by Simon Kolawole
We are in that season again, aren’t we, when political tension is the major topic of discussion, day and night, in Nigeria. On the 50th anniversary of the declaration of Biafra, the Indigenous Peoples of Biafra (IPOB) has been increasing the volume of its campaign for secession. In response, the Northern Youth Coalition (NYC) issued a notice to all Igbo to leave the north by October 1, 2017. In the Niger Delta, there has been some peace — peace of the graveyard — after a lot of bombing that crippled the nation’s economy last year. Boko Haram, lest we forget, has neither retreated nor surrendered in its armed campaign for the Islamisation of Nigeria.
The Yoruba, meanwhile, are watching from the sidelines, perhaps waiting for what would happen to Vice-President Yemi Osinbajo in the coming months. Rumour is already doing the round in the north that President Muhammadu Buhari was poisoned in order for power to return to the south-west. This rumour is quite lethal given the street following Buhari enjoys up north and the likely backlash for the Yoruba, and the rest of Nigeria, if he does not recover. Coup rumours are rife: the military allegedly wants to keep power in the north if anything happens to Buhari. Asiwaju Bola Tinubu and Chief Bisi Akande have warned about an upcoming “resistance”.
To tell the truth, I have never been this worried about peace and stability in Nigeria since the political crisis of 1993 and the reign of terror by Gen. Sani Abacha. I consider the brewing crises (not just crisis) as potentially the worst in our history — because of the different dimensions. I believe Biafra failed because it was 75% of the country against 25%. The June 12 crisis was also relatively contained for the same reason. But if we have a resurgence in Niger Delta militancy, on top of Biafra and Boko Haram, and a renewed “NADECO” from the south-west, we will be biting too much. Maybe I am getting too nervous, but it doesn’t look too pretty to me.
What then must we do to be saved? I wish I had the answers. It seems Nigerians are perpetually in love with separatism. We keep experiencing this in different shapes and sizes, from the Oodua People’s Congress (OPC), the Arewa People’s Congress (APC), the Movement for the Actualisation of the Sovereign State of Biafra (MASSOB), to the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) in early to mid-2000s. We survived them all: OPC rebranded itself after endless battles with the police and needless bloodshed; MASSOB specialised in demonstrations and soon faded out; MEND bombed the pipelines and became a global brand; and APC never really made it.
The June 7 Kaduna Declaration by Arewa youth groups is yet another step towards the precipice. I remember when the now anonymous APC was formed in December 1999 by retired Captain Sagir Muhammed, a former operative of the Directorate of Military Intelligence (DMI), its declared aim was “to preserve the indivisibility of the country”. The group said it would begin “full self-defence training for northern residents” in reaction to attacks on Hausa people by OPC in the south-west. OPC was eventually caged (President Olusegun Obasanjo famously issued a shoot-on-sight order to security agencies). APC subsequently petered out.
Just as APC was the counterforce to OPC, should we take NYC as the antidote to IPOB? Should we assume that the threat to expel Igbo from 19 northern states is designed to put IPOB on the back foot? We all know Igbo are all over the country. (There is this joke that anywhere you go and you don’t see an Igbo, please run away because it is not fit for human habitation.) By threatening millions of Igbo in the north, NYC may force influential Igbo leaders to call IPOB to order to avoid endangering the lives of their kith and kin up there. The message, I think, is that the Igbo have more to lose. If that is the NYC strategy, it will work for now. But I don’t know if it will work forever.
However, I think we are muddling too many issues in the heat of the moment. It will serve us better to step back a bit and put some matters in perspective. One, the fundamental issue here is whether or not the agitation for Biafra is legal and legitimate within the context of the UN Charter and if it meets the legal requirements as contained in the Montevideo Convention on agitation for nation states. The requirements are: population, defined territory, a sitting government and capacity to enter into agreements. Under international laws, the Igbo can legitimately request to leave the union of the Nigerian state if these conditions are met. This is a fact.
Two, if the Igbo have made up their minds to leave the union, they can pursue their dream through these relevant international laws and conventions. IPOB’s leader, Mazi Nnamdi Kanu, has been threatening violence and using vile words on other ethnic groups. Kanu’s call to, and threat of, violence against others, or anyone who tries to stop them, as well as his unpleasant labelling and his hate speeches against other ethnic groups are absolutely out of order. There are better, far more decent ways of achieving independence for Biafra. I oppose the notion that IPOB has to insult other ethnic groups with the most demeaning words to be able to make its point.
Three, the ultimatum given to the Igbo to leave the north is completely out of line. Everything is wrong with it. Everything. Nobody has any right to give any Nigerian quit notice on the basis of their ethnic affiliation. To start with, it is IPOB that is at the forefront of the agitation and it is preposterous to hold every Igbo responsible for the activities and pronouncements of IPOB. There are many Igbo men and women living in the north (and even in Igboland) who do not support IPOB. On what basis would you evict them? Are they automatically guilty for being Igbo? NYC can say “leave Nigeria if you want” but to issue a quit notice is patently out of order.
Four, NYC missed a very big point. The British voted to leave the EU; Britons have not been ordered to quit other EU countries because of that. The Scots held a referendum on leaving the United Kingdom; they were not served quit notice for their aspiration. If the Igbo want to go, the terms can be amicably worked out. I hate to think of another Biafra war. We have been together, officially, since 1914 and I don’t think we have to part on a bloody note. And Biafrans who want to continue living and working in Nigeria should be able to do so under a new arrangement. After all, Nigerians live and work all over the world. That is civilisation. We can break up peacefully if need be.
Five, since the northern youth have so much adrenalin to serve quit notice on a whole ethnic group who are productive economic agents in their domain, why don’t they direct this energy at Boko Haram, the terrorists ruining the north-east? They have burnt mosques and churches, killed Muslims and Christians, abducted boys and girls. Over 20,000 lives have been lost and over 2.1 million northerners turned to refugees in their own country. Why can’t the northern youth issue an ultimatum to Boko Haram rather than the harmless Igbo people going about their business in the north? Why can’t the youth join the army en masse to help root out Boko Haram?
Meanwhile, I reserve special commendation for northern leaders who have risen stoutly to condemn the irresponsible Kaduna Declaration. I particularly salute the northern governors, especially Mallam Nasir el-Rufai, and the emir of Katsina, Alhaji Abdulmumin Kabir, for behaving like true elders in these troubling times. May we continue to have builders of peace in the land as we pass through these difficult moments. As for “elders” like Prof. Ango Abdullahi, I hope they will be very proud of themselves when they appear before their Maker to account for the role they continue to play in stoking and nurturing sectional tension in Nigeria.
Finally, I ask south-east leaders to call these guys to order. Many in the north are angry that Igbo of substance have not condemned Kanu’s anti-north rhetoric. But do Igbo leaders support him or are they scared of him? Going by Kanu’s popularity with the street, with so many people now identifying with him and trying to ride on his coattails, Igbo leaders appear as constrained as northern leaders were when there was a mass movement for the introduction of Sharia in the north in the early 2000s. No leader wanted to go against the wind. However, I think tempers must cool first so that we can have a reasonable conversation. My two cents.