Nigeria Must Make Its 'Forced Marriage' Work, or It Will Break Up

8 April 2021

The drumbeat of secession across Nigeria portends real danger ahead. Rather than being an empty blustering, it's creating deep inter-ethnic resentment and entrenched centrifugal positions. This could pull Nigeria apart irretrievably, and eventually trigger its break-up.

Proverbs 22.3 says: "Wise men see danger ahead and avoid it, but fools keep going and get into trouble." Sadly, the latter describes Nigeria's leaders. They are quite blasé about the dangers to Nigeria's unity, taking it for granted.

For instance, President Muhammadu Buhari and Vice-President Yemi Osinbajo often say that Nigeria's unity is "non-negotiable". Of course, by "unity", they only mean Nigeria's "corporate existence", not its "internal cohesion". But without internal cohesion, Nigeria would be too divided, too unstable, too fragile to remain a viable entity.

Yet, Nigeria's leaders are doing absolutely nothing to tackle the root-causes of the separatist impulses and lack of internal cohesion that pose real danger to this country's corporate existence. Instead, they resort to cheap sentimentality or threats of military suppression.

Recently, Professor Osinbajo played the sentimental card. Speaking at the 12th Bola Tinubu colloquium, hosted in Kano by the state governor, Abdullahi Ganduje, the vice-president said: "For the purveyors of breaking up into small components, into small countries, perhaps they should be reminded that ... we would all have needed visas to come to Kano."

Nice try, Mr. Vice President! But where in the world have concerns about visa restrictions trumped the desire for self-determination? Certainly, visa concerns didn't stop South Sudan from breaking away from Sudan in 2011. And nations that break up often have visa-free arrangements, such as the Common Travel Area Arrangements between the UK and the Republic of Ireland. So, Osinbajo was wrong to invoke visa restrictions in response to the secessionist agitations across Nigeria.

But President Buhari wasn't even that subtle. Speaking at the same colloquium, he described the structurally-entrenched and long-running mutual hostility between Nigeria's ethnic nationalities as "occasional inter-ethnic tensions in our national history" and dismissed the incessant secessionist agitations by Yoruba, Igbo and Niger-Delta youths as "the antics of a few mischief mongers".

What's more, Buhari reminded us, yet again, that he fought for Nigeria's unity during the civil war. But that's red herring. First, some fought in the civil war but didn't believe in it - they were just doing their job as soldiers! Second, as I once argued, the civil war hasn't engendered a sense of unity in Nigeria. So, Buhari should stop using fighting in the civil war as a smokescreen for his failure to prevent this country from falling apart on his watch.

Truth is, Buhari's sincerity about Nigeria's unity is not totally unimpeachable. Why? Well, first, he wasn't passionate about it before becoming president and, second, he has done little to promote it since becoming president! Take the first point. When the whole world feared that Nigeria could disintegrate because of the 2015 presidential election, what did Buhari do to quench the fear? Nothing. Rather, his silence and his supporters' war-mongering fuelled the apocalyptic predictions. Later, after President Goodluck Jonathan conceded defeat, Buhari said that, by doing so, he "saved the Nigerian state".

In other words, had Jonathan not conceded, the "Nigerian state" wouldn't have been "saved". So, if Nigeria's unity were "negotiable" when Buhari felt he could be denied power, why has it suddenly become "non-negotiable" now that he is in power?

Then, the second point. What has President Buhari done in office to promote inter-ethnic and inter-religious unity in Nigeria? Why is it that, as widely alleged, he has "Northernised", "Fulanised" and "Islamised" key public offices in Nigeria? Why have Fulani herdsmen been so emboldened on his watch to become the world's fifth major terrorist group, according to Global Terrorism Index? Above all, why has Buhari rejected patriotic calls for restructuring Nigeria? He says Nigeria's problems are "artificially contrived". Really?

Well, that brings us to the root-causes of separatism in Nigeria. Here's the starting point: Nigeria is a product of brutality and "forced marriage". The hitherto definable, independent and proud ethnic nations were brutally subdued, coerced and cobbled together into one entity.

In his book Empire, Professor Niall Ferguson, a renowned historian, described the brutality that preceded the creation of Nigeria, with George Goldie using the Maxim guns to mow down indigenous communities that resisted him. Ferguson wrote: "By the end of the 1880s, he (Goldie) had conquered several of the Fulani emirates and launched wars against the settlements of Bida, Ilorin (and other towns). Though he had little more than 500 men at his disposal, the Maxims enabled them to defeat armies 30 times as large."

That was the context in which the Northern and Southern protectorates were created and subsequently amalgamated into one country, called Nigeria, in 1914. Then, during the colonial era, the British favoured the North and enabled it to gain political dominance over the South. That structural imbalance, the Northern hegemony, remains and is being entrenched today, and it's the major cause of the separatist tendencies in the South.

For me, the brutality, amalgamation and colonialism are all in the past. But Nigeria, the flawed product, must now be made to work. That means restructuring it into a proper federal state, with considerable devolution of power to allow the regions control their own affairs. Nigeria is stronger together, but an overcentralised and lopsided structure will fuel separatism and provoke a break-up!

Adieu Odumakin, farewell Chukwuma

I can't end this piece on restructuring without paying tribute to Yinka Odumakin, one of the strongest advocates of true federalism. His death last week, at 54, is deeply painful. The outpouring of grief and condolences reflects his impactful life. My heart goes out to his wife, Dr Joe Okei-Odumakin, and family. I also commiserate with the family of Innocent Chukwuma, a highly-respected civil-society leader, who also died last week, aged 55. Nigeria is poorer with the loss of these pillars of integrity. May their souls rest in peace!

Vanguard News Nigeria

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