May 30, 2019 marks the 53rd anniversary of the declaration of the Republic of Biafra. For the sake of a younger generation that has not been taught Nigerian history, it is important to put some context to the emergence of Biafra. It may all have started from the political crisis of 1964 which culminated in the coups of January 15, and July 29, 1966. What is clear is that the declaration of Biafra followed a very long chain of events.
Of all the factors that led to war, the greatest was the mass killing of the Igbo especially in Northern Nigeria, but across Nigeria in general. The Igbo recoiled from Nigeria in that moment. One must understand this: the Igbo concept, and valorization of life, particularly human life, made the scale of killing both horrifying and traumatic to the Igbo psyche. A violation of the greatest “nso” had happened and because the modern Igbo had never before confronted death at that scale, it felt apocalyptic. As a matter of fact, two greatest events that have most impacted modern Igbo history is the slave trade and the civil war, of which the killings in the North was an important prelude.
On July 6, 1967, the Federal government of Nigeria launched the war against the former Eastern region, which five weeks earlier had seceded and declared itself the republic of Biafra. Was secession inevitable? Yes indeed, in the circumstance, it was. Lt. Colonel Chukwuemeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu had hedged against secession, and had argued against the secession of the East. He had much to lose in terms of his family’s investments outside of the Eastern Region. His millionaire father had died the previous September, and legend had it that they had argued on the question of the Eastern regions threat to seize the assets of Shell Petroleum if Shell failed to pay revenues into an Eastern Nigerian account. Ojukwu’s father was Chairman of Shell. Had Sir Louis not died that September 1966 of a sudden heart attack, would Ojukwu have been more persuaded not to declare Biafra? This is uncertain. What is very certain however is that once he was mandated by the severe pressure by Eastern leaders to declare a separate country, Ojukwu took the gauntlet, and ran with it. He provided the best possible leadership under the circumstance, and for three years fought with skill and led by personal examples.
There is something in the Igbo cultural psychology that does not permit the making of permanent idols. Ancient Igbo religion forbids idolatry. To infuse extraordinary and permanent agency on an object or symbol is anathema to the Igbo construction, and view of being, and his/her relationship with the divine essence from which all conscious Igbo claim their originary. This ancient code that forbids the making of idols is encoded in the Igbo law of impermanence. It is often reflected in the Mbari practices. In Mbari, once every four-year cycle, the priest of the goddess, Ala, is mandated to seek the fairest of the land, in what might as well have been an ancient fertility ritual, as well as ceremony of innocence, and isolate them. Through their period of isolation, they would create a museum of memory – a grand temple dedicated to the land called “Ulo Mbari.” On an appointed day, the museum/temple would be opened for public viewing with appropriate ceremony and prayers by the Priests. The Mbari would thereafter be allowed to decay and fall back into the earth.
These cycles of renewal and decay reflect an important dimension to Igbo conceptions of the world. I think that this practice and its worldview is why the Igbo did not build permanent empires, and allowed the ones they built to decay and even disappear. But I also think that the Igbo, constantly aware of the possibility of human excess, understood that any practice that gives extraordinary force to an individual or an idea, risks self-destruction and overreach. And thus the ancient Igbo say, “if an idol begins to act beyond its restraint, we quickly show it the tree from which it was carved.” Yes, to the Igbo, no condition is permanent. No individual can be greater than the whole. But above all, not even an idol, made from human will as far as the Igbo are concerned, can be all-powerful.
Igbo have no fear of death because they believe they will reincarnate to complete their earthly tasks, should they pass from this physical world, and after that assume their places, in perfect immortality.
The Igbo relationship, even with God is transactional. God, “the great Orisha that created the world,” according to the Igbo, does not even require the Igbo man to kneel, lie down, or bow before him. There is no image of God in any Igbo shrine, because God is far too unrepresentable and cannot be encapsulated in a single object. There are of course, the mmuo, agnatic spirits, which the Igbo represent in objects placed on the shrines they erect to themselves, but God to the traditional Igbo, is inside everyone, and is in everything, and therefore there is no single terrifying, and demanding image to bow before. So, even before God, far too removed and in his very distant abode, the Igbo stand straight to offer oblation and proclaim adoration. And if the Igbo does not bow before the great God, according to their covenant with Okike, who then is man, that the Igbo should bow before him? This unanswerable question is why the Igbo do not make kings. Why the Igbo salute with their right hands to indicate the equality of all men. Igbo have no fear of death because they believe they will reincarnate to complete their earthly tasks, should they pass from this physical world, and after that assume their places, in perfect immortality.
