By Tochukwu Ezukanma
A onetime British Prime Minister, William Gladstone, called the Constitution of the United States of American “the most wonderful work ever struck off at a given time by the brain and purpose of man”. And American was conceived in “such brave hope and largeness of ideas”. The ideals that underpinned the nation were encapsulated in her creed “we hold this fact self-evident that all men are created equal”. It was an article of faith both revolutionary and transcendental by the standards of the time (the 18th Century).
Ironically, America evolved one of the most entrenched and intractable racism in human history; an ingrained and perverse racism that once informed a US Supreme Court ruling that Blacks in America have no right “which any White man was bound to respect”. If a country governed by an unbeatable constitution and inspired by pious and pioneering idealism produced such racism that so thoroughly disfranchised a section of her citizenry, it is then “self-evident” that no country, political arrangement or human institution can be perfect.
If countries with all the essentials of nationhood have daunting and lingering problems, what then is expected of Nigeria, a farrago of peoples, cultures and religions roped together purposely in furtherance of British colonialism? At inception, Nigeria lacked the basic elements of nationhood: unifying theme, rallying points, article of faith, etc. The closest thing to a Nigerian creed was a refrain in our now discarded national anthem “though tribe and tongue may differ, in brotherhood we stand”. It was written by an English lady. The denizen made reference to a brotherhood that was, for the most part, none-existent. What brotherhood – kin, linguistic, or religious – was she referring to? For, initially, none of these existed in any substantial form in the unwieldy artificial sovereignty. Despite these limitations, the different peoples of Nigeria, with varying degrees of commitment, resolved to keep Nigeria united. But then, it was to be a union of understandable delicateness; requiring cautious and subtle handling.
Without rally points like a nationally-spoken language and common history, the complex task of forging a nation out of Nigeria overwhelmed our leaders. They tried very hard but did not have much success; they failed to give Nigerians a unified sense of purpose. Without an overarching heritage and a unified sense of purpose, the new country was beset with many problems, especially, tribalism, and its attendant ethnic rivalry, ethnic hegemony, ethnic strife, fear of real and supposed victimization, etc. Quite naturally, at different points, different ethnic and regional groups felt aggrieved, and invariably, sought justice and/or redress for their grievances. Refreshingly, Nigerian history has shown that offended groups in Nigerians that patiently sought redress usually attain the object of their quest.
For example, the peoples of the Niger Delta were understandably pained. In extracting the oil that keeps Nigeria financially afloat, the oil companies pollute the land and waterways. This created serious health hazards, and made it impossible for the people, traditionally, farmers and fishermen, to farm and fish. With their health imperiled and sources of livelihood ruined, the people wasted away in sickness, disease and raw-dirt poverty. Still, the federal government and the oil companies, in their snootiness and insensitivity, refused to use some of the oil revenue to create jobs and economic opportunities, and provide schools, hospitals and other social facilities in the area. They demanded justice and fought for it. Interestingly, they did these as Nigerians in Nigeria. They did not try to secede and become citizens of an oil-rich Fantasy Island. For the most part, they achieved their objectives. More money was made available to their states’ governments; the derivation for oil producing states was increased from 5% to 13%. Federal government agencies, like the Ministry of Niger Delta and Niger Delta Development Corporation were created to attend to their needs and advance their welfare.
And the annulment of the June 12, 1993 election incensed many Nigerians, mostly, the Yoruba. The cancellation of a free and fair election because a non-Hausa/Fulani, a Yoruba, was poised to win the election was Apartheid in its most brazen form. The Yoruba were justifiably roiled by Hausa/Fulani rendition of apartheid, unyielding, systematic attempt by the Hausa/Fulani to retain an exclusive hold on political power, even in defiance of the collective will of Nigerians. They defended Moshood Abiola’s presidential victory in Nigeria, not in secession from Nigeria. They were victorious; they got eight years of Yoruba presidency.
The bane of the Igbo is that unlike the other peoples of Nigeria, we seek redress for our grievances outside of Nigeria, in Biafra. Earlier, before we started seeking restitutions and remedies in Biafra, the Igbo were the most committed to Nigerian unity and then, we excelled in every spectrum of the Nigerian social life to the point that other Nigerians became jittery of “Igbo domination”. The January 1966 coup and its aftermath deeply and unappeasably enraged the Hausa/Fulani. Their rage found expression in murderous fanaticism; they murdered about 30,000 Igbo. Still, the mass-murder did not justify Igbo secession from Nigeria.
But, swayed by oratorical flourishes and propagandistic exaggerations, we, for the first time, looked for justice and restitution not in Nigeria but in a make-believe Utopia, Biafra. It was this Biafranism that caused the war.
Ezukanma writes from Lagos