In understanding Nigeria’s numerous ethnic agitations; there is the need to take a cursory look at the tail end of Nigerian military era before handing over power to a civil regime in 1999; starting from the Niger Delta agitation pioneered by the late environmentalist, Ken Saro Wiwa in the 90s through the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People, MOSOP, a platform he used in advance the rights of the Ogoni people.
Remi Adebayo & George Onmonya Daniel take a critical look.
The Ogoni Bill of Rights written by MOSOP, set out the movement’s demands which include increased autonomy for the Ogoni people, a fair share of the proceeds of oil extraction, and remediation of environmental damage to Ogoni lands. In particular, MOSOP mounted strong battle against the degradation of Ogoni lands by Royal Dutch Shell.
The agitation snowballed into major crisis following the killings of four Ogoni chiefs on 21 May, 1994. The military government led by the late General Sani Abacha saw an opportunity to end the agitation and quickly took advantage of it. Saro Wiwa and eight others were arrested and charged with murder; they were tried by the junta and later sentenced to death. On November 10, 1995, alongside eight others, Saro Wiwa was executed amidst international pressure on the government to spare them.
The executions later stared the Abacha government in the face as a bad move and it spurred the eruption of different groups in the region into making different demands; among them, those clamouring for total control of their resources and others that wanted to sever ties with Nigeria altogether.
Until his death in June 2008, Abacha was unable to suppress the Niger Delta agitations in spite of deployment of military might at his disposal. His successor, General Abdulsalami Abubakar avoided the lure to belabour himself with the crises, so he somewhat enjoyed the peace but tasked himself with handing power over to a democratically installed leadership.
So in 1999, Chief Olusegun Obasanjo, who won the 1999 election, inherited the uproar in the oil-rich region, one of the consequences that motivated the Odi massacre where the Nigerian army attacked the Bayelsa village and killed many after hoodlums murdered some soldiers in the state.
While Obasanjo was battling with the Niger Delta problem, Northern Nigeria suddenly erupted into the frenzy of agitation for Sharia Law. Pundits saw it as Northern Nigeria’s discontentment with the new government.
Then retired General Olusegun Obasanjo was in prison during the Abacha era, having been accused of plotting coup but after Abacha’s sudden death, G38, a group of power brokers, dominated by Northern elites anointed and sponsored him under the new umbrella Peoples Democratic Party to become president. With insinuations that Obasanjo was not playing ball, some of these backers used the Sharia law to blackmail his government and discourage foreign investments into Nigeria.
The Sharia agitation was overwhelming in Muslim dominated areas of Northern Nigeria with the slogan, “Sharia, Our Pride, Their Fear,” which drove down fears and panic among non-Muslims especially those residing in the north.
In the long run, Governor Sani Yerima, then governor of North West state of Zamfara was bold enough to kick-start implementation of the strict Islamic Sharia law in his state, followed by Yobe, Borno, Bauchi, Jigawa, Katsina, Sokoto, Kano; but not successful in Kaduna where Governor Ahmed Makarfi was in dilemma. Across the nation, there were pockets of protests by Muslims insisting on Sharia and counter protests by Christians who stood against it; these snowballed into full-fledged riots in some parts of the north, spreading to Kano, Plateau, Bauchi and other states.
Reacting to what was seen as threats to Southerners, especially Yorubas whose kinsman, Obasanjo was believed to be subject of the Sharia implementation politics, and militant elements in the Oodua People’s Congress, OPC, under Gani Adams decided to support back the president. doing that by issuing ultimatum that the Emir of Ilorin should move out of the town.
Various threats at the instance of the OPC against Hausa/Fulani led to the formation of the Arewa Peoples Congress to defend and protect the people of the north against imminent attacks.
Amidst these agitations, coupled with the Sharia riots in the North, where thousands of people were killed, Ralph Uwazuruike started the Movement for the Actualization of the Sovereign State of Biafra, MASSOB. Although the Nigerian government failed to consider other agitations from other regions enough threat, MASSOB, even though advocated peaceful means of getting Biafra out of Nigeria, was a threat immediately.
