By Rafiq Raji, PhD
Our aspirations whether we are Igbo, Hausa or Yoruba (even this characterisation is an injustice; we are much more diverse) are the same. Like all humans, we desire a life of peace, dignity and wealth. Do we have these currently? We have relative peace at least. Were we to loose that, flawed as it is, our loftier aspirations would be no more than dreams. The examples of war-torn Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan are instructive. These countries have been so disfigured and scarred that it would take generations for any reasonable semblance of normalcy to return to them. Do we want that in Nigeria? Still, the marginalisation of the Igbos (and minorities elsewhere) in Nigeria must be acknowledged. We must also be frank with our Igbo brothers. If they insist on secession, there will be war. All of us, Nigerians, must do our utmost to prevent this.
Stop threats and bluffs
It has come to light that recent incendiary statements against the Igbos by some youth representatives in the north had the backing of their elders. The venue, their calm and confidence were evidence enough regardless. The symbolism of “Arewa House”, where the so-called “quit notice” was made from, was definitely meant to convey their legitimacy. Unsurprisingly, their ‘tactical’ hate-speech has gone unpunished. Thus far. Because unlike the popular perception, our country’s security services, inefficient though they are in many spheres, have one distinct competence: they have their ears to the ground. It is very unlikely that the security system did not get wind of the event that led to this unnecessary stoking of tensions. Besides, the culprits are not in hiding. So it is right that acting president, Yemi Osinbajo, and the security services be criticized for this seeming impunity. Cold feet, argue cohorts from the Niger Delta. If only things were that simple. Still, by not arresting the northern youths as yet, assertions about a privileged north and a marginalised south are vindicated.
When people scheme to influence outcomes in their favour, they often do not plan for when things get out of control (as they always do) on the back of their actions. Say the northern youths were simply calling the bluff of their Igbo brothers’ threats of secession. If come October 1, their deadline, a few criminals decide to instigate violent incidents here and there, what then? We cannot afford such a crisis on our hands. And as far as tactics go, the northern youths’ threat was similarly not well thought through. Because just like the Igbos have a significant portion of their wealth outside Igboland, so do northerners. As if to buttress the point, supposedly pacified Niger Delta militants have issued threats of their own. In demanding that owners of crude oil exploration blocks from the north relinquish their assets, the stakes have been raised not only for the pseudo-tacticians and strategists across the divide but for the entire nation.
Efforts by Prof Osinbajo to soothe frayed nerves are laudable. In meeting with the respective regional groups seperately and later with both, he has taken a necessary first step towards resolving the impasse. Shouldn’t Nnamdi Kanu, leader of the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB), who has been made a living martyr by the authorities’ needless sensationalism, have been included in the meetings, some ask. I imagine Mr Kanu was snubbed because the government may have realised its folly hitherto: To do so would almost certainly deify him further as the leader of the Igbos. But is he? Igbo leaders and elders must bear responsibility for allowing Mr Kanu usurp them. Ralph Uwazuruike, leader of the Biafra Independence Movement (BIM) and former leader of the Movement for the Actualization of the Sovereign State of Biafra (MASSOB), acknowledges as much. (Some of Mr Uwazuruike’s kinsmen accuse him of not sincerely acting for the Biafran cause.) Still, in company of Hamza Al-Mustapha, former chief security officer to former head of state, late General Sani Abacha, he has been trying to secure safety guarantees for Igbos living in northern Nigeria and provide assurances of same for the Hausa-Fulani living in southeastern Nigeria. In purportedly handing over “Radio Biafra” to Mr Kanu, Mr Uwazuruike says he did not envisage that things would deteriorate as they have. One thing has become clear, however. Unlike the Hausa-Fulani and Yoruba, Igbo elders cannot boast of having the ears of their youth. And therein lies the risk. It is not all too clear that the Igbo elders the acting president met with would be able to rein in their younger ones. Unless they do, a likely imminent militarisation of the southeast is almost inevitable.
