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Olusegun Obasanjo: Resurgent Biafra Agitation: Born In Error, Ignorance and Frustration

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I am very cautious about getting myself into any debate or conversation concerning the Movement for the Actualisation of the Sovereign State of Biafra (MASSOB), its many hydra-formed iterations, and its resurgent Biafra agitation. I had taken this position because I suspected that the agitation was born in error and ignorance, and the personal frustration of many of the frontline demagogues of this new nightmare and their supporters and sympathisers.

I also believed that, at best, the agitation was at a regional level and that no inadvertent helping hand should be lent to it to make it national.

I first spoke on this resurgence a few weeks ago at the funeral of a friend’s mother and even at the event I could only muster a few vague words of warning.

But today, at this platform afforded me by the Yar’Adua Centre and Nextier’s Development Discourse, we will proceed to the task at hand, a conversation on this new resurgence. What are the errors, the ignorance and the frustration? And what should be done about them? Why have the agitations garnered such national attention in the last few months?

Let me deal with the not-so-distant past: the last presidential election. There were errors of perception, understanding and knowledge.

Muhammadu Buhari was presented by his political detractors—and perceived by many honest Nigerians fooled by this dangerous rhetoric—as a rabid Moslem fundamentalist, who was secretly behind Boko Haram and who, on coming to power, would islamise the whole of Nigeria. I call this The Buhari bogey! The seemingly stern and starchy appearance of Buhari and his not being seen with any known close friend in the South-East, outside his military colleagues, aided the misperception.

But as morning shows the day, what Nigerians and the world have seen of President Buhari in the first eight months of his presidency shows him far from being a jihadist. From my personal experience, no Nigerian leader can embark on a mission of proselytisation and hope to succeed. The same goes for leaders with ethnic, tribal, sectional and/or regional agendas against the overall national interest.

On the other side, there was also the error of perception of President Goodluck Jonathan. I have, before now, said a few of what I know and what determined my position in the contest between Buhari and Jonathan. I do not intend to say anymore except that the findings and revelations that have come out thus far have not proved me wrong.

I would like to believe that these two mis-readings and misperceptions led substantially to the pattern of voting in the South-East in the last presidential election. Voting along regional lines, or voting en-bloc against or for a candidate can be regarded as normal and should not by itself be a problem. But we must hold with apprehension the fear that led to such voting and its subsequent contribution to this resurgence of protests.

What happened in the South-East was not too different from what happened in the South-West in 1999. It was a similar experience in 1999 when the South-West did not vote for me because I did not emerge from the stump of the ‘correct’ political stock in Yorubaland and I was perceived to be a likely stooge of those who supported me from outside the South-West, particularly from the North. They were proved wrong in the first few years of my presidency and, in the following election, I got as much support from the South-West as I got from anywhere else.

The solution is first for leaders and elders in the South-East to caution realism and sanity among the youth and for the president to prove that Nigeria is his constituency; he should act like God who gives rain to the good and bad, the just and the unjust, in the world equally as the world belongs to God in totality.

The agitators also suffer from the error of misreading the history of Nigeria or not reading it at all. There is no going back in our history. Going back from where we are will be at an unbearable cost. I will come back to this issue momentarily.

This brings me to what I term as ignorance as part of the cause of the agitation. The Nigerian Civil War ended forty-six years ago. As a participant in that war, and as one used by God to bring the war to a humane and brotherly end in the field, I have said on many occasions that I have fought one civil war too many in Nigeria. In the end, both sides were losers and if there was any winner, both sides were winners.

No right-thinking person who has experienced the horrors of war will ever agitate for more war. Most wars stem from real and perceived injustices and dissatisfaction, and invariably wars emanate from a desire to correct or redress such situations. Our civil war was not any different. But at the end of almost all wars, jaw-jaw takes over from the boom and devastation of the gun. That is the path of wisdom, prudence and political sagacity. If the elders abdicate their responsibility to the immaturity, inadequate experience, unrealistic idealism and the frustration of the young, it will no doubt lead to disaster. Let me quote from my introduction of the 2015 edition of my book on the Nigerian Civil War, My Command: “There is not much to say that has not already been said. As this book is presented to a new generation of readers, I only ask that they read it, compare with other stories that have been told whether in response to the first publication of this book, or not, and reach the conclusion about the war that all well-meaning Nigerians must reach: Never again!”

Errors, mixed with ignorance, will lead to wrong decisions and wrong actions which will exacerbate an already uncertain and unsteady situation. Great apprehension sets in to make the situation worse; this is particularly true for the youth, who, with or without education, have no employment and look to the future with despair and uncertainty. They become desperate, frustrated and try to visit their frustration and anger on anything within their reach. That, to me, substantially explains the misfortune of most of the resurgent Biafra agitators. They need to be understood, because a lack of understanding with its appropriate remedy will drive them further into the hands of demagogues and opportunists who will thrive on their desperation and frustration, turning these into criminality and extremism against their parents, community leaders and elders, regional leaders and elders and against national unity, ethos and values.

Without local and national solutions to their bruised sense in disappointment and anger, they will carry their menace beyond their homes, communities and region and will nationalise and even internationalise the crisis, putting a different twist on it. There are always sympathetic ‘do-gooders’ out there who will feed and fuel their agitation, baseless as it may be. Our solution, which must be at the family, community, local, regional and national levels, must be embarked upon separately and collectively.