Igbos have consistently claimed to be victims of marginalization, even after the end of the Nigerian civil war. The war caused the death of millions, majority being Igbos, but the Nigerian government would always want to forget anything that has to do with Biafra.
With his famous “no victor, no vanquished” speech, Nigeria’s former military leader, General Yakubu Gowon pronounced an end to the bitter armed conflict ever fought involving the Nigeria and any of its component. The cessation following the famed Aburi Accord agreed to an ambitious plan towards Reconciliation, Reconstruction and Rehabilitation to repair mammoth damage done to the economy and infrastructure of the Eastern Region during the years the war lasted.
But decades after that declaration on 14 January, 1970, the South east still feels embittered that Nigeria is not convinced to mainstream it back to the country. Along this thinking is belief that the Igbo nation, a third major ethnic component of Nigeria is not equitably treated and no meaningful development to support the peace deal.
MASSOB was an immediate hit. The failure of the government to improve the livelihood of the Nigerian people and the large number of unemployed, made it easy for MASSOB to mobilize large membership to the extent that when Uwazurike declared a ‘sit at home’ in the South east in 2004, the region completely complied, causing panic in the government about the growing influence of the group. MASSOB therefore became easy target for government to be accused of violence; in 2005, Nwazurike was arrested, he was detained and later charged with treason until his release in 2007.
The group also championed the release of the Niger Delta militant and leader of the Niger Delta Volunteer Force, Mujahid Dokubo-Asari, who faced similar charges at the time. The Biafran agitation dipped after 2007, replaced by the bombing of oil pipelines by the Niger Delta militants and kidnap of foreign oil workers by different armed groups.
When Obasanjo handed over to the late President Umar Musa Yar’adua in 2007, ‘Servant leader’ as Yar’Adua liked to be known, came up with the amnesty programme where opportunities were given to militants to be trained locally and abroad and giving them jobs in return for which they would disarm. He also instituted the Niger Delta Ministry and funded the Niger Delta Development Commission, NDDC, to address some of the development challenges in the area.
As the Niger Delta calmed, an Islamic insurgent group, Boko Haram, sprang up. The sect wanted the full implementation of its version of the Sharia law in Muslim dominated areas of the North and with its base in Maiduguri, Boko Haram declared democracy as ‘haram’ meaning sinful, thus decided to follow their own sets of rules which made them to face frequent faceoff with the Nigerian authorities. There was when their members were killed by the police.
When Yar’adua got security briefs on the group, he ordered that they should be taken care of immediately. What followed was a full-fledged war and for three days, Maiduguri and its environ were in lock down as the police and army battled to neutralize the sect members, rounding up their members from Maiduguri to Wudil, Kano in the process, Muhammad Yusuf, the founder, was killed.
Sadly, Yar’adua could not go any longer, he died due to illness and his deputy, Goodluck Jonathan took over. Nigeria and Nigerians had no idea what was to come a year later. Boko Haram, the group that was thought to be defeated suddenly resurrected more sophisticated, more daring and prepared to launch more deadly assaults on the state; and it really did. Jonathan battled the group in a deadly war for the five years he lasted as the Nigerian leader.
The bitter and divisive election contest between Jonathan’s PDP and the Buhari’s APC further polarized the country. After winning the 2015 election, the new leader did not introduce any major move towards healing those aggrieved by the process which could have calmed frayed nerves as a result of the election.
In fact, the ambience and utterances of the President and his party played a role in starting another trouble in the Niger Delta with the formation of the Niger Delta Avengers and other militant groups who seized the creeks and started bombing oil installations and pipelines.
On his visit to the United States shortly after taking over, Buhari during an interview said he would favour the areas where he got more votes ahead of places he got less and it showed clearly in his early appointments which the Igbos complained to be marginalization.
