At this time, it is important that our leaders, and indeed all of us, come out and condemn hate speech, divisiveness, and above all the politics of brinkmanship. The fact of the matter is that there is no country in the world that does not face the risk of break-up and decomposition.
The acting president, Yemi Osinbajo, on Wednesday, stated categorically that: “Nigeria is indissoluble,” while addressing State sovernors in Abuja. Over the past few weeks, he had been addressing traditional, ethnic, religious and political leaders in a spirited effort to reduce divisive tensions in the country. Recent tensions exploded following the so-called Kaduna Declaration in which a Northern youth coalition asked all Igbos living in Northern Nigeria to leave the region. The Northern group was responding to repeated calls by certain Igbo groups for secession. Other groups have also joined the fray, condemning and threatening others, and creating a climate of the apparent process of dismantling the country.
It is in this context that the acting president has been engaging leaders and appropriately counselling that: “We must not allow careless use of words to degenerate into crisis.” I completely agree with his key message that: “Nigeria’s unity should not be taken for granted” and that we should all beware that reckless words and actions can push us along the path leading to more bloodshed or even to war.
At this time, it is important that our leaders, and indeed all of us, come out and condemn hate speech, divisiveness, and above all the politics of brinkmanship. The fact of the matter is that there is no country in the world that does not face the risk of break-up and decomposition. Anthropologists tell us that the Somali are the most pure “tribe” in the world, all of whom are descendants of one line, and yet it is one of the most divided nations in the world today. What we know from history is that nations survive not because they are composed of the same group but because they create conditions that favour staying together.
Nigeria is confronting a number of critical political challenges that are raising serious questions about its identity and survival as a democratic federal republic. First, there has been a significant rise and expansion of sectarian conflicts, both ethnic and religious. The sustained crisis provoked by the Boko Haram insurgency has also been particularly unsettling for the country. The phenomenon of rural banditry related to cattle rustling and violent conflicts between pastoralists and farmers have virtually ended the “Pax Nigeria” established by the British between 1903 and 1915 in rural Nigeria. Increasingly, people are feeling threatened about killings in their homelands.
As rural peace recedes, the federal character politics in the country has been used to discriminate against millions of citizens labelled as settlers in most parts of the country. Violence has repeatedly been the outcome of conflicts between “settlers” and “indigenes” in various parts of the country. As more Nigerians live in areas where they are not considered indigenes, the feeling of exclusion is spreading. Following the 2015 general election, the insurgency in the oil producing Niger Delta has returned and sabotage of oil facilities has escalated. The revival of Biafran secessionism also took its élan within the context of all these political challenges.
…the central problem that has been generating the steady rise of ethno-regional tensions and conflicts has been the supplanting of Nigeria’s federal tradition by a virtual Jacobin unitary state that emerged under a long period of military rule… we have actually been restructuring since 1914 and that process rather than structure might be our problem.
Nonetheless, we should not panic too much about current political developments. Nigeria was amalgamated into a single political community in 1914 for economic, not political, reasons. That act of 1914 had limited objectives – the amalgamation of administration and finance to enable the system balance the books. In 1939, regional autonomy was reinforced with the division of the country into three regions. Since then, Nigerian politics has had a very strong ethno-regional character and the political elites have always sought to exploit it for their political ends. At every point when the political classes felt their interests were at stake, they have not hesitated to play the trump card of secession.
It should be recalled that in the 1950s, virtually all Nigerian parties saw themselves as political expressions of ethno-regional associations with the Action Group (AG) in the West evolving from a Yoruba cultural association – Egbe Omo Oduduwa, the Northern Peoples’ Congress (NPC) emerging from the northern cultural association, Jamiyar Mutanen Arewa and the National Congress of Nigerian Citizens (NCNC) which started as a national party but later narrowed its social base to a cultural association – the Igbo State Union.
