By Sir Emeka Asinugo
Nigerians continue to agitate for their country to be restructured in its present context. The APC government of General Buhari continues to play cat and mouse. Just last week, Yoruba Leaders of Thought rose from their meeting and issued a communiqué which made it clear to the entire world that it is either the country is restructured or the component parts would go their different ways. It sounded like an empty threat to the federal government, like water poured on a smooth stone. The water simply trickles down and does not stick on the stone.
Some Nigerians clamour for an outright secession from Nigeria because they see no future in the unity of Nigeria. They see any so-called unity of Nigeria as a fraudulent fusion of criminally like-minded politicians whose sole mission is to continue milking the national economy dry, for the benefit of their individual families and those of their cronies. They see these politicians as the ones whose preoccupation is to keep widening the gap between the very rich families in the country and the very poor ones whose welfare should have been their primary concern. But our people have a saying that the man who never knew where the rain started beating him will never know where he dried his body. This should go for the voters in Nigeria and for those who seek to be elected into public offices in the future.
The most and perhaps only obvious fact today is that Nigerians are generally not happy with the situation of things in their country. They are disenchanted. They are disappointed. They are frustrated. They feel defrauded. And they are angry.
The promise of change the APC party chieftains made to them during their election campaigns and for which they overwhelmingly voted for the APC with faith and hope for a brighter future has become their illusion, and nightmare. The APC only succeeded in raising their hopes and then mercilessly dashed it into irretrievable pieces.
Despite all these evidences of massive failure, the Nigerian Army has recently started an exercise they call “Operation Python Dance” in the South East. Video clips of the inhuman treatment Nigerian military personnel are inflicting on their fellow Nigerians have already gone viral. And like many other concerned senior citizens of the country I just want to believe that those clips were not real.
No one has been told the offence the young men who were being humiliated in that way committed. No one had arrested and prosecuted them for whatever reason. In an attempt to impose “discipline” on Nigerians, it is important that the dignity of Nigerian citizens be respected by the military. These people are no animals. They are human beings. They are fellow Nigerians. And it might just be necessary also for the Nigerian Army to realize the need to represent their Commander-in-Chief well. For one reason, the trigger happy army boys in that video clip could be inadvertently helping pro Biafra forces to amass substantial evidence which would definitely be in their favour if they decide to make a case against Nigeria at the international level.
Nigerian military brass must recognize that the world is watching what goes on in Nigeria especially after the government shamelessly accepted financial aid from some countries like Britain. It is important they play the game according to the rules. The young men we saw in those video clips were unarmed and defenseless. And for the military to descend on them the way the clip portrays can be interpreted as anything from man’s inhumanity to man to outright genocide. It could represent a strong evidence for those who are determined to dismember Nigeria.
But while all this is unfolding, we might take a little time and reflect on how far Nigeria has actually come. How did we come to where we are today? And why are some Nigerians keen on a breakup while others are determined to fix the glue on component parts irrespective of whether or not they are comfortable with the union?
Most Nigerians already know that before Europeans came into Africa, our people had their own very well established and flourishing traditions and culture. They were politically emancipated. But the nature of their politics and social behaviour differed from one another.
The Nok civilization flourished in what we know today as Northern Nigeria between 500 BC and 200 AD. Life-size terracotta carvings which were some of the earliest known sculptures in Sub-Saharan Africa were produced in Northern Nigeria. Kano and Katsina still have records of their history dating back to 1000 AD.
About this same time also, the Kingdom of Nri was known to have consolidated its civilization among the Igbo of what we know today as Eastern Nigeria. Nri was ruled by Eze Nri and the city of Nri was always considered as the originator and custodian of Igbo tradition and culture. Nri and Aguleri , from where the myth of Igbo creation originated were in Umueri Clan and indigenes of the clan trace their ancestry back to King Eri , their patriarch. The oldest bronzes carved with lost wax in the entire West Africa were from Igbo-Ukwu , a city within Nri dominance. Igbo civilization continued to flourish until it lost its glory to British people just before the amalgamation of 1914.
Among the Yoruba of what we now know as Western Nigeria, the kingdom of Ife was already prominent by 1200 AD, the kingdom of Oyo by1400 AD. The oldest culture in these Yoruba kingdoms included terracotta and bronze carvings. By 1700 AD, the influence of Oyo kingdom had extended to Togo. Then, there was also the Benin Empire with its vast and well established civilization. These kingdoms of the North, East, West and Delta Region were autonomous and they never had a reason to bring about conflict upon each other.
