Dreaming of Oil and the Sea: The Mirage in IPOB’s Calculations

Foremost Ijaw Leader, former Federal Commissioner of Information and leader of the Pan Niger Delta Forum (PANDEF), Chief Edwin Clark, declared unequivocally that the South-South region of the country is not part of the current Biafra agitations.  He postulated that while the Independent People of Biafra (IPOB) might be pursuing a noble cause, the methodology and strategy being deployed to achieve the purpose is highly erroneous. He queried how Delta, Akwa-Ibom or Rivers, major states in the South-South, could be part of Biafra when the latter is indeed older and bigger than the former. He faulted the clustering of Biafra by IPOB to represent the entirety of the old Eastern region.

In its usual combative and pugnacious stance against people with different opinions, IPOB launched scathing remarks in response to Chief Clark, accusing him of being a saboteur, a northern stooge, and a betrayal of the Eastern region. The PANDEF immediately responded and berated the IPOB for its untoward language towards the elderly statesman, stating that IPOB’s stupidity would erode any sympathy they had hitherto received from the South-South. The group further restated without any equivocation, that the Niger Delta region is not part of Biafra and that no inch of the South-South geopolitical zone shall be part of any imagined Republic. The Conference of Presidents-General of Niger Delta Ethnic Nationalities also condemned IPOB for hitting at the elder statesman over his position that the region is not part of Biafra. They described as insulting and inflammatory the comments of IPOB through its spokesperson. They maintained that the South-South was not opposed to any group’s quest for self-determination or secession in the country, but would not allow the region to be annexed unwillingly by any secessionist plot.

Historically, the Eastern Administrative Region in the colonial days and the early years of independence used to be made up of major cities currently located across the South-South and South-East geo-political zones of Nigeria.

The region operated a parliamentary system of government, with a Premier leading the executive branch and a bicameral legislature. The ceremonial position of Governor existed but it was subordinate to the Premier. Apart from the regional government, Eastern Nigeria also had a local government modelled after the English system. There were three tiers of governance levels within the system: the county and urban districts, the municipalities, and the local councils.  The Eastern region had an ethnically diverse population. The largest ethnic group in the region were the Igbos. The traditional society of the Igbos was democratic and individualistic with titles, wealth, and age being the primary determinants of prestige. During colonial rule, the Igbos spread to other regions of British West Africa, first working as traders and labourers and then establishing small scale businesses in Lagos and other urban districts. The Ibibios and Efiks lived in the districts of Uyo, Opobo, Calabar, Enyong, Eket, Creek Town, Duke Town, Old Town, and Ikot Ekpene. During pre-colonial and colonial rule, the Efiks controlled trading posts up to Cross River to the ports of Calabar. The other ethnic groups of the Niger Delta include the Ijaw-speaking people of Opobo, Bonny, Degema, Okrika, Buguma, Brass, and Abonnema. The Ijaws had a marked chieftaincy tradition. Other groups within the region were the Annang of Ikot Ekpene, Yakurr, Bahumono, Oron, Ogoni, and Ekoi.

Rivers and Cross-Rivers emerged as the first set of states to be created from the region in December 1967. Since then, more independent states have emerged in the present South-Eastern region, with Imo in 1976 emerging from East Central State. Three states (Enugu, Anambra, and Abia) attained their present status from legacy states (Imo and Old-Anambra states) in August 1991, and Ebonyi was created in 1996 from Enugu and Abia States. In the South-South, Delta and Edo were created in 1991 from old Bendel State, Akwa Ibom in 1987 from Cross Rivers State, and Bayelsa was formed in 1996 from Rivers State.

In 1966, six years after independence, there was a bitter tribal conflict in Nigeria, prompting tens of thousands of Igbos to flee to the east, where their people were the dominant ethnic group. The Igbos doubted that Nigeria’s military government would allow them to develop, or even survive, so on May 30, 1967, Lt. Colonel Odumegwu Ojukwu and other non-Igbo representatives of the area established a Republic of Biafra, comprising several cities of the Eastern Nigeria.

After diplomatic efforts by Nigeria failed to reunite the country, war between Nigeria and Biafra broke out in July 1967. Ojukwu’s forces made some initial advances, but Nigeria’s superior military strength gradually reduced Biafran territory. The region lost its oil fields, which was its main source of revenue and without the funds to import food, an estimated one million of its civilians died as a result of severe malnutrition. On January 11, 1970, Nigerian forces captured the provincial capital of Owerri, one of the last Biafran strongholds, and Ojukwu was forced to flee to the Ivory Coast. Four days later, Biafra surrendered to Nigeria, which marked the end of the civil war.

