At a point during the civil war, my family lived at Ahiara, Mbaise. Then, Ahiara was a rural community tucked almost equidistant between two sleepy, little towns: Owerri and Umuahia. The presence of a military hospital, a detachment of Army Supply and Transport, a nearby Army Engineer encampment and many Biafrans that evacuated from cities and towns already captured by the federal forces nudged up its population and added to its verve. Still, it remained indisputably a serene village. Interestingly, it was from this rustic simplicity that the Ahaira Declaration sallied forth. The Ahiara Declaration had a message; it gave a superlative rationale for the secession of the Igbos from Nigeria. Recently, another message bloomed forth out of Ahiara. Unlike the earlier message that made an obvious case for secession, the recent message made a subtle, yet unassailable case against secession.
In December 2012, Pope Benedict XVI appointed Monsignor Peter Okpaleke, a priest from Awka in neighboring Anambra State, as the new Bishop of the Catholic Dioceses of Ahiara, Mbaise in Imo State. Lamentably, the people of Ahiara vehemently opposed this appointment. Ahiara Catholics, non-Catholics and votaries of traditional religions led by more than 400 Catholic priests staged protests against the appointment of Bishop Okpaleke. They stated in unmistaken terms that they prefer the closure of all Catholic churches in the diocese to Bishop Okpaleke presiding over the diocese. Instructively, the people of Ahiara did not question his competence, personal honor or qualification, and they did not impugn his integrity or credibility. He is qualified to be a bishop, possibly, an outstanding bishop. He was rejected simply because he is not one of them, he hails from another part of Igbo land, Anambra State. Some protesters’ placards read: “We want a Mbaise son as Mbaise bishop”. “Mbaise rejects Okpalaeke now and forever, Amen”. “We don’t want a bishop who is not from our community; that is all we are saying, and we are ready to confront them the force with force”.
The Ahiara Declaration told the Biafran story. The Biafran story was laden with falsehood and propagandistic exaggerations. Its central thrust was that the secession of the Igbo from Nigeria was inevitable because the Igbo were universally hated in Nigeria and were targeted for extermination by an alliance of almost all the other ethnic groups of Nigeria, united by their common hatred for the Igbo. These lies were necessary tools for casting a one man’s personal ambition as a crusade for national survival. In Biafraism, Ojukwu was furthering a personal ambition at the detriment of the Igbo. No wonder, he intimidated, and, in some cases, severely punished more experienced and better-informed individuals with genuine concerns for the overall good of the Igbo that counseled against secession. These were the likes of his father, Louis Odumegwu Ojukwu, then the wealthiest Nigerian businessman; Nnamdi Azikiwe, a statesman universally revered for his intellectual depth and uncanny political foresight and instincts; and Nmokwugwo Okoye, a gutsy politician, and an intrepid and outspoken writer.
Many years after the civil war and, in spite of Yakubu Gowon’s unparalleled magnanimity towards the erstwhile Biafrans and the phoenix-like Igbo resurgence (after the war), the lies of the Biafran propaganda continue to poison Igbo minds. They make the Igbo paranoid. Thus, we read ulterior meanings into every act, no matter how benign and innocuous, by other Nigerians; and, seeing imagined and make-believe enemies everywhere, we feel encircled by unyielding and implacable haters hell-bent on our destruction. The lies continue to distract and alienate us, and make us feel like second-class citizens in our own country. They leave us longing for Biafra, and thus, weaken our collective resolve to commit and belong totally to Nigeria. Overall, they undermine our realization of our full potentials (especially political potentials) in Nigeria.
There is no universal hatred for the Igbo in Nigeria. The second message of Ahiara lent credence to this. The second Ahiara narrative was a case of bare-faced discrimination. It shows that in Igbo land and amongst the Igbo discrimination thrives; the Igbo are guilty of tribalism, both intra-tribal and inter-tribal tribalism. There is nothing wrong with tribalism because tribalism, racism and other forms of discrimination are inescapable blemishes on life; human beings are inherently discriminatory. For reasons that psychologists and other experts of human behavior are yet to fully understand, we, naturally, more readily, affiliate and bond with people of our own kind. We feel more at ease with people of our own tribe (and sub-tribe), country, religion, and socio-economic class, sometimes, at the exclusion of others. As such, people generally, like the people of Ahiara demonstrated, prefer to be led by one of their own. We all resent domination by outsiders. The dislike and even hatred for “domineering” foreigners is a universal phenomenon; a natural human tendency.
The Igbo, more than any other group of Nigerians leave their home areas to live and work in other parts of Nigerian. And in these places of their sojourn, they succeed and acquire positions of influence and dominance. And, as people generally abhor domination by outsiders, these successful and “domineering” Igbo are sometimes disliked and loathed by the indigenous people in these places of their sojourn. So, the Igbo, more than any other ethnic group, bear the greatest brunt of the resentment of successful, influential, and thus “domineering” foreigners by the indigenous people in Nigeria.
Just as the Yoruba in Lagos sometimes demonstrate by words and actions obvious unease about preponderant Igbo presence and influence in Lagos and the Hausa do similar things in the North, the Igbo also show noticeable weariness of overbearing influence of none Igbo in Igbo land. And within Igbo land and amongst the Igbo, as shown by the people of Ahiara, there is intra-Igbo rivalry and aversion for domination by Igbo from other Igbo sub-groups. Not surprisingly, the Enugu Igbo continue to take offense at the Anambra Igbo excessive influence in the city of Enugu and the Ngwa, the indigenous owners of Aba, resent Abriba/Ohiafia economic domination of Aba. So, the discrimination against the Igbo or the dread of their domination by the native peoples in other parts of Nigeria is not tantamount to a universal hatred for the Igbo or resolve at their extermination. It is an exhibition of human traits and frailties that the Igbo are also guilty of.
The Igbo remain captives to the past, a past informed and shaped by mesmerizing falsehood. It is high time we embraced some fundamental facts of life as made evident in the second message of Ahiara. This will enable us to overcome our paranoia, self-pity, and feeling of victimhood. It will also enable us to snap out of that malarial fantasy that left us scouring the horizon for an Eldorado (Biafra) that will, one day, emanate from the sky and drop to the ground, where we will dwell happily ever after.
Tochukwu Ezukanma writes from Lagos, Nigeria