By Nnanna Ijeoma (Former Special Assistant to Ojukwu)
Ever since the renewed quest for the restoration of Biafra and the intensification of the effort vis-a-vis the support it has generated amongst the Igbos, especially amongst the youths, a couple of my friends and associates who are aware that I worked for the Ikemba sometime in the 80s as his Special Assistant have asked me what I thought Ojukwu’s thoughts or reaction could have been, where he to be alive today and my answer have always been, I don’t know. And that’s the truth. Even though I worked for him and with him, especially on the book, “Because I was Involved”, which I compiled from a box full of old speeches and edited, I can’t in all honesty claim I knew him that well to be able to state most categorically and affirmatively what his thoughts and reaction would be, were he to here with us today and this is because he, the Ikemba was a very intense, serious and complicated man who was neither impulsive, imperious or prone to public outbursts in the expression of his views without a serious thought process.
Again it must be understood that during the period I worked for him, it was a relatively less tumultuous time in Nigeria even though the military was in power, hence any privileged insight I might have had regarding his mode of thought at the time does not give me any predictive powers to forecast or better still say what his views would be today regarding the present political environment in the country. Despite the fact that reading all those past speeches on different issues, most of which did not make their way to the book, except for a selected few, gave me a fairly good idea of his thinking and beliefs I am also aware that people change their views from previously held beliefs depending on changing circumstances. Notwithstanding all of the above, this much I can say based on my daily interactions, meetings and verbal exchanges with the Ikemba at the time. He, Ojukwu was very much an introvert as he was an extrovert. No doubt he was a man who spoke his mind without fear of being politically correct, he also was very mindful of the import and impact of his comments hence he chose his words carefully and expressed them unabashedly and unapologetically. However, in doing so, he did his best to react to the political impulses that emanated from the people. Impulses he always said any leader cannot afford to ignore. His views were always grounded in honesty, decency, and fairness. So if he were to be alive today, his opinion about the resurgent clamour for a Biafran nation would not be lacking in those qualities.
The Ikemba Nnewi, if alive today would probably describe the new demand for Biafra as an embodiment of a combustible combination of grievance, perceived inequalities, a lack of equity, justice, and gratuitous disrespect. This much he would acknowledge. Having known and experienced the vicissitudes of war, he would be against any talk or mention of war and may again probably have preferred the whole idea of restructuring and this is because, after his return from exile, he committed himself to the full reintegration of the Igbo nation into the Nigerian family. He believed in a peaceful and united Nigeria where no individual was denied his place in the affairs of the nation or relegated to a second-class citizen status. He possibly would have tried to be a bridge over troubled waters instead of further polluting the waters. He probably would have been a voice of political moderation, an ancient view which in our country today is seen with contempt by some and has become synonymous with weakness and acquiesce. But then again I may be wrong considering the present political environment since the election of this President. His lopsided and ethnically tinged appointments, the marauding herdsmen, the forced retirement of senior Igbo military officers, the eviction notice to the Igbos in the North, the divisive nature of our politics, etc etc. It is said that, “Behind every reasoned decision is a reason for deciding”, hence I cannot say what, if any of the aforementioned issues would have informed his decisions. But be that as it may, all I have done is to forecast a guess of what I think he would have done based on the much I knew of him and it is what it is, just a guess hence I’ve repeatedly used the words “probably ” and “possibly” interchangeably. There are other people who knew him far better and much longer than I did and I am sure if solicited for their opinions they would make a better guesswork than I’ve done
With regards to my views about the IPOB and their leader Nnamdi Kanu, all I can say is that no one individual did a better job in elevating his status and prominence than Buhari by detaining him for the length of time he did. This would remain among other political missteps one of his biggest blunders. He, the President should have learned from history that the imprisonment of the leader of any movement has not in any way dampened his or her following. Rather the reverse has been the case. They become more popular and reverent when released and also, on the other hand, they assume martyr status should they die in prison. I have no doubt Nnamdi Kanu took into consideration the risks and benefits of a possible incarceration when he decided to visit the country from London knowing he may be arrested. As he probably expected, Buhari and his band of novice advisers fell for it. Now the genie in the bottle has been let out and they can’t put it back in and neither are they willing to re-arrest him despite the many violations of his bail conditions. Would Mr Kanu be enjoying all this public adulation and following especially amongst the Igbo’s, should the Ikemba be alive today? I don’t think so, because even with his passing Ojukwu still remains the face of the Igbo people.