Like other dissatisfied groups, south east’s quest to demand a new lease was frustrated with the arrest and incessant suppression of its voices; those who got silenced through faceoff with security agencies; and again, feelings of neglect in government by ethnic settings as well as low performance and absence of basic amenities touching on the lives of the citizens; these are strong motives behind the hype in demanding for a new Nigeria where the structure would appear balanced without empowering a section unduly above others.
Nnamdi Okwu Kanu, a political economy graduate of the London Metropolitan University, like a comet, rose to limelight on the wings of his arrest while agitating for an independent nation through the Indigenous People of Biafra, IPOB. Kanu, whose London-based Radio Biafra had ruled the airwaves promoting the Biafran ideas was arrested on treason charges in Lagos on 14 October, 2015 and detained without trial for months despite court orders until his release on very stringent bail conditions on 28 April 2017.
With him, the Biafran agitation assumed a new dimension, portraying an image of a victimized people and its freedom fighter in the midst of soaring influence and visibility of his movement, even in the political circle. While speaking in Umuahia, Abia State sometimes back, Kanu the Biafran agitator clearly articulated the direction of IPOB, which is its interest in ensuring that things are done the rightly; it said this would ensure that that its people beare free from modern day slavery; betraying the determination of IPOB to press for freedom, albeit, through peaceful way; and in an open letter to Acting President Yemi Osinbajo, IPOB identified lack of basic requirements for human survival as parts of the reasons it felt shorthanded in the federation.
“Think about it, Nigeria may be too big to manage and breaking it up can be the solution to a more accurate accounting of public servants as well as better implementation of leadership that will serve the people.
“Professor, I would like to also remind you that, contrary to the talks of war in Nigeria the agitators might inspire, this call for a referendum does not have to result in war.
“Everyone needs to understand that it is a call for civil discussion to find common and peaceful ground for existence. Many other nations have done it without war, so why can Nigeria not do the same? Civilized people can resolve issues without war but uncivilized people cannot,” IPOB said.
While this was on, a group of young people of Northern extraction felt it had tolerated the excesses of the Igbos for too long. These youths, a coalition of leaders from the Arewa Citizens Action for Change, Arewa Youth Consultative Forum, Arewa Youth Development Foundation, Arewa Students Forum and Northern Emancipation Network on the Igbo Persistence for Recession vowed never to fold their hands while watching the Igbos threaten to leave Nigeria.
In a statement read by Mallam Abdulazeez Suleiman, the group said the Igbos should indeed leave Nigeria and stop blackmailing other regions, going further to issue a five-month ultimatum with October 1 deadline during which Igbos should vacate the north.
“The persistence for the actualization of Biafra by the unruly Igbo of South-Eastern Nigeria has lately assumed another alarming twist which involved the forceful lockdown of activities and denial of other people’s right to free movement in the South-East by the rebel Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) and its overt and covert sponsors.
“This latest action and similar confrontational conducts which amount to a brutal encroachment on the rights of those termed as non-indigenous people residing and doing lawful businesses in those areas illegally demarcated and defined as Biafra by the Igbo, are downright unacceptable and shall no longer be tolerated. Although greeted with condemnations, starting with the Kaduna State governor, Mallam Nasir El-Rufa’i who ordered immediate arrest of members of the group, the coalition insisted it did nothing unusual.
Responding to the spate of these campaigns, the Acting President Yemi Osinbajo, moved in immediately by warning against hate speeches. He further pushed for dialogue with stakeholders from concerned geopolitical regions on the imperatives of peaceful coexistence among all Nigerians in spite of increasing calls for a restructured Nigeria even from strange quarters.
At the annual Prof. Ademola Popoola public lecture, Faculty of Law, Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife earlier this year, one of the newest converts of restructuring; former Vice President, Atiku Abubakar dug deep into the nonconformists’ base of opposition to a restructured Nigeria, saying, “If we cut out all the sophistry, posturing and pretensions, it is clear to me that the resistance against restructuring is based on three interrelated factors, namely dependency, fear and mistrust.
