Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu, the separatist leader of the Republic of Biafra, once alleged that Igbos 'live in a glass cage below a glass ceiling'. His words remain incisive, even if you disagree. Fractures in the Nigerian state, created 50 years ago by civil war, have led to a heated debate about identity politics and tribalism.
Understandably, the story of Biafra is one that has many peddlers, whether as sober historians dedicated to the proper recollection of history, or ardent supports of MASSOB and IPOB, determined to revisit the idea of an independent state.
War and conflict, whether in their existence or probable existence, are always costly, to both winners and losers. Everyone pays the price. In its most extreme form, survivors mourn the loss of unborn children, adult children or spouses, and its mildest form, virtue signalling causes foreign capital to flee.
As a Nigerian, you will not avoid the costs of any heightened Biafran conflict, whether you own the plot of land opposite Nnamdi Kanu's residence or you reside somewhere in London. That is the unfortunate reality of violent national conflict. Whoever you are, wherever you go, what happens in Nigeria matters.
Therefore, even as some Nigerians support the case for an independent state and others resist it in all forms, we can all agree that in the end, we will all lose out.
The Economic Costs of War
The War Disabled Veteran's Camp near the Oji River in Enugu state is where injured Biafran soldiers were sent at the end of the Nigerian Civil War. In 2000, thirty years after the end of the war, several hundred men still lived in the camp, dying off slowly after years of neglect and abandoned promises of rehabilitation and training. The camp embodies the largest private and social costs. When the conflict eventually ends, those that served are often left at the mercy of wider society for their economic sustenance, a degenerative situation that begins to drain national resources.
Reconstructing a society ravaged by violence is no easy feat because human beings are economic agents in need of resources. For instance, a study on the long-term impact of the Nigerian civil war, which led to well over a million deaths, estimates that exposure to violence resulted in height reductions – an indication of poor health – in both children and adolescents. These effects are estimated to have reduced the income of those most affected by 1.5–3% per year of conflict exposure.
If that feels negligible, there is more.
The North East Nigeria Recovery and Peace Building Assessment (RPBA) team announced in 2016 that the Boko Haram conflict could cost the region $9 billion – over a third of 2017 National Budget. The team also said it would need $6 billion for recovery efforts in the crisis-torn area. This is all without considering the other two major economic costs of war: direct military costs and the opportunity cost of lost output. It is challenging, especially in a data-scarce world like Nigeria, to estimate these, and we have not come to consider the real and long-lasting social costs of a country at war with itself.
Meanwhile, tension will only mount in the south-east, after the Army declared IPOB a terrorist group. Before Boko Haram became what we know it as today, it was a loose gathering of non-violent followers of Mohammed Yusuf in the Railway Quarter of Maiduguri. Today, it is a killing machine that resurrected after the army tried and failed to quell it with heavy-handed brutality. It has also become very costly to the Nigerian state. As any crisis grows, the economic costs become more than numbers on a spreadsheet, but every dollar spent on the conflict is a dollar lost elsewhere.
Trying to assess the economic consequences of any new conflict is made trickier by the fact that the social costs, which are much harder to estimate, are probably more crucial for the everyday citizen. The future is filled with many unknowns, none of which the Nigerian Army, the Federal Government or IPOB supporters are able to answer. How long will conflict last? Will it escalate beyond the south-east to the oil-rich and tense Niger Delta region? Will there be damage to the nation's life source (oil) in vital states close to the South East? What will be the reaction and response of the international community? These are questions trigger-happy soldiers are not bothered with, and even the highly educated Nigerians from all around the country will fail to calculate.
The Costs Will Be Shared
One thing is sure in all the violence; the costs will be shared. Any new conflict requiring army intervention and potential reconstruction efforts will divert resources from the rest of the nation. Conflicts do not happen in isolation because purchasing more weapons for an already stretched army will come at the expense of spending on infrastructure, railway, healthcare and roads. Any disruption in the south-south could affect Nigeria's oil exports and the word 'recession' may resurrect.
Eventually, the chickens will come home to roost because those wrapped up in the comforts of Lagos will quickly realise the impact of the South East's trading hubs to their commercial capital. The internet-connected Nigerian millennial will not be shielded because the inevitable Paradox of War is the shattering of the sanctity of and respect for human life. By necessity, the irrevocable preciousness of a Nigerian life must be temporarily suspended for the duration of the conflict. All this and more will live with us forever.
There is a limit to the impact of impassioned debate with Nigerians who hold strong views on Biafra. However, even the greediest Nigerian should think twice if burning his neighbour's house will also burn his home. We are all connected. If the average Nigerian is still not worried, perhaps it is because the North-east crisis erupted and the woes of Sambisa forest felt distant and remote. That safety net may not appear this time around, and the costs will be apparent. So like it or not, as you take sides in what appears to be another crisis, remember that the price of conflict will weigh heavy on us all.