n May 30th, 2008, a group of young, elderly, and apparently angry 'Nigerians' converged at the amphitheatre of the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg. It was partly to mark the 41st anniversary of the creation of the State of Biafra, but more importantly to stimulate interest in, and engage the identity of the Nigerian nation more intellectually. The timing of the symposium would have been perfect. Unfortunately, the organizers of the seminar could not foresee the xenophobic violence that was to literally consume South Africa at about the same period. I had arrived from Durban only a day earlier after an important cultural function in that coastal city. For a while, the impressive hall was almost empty. I sat patiently with two lawyer friends and another close acolyte who only recently completed his doctoral research in engineering. There were slight grumbles, and just as we contemplated leaving for our various homes, it "rained" cats and dogs and the hall was filled to capacity. The coordinator of the Biafra National Congress, Coleman Emejulu, arrived after his associates had started discussion. There were high profile academics from all walks of life, especially from departments of conflict studies, political science, international relations, law, humanities, but mostly people from outside the academia. There were representatives from leading political parties in South Africa, the Pan African Congress (PAC), the African National Congress (ANC), the Jewish community, the Human Rights Commission (HRC), etc.
We listened to the discussions with rapt attention. Speaker after speaker spoke on the necessity for the resuscitation of Biafra. The zeal and enthusiasm was high, but it was not without some intelligent responses from many observers who felt that the contribution of Eastern Nigerians to the growth and development of Nigeria is too large for anyone to seriously contemplate a major further balkanisation of Nigeria at this stage of our nation's history. The arguments flowed: The Eastern Nigerians, more than any other ethnic groups, have contributed more to the development of Nigeria: where it is rare to travel to Aba, Onitsha, Enugu, Owerri, Yenogoa, or Okrika, to find residential houses built or developed by the Yoruba or the Hausa-Fulani communities, there is hardly any part of the country where you do not find the Igbo, the Efik, the Ibibio, and the rest of Eastern Nigerians. Where most other ethnic groups through their sons in the military embarked on a mission of destroying the economy of Nigeria, it is mostly people from Eastern Nigeria that travel to every part of the planet from Siberia to Iceland to raise funding for the development of most parts of Nigeria. Where many of Nigeria's military Generals and politicians end up buying mansions in Britain, Germany, Ireland, Luxemburg, Madrid, South Africa, and even Ghana, it is people from Eastern Nigeria that travel to all parts of the world to generate money for the building of major Nigerian cities.
A speaker from South Western Nigeria was particularly angry that Eastern Nigerians should be insisting on the return of the Biafra Republic when they should compel their Senators and Parliamentarians at the lower house to present a strong case for the development of South East Nigeria. The speaker was careful not to talk about Eastern Nigeria as the regionalization of the country would give legitimacy to the claims of Biafrans that the minority ethnic groups in the Eastern region are comfortable with the clamour for the return of the Biafra Republic. In his words, "The people of Yenegoa are the only ones that should complain about marginalization and not the entire people of the Eastern region". The argument he presented, unfortunately, exposed his lack of a historical sense: he recently travelled to Yenegoa and, while returning to South West Nigeria, his car broke down in the middle of nowhere in Bayelsa State. It was only then that he discovered that the area does not only lack electricity, but also that the province is not even connected to the National grid at all. The young man, apparently in his thirties, is not aware that most parts of the entire Eastern region suffer the same fate as Bayelsa State; he is not aware that the electricity he found in some areas of the South East zone were entirely due to community efforts, as well as from the occasional contributions of individuals who achieved economic success beyond the shores of the continent and felt like making their communities benefit from their success. The young man was quickly reminded of these efforts by communities, and that except for Chief Uche Chukwumerije and one or two other Senators, the so-called Parliamentarians in Abuja were Olusegun Obasanjo's toys who were not elected by the people of the South East zone.
What makes the clamour for the return of the Biafra Republic particularly painful at this time in our national life is that what most Biafrans complain about are things that should make every sane leader very proud to leave as legacy: why should anybody holding executive position as president of Nigeria not be interested in providing basic facilities for his subjects? Why should it be difficult to deploy Julius Berger to the Eastern region to do exactly what it did in both the North and the South West? Why should it be a problem to have a modern rail link between East-West and East-North axes just as we have in the West-North link? What does it cost to have a steel rolling mill in the South East zone in the same way we have the Jos, Katsina, Aladja, Ajaokuta, Osogbo steel rolling mills in other sections of the country? Why should the contract for the provision of electricity in the South East zone be awarded to General Abdulsalam Abubakar and his company even though he knows absolutely nothing about electricity, when similar contracts in other parts of the country are given to leading multinational firms like Julius Berger, Straberg, Cappa & D'Alberto, etc? What is wrong in citing at least one petrol refinery in every zone of the country? Why should we have problem with a call for the construction of a massive national theatre and a FESTAC town in every zone of the country?
The complaint about the maginalization of the Eastern region is felt across every facet of our national life. As some commentators argue, in spite of the claims that the South East zone is the least populated, the region is actually the most populated and homogenous part of the country. Two indisputable facts were presented: First, Ndiigbo constitute the single largest population East of the Niger and, two, Ndiigbo are the second largest population in every other part of the nation after the indigenes of the states. The dubiousness of the previous leaders of the country becomes evident in the number of states and local government areas that we find in the South East zone in particular, and the entire Eastern region in general. And the questions continue: why would it be a problem for the Nigeria leadership to create two additional states in the core South East zone, Anioma from Delta State, as well as Egun/Badagry State for the non-Yoruba speaking people of Ogun and Lagos States in the South West?