Atiku’s explained that opposition to the idea was linked with apprehensions of losing out by all segments of the country that depend on oil revenues from the non-oil producing areas and mistrust on the exact motives of restructuring advocates.
“Although arguments against restructuring come mostly from the North, there are, however, elements from the other regions who are in government and who argue against restructuring, claiming that it is only good leadership that is needed to resolve our nation’s challenges. Opponents also argue that restructuring is a ploy to break up the country.”
Fitting into the view is Atiku’s former boss, Obasanjo. The former Nigerian leader has consistently argued that attitudinal change to leadership was required to deliver good governance to the people of Nigeria; not a separatist or restructuring demands.
In Warri at the palace of the Olu of Warri, Ogiame Ikenwoli, the former President had said, “The answer to most of our problems is mindset change and change of mentally. If we need any restructuring, it is the restructuring of our mindset and mentality.
“Nothing is wrong with Nigeria, rather, a lot is wrong with Nigerians. We need to correct what is wrong with Nigerians. Some of us have to speak up because if things are wrong and you don’t speak up, then you have become an accomplice.
“Dismemberment of Nigeria is not good enough. Harmony and cohesion in Nigeria is what we should substitute for dismemberment. Inequity, injustice or unfairness are not good enough, we should substitute them with equity, fairness, good government and lack of impunity.”
But elder statesman and leader of the Ijaw nation, Chief Edwin Clark disagreed with Obasanjo saying the former president was not saying the truth, “he knows what to say, but he is not saying it. He is saying there is nothing wrong with the structure of the country, which is not true.”
Clark, together with many in his thoughts hold that restructuring Nigeria has nothing to do with the breakup, rather, it is a move to correct the defects in the current configuration. He queried, for instance, why a state like Kano with no economic contribution to the nation should have 47 local governments while Bayelsa which contributes a lot has only eight.
Towing similar thinking is the Alaafin of Oyo, Oba Lamidi Olayiwola Adeyemi. The foremost Yoruba monarch, in supporting Nigeria’s restructuring hinged the call on the lopsidedness of the country. Adeyemi said the North was favoured with revenue allocation while creating states and local government areas by past leaders from the north.
Atiku, while speaking on “The Challenges of National Integration and Survival of Democracy in Nigeria in Kaduna in 2016 said restructuring would address feelings like Clark’s; “Since the various amalgamations that created the entity that we now call Nigeria, different segments of Nigeria’s population have, at different times and sometimes at the same time, expressed feelings of marginalization, of being short-changed, dominated, oppressed, threatened, or even targeted for elimination.
“If anything, our unity has been fragile, our democracy unstable, and our people more aggrieved by their state in the federation.”
Viable as the argument seems, leader of Northern Professionals, Dr Junaid Mohammed, posited that none of those calling for the restructuring of Nigeria was able to give a clear cut definition of what it meant. He is adamantly saying until somebody can tell him what this restructuring is all about, he would not be convinced to back the call.
In what seemed like a response to Junaid, Nigeria’s former military president, General Ibrahim Babangida, in his Eid-el-Fitri message gave explicit details of his angle to the debate. Babangida said restructuring had become a national appeal whose time has come saying;
“I will strongly advocate for devolution of powers to the extent that more responsibilities be given to the states while the Federal Government is vested with the responsibility to oversee our foreign policy, defence and economy.
“Even the idea of having federal roads in towns and cities has become outdated and urgently needs revisiting. That means we need to tinker with our constitution to accommodate new thoughts that will strengthen our nationality,” he stressed.
Going further, the former leader stated that although restructuring and devolution of powers would not provide all the answers to Nigeria’s developmental challenges; it will help to reposition the mindset to generate new ideas and initiatives that would make the union worthwhile.
