Fuelled by lack of economic opportunities, agitations for Biafra to become its own state in Nigeria’s Southeast geopolitical zone – the Igbo heartland – had changed into violence rebellion ; one, security agents – who played a huge part in its creation – seems to be tracking success in suppressing.
And the aftermath of that incident began to fade , the leaders are preparing to seize the initiative, amid an emerging renewed sense of solidarity.
On the whole, Nigeria is undergoing severe economic distress with galloping inflation, mounting unemployment and mass poverty. Insecurity is also widespread, but in the Southeast, there appears to be deliberate attempt to cripple enterprise, which has added more impetus to the quest to resolve the challenges besetting the zone.
“It’s about time, difficult times warrant extraordinary measures,” declared Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, the director general of the World Trade Organization (WTO), who delivered the keynote address at the Southeast Security and Economic Summit held in Owerri, the Imo State capital on September 28.
“Nigeria is going through tough economic times in a context in which the world itself is facing multiple crises, whilst at the same time changing rapidly. If today’s initiative and gathering succeeds and delivers concrete results, it would be the start of the journey to improve the lives of the over 22m people living in Abia, Anambra, Ebonyi, Enugu and Imo states.”
On that call, the WTO DG, who served twice as the country’s finance minister, noted that the zone could do much more than that. “A redynamized Southeast,” she said, “has the potential to become a beacon of development, good governance and stability in our country. A redynamized Southeast can give our young men and women hope and make them part of the rapidly digitizing world. But to give hope, we must grapple with the problems.”
The economic summit held between September 28 and 29 in Owerri, Imo State coincided with the 2023 Igbo Day Celebration held in Enugu, which according to Chief Emmanuel Iwuanyanwu, the Ohanaeze Ndigbo president general, was done to ensure huge attendance by Igbo sons and daughters across the country and beyond, as the organization seeks to push its development agenda.
“We’re pushing the Aku Ruo Uno philosophy,” Iwuanyanwu said in an interview. “The idea is to ensure that 30 percent of Igbo wealth is domiciled in the East. Most Igbo business owners have bought into it.”
The end of the civil war in 1970 left the Igbo with the wrong end of Nigerian stick. Marginalisation by successive federal governments, worsened by poor leadership at the home front, caused a sense of alienation to take root. In 1999, Indian trained lawyer, Ralph Uwazurike formed the Movement for the Actualization of the Sovereign State of Biafra (MASSOB), marking the first time the Biafra question would return to political discuss since the war ended.
By early 2000, Uwazurike had built huge following mostly from amongst disillusioned young people, one whom was Nnamdi Kanu, who would eventually break away to form the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) in 2012.
While Kanu started out as a rabble rouser ranting away on Radio Biafra from his base in the UK, his arrest and detention by the government of Muhammadu Buhari in 2015, transformed him into some sort of a hero, with protest marches held across the southeast for his release.
By the time he was eventually released in 2017, he had gotten massive following. The rest has become history. In 2020 Kanu formed the Eastern Security Network (ESN), and was rearrested in June 2021 in Kenya. Today, he’s the single biggest factor in the insecurity challenge in the region, with many blaming the Buhari administration for mishandling his situation.
The Owerri summit, nonetheless, offered an opportunity for the leaders of Ndigbo to proffer solutions to the zone’s challenges, particularly the insecurity, but also the lack of infrastructure, a combination of which have driven businesses out of the zone, and made it unattractive for investment.
Five of the four states in the zone were among the 28 states that attracted zero foreign investments in the past six months, with only Anambra registering $4m in foreign investment, a low for a state and region with huge diaspora population.
During the summit, which had a number of dignitaries, including former Senate President, Adolphus Wabara; Senator Ifeanyi Uba; former Chief of Army Staff, Azubuike Ihejirika; former Inspector General of Police, Mike Okiro; Minister of Labour, Nkeiruka Onyejeocha; Minister of Science and Technology, Uche Nnaji, among others in attendance, various speakers harped on how insecurity has damaged the region and brought untold hardship and suffering to her people and economy.
But while lack of infrastructure – which many blame on neglect by successive governments at the federal level – and insecurity have often been identified as the key factors militating against entrepreneurship in the zone, Okonjo-Iweala insists that the most prominent challenge is the lack of unity among the people, while calling for a change of attitude in this regard.
“We have allowed ourselves to be divided, lost focus and lost sight of our biggest assets, namely, our sense of community,” she said. “We no longer have solidarity, instead we have fragmented as a people. That has made us not to work with each other. We don’t support each other. Instead, we attack and undermine each other. We’re too individualistic.”
The former minister, however, conceded that beyond lack of unity, insecurity is the other big problem.
“Our other big challenge is security. Insecurity in our region is sending the wrong signal that no one can invest in the South-East. The lesson is clear,” she said. “We can’t have development without security. To sustain development is possible but the sit-at-home is one of the problems. And to move forward, we have to solve the issue of insecurity.”
On the positive side, she noted that the biggest resource of the zone is its people, while wondering why young people should be allowed to be desperate despite the much celebrated Igbo apprenticeship system.
“Our biggest resource in the Southeast is our human resources. The Igbo are entrepreneurial. Some of the biggest entrepreneurs in Nigeria are Igbo. Many micro, medium and small enterprises that thrive in Nigeria, West Africa and elsewhere, are run by the Igbo. I’ve been to Niger, Burkina Faso and Cameroon. These places are full of enterprising Ndigbo,” she said.
“We can get the several billionaires we have in the diaspora to invest in the Southeast so that we can create decent jobs for our young people right here. How can we have an apprenticeship model that a scholar recently described as the largest business incubator platform in the world and still our young people are desperate? I want to suggest right away that we convene a Southeast investment forum for our own business people.
