• Tuesday, July 23, 2024
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BusinessDay

The failure to know our history

The failure to know our history

The median age of Nigeria’s population is 19.1. This means that an entire generation of young people in the South-East was not around in the early 2000s when MASSOB tried and failed, and so were drawn to IPOB.

For a region that lost a brutal war mainly because of a blockade and hubris on the part of our leaders, the lesson that our geographically bunched region is incapable of sustaining an insurgency has eluded us. As a region that is mainly flatland and just shy of 30,000 square kilometres in area, South-East Nigeria cannot afford to give anarchists the ability to trade space for time that is so critical to the success of a rebellion. The result of such tumultuous tactics would be the destruction of the region.

A second lesson we have failed to learn is that we need the rest of Nigeria, as much as, if not more than they need us. Permit me to quote extensively from my December 2016 piece, which was titled, “What is the benefit of breaking Nigeria up?” and you can read here: https://bit.ly/3vumAWu

“The South-East is made up of Abia, Anambra, Ebonyi, Enugu and Imo. Historically the homeland of the Igbo people, this was also the heartland of the secession attempt in the 1960s, and is the heartland of the current secessionist agitations.

It is also the smallest region geographically, and the most densely populated. While its natives are aspirational and upwardly mobile, the country will run into trouble pretty quickly because it will be landlocked, and there will almost immediately be fierce competition for scarce resources.

There is a reason why three centuries ago, lots of Igbo people began to abandon their farms, and produce great traders — the land simply could not cope. There is no reason to believe that it will cope now. A drive from Onitsha to Awka, just in Anambra State will show this expanding soil deterioration. Then there will be the geopolitics of coping with expansion from the North, and hostility from the South…”

The fact that in most parts of Nigeria outside the South-East, you’re likely to see ethnic Igbos as the second-most-numerous inhabitants after the people indigenous to where you are, says a lot about just how much Igbos need Nigeria.

A third lesson is our own history of militancy. MASSOB, Biafra National Guard, and the Biafra Zionist Movement are a few of the organisations that sprang up at the beginning of this century in reaction to the perceived political marginalisation of the East, a perception that has a basis in reality.

Many have forgotten that MASSOB at various points used violence to further its objectives, including preventing many Igbos from being counted in the 2006 population census. When MASSOB got into a position of strength, it showed itself to be not much more than a group that existed to advance the rapacious interests of its founder.

Read also: Wole Soyinka and the brutality of history

A fourth lesson is for the Nigerian State: like militants in the Niger Delta, like Boko Haram in the North-East, Nigeria has a habit of using hard power as its first option to settle all signs of non-conformity, and this has had an adverse effect of radicalising young people in a country with a youth unemployment rate approaching 50 percent.

Handling the IPOB leader with more tact, especially when similar demagogues from other parts of the country were handled with kid gloves, gave him legitimacy that he used to gain capital. In a series of tweets in October 2015 (you can read them here: https://bit.ly/3JMwDeA) I pointed out that error, and where it could lead. It has led there, sadly.

The fourth leads to a fifth lesson: not everyone that points out the mistakes you are making or says you should treat people the right way even if they are “enemies” is an enemy. As some were warning about the dangers that IPOB posed, the same set of people also warned that Nigeria has to win the argument, and not force its viewpoint. What did they get? Herds of social media warriors labelling them bigotted names such as “Biafraud.”

The ability to have a nuanced conversation is very important, but sadly lacking in most conversations in Nigeria. Too many people in this country are binary thinkers and are incapable of holding contradictory thoughts in their heads. Effectively, with that kind of behaviour, the Nigerian system silenced critical but legitimate voices from the South-East that could have helped craft a counter-narrative.

This brings us to a sixth lesson: when you kill credible voices, you give room for opportunistic voices, which is what most of the South-East’s political elite is. Many politicians tried to capitalise on the social capital that IPOB has built, and that move backfired. What we are seeing in the South-East today is the result of these and a few other factors, one of which, it must be said, is our stunning ability to bury our heads in the sand.

Nwanze is a partner at SBM Intelligence