There was also the important issue of the nature of the Biafra nation needed: do we need the Biafra of the mind or a total disintegration of the Nigerian nation? For one of the speakers, "Nigeria is irreparably damaged". Talks about changing the mentality of Nigerian leaders-be they military or politicians-is too late in the day since many of Nigeria's political office holders are sworn to a life of graft and non-productivity. For some of us, however, Nigeria could be better than its present form: what is needed is the Biafra of the mind: the Biafra spirit that challenged necessity and produced immense technological and scientific feats: the Biafra that produced the likes of Engineers Roy Umenyi, Emma Osolu, Prof. Ezekwe, Chimere Ikokwu, Frank Ndili, etc, and much later the Biafra that gave Augustine Esogbue, Philip Emeagwali, Batholomew Nnaji, and several other leading engineers, scientists and nuclear phycisists to the universe of humankind. Questions about secession were dismissed on the understanding that the secession of Biafra in 1967 was purely a survivalist effort that needed to be made at the time, rather than wait to be totally exterminated by Nigeria's Brigadier Benjamin Adekunle and his war criminal friends. As uncomfortable as the Nigerian union is to the many that inhabit it, its dissolution is something that should be left for Nigerians at a sovereign national conference. In such a conference, nothing should be left un-discussed: there are always alternatives in conflict resolutions, and Nigerians have a right to go for either the Yugoslavian or the Czechoslovakian options as the former Biafran leader, Chief Emeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu once suggested.
For those who complained bitterly about the double standards in the admission policy in Nigerian universities, the suggestion was made for them to ignore Nigerian universities and go to wherever they can acquire quality education. In any case, the battles for fairness in our admission policies were fought principally in the 1980s: candidates with very high scores in JAMB were denied admission in a number of universities because they were deemed not to belong to the Universities' "catchment area" in North Nigeria. This led to the creation of State-run universities in the South East and South West zones as education minister, Jubril Aminu, tried to frustrate the new institutions. Some of us still remember the late Tai Solarin reminding Prof Aminu that his efforts would remain inconsequential since what he would succeed in doing is tantamount to "the tail wagging the dog". Tai Solarin's prophecy has remained right till this day. At least, one University in North Nigeria was recently closed down for the institution's inability to attract students, let alone succeed in enticing qualified academic staff to run it. Pressures are currently being mounted on JAMB to reduce the pass mark for University admission to a mere 170! This, in a country that denied admission to candidates that scored 240s and above.
There was an infuriating angle to the symposium: some members of the audience found it difficult to turn off their cell phones, even as they tried to remind us of the immense achievements of Biafran Nigerians. At this point, the audience was reminded that what we need is to replenish Nigeria's intellectual culture rather than the glamorisation of obscenities that tend to define the conducts of our young people in recent time. Why organize a seminar in a University community if it's such a difficult thing to turn off ordinary cell phones? We need more Chinua Achebes, Wole Soyinkas, Augustine Esogbues, Frank Ndilis, Chike Obis, Gabriel Oyibos, etc. The audience had to be reminded further that barely eight years into the 21st century, Prof Emeagwali is already working on the Internet of the 22nd century even as some of us don't even know how to turn off ordinary cell phones that were designed by a teenager in the near-by Physics laboratory.
The organiser of the symposium, Coleman Emejulu, stunned everyone, when he informed the audience that he made at least ten visits to the Nigerian High Commission in Johannesburg and Pretoria, where he suggested to the Nigeria's High Commissioner to attend the seminar or, at least, send a Cleaner to tell members of the audience why they should be proud to be called Nigerians. Neither the High Commissioner nor the Cleaners made it to the symposium. Once more, Nigeria's Foreign Affairs Ministry subjected itself to public ridicule. Perhaps, the Presidency should be informed of the necessity to send men and women of sound mind to our Foreign missions since there are too many disadvantages in sending people of dumb credentials to strategic countries as our representatives. On the whole, it was a most stimulating experience since there was opportunity for everyone who supports or disagrees with the idea of Biafra to express his or her mind. No better environment could have attracted so many sound minds than a University community.
The Nigeria's Federal Government should, as a matter of urgency, address many of the grievances of most Eastern Nigerians. In particular, the issue of State creation in the South East zone should be prioritised for reasons of justice and fair play; road construction, especially the links between Onitsha and Yenogoa through Owerri and Port Harcourt, the links between Nnewi and Calabar, Okigwe and Ogoja, Okrika to Abakaliki, among others are roads that need urgent dualization. The clamour for, and aggression against, Biafra are issues that can readily be attended to by the Yar'Adua administration. Nigeria has enormous resources to provide these facilities. It could be needless asking for a further balkanisation of the country, but it is dubious and demonic to attack those clamouring for justice. Those who adorned the apron of minority and sabotaged Biafra nationalism at the end of the 1960s may not be courageous enough to admit their foolishness today. Yet, we all know that the current debacle in the Niger Delta is a consequence of the miscalculation of strategic opportunists who were desperate to be identified as Nigerian heroes. Many got compensated with property of murdered Igbo sons and daughters. Many of them discovered their lack of wisdom very late in the day, and some paid for it with their own lives after over three decades of the Biafra genocide. Only a lunatic from Ogoja, Ogoni, Okrika, Yenogoa, or Ikot- Ekpene would want to sabotage efforts made at providing basic facilities, especially road construction in Onitsha, Nnewi, Aba, Owerri, or Abakaliki. In the final analysis, the entire Eastern region is the ultimate loser.
The organizers of the seminar did a marvellous job which was capped finally with their provision of delicious Biafra~Nigerian cuisine. If only the Nigeria's ambassador to South Africa had courage enough to attend such an exciting symposium...!