Anyone just arriving in the country, and reading the news headlines, might be forgiven to think that Nigeria is on the verge of a war. The entire news space – mainstream and fringe – has been filled with the valorisation of secessionist hubris.
For the benefit of those who are too young to understand and the older ones with deformed memories, let us go into a little history.
Nigeria gained independence from the British easily on October 1, 1960.
Barely five years later, on January 15, 1966, some Igbo army officers staged Nigeria’s first-ever military coup. That was the beginning of disaster for the country. The mass assassination was more of a mutiny than a mere military coup. They killed all northern officers from the rank of lieutenant colonel upwards. Lt. Col. Gowon (as he then was) barely escaped assassination because he was not in his house. They also killed Brigadier Ademulegun, the commander of the brigade in Kaduna.
Apart from the military leadership, the Igbo officers also decapitated the political leadership of the Northern Region and Western Region and left those of the Eastern Region, including General Aguiyi-Ironsi, the most senior military officer in Nigeria, intact.
That coup, which altered the trajectory of Nigeria forever, became known in history as the Igbo coup. Aguiyi-Ironsi took advantage of the vacuum and, instead of returning power to the remnants of the government, which should have been the right thing to do, he took over power himself, thus appropriating the coup.
Meanwhile, the Igbo people living in the Northern Region started gloating openly over the assassination of Ahmadu Bello, premier of the Northern Region, and taunting their northern neighbours. This understandably caused severe tension and disquiet in the region. The tension grew worse by the day because Aguiyi-Ironsi refused to dispense justice to the coup plotters of January 15, who had assassinated the region’s leaders, some in their sleep.
In time, army officers of the Northern Region started planning their revenge coup. Major Murtala Muhammed, Major T.Y. Danjuma and Major Martin Adamu were the leaders of the revenge coup, which was eventually executed on July 29, 1966. Aguiyi-Ironsi was himself assassinated in the process and scores of Igbo officers including some of the coup plotters of January 15 were also killed. Because tension was already at an all-time high in the Northern Region, riots broke out in some cities and several innocent Igbo civilians were also killed.
Lt. Col. Yakubu Gowon, then the chief of army staff and the most senior northern officer, was made head of state by the northern officers. Lt. Col. Ojukwu, then governor of Eastern Region, refused to recognise Gowon, insisting that the most senior officer in the army should have become head of state, in the absence of Aguiyi-Ironsi.
Even the latest statement by the South-East Governors Forum signed by Governor David Umahi of Ebonyi State in a response to the quit notice did not condemn Kanu and Uwazuruike. The south-east governors even characterised the treasonable action of the separatists as “peaceful” in their statement.
And another group who call themselves “The Youths of Oduduwa” representing the Yoruba appeared with a statement at the weekend strongly condemning the threat of the Igbo to recreate the biafran struggle and warned that they would be kicked out of the six states of the south-west if they continued with the threat of biafra.
But there must now be order. This madness must stop. The first people who should be arrested are Uwazuruike and Kanu who have repudiated the terms of the surrender of biafra by Phillip Effiong, if they do not renounce their re-declaration of biafra.
Kanu has even additionally breached the terms of his bail. His bail should therefore be revoked forthwith if Nigeria is to be taken seriously as a country under the rule of law. And because two wrongs do not make a right, if the Arewa youths do not repudiate the quit notice, they too should be charged under the relevant laws of the land.
From the inception of this newspaper, we have stood for the unity and indivisibility of Nigeria because we are greater together. We believe that Nigerians, irrespective of tribe, tongue or religion, need and deserve better governance and not tiny fragments from the pieces of a broken country to take away. Our size and diversity are a sign of strength and not weakness and we shall continue to raise our pen at all times in the pursuit of these ideals.
Our existing channels, institutions and mechanisms for resolving conflicts may not be perfect, but while we strive to improve them, we can use them and all peaceful means to settle genuine disagreements and differences.
Our true path to greatness lies not with those who make hate and divisive speeches either in their own name or in the name of some funny ethnic or religious groups, but with those who toil day and night to create, innovate and give us all a better future.
Nobody should be allowed to set Nigeria on fire again. It is absolute disaster for lightning to strike in the same place twice.
Ojukwu disregarded the fact that after successful military coups, absolute seniority usually takes the back seat and the plotters decide who takes over. The situation eventually got out of hand and Ojukwu declared the republic of biafra on May 30, 1967.
Civil war broke out on July 6, 1967, and this led to the deaths of more than a million Nigerians, mostly Igbo people. Eventually Ojukwu capitulated and fled, handing over power to Phillip Effiong, his deputy. Effiong and some biafran leaders went to General Gowon, conceded defeat in a somber ceremony and unconditionally surrendered. It was an unconditional surrender, not an armistice. Thus the biafran effort collapsed on January 15, 1970.
Gen Gowon, in his usual humble self, made his now famous “No victor, no vanquished” statement which was not exactly true. As a statesman he also instituted the 3 Rs – Rehabilitation, Reconstruction and Reintegration – to restore the Igbo to mainstream Nigeria.
This newspaper uses the small letter “b” for biafra because the biafran country does not exist, and because the leaders of the defeated biafra said so themselves in their unconditional surrender statement of January 15, 1970. The story would have been different if it was an armistice agreement.
And because it was an unconditional surrender, any talk about biafra at this time would be a repudiation of the terms of the surrender signed by Phillip Effiong and other biafran leaders and this, in any serious country, would be regarded as a treasonable felony.
President Shehu Shagari eventually granted Ojukwu himself state pardon in 1982, after he had spent 12 years in exile. He returned to Nigeria, got assimilated into the society so much so that he started contesting elections, including as the presidential candidate of APGA in 2003.
Lately, a few irresponsible people who do not know this very painful past or the fact that more than one million souls died in an unnecessary war have started openly discussing biafra again. It first started with a certain Ralph Uwazuruike of MASSOB. He has now been upstaged by the roguish Nnamdi Kanu of IPOB, who even operates an illegal radio station spreading his hate messages across the nation and calling other ethnic groups all sorts of names.
It is as if we are back to 1966 all over again. The Buhari administration arrested Kanu and he was charged for treason. After spending time he was granted bail by Justice Binta Nyako. And since he left detention, he has breached every material term of his bail. He has again declared allegiance to a republic of biafra and preaches hatred virtually every day, and not for once did any Igbo leader call him to order. Instead, many of the leaders including the deputy Senate president, the most senior elected Igbo, pay him courtesy calls.
To the non-Igbo, Kanu appeared to be speaking for the entire Igbo as no single leader has called him to order. That must have led to the response of the hitherto unknown and inconsequential group called Arewa Youth Coalition Group to give the Igbo three months’ quit notice to leave the north. This threat would have gone unnoticed if it was not legitimised by northern governors, who ordered their arrest. The governors might think they were being more responsible than their counterparts in the south-east who said nothing and did nothing when Kanu and Uwazuruike were spreading their own hatred. But the weight of Professor Ango Abdullahi’s voice endorsing the position of the youths as a direct response to the governors’ arrest order has given a whole new meaning to this very dangerous conversation.
The silver lining in the Arewa youths’ dangerous quit order, though, was that the Igbo leaders finally found their voice declaring that they were going nowhere as they were not going to abandon their “N44 trillion” investment and leave. That was good to hear but that statement should have been made a long time ago to Uwazuruike and Kanu whom they never condemned.