Friday, June 2, 2017. 13:28GMT
Nigeria Tormented By The Ghost Of Biafra

By Amanze Obi

A major thematic concern of Chinua Achebe's last literary work, "There Was a Country", is the official ring of secrecy, which was run around the subject matter of Biafra by successive Nigerian governments. Achebe's concern here is that Nigeria as a country is living in denial. A country called Biafra existed. A war of attrition was fought over it. While the war lasted, the world quaked.

The big powers were involved. British armoured tanks and Russian planes were freely deployed. The Arab League joined in the war. They were all on the side of the federal aggressors. In the face of mounting humanitarian crisis, the World Council of Churches, the Caritas and the Red Cross came in to save lives. They provided Biafra with food aids. At the end of the fratricidal strife, some three million lives were lost. The war was the inevitable consequence of a state-sponsored pogrom directed at the Igbo people in 1966. After 30 gruelling months, the Biafran resistance caved in. The new republic was crippled by huge odds. It collapsed.

This momentous event did not escape the attention of writers. They penned their experiences and concerns in various genres. Strangely, however, the Nigerian state did not want to commit the events of the war to history. It shut it out both from current affairs and historical studies. The country conveniently ignored the subject by refusing to talk about it. It treated the matter as if it never took place. It censored any form of discussion, bordering on Biafra. It decreed that the subject must never be discussed officially. History was not allowed to incorporate it. It must never be taught in schools so that those who were not old enough to witness the events of that period will never get to know about it. The result was that the lessons that ought to have been learned from the historical upheaval were, regrettably, lost.

But the ploy of keeping the matter secret did not work. Regardless of the fact that our schools are barred from broaching the subject matter of Biafra in their curricula, the issue has remained an open enterprise. Younger Nigerians whose mothers were not yet married when the cataclysm took place know that there was a country called Biafra. They do not just know that post-Civil War men and women from the defunct Republic are very much aware of what transpired between 1966 and 1970. They are very conscious of the events of those years. They know about the republic in which their people found solace. They romanticise it. They yearn for it. They are not interested in the odds. They do not even imagine any hang-up. They want the dream Republic because they believe that it would guarantee their generation and future generations of the Biafrans the space and freedom they need to actualise their potentials. They feel claustrophobic in the Nigerian environment. They are aware of the fact that Nigeria discriminates against them on the basis of their place of origin. They have borne the degradation for too long. Their patience has run out. That is why they are insisting on Biafra. What all this tells us is that in spite of the restrictions imposed on the subject matter, the silences are so loud that even the unborn are already thinking Biafra.

For these and related reasons, Biafra has become a leitmotif. It has become the keynote in the symphony to which the strange melody will always return. The way it is, Nigeria cannot run away from the subject matter. It has become a recurring decimal in the Nigerian equation.

It was probably in the light of the foregoing that the veil of secrecy has been taken off Biafra. But the lifting of the veil is sudden and unexpected. Suddenly, everybody is talking about Biafra, even from unexpected quarters. Before now, Biafra did not have that privilege of open discourse. It was one word that was avoided publicly. It could only be talked about in muffled tones. Those who wanted to be politically correct ensured that Biafra did not intrude into their vocabulary. It was such a delicate subject matter. It was so delicate that one of my lecturers in the Department of English of the University of Lagos ran into a storm over it. The year was 1985, 15 years after Biafra. The subject of study was Eddie Iroh's "Toads of War". Biafra was the subject matter of the novel. The lecturer, while taking us through a literary analysis of the novel, had described the Biafran debacle as a "wasted emotion". The pronouncement was greeted with murmurs. Moments later, the murmurs graduated into an open disagreement. A section of the class revolted against that unsavoury label placed on Biafra. The lecturer, a young woman in her 30s at that time, was shocked to her marrows. We were first-year students, just a few months old in the university community. Yet we had the courage of our convictions. We joined issues with the woman. We felt she did not understand the issue. Thereafter, the lecturer was advised by her more experienced colleagues to tread softly whenever the subject of Biafra was involved.

This has been the sort of delicateness and sensitivity that has trailed the subject of Biafra over the years. But all of that seem to be giving way. Biafra has just turned 50 and the subject matter, for the first time since its advent, is being discussed openly and publicly. At a public forum last week on Biafra, the acting president, Yemi Osinbajo, freely talked about Biafra. Nigeria's former president, Olusegun Obasanjo, also spoke matter of factly on the same subject. With the way they spoke, and considering the fact that a public forum was solely organised for the purpose of re-examining the Biafran question, it should be taken for granted that the veil of secrecy has been taken off the subject. Biafra is no longer an issue that can be discussed in muffled tones. Suddenly, Nigeria has come to realise that the ghost of Biafra cannot be buried. As a matter of fact, the subject has left the hands of the Igbo. It has become a matter for international discourse. The way things stand; it is impolitic for Nigeria to continue to treat the Biafran issue with irritation and belligerence. The matter has to be confronted. The Nigerian state has to engage the agitators. The time to climb down from the high horse has come. Experience shows that high-handedness has not driven the agitation underground. It has not deterred those who believe in the cause. What this tells us is that the issue cannot be wished away.

As the Nigerian state tries to purge itself of the prejudices with which it has been approaching issues about Biafra, its attention should be directed at its security agencies. The Department of State Service (DSS), the Army and the Police are major culprits here. The high-handedness they have been visiting on the agitators is begging for redress. It is at the root of the anger in Biafran circles. Their disposition is fueling tension. They must be called to order. That is the least we expect the authorities to do.

The more substantive stage will involve the enthronement of justice and equity in the land. As Buhari's government of hate winds down, Nigeria should begin to think of enthroning a new order where every section of the country will have a sense of accommodation. When they do that, we will begin to make sense of the veil of secrecy that has been taken off Biafra.



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