Nigeria: Resolving the so-called ‘Igbo Problem’

Kasirim Nwuke
By Kasirim Nwuke

Economist with more than 25 years of experience at the national and international levels. He works and writes on economics, science, technology and innovation, and society with special focus on the digital economy.

Posted on Tuesday, 8 June 2021 11:04
Traditional ruler Prince Ozo Onna joins supporters of Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) leader Nnamdi Kanu in a rally in Abuja, Nigeria December 1, 2015. REUTERS/Afolabi Sotunde

To paraphrase Karl Marx, there is a spectre haunting Nigeria - the spectre of disintegration. At no time has the presence of this spectre being so palpably felt than in the last three months.

Every day, the front pages of Nigeria’s newspapers are filled with reports of abductions, kidnappings for ransom, political assassinations, etc. Rather than design and promulgate policies to arrest the deterioration, President Buhari and his aides have been busy searching for people and groups to blame. It is clear to any objective observer that the president has lost control of the country.

Biafra is an idea, a dream, founded on a shared sense of loss, grief and victimhood.

The Indigenous People of Biafra

Of all the groups alleged to be threatening Nigeria at the moment, none appears to be causing as much concern to the current administration as the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB), a radical breakaway faction of the Movement for the Actualization of the Sovereign State of Biafra (MASSOB) – an openly secessionist movement whose aim is to “restore the independent state of Biafra” in the mainly Igbo-speaking south-east region.

IPOB is not the only secessionist movement in Nigeria; there is also one in the west – the Oodua Republic movement. Technically, Boko Haram, the extremist Islamic group that has terrorised the northeastern part of Nigeria for more than a decade with aims to create an Islamic State in the territory of Nigeria, is another secessionist group. But none vexes the Nigerian government and some elements in northern Nigeria like IPOB and the Igbo tribe.

For many jobless, disenfranchised jobless Igbo youth, Biafra has become an idea, a dream, an imagined better place than a Nigeria that has shuttered opportunities for them. Unfortunately, Nigerian authorities and Igbo leaders have failed to recogniSe the new meaning of Biafra as an idea, an aspiration, similar in emotive power as “Next year in Jerusalem” was and remains for Jews all over the world.

Biafra is an idea, a dream, founded on a shared sense of loss, grief and victimhood. IPOB, driven by this idea, is seen by Nigerian authorities as a strong challenge to the state.

The agitation for Biafra as the most visible expression of the endless but legitimate complaints by Igbo of marginalisation by Nigeria has created what I would call the “Igbo problem.”

The “Igbo problem”

Some commentators have argued that the “Igbo problem” was created by the Igbo themselves – that it is an injury that Igbos inflicted on themselves by staging the first coup d’état in 1966 and then trying to secede from the federation, leading the country to wage war against them.

According to these commentators, the Igbo Problem dates back to January 1966 and the civil war that followed. Perhaps so. However, this view has elements of revisionism. There were pogroms against Ndi’igbo (Igbo people) way before Nigeria became an independent country.

No one will win the argument about which ethnic group is accountable or responsible for the many difficulties of Nigeria and its failure thus far to be a successful country. A debate about the incompetence of the current federal government has quickly degenerated to one of mutual hurling of insults across ethnic lines.

Nigeria is not working for most Nigerians.

All ethnic groups are affected by the poor state of governance in Nigeria today and are protesting. The most intriguing thing is the discriminatory attitude of the federal government to particular protests and other threats to the integrity of the country.

Killings by Fulani herdsmen appears to be tolerable but protests by IPOB about the status (and conditions) of Ndi’igbo in Nigeria are without hesitation classified as a threat of the highest level to national security by the current administration.

The agitation in the south-east is now presented by some sections of the country as worse than the longstanding brutal, extremist Islamic insurgency in the north-east, as well as the unbridled banditry and the modern-day inter-tribal wars in southern Kaduna and Plateau State.

Hostages of the Nigerian state and economy, some Igbo “leaders” have condemned IPOB and its paramilitary wing –  Eastern Security Network (ESN), much more vehemently and unreservedly than many northern Nigeria leaders have condemned Boko Haram in ten years.

Nigeria is not working for most Nigerians. Many of the youth, whether Igbo, Yoruba, Izon, or Tivi, do not see any future in the country. Those able to leaving. There has to be a stop to this under-performance. If something is not working, it is futile to continue to expend precious and scarce time and resources on it.

How can Nigeria work?