For centuries, the various peoples in what we now know as Nigeria traded with North Africa. Cities like Kano, Katsina, Lagos, Oyo, Ife and Benin became regional centres in a wide network of trade routes that covered the entire West, Central and North Africa. And when Spanish and Portuguese explorers arrived, they became the first Europeans to begin any form of direct trade of significance with the various peoples of what is today known as Nigeria, way back in 1600 AD. The Lagos and Calabar ports served as major outlets in these trades.
At first they traded goods like machetes, clothing, wines, tobacco and similar commodities they knew would easily attract the local people. But the trade soon snowballed into human trafficking, and then into slavery. It marked the beginning of the Atlantic slave trade. The ports of Lagos, Badagry, Calabar and Bonny became major slave trading posts from where people conscripted in wars, people from very poor families and those who were said to have been sacrificed to the gods were shipped to Europe where they were subjected to untold hardship as cheap labour.
By 1808, Usman dan Fodio , a Fulani religious leader and writer whose mission was to expand Fulani influence successfully prosecuted a jihad and created a centralized Fulani Empire in the North. This Empire was also known as the Sokoto Caliphate . The territory controlled by the Sokoto Caliphate included much of the areas we know today as North and Central Nigeria. But in 1903, Britain broke up Sokoto Caliphate and amalgamated its South and North Protectorates with Lagos in 1914 to form what is today known as Nigeria.
It is important to note that slavery continued to flourish in some of the Northern territories even after it was abolished by Britain and other European countries. It was estimated that by 1890, about two million people – the largest slave population of the world – was concentrated in the territories of the Sokoto Caliphate . There was a desire at the time for political and social stability which motivated most European powers to support widespread cultivation of agricultural products such as the palm and cocoa for use in European industries. And so there was also the need for slaves who would work in the farms. The use of slave labour in the North was extensive, especially in agriculture.
Even today, some of those master-servant traits can still be noticed in the mental attitude of some Northern leaders in modern Nigeria. If, for instance, you log “Sarduana of Sokoto” on You Tube, you will get an idea of how the mindset of Northern Nigerian leaders could work from what Sir Ahmadu Bello said about the Igbo of Eastern Nigeria. Sir Ahmadu Bello was the grandson of Usman Dan Fodio.
In Britain meanwhile, rising anti-slavery sentiments and changing economic realities forced the government to outlaw the international slave trade in 1807. Not only was the obnoxious trade abrogated, Britain followed up its enforcement. It established the West Africa Squadron to halt the international trafficking in slaves. It stopped the ships of other countries which were leaving the African coast with slaves. It turned over their seized slaves and the slaves were taken to Freetown in Sierra Leone which was one of the British colonies in West Africa originally established for the resettlement of slaves who were freed from Britain.
When the British formally amalgamated Nigeria in 1914, they knew the political, religious and social differences between the North and the South. They knew that the North was predominantly Muslim and the South, mainly Christian. And, for administrative convenience, they still left Nigeria as Northern and Southern Protectorates. The Protectorates had the colony of Lagos as Headquarters because of the coastal importance of Lagos to Britain.
But nature played one game here. People who lived in the South naturally interacted more economically and more culturally with the British and other European visitors than those who lived in the North because of the coastal outreach of Lagos as the headquarters of a new country called Nigeria.
Christian missionaries established educational institutions in the style of Western Europe in the Southern Protectorate. But they did not do so in the North, because the North did not want their people to acquire any other, apart from Islamic knowledge.
With time, some Southern elite families began to send their children to Great Britain in pursuit of higher education. The North never saw the necessity at that time to follow suit. They still have not seen the necessity because they believe in a great measure that Western education is evil.
Britain’s policy to use “indirect rule” to administer Nigeria meant that the government had to use locals who spoke or understood some English to enforce its laws. Most of these were to come from the South. But Britain also found it necessary to validate Islamic tradition. So, they deliberately refused to encourage Christian missionaries to establish in the North which was predominantly Islamic.
That legacy was supposed to become less obvious these days. But it was exacerbated by the agents of Boko Haram when they insisted that Western education is poison to them. By the time Nigeria had independence in 1960, regional differences in the access to modern education between the South and the North had become distinctively remarkable.
Britain had been challenged in the 1950s by a great wave of expression for self rule which was sweeping across Africa. Nigeria was among some other African countries to attain self rule. In a swift response to that local need for self rule and the growing demand for Nigerian nationalism, successive bills legislated by the British government moved Nigeria towards self rule on a federal and representative basis. And that was how Nigeria became independent.
So, if we keep this epitome of Nigeria’s history at the back of our minds, we would then ask why Nigerian agitation for restructuring or self rule must become bloody. I don’t think it should. What we should concern ourselves with is what it would demand to restructure Nigeria to make its citizens generally happier, or in the alternative secure independence for any section of the country that feels it is no longer safe or comfortable with the way things are happening in the country without necessarily shedding the blood of poor innocent Nigerians.
