What is the Exit Strategy?


‘Only a peaceful solution must be found to arrest the present worsening stalemate and restore normalcy. The Eastern Region must be encouraged to remain part of the Federation. If the Eastern Region is allowed by acts of omission or commission to secede from or opt out of Nigeria, then the Western Region and Lagos must also stay out of the Federation… A war against the East in which Northern soldiers are predominant, will only unite the Easterners or the Ibos against their attackers, strengthen them in their belief that they are not wanted by the majority of their fellow-Nigerians, and finally push them out of the Federation’.-Obafemi Awolowo, May 1st 1967

‘Those who advocate the use of force for the settlement of our present problems should stop a little and reflect. If it is claimed that an attack on the East is going to be launched by the Federal Government and not by the North as such and that it is designed to ensure the unity and integrity of the Federation, two other insuperable points also become obvious. First, if a war against the East becomes a necessity it must be agreed to unanimously by the remaining units of the Federation. In this connection, the West, Mid- West and Lagos have declared their implacable opposition to the use of force in solving the present problem’.- Obafemi Awolowo, May 1st 1967

Those familiar with the James Hadley Chase novel series-as my generation does-would remember the story of how they catch monkeys in Brazil. Nuts are put inside an empty bottle and the bottle is planted in any location frequented by monkeys. Next to banana, nuts are the favourite delicacies of monkeys. Upon sighting the bottle, the primate scurries to the designation to retrieve the boon inside the bottle. He dips his paws inside the container and grabs the nuts but there is a snag..

Grabbing the nuts expands the paw into a fist and a size that is larger than the neck of the bottle rendering the expanded paw irretrievable. And so the animal is confronted with two options-let go of the nuts, liberate your paws and call it a day or hold on to them and remained trapped in the bottle. In the kingdom of animals, monkeys are supposed to rank high on intelligence quotient, IQ, measure, but seductive greed like the biblical narrative of Samson and the femme fatale (Delilah) can easily compromise a man’s capacity to think rationally and render him unto fool hardiness.

As it is with humans so it is with monkeys-after all they are our ancestral cousins. Spell bound by greed-fostered irrationality, the monkey refuses to let go of the nuts, remain rooted to the spot, and thereby entraps itself in fulfilment of the script laid out for its capture. This allegory applies to all human situations of vulnerability to self-destructive behavioural lapses. It is the story of how the inability to successfully wage jihad on our carnal impulses tends to becloud our sense of judgement. In a manner of speaking it is the story of obdurate foolhardiness and foreclosure of exit strategy. It is also the story of the recent escalation of the Biafra secessionist dilemma.

Both sides to the spiralling conflict are boxing themselves into a corner-more so the federal government or hopefully maybe not. After all, speaking on behalf of Nnamidi Kanu, Professor Ben Nwabueze has proffered the following caveat “President Buhari will be looking for trouble if he tries to usurp the constitutional powers of the people to ask for a better Nigeria through a change in structure. The power to restructure belongs to the people, not the National Assembly, and the government must not toy with this for the peace of the nation. Kanu has mandated me to declare to Nigeria that he is ready to call off the struggle for Biafra if progress is made in restructuring Nigeria.”

Well said Professor but the applicable Yoruba admonition here is that you don’t go charging to confront the family adversary who slain your father until you are sufficiently equipped with the martial wherewithal. And according to Irohin Oodua ‘No doubt, Mr Kanu has demonstrated infantile radicalism, lack of tact, recklessness and complete disrespect for revolutionary methods in his trade. He had singled out the major ethnic groups, Yoruba and Hausa-Fulani for conscious attacks foreclosing the prospect of alliances in a terrain that requires lots of caution and wisdom’.

Now to the federal government-in formulating a military policy on Biafra, the fundamental mistake the crucify Biafra warmongers can make is not to appreciate the significant contextual difference between the power politics configuration of the 1966-67 status quo ante and what obtains now. The most significant obstacle would be the inability to cobble together the federal alliance that overpowered Biafra in the civil war, and I am not talking of the military capability alone. To begin with ‘given its ethnic configuration, the action of the Army has the potential of polarizing its formations along primordial lines and putting its entire martial spirit in mutiny mode’.

