is their prerogative to determine what shape or form that “separation” should take if and when it does happen.

I think the question Prof Abdullahi should have posed is, why have Nigerians found it difficult to live in peace?  He agrees that Nigeria’s unity is negotiable which is comforting but his idea why we should have the negotiation debate is quite troubling. Let’s hear him: “Yes we accepted Boko Haram for those who described them as ‘Islamist terrorists,' fair enough; but what about economic terrorists? In the Niger Delta, for example, people who came out openly and said they’re avenging something and that they’re fighting to avenge something, they’re worse than what’s happening in this country; they’re worse than Boko Haram. If you’re not going to fight Avengers, then stop fighting Boko Haram.”

Of course, there is no denying—in Prof. Abdullahi’s world—the fact that “economic terrorists” are far worse than “Islamist terrorists.” But I would say terrorists are terrorists, whether “economic,” “Islamist,” “Christian,” “Buddhist,” or “animist.” For me, crime is a crime no matter the colouration, except that in Nigeria’s Niger Delta, there is also a clear evidence of criminal appropriation and neglect by the Nigerian state. So, how should the citizens of the Niger Delta respond to such blatant injustice? My understanding is that the militants of the Niger Delta are asking for a greater control of the resources—and we can’t use the argument of how well they have managed what they get currently to deny them control—in the area and therefore a greater control of their environment. This position is tenable considering Prof Abdullahi’s argument as reported in Thisday newspaper (August 31, 2016) that the “ragtag boys” who were fed up with the things happening to them became members of Boko Haram. Clearly, what is sauce for the Boko Haram gander can’t be sauce for the Niger Delta goose!

I don’t think Nigeria is working for millions of Nigerians across the length and breadth of the country, except for those my good friend describes as incurable swindlers in the corridors of power. If Nigeria is not working for majority of Nigerians there is nothing wrong in querying why it is not working and then proffering solutions. For the most part, when people call for restructuring Nigeria, it has nothing to do with balkanizing the country. What the proponents are simply saying is that let us get our political structure right; let us build a truly federal and inclusive Nigeria. Nationhood is a shared vision. We can’t be indifferent to the cries of injustice across the country because in the end we are all victims!

Why We Are All Biafrans

The title of my book, We Are All Biafrans, has generated mixed reactions. There are those like Prof. Chidi Odinkalu who in the review of the book captured the essence of the title when he wrote: “Ingeniously, the author converts ‘Biafra’ into a forensic tool for auditing the Nigerian state. The outcome is not reassuring.” There are others who have taken me to task, accusing me of trying to dilute the essence of the Biafran experience and struggle. I plead not guilty to the latter charge. What is my take on the Biafran conundrum? I believe in Biafra to the extent that it is an idea that seeks to address the Nigerian reality of the 21st century. I do not share the belief of Biafra as a geo-political entity partly because I don’t think it is worth the while for anybody, man, woman or child. It might have been a necessity five decades ago; today, it seems more like an anachronism.

In a sense, we are all Biafrans. If you look across the country today, there is a palpable feeling of disquiet, disaffection, and complete resignation. There are pockets of agitations everywhere you turn, from the quest of different groups like Niger Delta Avengers (NDA) and the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) fighting for greater control of resources by the citizens in the Niger Delta, the desire of Boko Haram to carve out a section of the country as its caliphate, the herdsmen seeking “a right of passage” for their cattle, the activities of the Movement for the Actualization of the Sovereign State of Biafra (MASSOB), and the Indigenous Peoples of Biafra (IPOB), to the Oodua People’s Congress (OPC) and Oodua Liberation Movement (OLM), etc. I think it is the same point Emeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu, leader of the Biafran secession tried to make in his post-civil war book, Because I am Involved when he noted, “All over Nigeria, there is Biafra but that Biafra of today is ‘the Biafra of the Nigerians and not the Biafra of the Igbos’; the Biafra of the mind not the Biafra of the fields.”

