The view expressed here represents the evolving stance of a true Nigerian with a Biafran blood and spirit on ethnic labeling. It is intended to trigger a discussion and informed debate on self-identification rather than representing a final label of Ndigbo in the 21st century. The aim is the need to bring into logical consistency the political realities (over possible “break up”) facing Ndigbo thriving in their chosen professions in different parts of Nigeria. Hopefully too, this forward looking ethnic label will calm the nerve of any Igbo man who wants to identify with the Biafran spirit, but is worried about his assets in Kano, Kaduna, Ibadan or Lagos.
Self-labeling also called self-identification refers to the ethnic label that one uses for oneself. Many writers have suggested that individuals should play active role in developing their ethnic identity in order to come up with a dynamic ethnic label that is accomplished rather than simply given. Such labeling can also be used to modify conceptions thereby reducing the likelihood of destructive conflicts arising in a multi-ethnic nation.
Recent political developments in Nigeria have led to a growing awareness in our communities of differences associated with ethnic group membership. The result is increased ethnic consciousness, pride and as expected friction between different ethnic groups in Nigeria. These conflicts in multi-ethnic Nigeria is partly the result of ethnic identity manipulation by “ethnic entrepreneurs” in our political system. These entrepreneurs exploit ethnic cleavages in Nigeria to gain support in their quest for political power. What they are, however missing is that the individual ethnic identity of many Nigerians has been changing over time.
Over the years, I have realized that ethnic identities are fluid and dynamic – not set in stone. For example, there are many Ibos born outside Igbo land that cannot speak Igbo, are very fluent in English, Yoruba and Hausa etc. There are also Ibos who were born in Igbo land but have lived their entire adult life in Ojuelegba and some have even changed their name from Uche to Segun. These Ibos by reason of their residence, social network and business ties have acquired an ethnic identity that is multifaceted. To accommodate everyone, therefore we need a labeling that is evolving across time and situations.
After a careful consideration, I came up with the label Biafran-Nigerian as a suitable label befitting to Ndigbo. The labeling was derived out of our traits and experience as a people. The traits were from our genetic Igbo DNA while the experience is from social construct and interdependency. The Biafran prefix is based on my belief that social processes do not easily modify some traits of ethnicity. On the other hand, the Nigerian suffix is based on shared values and concerns which many Igbos have acquired within the entity called Nigeria.
Biafran-Nigerian should imply to anyone with Ibo-ethnic ancestry anywhere in the world. It should not be associated with any negative connotation by virtue of being born and raised outside Biafra land or by virtue of residing outside Biafra land or believing in “one” Nigeria. Here, I am arguing for a jumbled, but unified Biafran-Nigerian identity- an identity that is Biafran at the same time Nigerian.
This labeling is beautiful because it dilutes both the Nigerian and Biafran part of the self-identification. It evolved out of my reconciliation of unity and diversity without confusing unity with uniformity. It promotes a plural national culture that reflects but transcends ethnic nationality.
The labeling is my way of showing commitment to Nigeria at the same time asserting myself as a Biafran. The label Biafran Nigerian by no means provides an exhaustive definition of who we are as Ndigbo. This label is an integrated conceptualization of ethnicity as a dynamic, multidimensional construct embedded in social, historical, and political contexts.
Strictly from a linguistic standpoint, the separatist movement should be satisfied with this name in that it sounds like being Biafran is more important than being a Nigerian. Biafran-Nigerian is an identity that can settle the nerves of Nigerians of Igbo ethnicity that have settled in Lagos or Kano but still want to identify with the Biafran spirit. This label ensures that when there is a dispute between Biafran-Nigerians and other Nigerians of other ethnicities, the loyalty of Ndigbo to Nigeria will not be questioned.
This will not be the case if we are just Biafrans in a foreign country Oduduwa Land, Ijaw Nation or Nigeria. The identity is also one sure way of guaranteeing the safety and rights of Ndigbo to their properties and structures across Nigeria. Ndigbo should therefore promote the ethnic based label “Biafran-Nigerian”.
I know it sounds crazy and I can hear you saying, “How dare you?” My reaction is let you know about what Steve Jobs said about the crazy ones – the ones who see things differently: he said that the “ones who are crazy enough to think that they can change the world, are the ones who do.”
We can change Nigeria only if we stop behaving as ethnic entrepreneurs but nation builders. Igbo people have a saying that a master chef is not blessed with a good harvest of okra. Rather, it is his demonstration of persistence and commitment to learning the art of cooking that made him a master. With commitment and a change of attitude, together, we can make Nigeria work for all of us.
For Nigeria to work again, we need to start expressing love for one another again. The best way to keep love is to give it wings. I want Biafran-Nigerian self-identification to give Ndigbo wings. We have nothing to lose but rather, everything to gain by championing this self-ethnic label. So, let us take this wing and fly away. Let us use this Biafran-Nigerians ethnic identity label to plant one foot firmly in our Igbo culture and through our social relationships use the other foot to navigate the political climates in Nigeria. That is wisdom.
In conclusion, the beauty in this jumbled ethnic label is that it is based on the understanding of interdependence of different ethnic nationalities in Nigeria. It is an important alternative to current “road to Kigali” being blindly promoted by some Nigerian.
It is therefore my hope that Nigerians of other ethnicities will not only find this exercise pertinent and constructive, but sees this as a model worthy of replication.