Democratic Socialist Movement

For Struggle, Solidarity and Socialism in Nigeria

By - DSM

BIAFRA: Socialists and the Agitation for Self-determination

BIAFRA: Socialists and the Agitation for Self-determination

Chinedu Agbebire

Agitation for the creation of what pro- Biafra groups envisage as a Sovereign Biafran nation has resumed with vigour in the south east and some parts of the south-south of Nigeria. The police have repeatedly clashed with the protesters leading, among others, to the detention of Mr. Nnamdi Kanu, the leader of the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) and the Director of Radio Biafra (a pirate radio operated from London).

But Kanu’s continued detention since Wednesday, 14th of October by the Department of State Security have not dampened the morale of the protesters as thousands more continue to pour to the streets. The army has joined the fray by threatening to deal ruthlessly with the Biafran agitators.

Should this happen, there would be further outrage not just on the part of the Biafran agitators but other easterners who since the defeat of Biafra by the Federal Armed forces following a three year civil war between 1967 and 1970 have always claimed that they were marginalized. To be sure no south easterner has been elected Nigeria’s president since the return of civil rule in 1999 although the south eastern elite have always been big players in the Nigerian ruling class’s political game. But like other parts of Nigeria that have produced national political leaders, the mass of the peoples have nothing to show for it but poverty.

A striking evidence of this is the growth and development of the Boko Haram terrorist group in the north east, part of the northern area which produced Nigeria’s first civilian government after independence and the region whose elite has occupied the seat of power more than any other in the country.

Repeated calls for separation rooted in 1914 and capitalism

But against the background of alleged marginalization, the Biafran struggle has been long lasting.

It first arose at the dawn of independence out of the internecine jostling for dominance and political power of the competing ruling elites of each of the ethnic groups that made up the country called Nigeria. Starting from the January 15, 1966 coup d’état and the counter-coup staged mainly by Northern officers who reportedly murdered 185 Igbo officers and the four-month pogrom which, according to late Chinua Achebe’s personal reflection in his book “There was a country”, saw over 30, 000 Easterners killed across the country, events quickly degenerated into a 30-month civil war. At the end of the war in 1970, over 1 million Easterners had been either killed or displaced.

Yet it must be stressed that the Biafran agitation has its root in the decision of the British imperialists to create, on January 1 1914, to unify two of their colonial possessions into one colony. The diverse nationalities and ethnic groups that make up the geographical entity called Nigeria were never under common political and religious authority and at the onset of British colonialism, had always been separately governed by the British colonial masters in London through its local representatives. However through the 1914 amalgamation of the Northern and Southern protectorates, they were merged together as one geographical entity without the democratic courtesy of allowing the people that make up these diverse nationalities to decide through a democratic referendum if they wish to live together. The agenda of the British colonial administration was to use the surplus being generated from its administration of Lagos in the West and Calabar colonies in the then East together with other part of southern region to subsidize the administration of its vast northern territory. On the basis of the undemocratic unification of diverse people without seeking their opinion, Nigeria has ever been placed on the volatile path of ethno-cultural and self-determination plane. Hence, the imperial British colonial masters are culpable of Nigeria’s woes. However the inherently unjust capitalist system which inevitably creates conditions of poverty and inequality not just between classes but also between ethnic groups and regions within a nation as well as capitalist politicians and ethnic entrepreneurs who frequently stoke ethnic and religious sentiments to gain advantage in the competition for political power have in turn deepened this primordial division.

The impact in the east of Buhari’s victory

Expectedly, the emergence of Muhammadu Buhari, a member of the Hausa-Fulani ruling oligarchy, as Nigeria’s elected president in the March 28, 2015 presidential election that ousted the government of Goodluck Ebele Jonathan, a South-South man, subsequently resurrected the agitation for secession by the Igbo. Apparently the Igbos, alongside some portion of south-south, were gripped with fear of marginalization by the new government given that the majority of them had voted for and supported the former president.

This fear and mistrust was however compounded during and after 2015 election. The Igbos received series of verbal threats from many of the ruling elites of other tribes and nationalities. Few days to the gubernatorial election in Lago state, Oba Rilwan Akiolu, the foremost traditional ruler in Lagos, threatened the Igbo people in Lagos, demanding that they to choose between voting for his candidate, Akinwumi Ambode of All Progressive Congress (APC) or face the risk of being thrown into a lagoon. Luckily his candidate won the election and a few Igbo politicians on the platform of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) even won elections in Lagos into both the state assembly and national assembly. But it was not only the APC politicians that are guilty of using this kind of divisive threats. In fact more than the APC, the PDP employed ethnic and religious sentiments and hate speeches on a vast scale across the country in a desperate effort to prevent their defeat.