The greatest fear of the Igbo, that which makes them profoundly melancholic to the point of suicide is to be subdued, and be forced to violate the covenant with their God, and bow their heads to another, because it marks both the enslavement and the death of the personal “Chi.” A man whose “Chi” is dead, or whose “Chi” abandons him, has no more reason to live, because the indwelling God that makes the true Igbo assume his or her “onwe” – his/her place as a “living god,” journeying through this human incarnation, is the foundation of Igbo being, and the source of their claim to divine and equal personhood. Okonkwo’s suicide at the end of Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart signifies this Igbo attitude to a “dead Chi.” It is a complex sense of the self, the “onwe,” which many who encounter the Igbo still are unable to understand. But to understand it will put into very significant context, Igbo response to, and spiritual disconnection from, Nigeria, since the end of the civil war.
The first imperative of the Biafra of the mind is for the Igbo to understand that Biafra was but the local phase of an international problem in the general process of decolonization.
The loss of the war to the Igbo in 1970, was almost akin to the death of their “Chi.” It was in understanding this impact on the Igbo national psyche, that Azikiwe negotiated the end of that war on the basis of “No Victor, No vanquished.” It was also in apprehending this that Odumegwu-Ojukwu, soon on his return from a ten-year exile, quickly launched himself into the program of the political rehabilitation of the Igbo. It was in the process of this, and out of deep reflection, that Ojukwu arrived at the conceptual frame of a “Biafra of the mind.” Ojukwu was given the gifts of hindsight to understand, as the leader of Biafra, the limitations of the secessionist movement he led. We must at least examine the sophisticated and pragmatic basis of the “Biafra of the Mind.” The first imperative of the Biafra of the mind is for the Igbo to understand that Biafra was but the local phase of an international problem in the general process of decolonization.
The colonial regime had left Nigeria with an unfinished business; a condign situation of which Biafra was an inexorable expression. The aftermath of the war has detained Nigeria and prevented its historical evolution as a coherent national space. With the deformation of its politics, and the spiritual and moral absence of the real catalysts of national independence, the Igbo, Nigeria was to flounder, and thus pose very little problem in the postcolonial exploitation of its natural resource. The East, the real drivers of nationalist consciousness posed the greatest threat to the post imperial designs on Nigeria, and needed to be taken out of the picture. The continuous spiritual absence of the Igbo from the nation-space continues to weaken, not only the Igbo, but their historic project of nation-building, Nigeria.
The Biafra of the mind requires that the Igbo return fully to this project with their real Plan B, fortified by their experience of war. The war had given a snatch view of just what the Igbo could do, technologically, and in terms of sheer organization of human and natural resources. It requires the innovative spirit and energy of the Igbo to rebuild Nigeria, and take it back from the brinks of self-destruction; from the ethos consumption, to an ethos of radical production.
As Ojukwu said, in that war, while Nigeria was a dumping ground for all sorts foreign goods, much of it useless, Biafra was a vast workshop. Daily in the East, you could hear the fervent echo of the hammer on the anvil. While in Nigeria, you could hear the loud retching of post-party hangovers of contract-millionaires living and partying on the advance-fees of unfinished contracts – much of it bogus. The loss of the Igbo mind has led to a massive brain drain that has hollowed out Nigeria, and to a condition of spiritual exile by the Igbo in Nigeria, which has thus far fractured Nigeria, and handed it to the oversight of a “third eleven” of national leadership. But the option for the Igbo is not a “new Biafra.” The real option for the Igbo is to circulate inside Nigeria, the idea of Biafra. And what is the idea of Biafra? That all men are born free and equal. There is no king. There is no peasant. There is only the citizen under the constitution of the republic.
Biafra of the mind requires a push to rebuild the republic, and bring down the “Oga-at-the-top” mentality which has fortified the estate of those who have exploited the nation through a system of “middleman” distribution of power and privilege. The idea of Biafra is about inclusive and participatory citizenship. Biafra of the mind insists on the full citizenship of all people in the nation-space. The idea of Biafra is about justice – social justice, economic justice, political justice – as the foundation of consent between the citizen and the nation. The idea of Biafra is about economic determinism. It is about the risorgimento. It is about the full technological independence of Africa in a world arrayed against it.
The Igbo have the capacity to change the course of modern Nigeria. This will by no means be an easy fight, nor do I suggest that it is an easy option, but it is certainly an easier fight, and a more pragmatic option
The Igbo can lead this charge for a national rebirth. They led the fight against an imperial power during the phase of the anti-colonial nationalist movement; they can lead the charge for the restoration of the ideals of a new Nigerian republic very easily. The Igbo have the capacity to change the course of modern Nigeria. This will by no means be an easy fight, nor do I suggest that it is an easy option, but it is certainly an easier fight, and a more pragmatic option than a “new Biafra” separatism, and a “new Biafra” republic located in a potentially fractious territory, that might leave the Igbo with a nation in continuous war with itself and with its neighbors. The Biafra of the mind calls for Igbo transcendence and expansion. It is by all means, a far more elegant idea.
♦ Obi Nwakanma is Professor of English and Transatlantic Studies.
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