30th May 2017 was the 50th anniversary of the Civil War of 1967, when Biafra led by the late Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu decided it wanted to exist as a nation separate from Nigeria. Nigeria said no, and fought Biafra to stay.
To commemorate this milestone year, the Shehu Musa Yar’Adua Centre with support from the Open Society Initiative for West Africa and Ford Foundation staged an event called ‘Memory and Nation Building – Biafra: 50 Years After’. General information about the event is here, and I was privileged to be on the ‘Post-war Generation: Securing our Future’ panel.
My theme was technology and the diaspora, but with the benefit of hindsight, perhaps I should have named my presentation ‘The Five Reasons the Biafra Agitation Will Persist a Little Longer’.
This is the thrust of this article.
‘Diaspora’ is derived from the Greek word ‘diaspeirein’ which suggests the scattering of seeds and is defined as the dispersion of people anywhere from their homeland. Globalization and the advent of technology however mean that the word diaspora today is more imagined and de-territorialised, a transnational milieu held together by a space of flows including mass media, telecommunication, computer connections, etc. (Scholte, 1996)
And with this context at the back of our minds, I present the first reason.
Single Stories: The knowledge lines between the post-war generation both at home and abroad are largely blurred, first by an absence of official, government-led documentation of the Biafra/Civil War, but also by the transference of largely biased information. The slant and erring party determined solely by the side telling the story and the sentiment intended.
Alternative Facts: Not the Kellyanne Conway variety, but alternative versions of the accounts of the war and the government’s actions towards the Igbos after – think Asaba Massacre. Where there is incomplete information, it will be filled in based on the creativity and imagination of the storyteller.
Enter the new, improved struggle for Biafra, fielding local and foreign sponsorship, and powered by technology. This agitation feeds on poverty and lack of economic opportunities that plague an overwhelming percentage of the population across the North, South, West, and Eastern parts of Nigeria. As Chido Onumah said, “We are all Biafra.”
So how are these facts spread? How has the Biafran conversation become mainstream all of a sudden? I travelled from Asaba to Abuja via public transport in January 2017, and all the way to Lokoja we were listening to Biafra Radio; crisp, clear reception. How is this possible, even after the government proscribed its content?
The proliferation of Biafra-centric messaging is thanks to internet radio; originating from outside Nigeria broadcast via small, low-power, agile FM transmitters planted in several eastern towns, and then onto local radio stations.
Technology adaptation is a key arbiter in conflicts around the world today, from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), to Israel Defense Forces (IDF), Boko Haram, to the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB).
Echo Chambers: The rhetoric is further propagated via heavy social media usage; I reckon mention alerts closely monitored to shut down any conversation contrary to their messaging, and obviously amplify/validate supporters. There is also the intentional infiltration of groups online sympathetic to the cause. The echo chamber is living, breathing, and becoming more censured by the day.
Post-Truth Era: Many people say that #Brexit and Donald Trump’s election cemented the world’s entry into the post-truth era where “objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.” (Oxford Dictionary Word of the Year, 2016). Have we however considered the fact that the East as it is now is unable, incapable, without the ability to lead itself? There are five Eastern governors who so far, have done nothing worthy of thrusting sovereignty of a nation to their care. It is easier to moan about being marginalised by the federal government than it is to hold our elected officials to task on the promises they made and are deviating from.
Continued Influence Effect: Short for the ‘continued influence of misinformation’, this is simply the way false or misinformed claims enter memory and continue beliefs even after they have been corrected.
And so while the federal government erroneously employs brute force as its answer to Biafra, IPOB focuses on the hearts and minds of its growing number of believers.
The Dalai Lama in his speech on the commemoration of the first anniversary of the 11th September 2011 attacks said, “Conflicts do not arise out of the blue. They occur as a result of causes and conditions, many of which are within the antagonists’ control. This is where leadership is important. Terrorism cannot be overcome by the use of force because it does not address the underlying problems. In fact the use of force may not only fail to solve the problems, it may exacerbate them, and frequently leaves destruction and suffering in its wake.”
It was Lyndon Baines Johnson, 36th president of the United States who said “we must be ready to fight in Vietnam, but the ultimate victory will depend on the hearts and minds od the people who actually live there.”
So, where do we go from here? How does Nigeria ensure it does not by its actions and/or inactions, recreate another insurgency?
- Interdiction is pointless because voices powered by the internet cannot be silenced. It is better use of time and resources to engage, to understand, to have a conversation. Imran Khan captured it succinctly when he said, “You know, terror is an idea. You don’t fight an idea with a conventional Army. To win a war on terror you have to win the hearts and minds of people from whom, from where the terrorists are operating. If you win their hearts and mind and get them on your side, you’ll win the war. If those people start regarding the terrorists as freedom fighters, history has told us that you can’t win the war.”
- Proactive promotion of counter narratives, not suppression of information. “The most effective way to destroy people is to deny and obliterate their own understanding of their history.” ― George Orwell
- Inclusion: Without going into specifics Nigeria (and this administration in particular) has been cavalier about the welfare of people on the fringes, of the marginalised. There must be an intentional effort to make Nigerians feel this is their Nigeria. Each and every one of us.
There are many conversations to be had, but on the road to #Ozoemena (“may we never see war again”, this was a good start.
Chioma Agwuegbo is a social media and communications strategist, blogger, and a journalist with experience spanning radio and radio drama production for the BBC Media Action in Nigeria, and Aso Radio and Television Services. She is Lead Strategist at CC Consulting Services Limited, a social media solutions company, teaching brands, government (and religious) institutions, politicians, etc. to properly frame and communicate messages for their audiences.