And given the political experience of the South West between 1970 and the present, it is going to be next to impossible to persuade the Yoruba and a substantial segment of the national intelligentsia to see an embattled Igbo as the worse of two evils. Indeed to the extent that the Igbo views restructuring as acceptable middle ground they are going to find unity of purpose with the South West. Thus the potential military onslaught against the former is going to be delegitimized before it even begins. This is partly a cost of the instant preponderant perception of the Buhari presidency as embodiment of Hausa-Fulani nepotism and hegemony.

As a matter of historical fact, if Emeka Ojukwu were not so overcome with hubris there was the real prospect that the Western region would have found common purpose with Biafra. What Ojukwu was proposing, in not too many words, was the position that the Western region should substitute the extant hegemony of the ‘North’ for the hegemony of the South East. He proceeded to give effect to this vision by launching an attack to capture Lagos with the stated mission of ousting the government of General Yakubu Gowon and decimate the Nigerian army. Since the route to Lagos runs through the aorta of Yoruba land, the loaded sub plot was that the Biafra liberation army would temporarily remain as occupation force in the Western region. Coupled with the charm offensive and the political cunning of Yakubu Gowon, this was the immediate threat that ultimately tipped Awolowo and the Yoruba into the federal alliance camp.

Awolowo died a bitterly frustrated and disappointed man at what post-civil Nigeria had become and the only inference we can draw from his compulsion to choose a running mate from the South East in the 1979 Presidential election is (probably) that he backed a wrong horse in 1967-not that he had a choice anyway. In tandem, nearly all the combatant officers from the South who fought on the federal side during the civil war have publicly and commonly expressed remorse and regret at what they deem a similar mistake.

No less the number one fan of the North from the South and the civil war conqueror, former President Olusegun Obasanjo, recently urged a most conciliatory de-escalation of the situation created by the strong arm, might is right, invasion of the South East by the Nigerian army. This is a man who habitually incurs the hostility of his ethnic kith and kin on his penchant for often been perceived as catholic than the pope in rooting for a political status quo that only one sub region of Nigeria seems comfortable with. His hectoring opposition to the advocacy for restructuring is one of the most damaging blows to this cause. And then he counselled, like any Nigerian patriarch should do, that President Buhari should deign to meet with Kanu and what was the response from the Presidency and like-minded regional chauvinists? Obasanjo should go stuff himself. Remember, the same Obasanjo was the only former ruler of Nigeria who travelled to Maiduguri to engage with the Boko-Haram insurgents.

In foreclosing any other option than coercion, the point should be made that neither the present occupant of the turn by turn Nigerian presidency nor Nnamdi Kanu can hold this country to ransom. If it is asking too much to suggest that a Nigerian president should engage with the personification of a whole region’s grievance-to which this incumbent president substantially contributed, then Nigeria may be living on borrowed time. No nation survives two civil wars and howsoever it begins, it will be an unwinnable war for the aggressor. Nigeria is more divided now than ever before is a refrain that has gained popular currency in contemporary Nigeria; and the political degeneration of Nigeria since the civil war has become a retrospective vindication of the Biafran argument then and now.

At the end of the day and in a very crucial perspective, Biafra is just a stream from the steady flow of a trend that localises grievances and externalises victimhood of oppression and persecution. And the main culprit for this perspective is the constitutional structure of the country. On account of the hegemonic concentration of powers and resources at the centre, Nigerians hardly hold the level of government nearest to them accountable for their woes. I will continue to argue that advocacy for restructuring is a neutral agenda and unless the Nigerian government is prepared to keep on confronting one Biafra after another then restructuring is inevitable. If you want Nigerians to stop complaining and harbouring grievances of marginalisation then what you do is foster a sense of local and regional autonomy not dependency on the centre syndrome.

In the wisdom of the Guardian newspaper ‘the lack of economic progress in the polity is a direct result of the failure to address the main political issue that is responsible for such retardation: over-centralisation of powers… Since the military struck in 1966 and destroyed the federal structure that triggered monumental growth of all the regions of old, Nigeria has not recorded any tangible development in any economic or political sense.