Narrative, nationhood and Biafra
I do not often comment on the plethora of Biafra-related conversations that I see on social media, but I do follow these conversation threads when I see them and find them deeply troubling. The conversations are often heated and bring out the defensiveness in all sides, and people do not so much engage as talk at each other. Like everything else from corruption and entitlement mentality to gender inequality and lack of federalism, this itself is not the problem, but a symptom of a larger issue.
If a nation is a group of people who largely agree on a version of their identity and history, then Nigeria is no nation at all. This is true for many reasons, but the Biafra question illustrates this perfectly. There are very few, if any, Igbo families that the Biafra War has not fundamentally changed. Older people tell of deaths of loved ones and mass deaths, and their children borne of parents who lived through the War talk about how their parents do their damnedest to never talk about that period of their history. Entire lives were crushed by the War in more ways than one, and survivors had to rebuild without much help from government.
The story of what happened in the southeast is not the only story of Biafra, of course; there are towns in Delta and Cross River State, for example, where violence happened in the region at the hands of even Biafra soldiers themselves and whose populations were very much impacted by the violence. However, when you sweep a story under the rug, you flatten it as well, ridding it of all nuance and complexity. The Nigerian government could have acknowledged its role in the crushing violence, invested heavily in the reconstruction of the areas that were impacted by the violence, set up public memorials in central locations where mass murders happened in the region. What our government chose to do instead was sweep this part of our history under the rug, refuse to teach it in schools and acted like it did not happen. As a collective entity, Nigerians have followed the lead of their government, and so we cannot act as a nation and acknowledge that a wrong was committed. With so little practice in the art of candid, public discussion and consensus-building, it is no wonder we as a collective are so ill-equipped for this conversation.
If you are a seasoned Nigerian political watcher, you will watch for how these agitations will shape how the southeast will swing in the 2019 elections. This is not to cynical nudge to and wink at the insincerity of those sympathetic to a separatist movement, or to poke at their seriousness; rather, it is to note the importance of intangibles like narratives and identity, and how much work we must do as a collective for these amorphous concepts to concretize into real implications that can shape our future. If it is smart, our government will seize the opportunity of these emerging conversations and truly lead the way to more open conversations on the terms on which our nationhood can exist.