Now, is Nnamdi Kkanu a transformational figure? I guess to some extent, having by his efforts increased the political awareness of the Igbo’s regarding their place in Nigeria, to the extent that the Igbo’s do not trust many of their present self- proclaimed leaders, most of whom are political prostitutes and charlatans with little or no following. Does he have the political skills and resume to fully harness the abilities and commitment of the Igbo’s and indeed the South-South towards the goal of a Biafran nation? I doubt he does. Already he has made some ill-advised comments and continues to show some grandiose sense of self that might create some reservations in the minds of some. For me personally, I cringe each time I see pictures of some of his visitors bowing and prostrating before him as if in supplication before some higher authority or supreme- being. My feeling is that he should discourage such public show of servitude. When I read his comment calling on the Igbo’s to boycott the 2019 elections which have raised the ire of his detractors including those who believe in his mission, I regret that he has not learned one of the attributes of leadership, which is “the ability to avoid graduating your friends into enemies and your enemies into bitter foes’. With that singular comment, he has caused the Ohaneze Ndi Igbo” to come out with a public statement disavowing him. Some may believe the group has no political relevance, hence their public disavowal may be inconsequential. What it has done however is to galvanise those against the prospect of a Biafra by citing the statement by the group and in the process diminishing he, Nnamdi Kanu’s appeal.
For me, it was a manifestly, uninformed and ill-advised comment that has rallied his enemies against his cause. Yes, there is no doubt “Civil Disobedience ” as a political tactic has worked many times before after it was first made a tool of public disaffection by the late Mathama Gandhi of India, but then the late Indian leader had the entire country behind him irrespective of race or religion against British Colonial rule. The same cannot be said of Mr Kanu who is yet to pass the threshold of Igbo acceptability, not to mention our neighbours many of whom have publicly expressed their lack of enthusiasm for the Biafra project. I fear that there is an adolescent idea of masculinity that appeals to him, hence he does not make the right political calculations that will serve his cause well and the fact that the Igbo’s like the Aro’s from where I hail, prefer to be followed and not led. My purpose here is not to bash Mr Kanu or attempt to diminish his efforts hence I am offended when I see people trying to diminish what he has achieved or cast aspersions on him by lying about his efforts or motives. For me what he has done was to speak truth to power at a time some of our Igbo leaders have retreated to their comfort zones and intellectual silos while taking oaths of silence.
What he has done is to voice the frustrations of a voiceless Igbo majority and their demand for fairness and equity. To that extent, he has been God sent. As for a complete secession, I doubt its possibility and feasibility because of our fractiousness and inability to agree on any set purpose. Our neighbours don’t trust us and so far we have been unable to assuage their fears about us. My preference will be an intensified economic revitalization and industrialisation of the South East, turning it into an economic power zone in the country and then causing the rest of the country to not only to depend on us but also making us indispensable to other ethnic groups. We have the entrepreneurial spirit, manpower, and abilities and there is no limit to what we can achieve if we focus on that. As one Facebook commentator recently pointed out, the region of Bayern once wanted to break away from Germany. Today, Bayern is the industrial powerhouse of Germany and the rest of Germany cannot do without it. In my humble opinion, a true fiscal restructuring is a more- worthier goal to pursue now and if that fails to materialise, then we can consider the Biafra option. In so doing so we will be telling the rest of the nation that as much as we can dial back the Clock, we can wind it up again.
Now back to the Ikemba. If there is one thing I’ve learned in life, it is that “the only thing to expect is the unexpected”. As much as I am at a loss in saying what Ojukwu would have done today, were he to be alive, if there is one thing I am certain he would have disavowed, it would have been any idle talk about another civil war. He definitely would have fought for greater resource control by the states hence he was opposed to some living on the collective inheritance of others. He would have intensified his fight for the Igbo’s gaining a seat or seats at the table where national decisions are made and in the words of Shirley Chislom, the first African American who ran for the United States presidency, “and if there is no chair at the table give them a folding chair”. Despite the many misgivings in different parts of the country, he came back from exile in peace however disguised and he believed in the possible greatness of Nigeria if only we can set aside and ignore the demons inside us and in our leaders. But again, who am I? I might be completely wrong regarding what his thoughts about the clamour for a new Biafra will be today, but in today’s tumultuous times we wish he was still around. The Igbo’s could use his wise counsel and guidance.
(Nnanna Ijomah is a New York City-based Political Science lecturer and a former Special/Personal Assistant to the late Ikemba Nnewi, Chief Emeka Ojukwu.)