The legacy of Biafra and the idea of being Nigerian

If being Nigerian meant anything, the presidency wouldn’t be rotated every eight years between the North and South or along tribal lines.

Otodo Gbame demolition. Image via Justice and empowerment initiatives-Nigeria Flickr.

I’ve spent most of my life in Nigeria, but lately I’ve been wondering if holding a Nigerian passport and living a substantial number of years in a country are sufficient to stake a claim over it. I’ve also wondered what it means to be Nigerian.

I grew up in the Rivers State capital of Port Harcourt, the oil rich city nestled in the southernmost region of the country, but the de facto indigene-settler mentality promoted by politicians and accepted by Nigerians has meant Rivers State can’t adopt me in the way Chicago adopted Hawaiian native Barack Obama, who served as a senator for Illinois. I can’t access state scholarships, can’t head any state schools and definitely can’t hold political office because my forebears hailed from towns beyond the state’s border. And yet, the Rivers State had no scruples taxing my salary as a resident of Port Harcourt.

In Nigeria, your father’s origin dictates yours. In my case, with both parents from Oguta, a small clannish town in Southeast Nigeria, I’m Oguta even though my connection to the place is limited to the few weeks I visited during Christmas and Easters holidays as a kid and teenager.

Following the Nigeria-Biafra war, the federal government built public secondary schools known as unity schools in an attempt to foster peace and feelings of patriotism among students from different tribes and socioeconomic backgrounds.

As an alumna of a unity school, I can attest the idea is a noble one and could have worked if Nigerians weren’t perpetually being reminded that the demonym Nigerian is an airy ideal subservient to the flawed reality of tribal affiliations, be it in application forms for government jobs, wherein you’re forced to declare your state and local government area, or by landlords who only rent to people of their own tribe.

Nigeria as a country remains a mirage, which is why every Christmas cities and towns across Nigeria empty out as Igbos, whose calls for secession fifty years ago resulted in the Nigeria-Biafra civil war, travel home to their ancestral lands in southeastern Nigeria. Jokes abound of the yearly mass migration, but beneath these jests is a less humorous motive. For the Igbos, traveling home means establishing roots and reconnecting with their ancestral homes, an insurance against Nigeria’s uncertain future as a united country.

When Nigeria gained its independence from the British in 1960, Igbos dispersed across the country like dust in the wind, with some venturing as far as northern Nigeria to pitch their tents. Language was only a temporary barrier for the Igbos as they quickly learned foreign tongues for the purpose of conducting business and getting on with life.

But then came the 1966 coup, led mostly by Igbo officers, which saw the deaths of many northerners, including then prime minister Tafawa Balewa and the premier Ahmadu Bello. In the counter-coup that followed, Igbos were targeted and killed by civilians and military officers in an anti-Igbo pogrom the North, and those lucky to be alive fled home to Igbo enclaves in the Southeast. It was this event that precipitated the declaration of the independent nation of Biafra and underscored a bitter truth: The name “Nigerian” is a mythical invention and “home” can only be your ancestral land.

Arguably, Nigeria’s crude oil wealth has been the motivating factor behind the ruling elite’s fight to preserve Nigeria in its current disposition. Year after year, the nation’s coffers are looted by government officials who are more interested in securing their profligate lifestyle than getting different factions to work together to build Nigeria into a real country. The ruling elite’s insatiable appetite, its desire to gorge off the fat of the land are to blame for the Boko Haram insurgency in the Northeast and militancy in the Niger Delta, symptoms of abuse, neglect and underinvestment.

If the name Nigeria meant anything, then a long-term resident of Rivers State from northern Nigeria should be able to represent the state at the National Assembly. If being Nigerian meant anything, the presidency wouldn’t be rotated every eight years between the North and South or along tribal lines. If we as Nigerians were serious about keeping Nigeria whole, then we would set tribal allegiances aside and select the best candidates to run the country. If Nigeria meant anything, that would be our first and only priority.

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