I think that Nigerians are educated and sane enough to discuss and handle this issue in a democratic manner, starting with the media. I am still wondering why major newspapers like Punch, Vanguard and Guardian have not yet done a survey on the opinion of Nigerians on a plebiscite, for instance. That is where they should start from. The feedback would certainly enable the APC take a more informed decision on the way forward.
Nigeria did not fight Britain to get her independence. The British saw the conditions slaves were being forced to go through, and they no longer found it funny. They stopped it. They realized it was time to let go. And if Nigeria did not fight for her independence with Britain, why, in the name of the ancestors, would Boko Haram or Igbo and Yoruba youths do so in order to be freed from a system they perceive as suppressive, given their different aspirations?
Too many people are dying unnecessarily in Nigeria. For a long while, a lot of Nigerians in the Diaspora have shown concern about the way pressure groups in Nigeria are beginning to make the land unsafe and ungovernable. In the East, the youths of Igbo land (which includes the Delta Region) have become distinguished for their series of protest marches, which in my last article titled “Lessons from the Arab Awakening”, I likened to the wave of feverish demonstrations that enveloped many Arab countries at the start of this decade and apparently led to nowhere.
Many elderly people from the North and the South can no longer defend the way their youths are going about issues that concern Nigerian families.
We need to do something about that. First, the Igbo must agree that there is absolutely no need for the proliferation of leaderships that now create a loophole for those who insist that dismembership of Nigeria is a crime against God himself. Among Pro-Biafra agitators, there are the Movement for the Actualization of the Sovereign State of Biafra (MASSOB), the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB), the Biafra Liberation Council (BLC), the Biafra Liberation in Exile (BILLIE), Billie Human Rights Initiative (BHRI), Radio Biafra London (RBL) and the Biafra Zionist Movement (BZM). Each of these organizations has a leader who claims to be the Messiah for Igbo liberation.
However, recent developments have shown that the Ohaneze Ndigbo is the apex Igbo leadership that the Federal government seems to recognize and is willing to negotiate with, should there be a need to dialogue on national issues the Igbo consider as important.
Now, if all these Igbo organizations were to perform as arms of the Ohaneze Ndigbo under one leadership, the Igbo would be making a head way in their demand for Nigerian leaders to restructure the country as it is now or the component parts can go their different ways, just as the leaders of the Yoruba have said.
So, can the leadership of Ohaneze Ndigbo summon a crucial meeting of the leaderships of MASSOB, IPOB, BLC, BILLIE, BHRI, RLB and BZM where issues concerning what the Igbo actually want in Nigeria can be trashed and so that the Igbo can speak with one voice?
For avoidance of doubt, restructuring the country simply implies that economic power will no longer reside in Abuja. It will now reside in the states. Every state will have the right to use whatever resources it has in its land to develop its territories and contribute about 20% of that to the Federal coffers.
Every state would have to make its own laws and if you don’t like the laws, you go live in a state where the laws are favourable to you. Every state would be free to make its friends. Take Kano State for example. Many Igbo reside in that state. So, the governor of Kano State and the South East governors are bound to be friends. And people from the two states can do business and trade to their mutual benefit. No one needs to fight about such relationships.
Then there is Boko Haram, a Sunni Islamic fundamentalist sect advocating for a stricter form of Sharia Law . In 2009, it developed into a Salafist-Jihadi group. But the movement and its fighters do not practise the Salafi doctrine. The problem here is that they denounce members of the Sufi , the Shiite and the Izala sects of the Muslim faith as infidels. As a result, it will be an extremely difficult task to attempt to unite Nigerian Muslim agitators to speak with one voice. And this is where the major problem lies.
But again, were each state given its freedom to make its own laws, manage its own schools system, its own police and its own economy, we will be getting closer to a sane and governable Nigeria.
Nigerians can live in any state of their choice as long as they are comfortable with the laws of the land. If, as they say, Boko Haram is seeking to establish an Islamic state in Nigeria, fine. They can, in the North. Since Boko Haram opposes Western-style education it cannot impose that understanding on Southern Nigerians for obvious reasons which include losing out on the patronage of its Western allies. If the states have their autonomy, the governors can run their mandate the way they believe will be best for their people.
Both Boko Haram and Biafra agitators must state clearly what they want from Nigeria. Is it restructuring or outright secession? They must fulfill the United Nations and African Union mandate that authorizes a people to seek for a state of their own if that is what they want. Their legislators must debate these concerns and table them with the National Assembly. If the National Assembly fails to ratify the proposals, there are the higher courts outside Nigeria which can mediate between the dissenting parties. Madiba Nelson Mandela wrote his book and called it ‘The Long March to Freedom”. But I will call this opinion ‘The short stride to true democracy’.