He disagreed with the notion that Nigeria could dismember merely by restructuring he opined that the clamour is an indication that Nigerians have agreed on the unity of the country in its diversity; “but that we should strengthen our structures to make the union more functional based on our comparative advantages,” he argued.
In fact, to mark its importance, former Secretary General of the Commonwealth, Chief Emeka Anyaoku, emphasized that Nigeria would not be able realise its full potentials and overcome present major challenges unless and until it restructures its governance architecture.
Meanwhile the mounting tension attracted by inter-ethnic hate speeches prompted Osinbajo to leverage on the sanctity of the oath of his office to proclaim the indivisibility of the country.
“Our unity is not negotiable. We should make sure that we remain united in order to enjoy the resources God has blessed Nigeria with. So many nations envy what we have as a nation,” Osinbajo had told members of the Muslim community who paid him Sallah homage in Abuja.
But Nobel Laureate, Professor Wole Soyinka disagreed, saying claims that the unity of Nigeria is non-negotiable is false, that the right of the people to determine their future is what is non-negotiable.
Soyinka told his audience at the commissioning of a new high school in Kaiama, Bayelsa State,
“Don’t tell me that Nigeria, as it is, is non-negotiable. To me, that’s a fallacy,” he said.
As agitations keep pouring, a civil group, ActionAid Nigeria, cautioned government on the need to employ tact and foresight in addressing the Biafra issue. At its annual general meeting on the state of the nation held in Abuja recently, the civil group said the federal government needs to create a process of discussion between the citizens, intelligence agencies and the government at all levels to handle the agitations.
Country Director of the group, Ojobo Atuluku, said Nigerians are dissatisfied with how the federal structure operates because the citizens have not seen the benefits of democracy and are yet to enjoy the nation’s wealth.
“There is dissatisfaction everywhere. The gap is that Nigerians do not want to trust our leaders. When our leaders get together to discuss the dimension of the country, those who are not around the table do not want to trust those that are there. It is an issue of how well our leaders represent our interest and how is the transparency opened to us.”
However, the Federal Government now seems responsive to address these agitations. This pointer came from the Acting President Yemi Osinbajo suggesting that government would soon come out with policies to address the questions.
Represented by the Special Adviser to the President on Political Matters, Senator Babafemi Ojudu at the launching of a book Nigeria; “The Restructuring Controversy” in Abuja, Osinbajo said all the debates on the restructuring of the country by Nigerians were being noted by the Federal Government.
“We are looking at all contributions made by Nigerians across the country. Very soon we will come out with policies to address the call for restructuring of the country,” he said.
He however cautioned that in demanding for restructuring, acts capable of causing disaffection among various ethnic groups in the country would not be condoned by the government.
Osinbajo urged Nigerians to be committed and loyal to the cause of the country, stressing that separation was not the answer to the nation’s challenges.
“It is in our interest as a nation to continue to dialogue for the unity and peace of the country. Equity, fairness and justice can only be achieved under a peaceful atmosphere. We must not do those things that will turn us against each other. Very soon we are going to come out with policies that will take care of some of the issues around restructuring,” Osinbajo stated.
Now that the agitations are yet to be addressed, not even from request for the report of the 2014 National Conference report which the APC as opposition party then distanced itself from, all eyes are on the President Muhammadu Buhari’s Government to see how it address the agitations and mend various cracks that the big demand has inflicted on the psyche and mutual coexistence of a united Nigeria.
Good enough, the governing APC and opposition PDP which form the bulk of the ruling elites are in agreement that time has indeed come to take a look at the present Nigerian configuration with a bid to make it more flexible and dynamic to meet the present day demands of the Nigerian citizens without necessarily rocking the boat; but in achieving this, will government be able to rein in every sections and opinions; will it be able to douse the extreme positions of group like IPOB and calm the recalcitrant youths in the north, how the Buhari-led government handles this in coming months will determine the fate of the agitators and stakeholders in the central theatre of the big agitation. MA