DIALOGUE WITH NIGERIA BY AKIN OSUNTOKUN
Beyond polemics, the fact is that the unity of Nigeria started being negotiated and renegotiated right from its amalgamation in 1914, and it has to be so, since the inhabitants of the amalgamated territories did not come together of their own volition in the first place. Right from independence in 1776, the unity of the United States of America has evolved through several constitutional amendments towards what their leaders refer to as a more perfect union. And from the original 13 independent states that banded together to form the Union in 1776, 37 other states have joined to reach the present composition of 50 states.
Similarly the constitutional development of Nigeria from 1922 to the present, comprising all the round table constitutional conferences, are a series of negotiations on national unity, first through the colonial phase which terminated in 1960 and the post-independence phase from 1960 to the present. In the colonial phase, the most consequential was the 1957 London constitutional conference which produced the independence constitution of 1960.
The plebiscite conducted in 1961 that resulted in the excision of Northern Cameroun from the Sardauna province of Nigeria was a process of negotiating Nigerian unity. Ditto the referendum of 1963 through which instrument the Mid-Western region was created from the Western region was an exercise in negotiating Nigerian unity. A similar exercise of negotiating the unity of the United Kingdom (less than a year ago) produced the contrary outcome of Scotland freely electing to remain an integral part of the UK.
After the breakdown of the first republic in 1966, Nigerian unity was renegotiated at the Aburi confab whose failure led to the continuation of negotiation by other means — the civil war. The war strategy of breaking Nigeria down into 12 states in 1967 was at one and the same time directed at weakening the breakaway Eastern region and a concession to the Easter minority desire for a separate Ogoja rivers state which was given an identity (South Eastern state) autonomous of the Eastern region. Here we can see that within the womb of the imposition of national unity on the Eastern region resided the element of negotiating the same unity with the appeasement of the Eastern minorities. The release of Chief Obafemi Awolowo from prison and his elevation to the comparable status of Prime Minister within the federal military government (headed by General Yakubu Gowon) was a national unity bargaining chip with the Yoruba people of the Western region.
The outcome of the civil war in which the federal military government prevailed over the secessionist Biafra has bred the confusion of understanding and rendering Nigerian unity as synonymous with the pseudo federalist-nationalist ideology of the victorious army. The implication of the acceptance of the unity of Nigeria as interchangeable with this militarist nationalist ideology is that Nigeria is an occupied territory of the victorious alliance of 1970 and its mutations over the years. It is in this frame of confusion that Nigerian leaders, especially those who fought the civil war, easily take recourse to playing the Praetorian Guard in whose custody the holy grail of Nigerian unity is eternally preserved.
The first inadequacy of this mind set is the erroneous belief that the outcome of the war was a moral imperative; that it was a contest between good and bad, in which, as in the movies, the good cop trumps the bad coin. The events leading to the war do not lend themselves to this convenient bifurcation. If we go back in time to 1966-67, all the regions comprising Nigeria were either cultivating or contemplating secession. Be it the threat by Chief Awolowo that if the Eastern region secedes, the West will follow suit or the rendition of Ahmadu Kurfi that: “The original intention of the July 29 counter-coup leaders was to seize the reigns of government and then announce the secession of the Northern Region from the rest of the country. This was in line with the general mood of the people of the North whose clarion call during the May 29 disturbances in the North, which claimed many Igbo lives, was Araba or Aware (Hausa word for ‘secede’).
As soon as the success of the insurgency was apparent, the leaders of the coup who were based at the Ikeja Garrison informed Northern elements resident in Lagos to leave the metropolis for the North, giving a deadline within which to comply. At the expiry of the deadline, the coup leaders planned to dynamite, if not sink, the whole of Lagos. So serious was the threat that many senior federal government officers in Lagos actually trooped to Ilorin, Kaduna and other northern towns. The families of the coup leaders had earlier been airlifted in a hijacked VC 10 plane of a British airline.”
