These are confused and confusing times for our nation. Nothing seems to add up. Our political leaders are torn between what would swell their swollen bank accounts and what would make for a united, peaceful nation in which everyone enjoys the basic human and legal rights guaranteed them by the Nigerian constitution and cynically abused by the same leaders. At times like these, there is almost an obligatory inclination to ask questions, foolish questions even. So, here is one, which admittedly, is not original to me: What do Ndigbo want?
They are the current prime movers of separatism. I discount Sunday Igboho and his Yoruba nation as mosquitoes buzzing in the ears of the Nigerian state. If Ndigbo want out of Nigeria, they must have good reasons, I think. In my private conversations with my Igbo friends, I know that the question excites passions, sometimes beyond the pale of reasonableness.
Local champions lead a plethora of separatist groups, more than 30, according to the senate minority leader, Senator Enyinnaya Abaribe, in the contest to play Moses and lead their people back to a revived state of Biafra on which it was once said the sun would never set but on which the sun, given its bad attitude, did set more than 51 years ago.
When I ask my friends why they want out of Nigeria, I hear nothing original in their argument. To borrow from a Nigerian journalist and scholar, Dr Theophilus Abba, they throw back at me “ancient grudges of socio-economic marginalisation of the Igbo nation and ancient fault lines traced back to the era before the 30-month civil war from 1967-1970.”
Grievances are endemic in all human societies. They arise, usually, but not always from the facts of historical development in which the progress of each group is determined by the hand dealt them by history. In this, therefore, Ndigbo are no exception in our country. Their grievances against the Nigerian state would drown in their own insignificance were I to drag unto the path of national discourse the telling grievances of oppression, suppression and plain marginalisation of the 247 tribes grouped together as minorities by their big brother majority tribes. We are to blame for our poor performances in the labour wards, obviously.
Political and economic circumstances often make it possible for ancient grievances to be recycled, dressed in new garments and be given a new note of urgency. The planning and the execution of the January 15, 1966, coup triggered reprisals that took the nation to the brink of disintegration. Ndigbo, citing the military and civil disturbances in which they were, admittedly worsted, as evidence of pogrom, concluded that the Nigerian state no longer wanted them.
Those grievances now wear a new garment that permits Ndigbo to remake their case, to wit, they want out of Nigeria; not that Nigeria does not want them but that they don’t want Nigeria any more. Here is one good reason. Ralph Uwazuruike was the first man to float the separatist agitation with the Movement for the Actualisation of the State of Biafra, MASSOB, in 1999. His reason was that President Olusegun Obasanjo failed to appoint an Igbo officer in the armed forces as a service chief, despite, according to him, the massive votes of Ndigbo for him.
You can see how easy it was for him to turn the old garment of ethnic Igbo grievances into a national problem by holding the Nigerian state accountable for Obasanjo’s non-reciprocation of the support of Ndigbo in the 1999 presidential election. You may find this difficult to process but do not hit your head too hard. There are many things we do not understand – to borrow from novelist Mabel Segun.
In 2012, Nnamdi Kanu suddenly emerged as the new separatist champion and planted himself in the void left by Uwazuruike with his formation of the Indigenous Peoples of Biafra, IPOB, to carry on the struggle from where MASSOB appears to have left off. IPOB is a more radical, if virulent strain, of the separatist virus. He too fell back on the regurgitation of the frayed list of unarticulated Igbo ethnic grievances against the Nigerian state. Kanu gives sit-at home orders that are obeyed more or less by his people because he commands a measure of capacity for violence. And blood, Ndigbo blood, keeps flowing in the geo-political zone.
The response of the governors of his zone to the manner of his agitation has been at best mealy-mouthed. Abaribe told his television interviewer recently that “It should worry the government if a non-state action is complied with in this manner…” I agree. The governors met over the current sit-at-home orders recently and issued a communique that said: “The meeting condemned the sit-at-home orders, which are mostly issued by our people in the diaspora who do not feel the pains, the meeting resolved that governors and all people of the South-East do everything within the law to ensure that there is no further sit-at-home in the South-East and that people are allowed to freely move about in the zone.”
It is as tepid as they come. Kanu would not lose sleep over it. It is hardly a strong response to the sit-at-home orders enforced with either the barrel of the gun or the threats of other form of violence. The governors are helpless. And they know it.
In his television interview referred to in the preceding paragraph, Abaribe said “there is nobody from the South-East that I know, who does not feel that the way the people from the South-East are treated today, that there is something fundamentally wrong which should be resolved.”
He too did not tell us what exactly the Nigerian state is doing to Ndigbo in particular. Yes, there is injustice; yes, there is unfairness; yes, there is marginalisation by reason of tribe or religion; and yes, Nigeria is not a poster child nation for everything that should be right with a multi-ethnic and multi-religious nation. We are all victims of the injustice, unfairness and marginalisation. But we are all complicit in our mutual suffering and disadvantages because those who preside over our fate are fellow Nigerians. They do what they with our explicit and implicit support.
I do not think Ndigbo are worsted in the scheme of things. After all, the Igbo are part owners of our country with the Hausa/Fulani and Yoruba. The rest of us beg for a chance to pick the crumbs that fall from their tables. And to be fair to the rest of the country, Ndigbo have not done badly since the end of the civil war – be it in politics, the armed forces and the police. I can understand if, as a part owner of Nigeria, their other two big brothers have elbowed them from the fountain of political power. But that is a matter the big brothers can settle among themselves. Wetin concern the Idoma man here?
Igbo leaders must stop blaming other people if their fellow Hausa/Fulani and Yoruba big brothers fence them off from the fountain of political power. It is not a national conspiracy. It is part of the political game; they too must learn to play it – and not by crying foul each time their two plus two do not make four.
We all want a fair, just and equitable treatment by the Nigerian state such that except by individual failures, no Nigerian can be denied his constitutionally guaranteed rights and freedoms by reason of his tribe or religious faith. Building a better union is a process that often rides on articulated demands. Separatism is a cop out in our collective struggle to build a greater nation in which absolute power shies away from the absolute corruption of the system.
Agitations have their uses. They force the people and their leaders to the round table to talk and to negotiate a more inclusive union. History has some good examples of the saving power of threats of secession or separatism. Competing ethnic, social, political and even religious interests are permanent means of changing political fortunes. The problem is not the existence of grievances or the just struggle to right the wrongs. The problem is how each national leader responds to the challenges of managing such grievances and agitations. Such responses either fuel or dampen the agitation. It would appear this was what happened in the case of IPOB.
Abbah notes that it “was founded during Yar’Adua/Jonathan administration from 2012, but the group was generally ignored by the South-East political leaders and the federal government. However, since 2015, shortly after President Muhammadu Buhari came to power, security agencies began to arrest, detain, clamp down and kill members of IPOD who engage in peaceful protests.” Force is not a solution. It is an aggravation.Obasanjo faced MASSOB and the Niger Delta militants. He chose dialogue rather than fire power to respond to them. No nation has ever found a viable alternative to dialogue when it is faced with existential threats, no matter how minor it might be in the calculation of its leaders. We have been repeatedly assured that Nigeria will not break up. God dey. But the lack of tact in handling these agitations confronts us with an anarchic situation in which parts of the country are ungovernable with obvious implications for the rest of the country.