Igbo People and The Problem with “Southern Solidarity”

By Uche P Okoye

A BBC Africa radio news editor once remarked that “Nigeria is a busy place” in response to a mail from a listener about the disproportionate volume of news coming from Nigeria compared to the rest of the continent. Nothing has demonstrated the truth of this than the month of April 2021 and the number of times I have repurposed this article to attend to the ‘spirit of the moment’. The events in Nigeria have been one which has (as is common these days) got people regretting the amalgamation, thrown up phrases such as “Southern solidarity”, required us to cultivate alliances with our neighbors and just as the calls are reaching a crescendo, someone pops the bubble.

I have never fully bought into the utopia of “southern solidarity” but I concede that I have been cautiously optimistic, at times, when following the discussion. These past few days, however, I was reminded of the problems with such platitudes and why we need to stop mouthing them.

Southern Nigeria (Source: Nairaland)

BEGINNINGS

In 1957, the Secretary of State for the Colonies, Alan Lennox-Boyd, M.P, constituted a commission led by Henry Willink to “enquire into the fears of Minorities and the means of allaying them”. The report of this commission became famously known as the Willink’s Report. The content of that report is enlightening but we will get to that. Also, bear in mind that the report predated the Biafran war by almost a decade! Stay with me.

“There are decades where nothing happens; and there are weeks where decades happen”.

Vladimir Ilyich Lenin

And so it happened that in the weeks of April 2021, more Nigerians caught a glimpse of Nigeria’s underbelly when the federal government decided to retain a man, in the federal cabinet, who had possibly participated in terrorist acts against the people of Nigeria.

Let me just point out that I don’t believe we have to “love” ourselves but we can respect ourselves enough to live together. This is one code that the Buhari administration more than any has blatantly broken. It is this callous disregard for the sensibilities of Nigerians that informs the decision of the Federal government to, at the height of the country’s grappling with insecurity, stand with a man who had openly expressed terrorist views and possibly engaged in terrorism.

I observed the simmering on social media. That open endorsement, by the Federal Government, of terrorism from a section of the country against the rest of the country, achieved something that wouldn’t have happened if I had tried to argue with some prim and proper southern Nigerians on Twitter and again “southern alliance” and sundry advise to Igbo people to align with its southern and middle-belt neighbours started flying around. This advice to Igbo people amuses and annoys me at the same time because it is a misplacement of advice or responsibility.

It was while I was considering the possibility of this alliance and what the Igbo people still have to do to gain the trust of the minorities surrounding us that the tweet (image above) by a certain character behind the @saatah Twitter profile surfaced on my Twitter feed. It brought to the fore why this responsibility on the Igbo people rankles me and why we must dispel the fantasies being peddled to demonize us.

FIRST, DISPELLING UNTRUTHS

Whatever this @saatah person’s fears and motivations were in equating ESN/IPOB to jihadist expansionist move, the discussion around this tweet betrayed an irrational fear of Igbo domination and resentment of the Igbo people that is pervasive in the area called Nigeria.

That tweet and echoes of it in quotes and replies further underscored why I believe that you cannot and should not shrink yourself with the hopes that those perpetually resentful of you will become comfortable enough to accept cohabiting with you. It does not work, It hasn’t worked, and it will not work.

In the course of debating @saatah’s tweet, Willink’s Report was referenced. In the context it was mentioned, you would think the document indicts the Igbo people on the maltreatment of minorities; ironically, that report proves the inverse.

You also may have been one who fell into the error of thinking that the Igbo’s situation with its neighbouring ethnic groups began with the events of the Biafran war; news flash, it didn’t!

To illustrate the point that this is not simply about the events of the war, I will present in the table below (credit to @AfamDeluxo) the findings of Willink’s Commission on some of the grudges of the minorities in the old eastern region. Remember that this report was almost 10 years before the Biafran war!

A worthy mention in this list of grievances is the Ijaw case of marginalization to which the report remarked that the difficulty of the terrain made it difficult to access those areas and pointed that it had also been a common complaint with Ijaws in the Western region.

Aside from that, the other grievances you’d find, range from the absurd to the hilarious which led the Henry Willink’s led commission to conclude that (paraphrased) “if no single item of the grievances and fears mentioned in this chapter appears formidable by itself, the sum adds up to undoubtedly a feeling of apprehension and resentment. Those who expressed these sentiments emphatically rejected any solution except a separate state.”