Scheming for 2019
Fissures exist in the north as well. Two northern governors were very visible after the quit notice from their younger brothers. One because the threat emanated from his domain. The other because of his incumbency as the chair of the northern governors’ forum. That they are alleged to be interested in the vice-presidency should the ailing Nigerian president, Muhammadu Buhari, succumb to his ailments, has hurt their credibility somewhat. The call by the former, Nasir El-Rufai, a Buhari stalwart, that the erring northern youths be arrested has been derided by some of his kinsmen, for instance. And by inviting Bola Ahmed Tinubu and Bisi Akande – influential Yoruba politicians in the ruling All Progressive Congress (APC) party and backers of the acting president – to commission projects in Borno state, popular opinion in the north wonders whether governor Kashim Shettima’s similar call is not also purportedly motivated by his desire to boost his nationalist credentials. Unless the two say otherwise, we have to assume that they were simply doing their patriotic duty. For had they been silent, eyebrows would have been raised certainly. That said, northern politicians interested in the vice-presidency are already mud-slinging each other. A purportedly doctored telephone conversation between Mr Shettima and Ibikunle Amosun, a governor in the Yoruba southwest, which recently surfaced online, in which the former supposedly wondered about the hypocrisy of the Igbos’ secession quest while still prospering in other parts of the country, is evidence of this: Mr Shettima’s spokesman, Isa Gusau, told Voice of America Hausa, an American radio station popular with northerners, that an unnamed northern politician interested in contesting the presidency in 2019 was behind the smear campaign. Of course, Mr Gusau was quick to point out his principal has never indicated an interest in joining the race.
Evidence has also emerged about what the real intentions behind some of the Biafran agitations could be. In about mid-June, the Ohanaeze Ndigbo Youth Council revealed how their agitation is partly motivated by positioning for the 2019 elections, unabashedly demanding an Igbo presidency in 2019 or secession the year after. This is needless. Any regional group interested in ruling the country must convince others why they should be given the opportunity. Building a coalition with at least one of the other major ethnic blocs is most definitely a required first step. Since coalitions are built on trust, it behoves the agitators to make necessary moves towards engendering it. Besides, the north already fears the acting president, a Yoruba, could suddenly desire to run for president in the event that President Buhari dies before his first term expires. They already worry about his rising popularity: His recent travels across the country, which are arguably much needed to douse the tension in the land, have revealed the law professor’s surprisingly deft grassroot touch. Recent military coup rumours were aimed, it is believed in some parts, at tempering any potential presidential ambitions on his part. Should ongoing regional agitations deteriorate further, it would not be surprising at all if a state of emergency declaration is forced on him; a scenario that would give the armed forces and security services enhanced powers. In this regard, there is little comfort in the fact that their command structures are now predominantly northern. Curiously, the Nigerian Senate recently started reviewing the country’s emergency powers law. The chamber’s president, Bukola Saraki, who was recently acquitted of false assets declaration charges, has refuted claims that this is aimed at empowering the federal government to remove elected state governors and appoint sole administrators in their place. Mr Saraki did add that civil unrest, insurgency or unmanageable natural disasters could be sufficient grounds for declaring a state of emergency though.
Suggestions have been made in past articles by this columnist on ways out of our current troubles. It is not farfetched for Igbos (and minority ethnic groups) to feel like foreigners in their own country when the top three most powerful leaders in the land are from the north. (Unless acting as president, the vice-president is only as influential as his principal allows him.) Peripatetic Fulani pastoralists continue to maim and kill farmers from minority ethnic groups over grazing land with impunity. These are just few but significant examples. Clearly, with the root of most of these agitations due to many unpunished past and ongoing injustices, whether by one region over the other, or the rich over the poor, or politicians over the electorate, not until there is some semblance of equity and justice for the marginalized, oppressed and wounded would there be peace. Even so, any potential solution must be within the ambit of existing laws. The process of changing the constitution for anything beyond what the extant ones accommodate would be almost certainly destabilizing. And history is replete with examples of how agitators almost always loose the plot when they resort to anarchy. There are a number of creative ideas about how to begin to remedy the current potentially combustible situation in the reports of past constitutional conferences as well. Political will has always been the problem. And because Mr Buhari is indisposed and the authority of the acting president remains relatively shaky, the bell tolls for the legislature to do the needful. Thankfully, the Senate has decided to do just that. It has asked the executive to make available to it the report of the 2014 national conference with a view to adopting some of its recommendations. Of course, it speaks to the insincerity of past governments (and indeed the current one if it pushes back on the request) if the peoples’ elected representatives, sworn to protect the sovereignty of our dear country, are as yet not privy to the contents of the report of a constitutional conference supposedly instituted in the peoples’ name. Our lawmakers must act swiftly.
Also published in my Premium Times Nigeria column. See link viz. http://opinion.premiumtimesng.com/2017/06/19/our-wars-must-be-no-more-than-words-by-rafiq-raji/