The young men and women who are protesting in the name of Biafra in the streets of Aba, Owerri, Onitsha, Enugu—and in major cities around the world—must heed Ojukwu’s admonition just as their fathers and uncles heeded his call almost fifty years ago. The Biafran metaphor can, therefore, become a rallying point for a renegotiated Nigeria. Like other Nigerians, Ndi Igbo have sacrificed for and put a lot into Nigeria to prove their stake in it. They ought not to be running away from it. Let me note, however that I am not in any way seeking to diminish the import of the agitations by groups who would want a restructured Nigeria along ethnic nationality lines. Fundamentally, I believe in the right of people to self-determination. But the proponents of a multi-nation idea must also realize that our circumstances have changed; that Nigeria of 2016 is no longer our fathers’ Nigeria; that Nigeria, as mathematician and author, Edwin Madunagu, has so brilliantly stated, is no longer the sum total of its ethnic nationalities.

The question then is, what is to be done? I propose we go back to the basics without the prejudices of the past. Nigeria gained independence as a federal republic and one of the major principles of federalism—which is a system of government usually adopted by multicultural and multi-ethnic nations to guard against the fear of domination—is the devolution of powers. In explaining federalism, using the United States of America as an example, Kenneth Wheare in Federal Government, talks about the two levels of government in the US being “co-equally supreme.” John Law in “How Can We Define Federalism?”, Perspectives on Federalism, notes that a federal state is “a single state political system in which there is a division of powers between two levels of government of equal status,” while a federal union of states is “a multi-state political system in which there is a division of powers between two levels of government of equal status”.

The important points to note here are, “two levels of government and equal status”. Looking at these definitions, it is clear that what we have in Nigeria is an aberration. Some people have described it as “feeding bottle federalism” because the federal government has decapitated the states and made them overtly dependent. In the end, neither the federal government nor the states are accountable to anybody. In a way, this structure or system has engendered the politics of “do or die” where you must control who sits in Aso Rock or destabilize the country trying. Our governors, lacking ideas and indolent as ever, in the fashion of Oliver Twist keep asking for more. Recently, the governor of Sokoto State, Aminu Tambuwal, was quoted as saying that what the country needed was not restructuring but an “urgent review of the revenue allocation formula, to favor states and local governments.” He is not alone. The Nigerian structure has thrown up and nurtured a bankrupt elite that has fed fat on oil. And we can see it in the attitude of Tambuwal’s counterparts in the National Assembly—our undistinguished senators and dishonorable representatives—perhaps the highest-paid legislators in the world. Even with the billions of naira they collectively take home every year for doing absolutely nothing, they are not content; and like ndi anyan ukwu that they are, they steal directly from the masses in the name of passing the national budget.  

Clearly, in a proper federation, it is not the responsibility of the federal government to create local governments and sustain them neither should the states be dependent on the federal government. Perhaps, it is part of Nigeria’s peculiarity that the federal government micromanages the states and has a say in everything from primary education to primary health. In the 21st century Nigeria, with all the trauma of traffic congestion, states are not permitted to build railways; aviation, including airports—though states like Akwa Ibom, Delta and Imo have built theirs—is still the exclusive right of the federal government just as is election of governors, their deputies and members of state houses of assembly. The same rule applies—according to the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, 1999—to insurance, incorporation, regulation and winding up of bodies corporate, control of mines and minerals, including oil fields, oil mining, geological surveys and natural gas, patents, trademarks, trade or business names, industrial designs and merchandise marks. The Police—even if much of its funding and support comes from state governments—and pensions, prisons, public holidays are all under the exclusive control of the federal government.