But of course, it was the more republican Eastern region which belled the cat and put into action what was lurking in the inner recesses of everyone’s mind. If all the regions were thus potential secessionists, what then, was uniquely wrong in the Biafra aspiration?- given (for that matter) the compulsion of the overly disproportionate magnitude of the repercussions of the bloody Igbo-led coup that terminated the first republic. In the circumstance, it is difficult to condemn the ultimate resort to the declaration of Biafra, yet the leadership of the secessionist bid stands condemned for two reasons. Biafra leader Emeka Ojukwu should not have insisted on his maximum demands and repudiate the lesser offer on the table in the Aburi Accord given that the Biafra army was not sufficiently prepared.
And if he did not know this then he was not fit to lead the rebellion-the onus of leadership often consists of making haste slowly. The allied observation is the double jeopardy of not cutting short the horrific misery of his citizens once it became crystal clear that prolongation of the war was the worst case scenario for Biafra. Thus, in justification and idealism, there was not a lot wrong in the attempted secession, it was the non-practicality of it that rendered it a bad option.
To be properly understood, I will draw a parallel with the outbreak of the 1993 president election annulment crisis. Was it inconceivable that the Yoruba would have gone to war were they not appeased with the admittance of wrongdoing by the Nigerian state; and a display of penitence and manifest commitment to make amends?- hence the compensatory concession of the presidency in 1999 in the double quick fashion of the Abubakar Abdusalam military disengagement transition. Now if the Yoruba went to war and were defeated by the Nigerian state, would such an outcome deliver a verdict of evil misdeed on the path taken by the Yoruba? Such a verdict on the hypothetical rebellion and its failure can only be right within the context of the philosophy of might is right.
The unity of Nigeria or of any other society cannot be an end in itself but a means to the end of the utilitarian well-being of the greatest number of its citizens. Nigerian national unity is aspirational and a continuous process of negotiation and renegotiation which commenced in earnest in 1914 when little thought was given to the amalgamation beyond the administrative convenience of the British colonialist. Still we can make the best of a very bad situation. Beyond the blackmail of the Nigerian Praetorian Guard no one is posing the unity of Nigeria as a Manichaean duality between my way or the highway, between remaining together as one indivisible country and outright disintegration. The recourse to blackmailing those calling for the perfection of the union as advocates of dismemberment is a great disservice to this country.
The political conduct of President Muhammadu Buhari since his assumption of office has been quite troubling. Against the immediate backdrop of the lopsided composition of his presidency and related executive appointments, his sanctimonious preachment on national unity rings quite hollow. Action and reaction are equal and opposite. Beyond the strategic imperative of federalism compliant restructuring of Nigeria’s constitution, it is perfectly logical for Nigerians to protest against leadership conduct that is seemingly at variance with those virtues that promote a sense of oneness and unity.
Nigerian unity is constantly tested and measured on such scales as equity in the spread and weight of appointments; governance objectivity; social, cultural and political identification; covert and overt political signalling. You want unity, you bridge and heal divisions not deepen and aggravate them. You listen and respect public opinion, not dismiss and waved it away.
Contrary to self-serving politicisation, the 2014 national constitutional confab was not synonymous with former President Goodluck Jonathan. It was broadly representative of respected and objective opinion across the national divide. In the 75% threshold of passing resolutions, it was subjected to the most severe test of national consensus. If anyone needed to be persuaded of the bogey word-restructuring, you need not go further than the conspicuous bankruptcy of the near totality of the 36 states-which had now to be sustained (and would permanently remain so) by so called federal government bailouts to meet the minimum standard of raison detre- salary payments.
Second guessing his principal and in astounding and embarrassing repudiation of his prior career in Action Congress of Nigeria, the otherwise sober and reflective Vice-President Yemi Osinbajo had to fake a simplistic understanding of restructuring by reducing it to ‘giving the states more money-at the expense of the federal government’. Equating calls for restructuring Nigeria with national disunity conveys the implication that it is only the present 36 states that conform to the patriotic sense of national unity. Let the game playing with the destiny of this nation continue-to the detriment of us all.
As presently constituted, the legitimacy of the Nigerian state will continue to be challenged and compromised by the activities and demands of subversive entities like the Niger Delta militants. The bad news is that, in implicit acceptance of its own illegitimacy, Nigeria will have to trade with them in a manner that proves its inherent instability, and it is in this haphazard and hazardous motion that this beleaguered country may sooner stumble on the messy fate that awaits it around the corner.