One way to get Nigeria to work for Nigerians could be for “Nigerians” who hate Ndi’igbo to just expel them since they are believed by some powerful segments to be the country’s problem.

There is no reason to continue to co-habit the same political space with “irritants, endless agitators, criminals, and impossible-to-satisfy-secessionists” as some northern Nigerian groups have described Ndi’igbo. The expulsion of Ndi’Igbo from Nigeria could be by a vote in both houses of the National Assembly,

LISTEN Nigeria: The lingering roots left by Britain’s looting and killing

No referendum would be required. Convene a joint session of the National Assembly and take an up and down vote on whether Ndi’Igbo should continue to be a part of Nigeria.Expulsion will be an infinitely better option than another civil war. A vote in the National Assembly will infinitely cost less in terms of lives and treasure than a referendum.

There is no profit in staying in a toxic relationship and hoping that it will, perhaps by the grace of God, improve sometime in the future.

History provides some examples of successful expulsions of “irritant” communities. On 9 August 1965, Malaysia expelled Singapore and it is today a very successful economy, as is Malaysia.The Chinese Communist Party expelled the Kuomintang to Taiwan, and both mainland China and Taiwan have done well. The list goes on.

Nigeria will be “much better, more cohesive and prosperous, more focused without Ndi’igbo.” All the recent anti-Igbo statements from high-ranking officials in the Buhari administration suggest it could be.

Nigeria should thus let the Ndi’igbo go peacefully so that it can focus on building a much greater and better Nigeria. That would be the best thing to do under the current circumstances. It is certainly better than operating a suboptimal entity lacking in mutual trust with endless hurling of recriminations and antagonisms.

This is not a radical idea. I am proposing a feasible solution to a seemingly endless/intractable problem. There is no profit in staying in a toxic relationship and hoping that it will, perhaps by the grace of God, improve sometime in the future. There is no point in hoping for this as the national leadership is not making any good faith effort in that direction. Nigeria will not progress as fast as it ought to as long as the Igbo “continue to hold her down with their never-ending irritating conduct.”

Nigeria, since she appears unwilling to grant Ndi’igbo full citizenship rights, should have the courage to bring a peaceful end to the “Igbo problem”. Either accept Ndi’igbo as Nigerians with the full prerogatives, rights and responsibilities of citizenship, or expel them from the federation – let them go to either succeed or fail.

And note, just as Israel has not succeeded in subduing Hamas by force, so the Buhari administration will be unable to subdue IPOB. The reason is simple – Biafra is an idea and the only way to counter an idea is with a superior idea.

The federal government must make a strong case for Nigerian unity. The Buhari administration perhaps thinks that asserting that the unity of Nigeria is non-negotiable is sufficient. It deludes itself. It should look at the USSR, former Czechoslovakia, former Yugoslavia and the ongoing efforts by Scotland to secede from the UK after more than 300 years of union.

Bottom line

The decision of the federal government to direct the Nigerian armed forces to bomb Eastern Nigeria to flush out the abominable secessionist IPOB is unwarranted and unfair.

It exposes everyone in the region to military action. Yet not every Igbo is in IPOB/ESN or even a sympathiser. It is also resulting in the loss of life and assets and cannot therefore be an idea superior to the idea of “Biafra, a state of our own where we will be treated with dignity and respect as full citizens.”

One Nigeria is increasingly a tall challenge because the idea does not hold great appeal for many young people from the south of the country, especially Igbo youth. Do not get me wrong: I do not advocate the splintering of Nigeria into separate sovereignties. I want a united, progressive and stable Nigeria.

I want to remain Nigerian. But it must be a Nigeria that works for everyone, for all of us, a Nigeria where everyone’s right to full citizenship is not abridged or circumscribed in any way, either wittingly or unwittingly by race, religion, or ethnicity or by the government; a Nigeria with constituent parts that are respectful of each other.

A Nigeria that fails to guarantee full citizenship rights to all its citizens will remain an arena of endless protests and conflicts. And that Nigeria is unlikely to achieve her potentials and arrive at her destiny.

Understand Africa's tomorrow... today

We believe that Africa is poorly represented, and badly under-estimated. Beyond the vast opportunity manifest in African markets, we highlight people who make a difference; leaders turning the tide, youth driving change, and an indefatigable business community. That is what we believe will change the continent, and that is what we report on. With hard-hitting investigations, innovative analysis and deep dives into countries and sectors, The Africa Report delivers the insight you need.

View subscription options