“In this forum, we should examine what is blocking greater investment in the Southeast and what we can do to remove these blockages.”
The lack of unity – which may have its roots in the very nature of the Igbo as republicans, who thrive as individuals, and as independent communities without central authority – has historically been identified as the bane of Igbo advancement in the Nigerian context, and it played out still on the very day of the summit.
While the former minister, among other prominent leaders, including governors gathered in Owerri physically and virtually, a breakaway faction of Ohanaeze Ndigbo led by certain Chidi Ibeh held its own version of Igbo Day Celebration in an unknown location in Rivers State, after changing the venue from Liberation Stadium, Port Harcourt over fear of attack.
Indeed, while the Igbo had for ages clamoured for a Nigerian president of Igbo extraction, Peter Obi, former Anambra State governor, who emerged as a huge force in the 2023 presidential election, was surprisingly opposed by many political leaders of the Southeast, notably Charles Soludo, the incumbent governor of the state, who sat among the guests while Okonjo-Iweala spoke.
But it’s a challenge the summit and follow up engagements will hope to resolve. Many, who spoke at the event, emphasized the need for the Igbo to come together.
“Our vision is to build a secure, prosperous, and economically robust Southeast,” said Dr. Alex Otti, governor of Abia State after the two-day event. “To achieve this, we must tell ourselves the truth and resist the temptation of letting political considerations minimize the frankness and sincerity that should be central to our recovery and restoration. Our fathers achieved so much for this region with vision, commitment, sacrifices, and partnerships. They left behind many developed cities, towns, institutions, and structures across Igboland and beyond. As leaders, we have not matched their achievements in the last forty years, but we have the opportunity to change that narrative.
“This is no time for recriminations but to affirm that building our region into a secure space is our collective obligation. No foreigner would do it for us. Whatever we propose must take cognisance of who we are as a people and how we want to interact with the larger world. As a way forward, we must invest in the creative minds of our teeming youth population, education, health, infrastructure and technology. Seeking dialogue and partnership with other regions and the federal government cannot be overstated as we look forward to making the region an investment haven for the rest of the world.”
With the summit done, many in the region and beyond will be looking forward to actions that would follow. Top in this regard is the possibility of having a seaport in the zone.
While the Southeast is generally believed to be landlocked, Governor Otti announced at the summit that a seaport project will kick off in Owazza, Ụkwa East local government of Abia.
This port, according to him, is also going to have an Export Processing Zone with other business-promotion facilities.
“The seaport will come much later, after all the approvals have been gotten from the Federal Government,” Okey Kanu, the Abia State commissioner for information told Business Hallmark at the weekend.
“Even though they said it’s no longer on the exclusive list, but there are still things that the Federal Government will have a approve. But the other projects like the modular refinery will proceed.”
Other governors are also upbeat about what could be achieved going forward.
“The Southeast is ready for business; the Southeast is ripe for business and we must all believe in our ability to turn things around and get the Southeast going again,” said Charles Soludo, governor of Anambra State.
“That must be the outcome of this particular summit. We can lament about insecurity and so on; this is not the most insecure place in the world, other places are thriving despite their insecurity.
“When I arrived in Anambra, eight local governments were totally under siege by these hoodlums. They are all gone, we are settling into business. They would not deter us, Anambra, the Southeast all of us, we must be determined to move our place forward despite the challenges.
“Our people must mobilise their funds to build our region.The ‘Akụ Ruo Ụno’ philosophy is one that I strongly believe in. My brothers, the Southeast governors, and I are ready to work together to ensure the full realisation of these wonderful ideas. We urge you, Ndigbo, to bring home your wealth and invest in the Southeast.”
For Peter Mbah, governor of Enugu State, the zone will achieve great feats by coming together as one market.
“There is a need to have a common market that will be a centre that will grow the economy of the region and from there, we look at how to create a comparative advantage for the different states of the region,” he said.
“We now look at the key enablers, which include road transportation. We also look at how we construct a ring road that connects the Southeast region. At the end of this summit, we should employ the best of our brains to implement the ideas we have gathered here today.”
Dialogue with agitators is way forward
In his remarks, former Senate President, Anyim Pius Anyim, called for a rethink of the Biafra agitation and strategies to deal with insecurity in the South-East.
Anyim said that robust discussions with the agitators will generate lasting solutions to the insecurity plaguing the zone.
“Insecurity has worsened in the southeast with gunmen attacking residents every day. Yet, the circumstances that led to the civil war in 1967 appeared not to be the same thing as what the current agitators are doing,” he said.
“This is why the leaders should bring the agitators closer to understanding their yearnings. In the last four years, every Monday has been declared by some non-state actors as sit-at-home day. The enforcement has been brutal, leading to enormous loss of lives and property.”
According to the former secretary to the government of the federation, “It is estimated that hundreds of lives and hundreds of billions of naira have been lost to the sit-at-home order.
“Life has become very difficult in the South East and almost every successful person in the South East is in self-exile. If care is not taken, very soon, none of us will come home, no matter the number of security personnel you carry.
“Social and economic activities have been dislocated, businesses have collapsed, no social activity can any longer take place in the zone and no new businesses are being attracted. If care is not taken, very soon, every means of livelihood in the zone may dry up.”
When it comes to politics, the former Senate President said, “Heavy arms and ammunition have become instruments of political campaigns, resulting in gross voter apathy. If care is not taken, very soon, South East will lose national political relevance as votes from South East will no longer be of any consequence.
Source: Business Hallmark