By Chidi Amuta
The descent has been willful and rapid. In just two years, camouflaged hate has come to the surface. Love thy neighbor has virtually degenerated into loathe thy neighbor. The freedom of diverse voices which democracy so highly values has become a license to insult, abuse and denigrate each other. In the extreme, the ritual of communal living has recently been truncated by spontaneous blood letting often on an industrial scale. The social media which elsewhere is contributing to the spread of knowledge and fraternity has become for us a highway for a free trade in sectional abuse and unprintable sectarian and primitive divisiveness. The smart phone in your hands is now a veritable time bomb, a purveyor of incendiary hate and avoidable self- flagellation. This no longer looks or sounds like Nigeria.
In 2015, there was a country. That country behaved like one nation in rejecting misrule and governmental rascality at the polls. Our people voted massively for a reinstatement of the Nigerian ideal and with it a tolerable level of responsible government. Mr. Buhari was anointed as the mascot of a Nigerian restoration. His appeal for that role was in the general feeling that he symbolized, more than the incumbent, a more disciplined approach to governance and a battle -tested commitment to national unity.
The millions of Nigerians who trooped out to vote at the presidential election of 2015 wanted their country back as a union of hope and purpose, a place to call home after decades of wasted time and squandered opportunities. No one dreamt then that after only two years, the cries of separatism will rise so high as to overwhelm even the mighty voice of the federal state. The central irony of the Buhari presidency at mid term, therefore, is that a mandate to unite and refocus a nation has degenerated into an untidy rehearsal for a dance of national death and a deafening cacophony of divisive noise. My appeal is first that we do not allow Mr. Buhari to end up as the most divisive leader in post civil war Nigeria.
An untidy collection of ‘youth’ groups at Arewa House in Kaduna have issued notice of the Nigerian equivalent of Trump’s travel ban on fellow Nigerians. Ours is a ‘residency ban’ with a grace period of 3 months. The quit notice stands out in its laughable treasonable absurdity. Yet, we cannot laugh it off casually or hope that the sanctimonious exhortations of officialdom will frighten off determined anarchists. This was a well-orchestrated affair involving sponsored miscreants, clandestine zealots and mischievous political merchants.
If it could be dismissed initially as the handiwork of political orphans, the quick ownership of the toxic project by a certain Mr. Ango Abdullahi shredded the veil. Now we know the foot soldiers, shareholders and sponsors of this project of hate. Taken together, both the ‘quit notice’ and the sagacity of its ownership represent the return of the ugly politics of bad manners and youth bad upbringing that most sensible Nigerians thought was far behind us.
Happily though, the rise of a whirl of sensible voices all over the country has somehow begun reassuring a shocked public. My friend and brother, Governor El-Rufai of Kaduna state, the Emirs of Kano and Zaria as well as Acting President Yemi Osinbajo have raised voices of reason. Organs of the state (the police especially) have twitched predictably into life to reassert the imperatives of the Nigerian constitution just as the Acting President has embarked on a series of important dialogues.
Still, the corrective point needs to be made very strongly. Nigeria is a constitutional secular republic of free citizens. Our social contract with the Nigerian sovereign binds us as individuals to the sovereign. We are not Nigerians as Efiks, Kanuri, Hausas, etc. but as individual citizens with constitutionally guaranteed rights and obligations. Those insisting on relating to fellow citizens as tribal ambassadors belong to a medieval ethos that has no place in the Nigeria of 2017. Discrimination against fellow Nigerians on grounds of ethnic branding and profiling remains a treasonable breach of the constitution.
Ostensibly, the ‘quit notice’ politics is a reaction to the perceived excesses of the Biafra spring. For the avoidance of doubt, I am a Nigerian citizen of Igbo extraction. I experienced the civil war in various capacities. I share the burden of its sad collective memory. But the burden of collective memory is usually relieved when a group that has suffered loss is allowed occasion to remember their loss and mourn their dead. I am not aware of any nation in which a group collective memorial is so criminalized as to be shot down in a hell of bullets. Soldiers and policemen that behave like an occupation force will not help restore a psychology of normalcy. They can only annoy, infuriate and alienate citizens while emboldening separatist militants.
For as long as there is no violence, the Biafra enthusiasts ought to be entitled to their day of remembrance. In New York, for instance, when it is a Jewish holiday, it is futile to go out shopping. Most businesses are closed because Jews own them. They observe their holiday and next day, life goes on. No one threatens, arrests or shoots them for closing their shops nor do Irish or Indian native Americans issue them a ‘quit notice’ to leave the United States!