These ethno-regional elite blocs struggled against each other in seeking to configure federalism to their advantage, often using the secession threat. It was the Sardauna of Sokoto who first referred to the amalgamation of the Nigerian provinces as “the mistake of 1914”. That was in the early 1950s, when he flagged the secession banner, because he felt that Southern politicians were unwilling to understand the attitudes of the Northern elite towards independence. The Sardauna’s position was that the Northern elite would not rush towards independence if it meant replacing European domination with Southern domination.
In the 1950 Ibadan Constitutional Conference to review the Richards Constitution, a representational ratio of 45:33:33 for the North, West and East was proposed. Northern politicians felt threatened by this arrangement and the then Emir of Zaria articulated their position clearly – the North must have 50 percent of the seats or secede from the country. In May 1953, after Northern politicians had been ridiculed in Lagos for opposing the AG motion for self-government in 1956, the Northern House of Assembly and the Northern House of Chiefs met and passed an eight-point resolution that amounted to a call for confederation and separation.
In the 1954 Lagos Constitutional Conference, it was the turn of the AG to demand that a secession clause be inserted in the Constitution. The move was opposed by the NPC and NCNC. In 1964, following the census and election crises, Southern politicians were getting disenchanted with their future in Nigeria. Michael Okpara, the premier of the Eastern Region directly threatened in December 1964 that the East would secede. Okpara went ahead to establish a committee under his Attorney General to work out the modalities for a declaration of secession by Eastern Nigeria. When Ojukwu finally decided to embark on the course of secession three years later, he had a ready-made plan waiting for him.
The reality of Nigerian politics is that fears of domination of one zone over the others played a central role in convincing politicians of the necessity of a federal solution. The First Republic, which operated essentially as an equilibrium of regional tyrannies, was however characterised by the domination of each region by a majority ethnic group and the repression of regional minorities.
The transition from threats to an actual attempt at secession first emerged from the Niger Delta. On February 23, 1966, Isaac Boro decided that he was not ready to live in a Nigeria that was ruled by Igbos. He therefore declared the Independence of the Niger Delta Peoples’ Republic following the first coup and the establishment of the Ironsi regime. Boro had become very disturbed about perceived Igbo domination of Eastern minorities since his days as a student activist at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka. His Republic lasted for only twelve days, the time it took the police to round up his rag-tag army of 159 volunteers. Isaac Boro and two of his colleagues were charged for treason in March and condemned to death in June 1966. Boro was eventually released at the onset of the Nigerian civil war, when he joined the federal side and was killed in battle in 1968, fighting for the liberation of Rivers State from Biafra, on the platform of the Federal Government of Nigeria.
The civil war of 1967 to 1970 was, of course, the most serious threat to the existence of Nigeria as a country and it led to the loss of over a million lives. In my view, the present problems confronting the polity are to some extent less intense than the crisis engendered by the census, elections and coup d’états of the 1960s.
The second most intense period of political crisis followed the annulation of the June 12th, 1993 elections and the determination of the Abacha dictatorship to continue in power as the sole candidate for the five “leprous” political parties. To address the concerns, General Abacha had announced in his 1995 independence address the introduction of a modified presidential system in which six key executive and legislative offices will be zoned and rotated between six identifiable geographical groupings; North-West, North-East, Middle-Belt, South-West, East-Central and Southern-Minority. Abacha died and the transition led to the emergence of the Fourth Republic.
The reality of Nigerian politics is that fears of domination of one zone over the others played a central role in convincing politicians of the necessity of a federal solution. The First Republic, which operated essentially as an equilibrium of regional tyrannies, was however characterised by the domination of each region by a majority ethnic group and the repression of regional minorities. Indeed, the central problem that has been generating the steady rise of ethno-regional tensions and conflicts has been the supplanting of Nigeria’s federal tradition by a virtual Jacobin unitary state that emerged under a long period of military rule. Its for this reason that I believe we should continue the tradition of the search for restructuring. Following that path might reveal a surprising outcome – that we have actually been restructuring since 1914 and that process rather than structure might be our problem.