When you take a look at the table of grievances above, you would note that the 6th grievance remains an ever-present sentiment among a number of people even in the South-West zone of Nigeria.

NOT PERFECT

Pa Achebe rightly traced the origin of the national resentment of the Igbo people to the Igbo culture which emphasizes individualism and competitiveness. He also noted that Igbo people are often impaired by hubris, overweening pride and thoughtlessness, which invite envy and hatred or even worse. It is evidently clear that these irrational fears have been handed down from parents to children and aggravated by the civil war.

I have obviously admitted that Igbo people are not a perfect group but I reject the notion that the onus is on the Igbo people to build relationships with our neighbours. That is definitely not an Igbo man’s challenge. The concern is that those whom you want to call friends, are they interested in being friendly?

THE PRESENT CHALLENGE

As far as I know, we have a common enemy at this moment and it is not ESN/IPOB or their quest for sovereignty. It is the hoard of Islamic fundamentalists and so-called bandits pushing south. As I write, they have their flag flying at a location about 2 hours drive from, the country’s capital, Abuja. The only thing between us and these “White Walkers” is the Middlebelt and maybe also a sprinkling of soldiers whose loyalties are uncertain. Our friends in the Middlebelt have had it bad. Many of them have moved down south. I have increasingly seen many of them in Anambra state engaged in one form of business or another and contributing to society. Anambra has welcomed them but it is also a reminder of how close this problem is.

This is certainly not a time to bicker within ourselves over nonsense or crude oil (which the “owners” don’t control and which the world is moving past) nor is it a time to become clannish and myopic like the IPOB maniac who went to derail a zoom meeting seeking a more inclusive solution.

WE NEED EACH OTHER

I felt it was needful to first discredit some of the false notions that have been peddled by very dishonest fellows. The geopolitical South-South and South-East of Nigeria are made up of fractures of poorly run states. We shouldn’t make the mistake of thinking that one is better administered than the other and it shouldn’t surprise anyone that these two zones while mostly having had a shared history are unwilling to close ranks and find a political solution towards unlocking their potentials which had been quite evident in the first republic.

The Igbo people are a fiercely loyal group, and that shouldn’t be too much to request of your neighbours. We stood by President Goodluck E. Jonathan who wasn’t Igbo and I suspect we would have gone to war for him. It was a fair thing to do, even with the attendant scorn with which that stand was greeted. But the truth is that I am not confident any of our neighbours are inclined to doing that for the Igbo people and that is part of the problem.

While ESN/IPOB may be more vehement in resisting their incursions, the menace of killer Fulani herdsmen affects the two geopolitical zones! The tweet equating ESN to jihadist expansionist moves at a moment actual barbarians are in the city is akin to chasing mice while one’s house burns. It is evident of a lack of common sense in building strategic alliances in the face of a bigger threat. This is not merely a one-off social media phenomena, this is a pervasive sentiment. For some, ESN/IPOB is somehow a bigger threat.

That said, I am thinking past Nigeria, and past the oil economy. Whatever form the future political and economic relations with other ethnicities take, I’m quite bullish about the prospect of the Igbo people. We only need to get the right leadership which is why I am passionate about “Teta“, and other similar grassroot movements, to awaken the led and the leaders to what has to be done to take the South East out of the doldrums.

Whatever the fears of those surrounding us may be, I promise you that the chief concern of the Igbo people is to provide for their families and maybe out-compete their peers. People have prospered in our communities and we march out to prosper wherever our chi has marked for us.

MY POINTS

  • There is still a lot that needs to be done towards this “southern solidarity” idea.
  • Placing the burden on the Igbo people to offer this hand of friendship is preaching to the choir.
  • The longstanding grievance of some of these smaller groups towards the Igbo people didn’t begin with the Biafran war. We must dispel the notion of that being the origin.
  • The solidarity idea has to be locked in at levels above the ordinary man on the street or on Twitter but the stark lack of political leadership in the geopolitical zones concerned means we will continue to bicker over inanities while we are being taken apart by our common enemy.
  • Igbo people should not and will not continue to walk on eggshells to make anyone comfortable. It does not work.
  • We don’t have to love ourselves, I really don’t care about that, but we must respect ourselves if this “southern solidarity” thing must work but it requires leadership at the political level, not tweets.
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