The issue about the agitation for the free and sovereign state of the Republic of Biafra continues to linger. While some Nigerians throw their support behind the idea, some others do not buy into it. Dele Agekameh, in his column for The Nation, traces back to when the agitation was born, saying that, despite the many problems plaguing the country, secession is not the panacea.
In the last few weeks, the country has been under severe threat by those agitating for the sovereign state of Biafra. For years, the arrowhead of the agitation has been the Movement for the Actualisation of the Sovereign State of Biafra otherwise known as MASSOB. This current struggle is, however, being amplified by the Indigenous Peoples of Biafra (IPOB) led by one Nnamdi Kanu, the founder of the propaganda Radio Biafra.
The operations of the Biafra agitators
The group keyed into the various paraphernalia and insignia which MASSOB had already put in place for the Biafran course. These include, vehicle plate number bearing United States of Biafra, drivers and vehicle licenses, tax receipt, international passport and currency, which they claim, to have deposited at the World Bank. Obviously, as these items are things that make a people a nation, it shows the people’s desire to stay on their own.
There is no doubt that MASSOB and IPOB form a secessionist movement with the aim of securing the resurgence of the defunct state of Biafra from Nigeria. This is underscored by the sight of thousands of able-bodied young men and women marching endlessly on the streets in Asaba, Delta state and other parts of the South-east geo-political region of the country in recent time. Their zealousness and display of enthusiasm under the scorching sun, is a signal that the MASSOB/IPOB message is fast gaining ground.
Tracing Biafra agitation to pre-civil war coups
Of course, the story of Biafra did not start today. It has a long history behind it. The entrance of the military into the nation’s political space through the instrumentality of the bloody coup d’etat of January 15, 1966, greatly distorted Nigeria’s political equilibrium. That coup, which was led by Major Chukwuma Kaduna Nzeogwu and his group of three or four other comrades-in-arms who were also Majors, overthrew the legitimate government of the late Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, the-then prime minister of Nigeria.
That episode also threw up the late General Johnson Thomas Umunakwe Aguiyi–Ironsi as Nigeria’s head of state and commander-in–chief of the armed forces of the federation. As soon as he assumed power, Ironsi sent all the politicians scampering for safety when he abolished the federal structure and regional governments through the promulgation of the Unification Decree 34 of May 1966.
But the events of January 1966 did not go down well with another group of middle-level army officers who read meanings to the massacre that attended the coup. Their main grudge was that the coup appeared to be sectional in that it was mostly senior political figures from a section of the country that were victims. So, like a movie scene, barely six months later, there was a counter–coup which was more or less, a reprisal for the earlier bloodbath witnessed in the country. That counter-coup ushered in Yakubu Gowon, then a young, good-looking army officer of the rank of a Lieutenant – Colonel.
The emerging military regimes provoked agitations for a national dialogue. Prominent among the demands of the agitators were the creation of additional states borne out of perceived abnormal imbalance in the federal structure; the nature and form of association among the country’s diverse ethnic groups; the composition of the leadership at the centre as well as the issue of secession which was gaining currency at that time. There were also such issues as the need for an acceptable formula for equitable revenue allocation, resource control and many others.
The 1967 declaration of Biafra Republic
These problems, which still exist today, have been a serious threat to the continued existence of Nigeria. To douse the raging controversy then, the government of Gowon repealed Decree 34, reverted to the federal system of government and restored the regional governments. Furthermore, on September 12, 1966, an ad hoc conference aimed at arresting the agitations and preserving the sanctity of the country as a nation opened in Lagos. The conference revealed that the country had drifted apart and was on the brink of total disintegration.
However, renewed killings in the northern part of the country as well as retaliatory actions in the southern part later threw a spanner in the works of finding amicable solution to the problems plaguing the nation. In other words, even though the four existing regions had made submissions to the conference, the escalation of the crisis prevented the leaders from arriving at an acceptable strategy to keep Nigeria together.
By this time, the animosity between Gowon, the head of state, and Chukwuemeka Odumegu-Ojukwu, a Lieutenant-Colonel and governor of the Eastern Region, became more pronounced. This surely affected the relationship between the Federal Government and the government of the Eastern Region as the two leaders vehemently disagreed on the real issues that threw spanners in the outcome of the September 1966 Constitutional Conference.
The simmering crisis led to the attempt of the late General Joe Ankrah, who was the-then Ghana’s head of state, to reconcile the two leaders at a conference held at the Botanical Gardens’ town of Aburi, in the Eastern Region of south Ghana, between January 4 and 5, 1967. Even at that, the Aburi Accord reached by the two leaders was only observed in its breach. This eventually snowballed into the 30-month Civil War when the Eastern Regional Consultative Assembly mandated Ojukwu to declare the “Republic of Biafra”.