By Tochukwu Ezukanma
Following the July 29th 1966 mutiny that killed Aguiyi-Ironsi, the rallying call of many Northern Nigerians was Araba! Araba!, meaning secession. The clamorous secessionists were led by a 28 year old army major, Muritala Mohammed. Muritala Mohammed evidently was made giddy by an inebriating mix of youth, power and the gun. The northern political class, older and more experienced, advised Mohammed and his band of youthful junior officers against secession because it will be most disadvantageous to the peoples of Northern Nigeria. Mohammed and his men, in reverence for the wisdom of the elderly, Northern power structure and the established Northern political consensus, jettisoned the idea of secession.
Some months later, secession-mania held sway over the peoples of Eastern Nigeria. Led by a 34 year old lt. colonel, Chukwuemeka Ojukwu, they sought to secede from Nigeria. Although there were a number of alternative responses to the political crisis bedeviling Nigeria at the time, Ojukwu choose the most dangerous and reckless option for Eastern Region: secession. Like Muritala Mohammed that championed the secession of Northern Nigeria from Nigeria, Ojukwu was rendered giddy by an inebriating blend of youth, power and the gun. Like the Northern Nigerian political class, the Eastern Nigerian political class was opposed to secession. But unlike Mohammed, Ojukwu tolerated no opposing view, and was therefore not receptive to the advice of the political class. However, a few of the political elite were gutsy enough to express their opposition to secession. Unfortunately, they all paid a heavy price for it.
Ojukwu’s father, Louis Odumegwu-Ojukwu disagreed with his son’s methods and objectives. He urged him to be more circumspect and restrained, and to seek the advice of the very knowledgeable and experienced politicians in Eastern Nigeria. According to some Ojukwu family members, Ojukwu discouraged his father’s visit to the State House by instructing the guards to conduct humiliating and embarrassing searches on him each time he came to the State House. According to a politician of the First Republic, and a friend of the Ojukwus, to intimidate his father, Chukwuemeka Ojukwu pulled out a gun and shot it into the air. However, the elderly Ojukwu continued to visit his son. On one of such visits, after a heated argument with his son, the exasperated old man, who was already ailing from a heart ailment, had a heart attack and died.
Nnamdi Azikiwe also advised Ojukwu against secession because it will be most detrimental to the Igbo. According to some apocryphal sources, he slapped Azikiwe. He also slammed Zik into house arrest (“protective custody”, in the colorful parlance of the Biafran government). And with time, with the aid of his propagandists, he besmirched the reputation of Azikiwe. Up till this day, in line with the Biafran propagandistic disparagement of Azikiwe, many Igbo still believe that Azikiwe was a saboteur.
Another courageous opponent of secession was Mokwugwo Okoye. The proceedings of the Ojukwu-appointed Consultative Assembly, which ostensibly approved of secession, were manipulated by Ojukwu’s henchmen. The decisions and actions of the Assembly were pre-determined and pre-scripted; and members of the Assembly merely acted a script. Tired of these shenanigans, at a meeting of the Assembly in Owerri, Mokwugwo Okoye refused to play along. He demanded that members of the Assembly be allowed the freedom to express their true feelings and opinions. He was promptly arrested and taken into custody.
Like a nihilist, with an inexorable scorn for the status-quo in Igbo land, Ojukwu, essentially dismantled the then existing Igbo power structure, fenestrated the long established Igbo politico-economic consensus on one Nigeria, and set out on his path to secession. Lamentably, the Igbo masses swayed by his propagandistic exaggerations and downright falsehoods blindly followed him on what was essentially a suicide mission. Inevitably, Biafra collapsed, but, not before it had decimated the flower and promise of the peoples of Eastern Region, starved more than one million to death, and left the Igbo reeling from a psychological blow they may not recover from in 100 years.
The last nearly fifty years in the annals of the Igbo was a saga of relentless, conscientious and dexterous endeavor by an energetic, resilient and resourceful people to re-establish themselves almost from scratch. It is a testament to the Igbo’s laudable cultural skills, attended with vibrant entrepreneurial spirit, hard-edged work ethics and irrepressible optimism, that the Igbo, against enormous odds, have successfully re-established themselves in every spectrum of the Nigerian social life. Although, we have fallen short in some areas of human endeavor, it will be wrong to insinuate that all we have achieved in the last 50 years do not deserve respect and protection. And thus, can justifiably be imperiled by another nihilist.
Therefore, the emergence of Nnamdi Kanu, was deeply troubling to me. Like Chukwuemeka Ojukwu, he exhibited incontrovertible nihilistic tendencies. He was undeniably disdainful of Igbo institutions, power structure and political modus operandi. He talked and postured as though the eradication of Igbo power structure and emasculation of Igbo institutions were the necessary prelude to the establishment of his Biafra. At 46, Kanu was not exceptionally youthful. So, unlike Mohammed and Ojukwu, his problem was more of psychosis than youthful indiscretion.
In his foolhardiness, he behaved as though he was above the law. In his megalomania and flamboyant egotism, he pontificated as though he had a monopoly on knowledge and wisdom, and, as such, anyone that did not agree with him must be severely punished. Ranting and raving like a deluded zealot, he stridently denounced Igbo kings, elected leaders and institutions, as though, there is no individual worthy of veneration or institution worthy of protection in Igbo land. In his reckless demagoguery, he incited his followers to hate; inflaming their passion against non-“Biafrans” and Igbo opposed to his Biafranism. Lamentably, the Igbo masses adoringly followed him.
My fear and distress over the danger Kanu portended for the Igbo, and the willingness of the Igbo, in repudiation of reason and reality, to, again, follow a man to their doom were ripping me apart. Then, came the Python Dance, and Nnamdi Kanu disappeared. Thank God Almighty for Python Dance.
Tochukwu Ezukanma writes from Lagos, Nigeria.