Biafra as a secession issue is dead and nobody should follow that way. It can again only lead to disaster. But I see this resurgent Biafra agitation not for secession or creation of an independent entity from Nigeria but as a cry for attention, amelioration and improvement of socio-economic conditions and situation, especially of the youth in Nigeria in general, but in the South-East in particular – a call by the youth of that region for transformation. I see it as a platform rather than a cause.

The solutions lie in education, awareness-raising, youth acquisition of skills, youth empowerment and youth employment. By education, I imply more than basic education or literacy and academic attainment. Knowing enough about ourselves in this country, our different groups’ history, our national history, culture, characteristics and what each group added to the whole and what each group can still contribute to the whole, Nigeria is what it is because each group is a vital and dynamic part of the whole, the indissoluble whole as prescribed by our Constitution.

In my part of the world, when a young person behaves uncharacteristically, people ask, “Are there no elders in your family.” It means that he or she has not been given an education and an awareness that is more than school education. Let us speak well of ourselves collectively and cohesively. It is also part of the way to national unity and future greatness of our country. This is essentially a family, community, state and national responsibility. At all levels, we must neither shirk nor abdicate our responsibilities in this regard. We must not succumb to fear, intimidation or threats and name calling.

Happily enough, judging by the information I received on the meeting of serious, authentic and responsible Igbo stakeholders, elders and leaders on December 17, 2015, it is gratifying and re-assuring that these leaders and others like them saw no sense nor future for the resuscitation of Biafra but expressed concern for the socio-economic situation which has been progressively going down in the past five years in the country generally and particularly in the South-East, culminating in observable grinding poverty and gross infrastructural decay and dereliction.

The responsibility for correcting and updating the youth on Nigerian political history should not be left in the hands of the elders and leaders of the South-East alone but there must be consultation, mutual support and solidarity among our leaders and elders nationwide to ensure national integrity and to make our national unity inviolate.

The devil finds work for idle hands and fills empty minds. There is even some suspicion that the agitators embarked on the act in order to extort money from outsiders and to also extract financial support from the government. The commercialisation and exploitation of Biafra agitation is obscene to the point of criminal fraudulence.

Or, how do you explain the issuance of the so-called Biafran passport that takes anyone to nowhere and for which unwary people are being charged exorbitant prices. We must neither allow evil to find work for our youth nor to fill their unoccupied minds with satanic ideas, thoughts, decisions and actions. The way to achieve this is to encourage entrepreneurship and job creation. At the community, state and national levels, a conducive environment and conditions must be created for the promotion of private sector entrepreneurs and investors, both local and foreign, to make our different areas as irresistible for investment, job creation and wealth generation destinations as possible.

Again, innovation must come into our thinking and action in the areas of employment generation and wealth creation. In addition to the traditional ways of doing things, let us also think and act out of the box. Innovation is not hard to be brought about in this digital age and times.

Not too long ago, in the South-West, there was a problem with Odua People’s Congress (OPC), which was created to frustrate Abacha’s self-perpetuation ambition. So were the Egbesu and MASSOB initially. Later, Arewa Peoples Congress (APC) joined them. Different approaches – political, economic and social – were devised to deal with their menace when OPC became a Frankenstein monster.

One of such approaches that worked so well was to encourage them to form vigilantes, guards and protection groups formally and legally. They were hired and paid, thereby leaving the menace perpetrated through informality to the good and gainful employment through the formal. The emerging economic situation at that time also helped.

Biafra agitation has also been regarded as an industry for those who are looking for money by hook or by crook, particularly from gullible sympathisers abroad. Some leaders are seen as likely standing behind the smokescreen as a means of extracting more from the government in the centre. That, by itself, may not be an unusual strategy but it must not be carried too far.

Above all things, good governance at all levels is the key solution. The welfare and well-being of the citizenry with equity, justice and fairness must be the main pre-occupation of government at all levels. It must also be the pre-occupation of the family and the community and all hands must be on deck. Measured toleration not inimical to security, unity and corporate existence of Nigeria is a mark of both leadership and good governance.

I cannot end without reiterating that Biafra agitation as a means of calling for secession or severance from Nigeria is a hopeless and futile exercise on which nobody in seriousness should embark on. However, I see it as a symbol of desperation, despair and frustration of the youth, being expressed by them for all to hear and redress in the South-East and elsewhere in the country. But Biafra? – Never again! And we must avoid the coalition of “the unwilling but forced by circumstances”.

Nigeria cannot afford to go from Boko Haram insurgency to any other insurgency under any name or guise. And on no account should we wittingly or unwittingly allow this to happen again. Youth education, welfare, well-being, empowerment and employment must be our collective duty, obligation and responsibility. Youths have no right in their expression of desperation and frustration to embark on wanton and wicked acts of destruction of property and wares of ordinary men and women in the markets to make the situation even worse for these poor and helpless citizens.

Bitterness, anger, destruction and wickedness can only worsen an already bad socio-economic situation. That will be unwise. Let us ventilate, learn and be informed without resort to violence, bitterness, animosity and destruction.

Let us hold on together to our constitutionally undissolvable Nigeria. And, together, through dialogue, debate and discussion, we can correct what is wrong and make our country what God has created it to be: a land flowing with milk and honey, a leader among the black race and one of the leading nations of the world. Greatness is in us potentially, let us join hands to actualise it.

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Olusegun Obasanjo is a former president of the Federal Republic of Nigeria.

This paper was delivered on January 15, 2016, in Abuja, at a public event organised by the Yar’Adua Centre and Nextier’s Development Discourse.

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