By Rafiq Raji, PhD
Northern political leaders met in Kaduna in mid-October to articulate their position on recurrent agitations by major ethnic groups about restructuring the Nigerian federation. They had hitherto either been silent on the issue or suggested there was no need to change the current governance structure; which most argue is biased in their favour. It would be interesting to know what made them come around on the issue. If history is a guide, perhaps an argument was made that engaging other sections of the country on the great matter would be more beneficial than their aloofness hitherto. Tagged “The North and the future of the Nigerian Federation” and under the auspices of the Arewa Research Development Project (ARDP), I was pleasantly surprised at how well-organized it was. (I shall refer to it as the “Arewa Conference” subsequently.) Not that I made the day road trip to Kaduna from Lagos just to attend: I followed it on social media; which in addition to tweets also included live video feeds of key discussions. And even though, the political elite were accorded the usual prestige, ordinary northerners, especially minorities, were amply represented and had their say. This is important. One of the key problems of the north is the feeling minorities have of neglect and discrimination. Northern political leaders have been keen to use their numbers for supposedly the region’s gain but often to the detriment of the minorities’ interests.
Heard of Catalonia?
The Spanish region of Catalonia recently voted to form its own country via a secret referendum, after a court declared the planned vote illegal. Tensions remain, even as Catalan president, Carles Puigdemont, has signalled he would not be averse to talks. You would think the Spanish government would be similarly conciliatory. What did Spanish prime minister, Mariano Rajoy, do? He gave Mr Puigdemont a 5-day ultimatum to say pointedly whether his government has declared independence from Spain or not. If in the affirmative, Mr Rajoy has signalled the central government would take over the reins of power in the autonomous region. Still, you have to wonder whether Spanish authorities needed to wait for things to go this awry. Some of the Catalans’ grievances could have been easily managed and perhaps resolved if the central government were more accommodating, for instance. And clearly, even now, it does not appear the Spanish government has taken lessons from its past mistakes. It is also worth noting how fellow European authorities have rallied round the Spanish government while at the same time piling tremendous pressure on the Catalans. Were a similar crisis to be in a developing or African country, they are not known to be so resolute in their support for constituted authority; often urging restraint by central governments while accommodating oft-called “freedom-fighters” or “activists” in tandem. No foreign government has yet to put pressure on regional agitators in southeastern Nigeria, for instance; with evidence suggesting that but for their turning a blind eye, the errant groups might not be so enduring.
That said, the Nigerian government must take lessons from what is happening in Spain. Back home, the problem has not yet degenerated to the point where someone or a group would be able to organize a referendum for independence and potentially get some legitimacy. Besides, when people agitate peacefully, it is usually because despite their dissatisfaction, there is something about the status quo that still appeals to them. Igbos in southeastern Nigeria have long expressed displeasure about the state of their affairs in the Nigerian federation; especially as they are even now not adequately represented in the current Muhammadu Buhari administration. Bear in mind, the Niger Deltans similarly made public their grievances in peaceful ways, and only took up arms after their cries fell on deaf ears.
Stop wasting time
A committee of northern governors, traditional rulers and political leaders are expected to review the final document of the Arewa conference. Town hall meetings would also be held across the region in tandem, the organizers say. Quite frankly, I am not so sure there is a need for that much ado after the Kaduna get-together. If the intention is not to buy time, what the committee under the chairmanship of Sokoto governor, Aminu Tambuwal, should do is to immediately reach out to other regional leaders for a frank talk about the future of the Nigerian federation.
Also published in my Premium Times Nigeria column. See link viz. https://opinion.premiumtimesng.com/2017/10/13/what-is-the-norths-restructuring-game-by-rafiq-raji/