Nigeria is disintegrating rapidly. The cracks, the fragmentation have grown wider and much quicker than anyone expected. There is nothing to cushion the hard impact of the landing at the bottom of the valley. The appetite, passion and fire for self-rule are growing and becoming unquenchable. The coalition of northern youths that gave the Igbo a three-month deadline to vacate the northern states has only helped to accelerate the passion for secession among various ethnic nationalities.
Ever since the quit notice was given, the public sphere has been dominated by angry talk about separation rather than talk about unification. No one except those privileged by the present arrangement seems keen to continue to exist in a country as disjointed as Nigeria, a country that treats them like second-class citizens in their fatherland. In sports and in politics, Nigeria seems determined to hit the base of the valley of darkness. As a nation, we are in a deep hole but we don’t seem to realise our predicament yet. The citizens want freedom. They want to be emancipated from the contradictions that have defined the country for nearly six decades.
Nigeria is like a couple going through divorce proceedings. One partner has given the other a quit notice, in a rather comical but iniquitous manner. Rather than one partner breaking away, other parties have seized on the opportunity presented by the quit notice given by the northern groups to demand independence. This is why the current situation must be taken seriously. All it takes is for one ethnic group to break away and all others will rise to press their case.
Acting President Yemi Osinbajo alluded to Nigerian people being in a marriage that is facing challenges. He made the statement at a wedding ceremony in Ibadan, Oyo State, at the weekend where he preached peaceful coexistence and tolerance as virtues of a lasting marriage. Every marriage, he said, has its good times and bad times, noting that the strength of every marriage is the ability of the couple to resolve their disagreements and misunderstandings and remain in the marriage.
Let me dwell on this marriage metaphor briefly. As much as I agree with Osinbajo that every marriage is confronted with challenges, I do not agree that a marriage of unequal partners, a marriage in which one partner is perpetually arrogant and takes pride in taunting the other partner should continue. An unhappy marriage cannot be sustained and should not be allowed to stand. Once it becomes obvious to a couple in a marriage that there are more issues that divide them rather than issues that unify them, the marriage must end. It is torturous for one partner in a marriage to be abused, to be isolated, to be discriminated against, and to remain unhappy. There is nothing to salvage that marriage.
Marriage, like the current co-existence of disparate ethnic nationalities in Nigeria, should never be perceived as a kind of prison. The moment it becomes apparent that the marriage or co-existence has no redeeming features, it should be dissolved. This is why many Nigerians have expressed dissatisfaction with the current federal arrangement that privileges people from a particular part of the country. The best way to begin to address the tension is to agree to restructure the country. Those who are strongly opposed to reorganisation are scared of what they stand to lose in a rearranged Nigeria. They are the beneficiaries of the status quo. But the status quo cannot last forever.
We live in a civilised world in which citizens are now fully aware of their rights and entitlements. No amount of preaching for peace would eliminate the prevailing anger and feelings of injustice, discrimination, marginalisation, and the fire that is burning in people’s stomach because they feel they cannot participate and be treated as equal partners in the country.
Ango Abdullahi’s contemptuous and inflammatory comments directed at Igbo have infuriated not only the Igbo but also people in southern part of the country. When an educated man, a former vice chancellor of an elite university, a leader of the Northern Elders Forum turns history on its head to make insensitive and dumb remarks as he did, you have to query his level of intelligence and his academic credentials. Did he actually achieve those academic laurels attributed to him? Any talk about peaceful coexistence of Nigerians that does not lead to the apprehension of Ango Abdullahi for his provocative and stirring comments must be dismissed. Peace cannot be maintained in an atmosphere in which regional leaders make statements that continue to exacerbate the tension in the country.
The danger right now is that no one is doing anything in terms of putting into action concrete and practical frameworks to douse the tension, to give assurance that the threat by the northern radicals is nothing but hot air. Political leaders are scared of the word restructuring or reorganisation. None of them wants the restructuring to occur during their time in office. The drums of war are sounding ominously across the country while national leaders hedge, hum, sigh and throw their hands in the air in resignation. This explains why a hurried meeting of South-East governors produced a tame press release that was as shallow in content as it was hollow in providing a way forward. The cacophony of voices that have been expressed point to confusion among the leadership rather than a cohesive plan to extinguish ill feelings. These have so far achieved nothing but exacerbated anxiety across the country.
The Federal Government, regional leaders, state governors and security agencies appear to have been caught unawares by the declaration by a coalition of northern youths. If that is the case, it signals a failure of intelligence. There is no question that Nigeria is disorganised, almost without leadership. No one seems to be taking serious action to prevent the imminent disintegration of the country. Beyond rhetoric, nothing else seems to be on the ground to arrest the situation. Fear has been planted in the hearts of Igbo in the North. This includes other southerners in the region. It is this fear that could lead to mass exodus of an ethnic group from one part of the country. If that happens, can anyone still say we are co-existing peacefully?
Everywhere you look, you will find evidence that the artificial union known as Nigeria is about to implode in spectacular ways. It is not only the demand for the state of Biafra that has created huge cracks in the union. There are many ethnic nationalities now demanding freedom and independence. Last week, a group from the Niger Delta issued a press statement in which it informed national leaders of its intention to establish an independent state of Rondel effective from 2018. Another coalition of Niger Delta militants last week issued an ultimatum in which it demanded the return to the region of all oil blocs allocated to northerners, if the coalition of northern groups that gave a quit notice to Igbo failed to rescind their threat. These are all signs of a fractured and restless country in which the citizens no longer see reason to continue the charade in the name of co-existence.
Nigerians should be free to look themselves in the eyes and say enough is enough. It is not a crime to call for reorganisation of the country. Other countries did so and successfully negotiated the union of their people in a peaceful manner. Why should we gag free expression by citizens? Why must we continue to go in circles in the name of unity when many ethnic nationalities are unhappy with the current arrangement? When people feel they are no longer loyal to their fatherland, you have to be concerned and move quickly to examine the conditions that led to that feeling. We must talk and find mutually acceptable ways to end longstanding inequities in our society.
The implication of Nigeria fragmenting into tiny pieces of nationalities is frightening. It could be bloody. It could lead to genocidal killings. It could lead to human rights abuses of extraordinary proportions. Above all, it could result in the disappearance of a once-respected continental power known as Nigeria. There used to be a country known as Yugoslavia. There used to be a country known as Czechoslovakia. There used to be a union of nations known as the Soviet Union. For many years, East Timor fought for freedom from Indonesian rule. The agitations were repeatedly put down with military force. The leaders of the independence movements were rounded up and jailed while others fled to the jungle to continue their struggle. All these continued until 1999 when Indonesia, under pressure from the United Nations and regional power Australia, agreed on a referendum to determine whether the people of East Timor would like to go their separate ways from Indonesian rule.
Results of the referendum were undisputed. A massive majority of East Timorese voted for independence. Indonesia had no choice but to accede and respect the people’s wish. These international examples must serve as a lesson to Nigeria. There is a limit to which you can suppress people’s wish for autonomous rule. Sooner or later, in our current generation or in future, that wish will be accomplished. Nigeria must learn from the words of former United States President John F. Kennedy, who said: “Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable.” This was part of a poignant address he delivered on 13 March 1962 on the first Anniversary of the Alliance for Progress.
The challenge for national leaders is to find practical ways to mute the current drums of war.