The Lagos government occasionally shut Ladipo market which is dominated by the Igbo traders. This has been interpreted as a political vendetta by the Igbos. Besides, under Babatunde Fashola government some helpless traders majorly of Igbo extraction were picked off the streets of Lagos and dumped at Upper Iweka Bridge in Anambra state. The reason was that the poor traders, according to the government, were constituting nuisance in the state and therefore had to be sent back home. Though some Yoruba poor people were also deported by the state government to other states in the Southwest, the national question meant that it was the ill-treatment of poor Igbo that generated anger.

It is all of these that prepared the ground for the resurgence that the idea of Biafra is now getting. The whole fear was further accentuated by the alleged lopsided nature of President Muhammadu Buhari cabinet. The Igbos felt left out and marginalized. This is in spite of the fact that there are actually some Igbos in Buhari’s cabinet and many Igbos continue to hold frontline positions in business (especially commerce), industry, entertainment and sports. Side by side with this is the memory and scars of the 1967 to 1970 civil war which are still alive in the hearts of many today despite that it occurred 45 years ago. In that war, the Eastern side suffered heavy losses. Beyond the losses in lives and limbs was the destruction of the economy of the region which meant that long after the war officially ended, many Igbos were struggling with the problems of survival as they try to pick up the pieces of their lives. The post war declaration of “no victor no vanquished” by the Nigeria federal government seems to exist only on paper. In any case, those who were vanquished were well aware of that fact.

The national question and capitalist inequality

As a result of capitalism and the anti-poor policies of privatization, over 80 percent of Nigeria’s wealth which could be enough to provide a happy life for all Nigerians regardless of tribe and religion is cornered by just a few capitalist ruling elites of all ethnic nationalities. The resultant situation is that the remaining 20 percent becomes inadequate to ensure vital social programmes like education, health, roads and public infrastructures, employment etc. go round and are evenly distributed across the country. In this situation of capitalist-induced inequality, nepotism and clientilism become the primary means through which social programmes and jobs are distributed thus promoting a situation where one ethnic group inevitably gets or appear to have gotten an unfair share of government attention compared to others.

This is the only way to begin to understand why the Igbos continue to feel they are at the bottomless ebb of federal government policies since Nigeria got her independence in 1960. Thus, every average Igbo person tends to see a Hausa person as the cause of his or her perpetual suffering. This is despite the fact that the North remains the least developed region of the country with statistics showing poverty, homelessness and destitution to be more endemic in this part which proves, as Socialists have repeatedly argued, that ordinary working class and poor Northerners have benefitted nothing from the fact that the Northern ruling elites have been in power for more than half of the 55-years of existence of Nigeria as an independent country. In addition, some sections of the Igbo masses without access to basic food, housing, health care, education, jobs, are being made to believe that things would have been fundamentally different had it been that their political and economic affairs were being run and controlled by elements from their nationalities and cultural backgrounds. This belief is a mere soothing balm of illusion of terribly injured and battered victims of capitalism.

Despite always striving to build united struggles of all working people, regardless of ethnicity, religion or gender, and also recognising the enormous advantages of a larger country such as Nigeria, Socialists believe that it is the inalienable right of any aggrieved nationality to demand for self-determination up to the point of secession so far it is the expressed wish of the majority of the people of that area. Unity cannot be enforced by force of arms. However, we are also quick to warn that secession on its own will not ultimately lift the mass of the people out of the ocean of poverty and deprivation which is one of the underlying causes of the present agitation for Biafra and the seemingly interminable agitations and conflicts involving other aggrieved nationalities within Nigeria.

As long as capitalism remains the system of governance, the ocean of poverty in the midst of abundance and inexhaustible wealth ravaging the whole of Southeast/South-South will continue to exist even with the emergence of a Biafra nation. The former president, Ebele Goodluck Jonathan, a Bayelsa man from the South-South ruled this country for six years and yet Otueke, his home town is nothing to write home about in terms of government presence. The same goes for other former presidents like Olusegun Obasanjo and late Umaru Yar’adua. Does it not negate logic that the richest black man in the world, Aliko Dangote, is from the North – the region having the highest number of school-age children out of school in Nigeria?

Separation and keeping capitalism no solution

This is more reason why the Igbo working class, peasants and youth should link the struggle of an independent and sovereign Biafra nation with the struggle to end capitalism. Otherwise the situation would be a plunge from the frying pan into fire. To further buttress the failure of capitalism and the illusion to have an equal and just society on the basis of capitalism, Abia state is one of the states in the south east that has found itself worse-off since the return of democracy in 1999. The state has one of the worst infrastructural decay in the whole of Nigeria. And this is a state that has been governed by Igbo men, first by Orji Uzo Kalu followed by Theodore Orji and now Victor Ikpeazu. If these are the same characters that would govern an independent and sovereign Biafra nation, the Igbo working masses and youth should not expect any fundamental improvement in their conditions. Only a democratic Socialist republic of Biafra under which the commanding heights of the economy are put under public ownership, democratic control and management can begin to ensure that there is fundamental improvement in the socio-economic condition of the Igbo working masses and youth. Furthermore a Biafra ruled by workers and the poor would appeal to the other nationalities in Nigeria and West Africa to follow their example and end the rule of capitalism.