The Biafran ideology was fast consigned to history as states were created to fit into geo-political zones. However, with the return of Nigeria to democratic rule in 1999, the Movement for the Actualization of the Sovereign State of Biafra (MASSOB), which is a secessionist movement in Nigeria supporting the recreation of an independent state of Biafra, was formed by one Ralph Uwazuruike.  MASSOB agitates for a Republic of Biafra comprising the South-East and South-South regions of Nigeria, though Uwazuruike has stated in interviews that the Niger Deltans “can have their own republic.” The group’s philosophy is hinged on the principle of non-violence. IPOB would later be formed by Nnamdi Kanu in 2012; it cited MASSOB as being weak and irresolute in achieving Biafra and declared that it is the vehicle through which Biafra will be achieved. The group’s rise to national prominence in 2015 coincided with the election of Muhammadu Buhari, when the group heightened its separatist campaigns.

Kanu has repeatedly claimed that the Biafra he is advocating for will not be made up of only the five South-Eastern states but will include states in the South-South and even some in the Middle Belt region. In 2017, after his release from prison, Kanu disclosed that the Federal Government offered him Biafra Republic while in prison, with only the five South-East states as the component parts, but he rejected it. According to him, he rejected it because that did not constitute the complete Biafra, saying that he told them that he wanted a Biafra with Rivers and Benue States inclusive. He further stated that he demanded a referendum in all the states in the South-East and South-South, including those living in some parts of Benue, Edo, and Kogi States. No one from these states has stepped forward to identify with the Biafran ideology nor acknowledged that Kanu was indeed speaking for them. One wonders what the basis for Kanu’s unsolicited offer was.

It is believed in some quarters that the reasons for these claims and interest of Biafra agitators in the South-South and Middle-Belt is to gain access to arable farmlands, natural resources, the sea, including the gas and oil minerals present in them. This indicates that IPOB is only attempting to annex them in order to have full access to their abundant resources. It also implies that the quest for Biafra necessarily might come with territorial aggression towards the people of South-South; which is paradoxical, considering it is the same thing the group is accusing the Northern region of doing, which formed the basis of its secessionist agitations.

Before Chief Edwin Clark’s pronouncement, many groups from the South-South have always rejected the manner in which IPOB forces the Biafran struggle on them, without any unified agreement or harmonised disposition from both parties. A socio-cultural group in Akwa Ibom State, Mboho Mkparawa Ibibio, had at a time protested against the reported inclusion of the state in an imaginary Biafran map. The group accused IPOB and MASSOB of including Akwa Ibom and other states within the South-South region of Nigeria on the Biafran map without consulting them. Also, the Rivers Elders and Leaders Council had made it clear that they are not part of Nnamdi Kanu’s Biafra. The elders faulted the organisers of the pro-Biafra protests in certain South-South states. It described it as uncalled for, adding that Rivers people are not Biafrans.

Many states in the South-South have culture, language, and interests that are incongruent with the Biafran agenda. As such, one wonders why IPOB constantly muddle them up in their agitations. Is it to present a false appearance of a large representation? Is it to gain allies in their battle against the North? Is it to gain more lands to rule over if the Biafran dream materialises? Is it to share ownership of the ports, trading routes, farmlands, minerals, and the huge gas resources deposited in these lands? Why is IPOB being deceitful to itself through its forceful attempt to conscript the South-South and other uninterested states into its personal battles? Secession should definitely not be by force.

Interestingly, without the South-South region, Biafra within the five South-Eastern states would be a land-locked country.  That could be another reason for the forceful annexation, with Biafran agitators facing the reality that if the Niger-Deltans are not going to join them, their Biafra would be a landlocked country that will probably end up depending on Nigeria for everything. Their Biafra won’t even have a boundary with Cameroun; it will be surrounded by Nigeria.

It has been further established that a territorial Biafra is now practically impossible. There cannot be a country called Biafra. It is impossible, unviable, and infeasible. The dream died in 1970. But above all, it is not necessary anymore. Territorial Biafra is a pipe dream that should be left buried in the past, where it rightly is.

The Pan Niger Delta Forum and many other stakeholders in the region have insisted that the six states in the South-South region are not part of Biafra. It is, therefore, puerile for IPOB or any group to consider absorbing the region into any unsolicited and arbitrary contraption. The Niger-Delta people will not be railroaded or stampeded into any secessionist agenda; and if they wish to make any of their demands known, they have clearly stated they will do so solely on their own terms. IPOB should heed Chief Edwin Clark’s counsel and stop dreaming about Oil and the Sea.

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