How we remember the flag that never stood tall: Secession in the U.S. vs. Nigeria

As one secessionist flag in the southeast of the United States of America prepares to fall never to rise again, another, in the south-east of Nigeria remains strongly in the minds of its people.

Tomorrow, the US state of South Carolina will stop flying the confederate flag with which it and other Southern states fought to secede from the United States of America 150 years ago. It was until now the only state, which still had the confederate flag in its capitol grounds. There have been mounting calls from within and outside the state for the flag to be taken down, as it represents the white supremacy and the subjugation of blacks which the southern states had fought to retain in the American civil war. In 2000, the state legislature agreed to remove the flag from the state house and move it to a memorial for fallen confederate soldiers that overlooks its former position. Now, following the uproar caused by the mass murder of 9 black persons in a historical black baptist church by a white supremacist and confederate flag promoter, the state’s legislature has finally agreed to remove the secessionist symbol permanently.

None of Nigeria’s current states within the old Eastern region, which fought to break away as Biafra, flies the secessionist flag. Since the end of the civil war in 1969, no state in the region– all of which were created after Nigeria’s triumph– has ever officially revered the Biafran flag. However, the attachment to the defunct country remains strong among the Igbos who inhabit present-day Southeast Nigeria and were the key drivers of the failed secession. Although there has been little momentum for another secessionist bid, exampled in the low public support for the Movement for the Actualization of the Sovereign State of Biafra, many Igbos still hold strong feelings of collective discrimination in the Nigerian state, one of the major reasons for the push for the split. “Nigerians will probably achieve consensus on no other matter than their common resentment of the Igbo,” writes the late Chinua Achebe in his famous elegy to Biafra– There Was A Country.

Nigeria’s ethno-political and socio-economic challenges further increases the wish for Biafra, or more particularly, what it stood for. With the country struggling socially; to unite beyond ethnic and religious lines, politically; to improve governance, and financially; to shake off its over-reliance on now-shrunk oil revenue, there is now a growing call for a greater political and economic autonomy of the states. For many in the deep south, this is a reminder of what the old-Eastern region had pushed for–a con-federal system of government, the rejection of which led to the secession and eventually the Civil War. “The East would not have seceded had Nigeria and Britain not reneged on the Aburi Accord, by which all parties agreed that given the bloodletting that had taken place (in 1966), a con-federal constitution on the Canadian model would be best for Nigeria,” G.N. Uzoigwe writes in his review of Michael Gould’s The Biafran War: The Struggle for Modern Nigeria.” His view remains popular among the Igbos, as does Achebe’s words that; “the post Nigeria-Biafra civil war era saw a ‘unified’ Nigeria plagued by a homegrown enemy: the political ineptitude, mediocrity, indiscipline, ethnic bigotry, and corruption of the ruling class… A new era of great decadence and decline was born. It continues to this day.”

Therein is the difference between the American south’s secessionist flag and that of Nigeria’s east. While both regions fought to separate, their motives couldn’t be any more different. At the centre of the former’s decision to split was the desire to retain slavery, the latter, in contrast, fought for emancipation. Slavery and white supremacy, espoused by the Confederate States of America, is now condemned for the evil that it is even by majority of the descendants of those who fought for it, but the cause of Biafra–of a viable confederacy within Nigeria at first and later of a country free of the ills of Nigeria– is still proudly spoken of with utopic longing among many Igbos. Thus, as the flag that hangs in Charleston gets tossed away, the one in the hearts and minds of most Igbos will hang in there for some time to come. And it will remain a constant reminder to all Nigerians on the lessons that they are yet to learn.

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