Just as the ruling elites of different nationalities in Nigeria and the world at large remain united under the canopy of capitalism to protect their selfish interest against the welfare of the working masses, the working class and the oppressed irrespective of their nationality, religion and cultural background must also in turn unite against the common enemies and oppressors. It is important to stress that the current animosity among different nationalities in Nigeria today is premised on the ruling elite’s machination. The masses of other nationalities must therefore not give in to the rhetoric of their ruling elites to support a war on pro-Biafra Igbos as happened during the civil war from 1967 to 1970. Rather they must offer hands of solidarity to their Igbo brothers and sisters in the struggle for self-determination and to defeat the monstrous capitalism and its representatives.

The same goes for the Igbo working class and youth who are protesting for the release of Nnamdi Kanu and for recognition of an independent and Sovereign Biafra nation. The dangerous ethnic-based and hate propaganda, championed by Radio Biafra and IPOB, whose aim is to make Igbos see the people of other nationalities as automatically their enemies are unacceptable to Socialists. Rather than advance the cause of Igbo people who may genuinely desire secession, this sort of hate propaganda can easily provoke a pogrom with Hausas, Yorubas and other ethnic groups becoming objects of attacks and retaliatory attacks being organised elsewhere. It should not be forgotten that one reason for the result of the Civil War was that non-Igbo nationalities within Biafra felt themselves suppressed, with the result that they looked to the Federal Government for protection. Socialists always link support for the right of self-determination with the defence of the full rights of any minorities within a newly created state.

Still a basis for pan-Nigerian struggle

Meanwhile every ethnic nationality in Nigeria has cultivated relationship over the decades with each other through trade, inter-marriage and migration. Therefore every nationality has people in every part and corner of the country. The Igbos in particular are a more mobile people who engage mostly in commerce and can be found everywhere including the remotest of villages in the West for instance. Especially in Lagos, Port Harcourt and Abuja, the Igbos exist in huge numbers and have investments worth billions of dollars. Therefore a pogrom will be potentially devastating especially for the working people of each of the nationalities. More so, a development of this nature will only play into the hands of the Buhari administration and allow it to launch a military onslaught that would be justified as necessary to curb mayhem.

Some have claimed that a sovereign state of Biafra is impossible given the fact that the Igbo nation is landlocked and that its chances of survival would continue to be dependent on Nigeria and surrounding nations. This is especially so since, unlike the situation in 1967, the oil-rich South South would most likely not go along with the Igbos if they secede. While this point is vital, yet it does not necessarily vitiate the agitation for secession if it is the expressed desire of the entire people of the South east. Rather this emphasizes the need for the working people to ensure that, if it becomes necessary to fight for secession, it is not for simple flag independence but also for a democratic socialist socio-economic order that can ensure that the resources and economy are publicly owned, democratically controlled and managed in the interest of the mass majority and not a tiny few.

Notwithstanding the many national questions Nigeria faces we have also a proud history of unified movements against oppression and poverty. Already this century has seen mighty united struggles of working people and poor across Nigeria. Between 2000 and January 2012 nine (9) general strikes took place and a further four (4) general strike calls were cancelled at the last minute. The January 2012 movement saw workers consciously striving to prevent religious divisions undermining that struggle.

Now Socialists are calling for united action which is urgently required to fight for a living minimum wage and against the attacks which the developing economic crisis threatens. It is on this basis that a united challenge to capitalism has to be built, a challenge which includes on its banner a clear call for an end to all forms of national, religious or gender oppression.

Capitalism and the legacy of colonialism are the chief obstacles to a lasting unity of diverse ethnic groups and people. Once this is removed, it can be possible for a relationship based on genuine human solidarity, rather than competition and exploitation, to emerge. If the call for independence gains mass support socialists would argue, in the event of a separation, for a democratic socialist republic of Biafra and a democratic socialist Nigeria can often cooperate and unite under a confederation of Socialist states to jointly plan how to utilize collective resources to improve the living standards of their people.

History has revealed the nonchalant attitude of Nigeria ruling elites and their unwillingness to develop Nigeria. Severally the elites of the major nationalities had the opportunities to determine whether Nigeria should be or not due to their separate diversities but due to their individual and collective selfish interest these opportunities were squandered these opportunities and resolved to keep intact this colonial creation so as to continue to lot endlessly. The historical responsibility of organizing the society on a human plan is squarely on the shoulders of the working class and the oppressed irrespective of nationality and cultural background.