The separatist agitation for a relapse into the hubris of a new Republic of Biafra is an entirely different matter. I see it mostly as bad politics slipping into dangerous territory. It is primarily an instrument for political agitation in the context of the injustices of present day Nigeria. It is perhaps the only potent instrument remaining to protest the scandalous inequities in Nigeria’s present allocative federalism. Maybe the pro-Biafra movements have learnt that competing geo-political blocs in Nigeria have accessed the apex of federal power through orchestrated campaigns and disruptive behavior. The Niger Delta, the South West and the northern half of the country have had the presidency as a trophy for taking turns in disturbing the peace and frightening the rest of us. But no democracy grows by bending the arc of justice to the weight of sectional blackmail and trouble making.
There is an even more mischievous side to the politics of the Biafra thing. I suspect that the political elite of the South East is using Biafra as a diversionary tool. The existence of the Biafra pressure guarantees Ohaneze a seat at the Aso Rock table. But a vast amount of federal revenue has accrued to the South East since 1970. It may not be anywhere near what other regions have cornered on account of their dominance of Federal power. But the results on the ground do not match the sheer quantum of resources. Sadly also, after the era of Sam Mbakwe and Jim Nwobodo, the region has witnessed an abysmal decline in the quality of political leadership and governance. An embarrassing succession of glorified thugs, uneducated errand boys and political pimps has traversed the various government houses as governors since 1999, leaving the region impoverished and hopeless. This coupled with deliberate and benign federal neglect and criminal indifference has devastated the zone. So, for the political leadership of the South East, Biafra turns the heat away and beams it on Abuja.
I suspect that Nigerian citizens of the South East may have fallen victim of Nigerian myth making and age long blackmail. The line that the Igbos are very enterprising, hard working, innovative etc. is hogwash. We do not embody any of these values than any other sample of Nigerians in this diverse federation. If the Igbos were so wonderful, Mr. Dangote and the top 5 after him in the billionaire’s row would have featured some Igbos. Since Forbes started listing Nigerian and African billionaires, how many Igbo people have made the list? Among the major indices of power (money, religion, media, traditional authority, raw coercive power), which one is controlled by the Igbo in Nigeria?
If the Igbos were such wonderful entrepreneurs and innovators, the entire South East would have been more like the Israeli homeland –highly developed infrastructure, high level of skilled manpower, best schools, factories, best hotels, shopping centers etc. Yes, there are Igbo people all over the federation. But they are mostly struggling as retail realtors, janitors, petty traders selling inconsequential merchandise; white and blue collar slaves, street hawkers, artisans, prostitutes etc. They are engaged in very visible daily life- and -death struggles to survive in a country they call theirs but which is deviously indifferent to honest strivings. The Arewa ‘youth’ and others like them should not isolate the Igbos for further selective victimhood. It will create in them a deeper sense of persecution and deepen the kind of insular solidarity that could worsen the Biafra headache.
We can forgive the youthful effervescence of the pro-Biafra movement. Being mostly aged under 45, they did not see hell with us. Mob hysteria and naïve romance with the past is not a crime until it threatens the peace of others. In terms of commonsense and hard history, the new Biafra project is a foolish and expensive gambit. The only thing that is worrisome is that the movement is drawing its followership from among impressionable youth, the rural poor and half educated urban mob. That makes them potently dangerous because they are not equipped to understand the lessons of history.
Here are some obvious lessons of history for the benefit of the new Biafra devotees: First, no one people can survive being defeated in two civil wars in one century. Second, anarchic mobs and their hysteria do not lead sensible people to any good destination. Third, when a people allow their towns, villages and backyards to be theatres of war, recovery takes more than a century. Fourth, the first Biafra was a man made disaster and huge human sacrifice to the gods of political folly. Fifth, the next Biafra, which is unlikely, will be a self- inflicted carnage.
Clearly, Nigeria is facing problems of mismanaged communal living. The solution is not to threaten to quit (Biafra, Arewa, Niger Delta or Oduduwa) or to threaten exclusion of some groups from the fold (‘quit notice’). The urgent need is to adopt a smarter template of governance led by enlightened younger Nigerians who can manage the commonwealth for the good of all Nigerians. Above all, we need to urgently replace this ‘allocative’ federalism with a new one in which viable federating units fiscally subscribe to a central government in return for collective security and other sovereign benefits.