So, it is not just that the federal government is glad spoon-feeding the states, it has effectively blocked their path to development. There are those who think Nigeria has always been run the way it is today. We only need to go back to the 1963 constitution to know that things were quite different in the past. Even if we don’t necessarily have to go back to that era, we can borrow considerably from it to unleash the creative potentials of Nigerians. Some people might argue that this is not possible considering how the states in Nigeria came into being. But again, that is part of the problem and the peculiarity of the Nigerian experience. Much of the distortion we see today is emblematic of the internal hegemonic proclivities of the Nigerian state, built and nurtured by the military—the armed wing of Nigeria’s hegemonic power blocs—and sustained by their civilian collaborators in the last fifty years. It is perhaps only in Nigeria that the military not only imposed dictatorship and elevated corruption but changed the structure of the country where they held sway. It was in defense of this hegemonic agenda that ex-military dictator, Ibrahim Babangida, annulled Nigeria’s freest and fairest election held on June 12, 1993. That election was won by Chief Moshood Kashimawo Olawale Abiola from Ogun State, southwest, Nigeria. Six years after the annulment, the military would foist another ex-military dictator, Olusegun Obasanjo, also from Ogun State, on Nigerians in the name of democracy. We will need to dismantle this iniquitous structure if we want to build the new Nigeria we, our children and grandchildren deserve. We need to promote the idea of community government where power will return to the people.

Whether we will win that battle is another thing, but I think it is worth fighting for because the alternative is not pleasant!


In conclusion, I would like to quote Prof Ochefu again: “As a country on its ‘third missionary’ journey to a truly democratic nation, the fundamental questions of nation building that began over 100 years ago have not been fully and or properly answered. The corporate existence of the country has been formally broken once and pronounced broken once. It took a horrible civil war to restore the entity when it was broken and an equally brutal attempted coup when it was pronounced…We must collectively negotiate to ensure that we retain the map but change the way we exist on that map.”

I share Prof Ochefu’s viewpoint. Without an equitable federation, we are wasting our time as a people. Nothing will work, not education, not health, not infrastructure, because as the lawyers say, you can build something on nothing. Some people will tell you that the question of Nigeria’s unity or nationhood is settled. Those that the current structure favored at independence were happy to maintain it. And they still do as I speak. Then, of course, there are those on the other extreme of this debate who erroneously think that restructuring is a silver bullet, that it will solve all of our problems. And this is exemplified in the rise of ethnic nationalism across the country. So, to some extent, you can understand the apprehension, even if it is not justifiable, of those who say they are opposed to restructuring.

Restructuring for me is just the first step in the tortuous road to nationhood. That is the mindset that will propel us to the new Nigeria of our dream. We can only make progress as a people when we agree that we are one people—even if we have different histories—dedicated to a common vision and future. We need to fight new battles in Nigeria but not the battle of Biafra or any other ethnoreligious arrangement. It is good that you have created this platform. We need to engage our young men and women; we need to get them off the streets waving flags and back to the classrooms, factories, and functional institutions. We need to end the carnage in Igboland. We need to say never again! We have had enough killing to last us a hundred generations.

As Nigerians living outside the motherland, you need to be involved because as things stand currently, you may not recognize your villages when next you decide to come back home. Many of us left Nigeria frustrated, hoping things will change one day. That is not going to happen unless we engage the homeland effectively. The existential crisis in Nigeria is real. Let me reiterate the point made earlier in this presentation. Nigerians do not believe in the idea of Nigeria. Every Nigerian—including those who purport to lead us, either in public office or otherwise—who has the opportunity wants to hedge. I don’t know how much longer a country with this national mindset will survive.

For some, the civil war mindset still prevails; it is still them vs us. We have to end the civil wars that are literally and figuratively raging across the country. We have to realize that we are all in this together and if we fail, we will collectively be victims.

I think a good starting point would be the release of Nnamdi Kanu, leader of IPOB, and other political prisoners in the country and put in place a proper mechanism for genuine national reconciliation and dialogue!

Thank you for your time.

This speech was a keynote address by Chido Onumah, author of We Are All Biafrans, on the occasion of the 2016 National Convention of the Anambra State Association (ASA-USA), Dallas, Texas, USA, October 21, 2016.