Danger Signs from the North

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Monday Discourse

The three-month ultimatum issued last week by the Coalition of Northern Youths‎ for the Igbos to leave the north has threatened the nation’s tenuous unity, writes Gboyega Akinsanmi writes. 

The last fortnight has been defining in the recent history of Nigeria due to two major developments that brazenly put the country’s tenuous unity under strain and tension. 

The first is the directive by the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB), Biafra Independence Movement (BIM) and Movement for the Actualisation of the Sovereign State of Biafra (MASSOB) that all Igbos across the federation should observe a sit-at-home protest on May 30.

The directive was issued on three inter-related grounds. It was meant to mark the struggle for the Sovereign State of Biafra, which the late Military Governor of Eastern Region, Col. Chukwuemeka Ojukwu declared on May 30, 1967. Also, it was issued to honour the heroes of the Biafra and other slain activists. Lastly, as the IPOD leader, Nnamdi Kanu observed, it was a mini referendum to gauge preparedness for an independent Biafra.

Across the federation, the Igbo people largely complied with the directive. Compliance with the directive, consequently, culminated in the closure of markets, restriction of movement and suspension of all socio-economic activities in the South-east and other states of the federation. It was perhaps the most successful peaceful protest the protagonists of Biafra ever held. It also underlined  the potency of civil disobedience as a weapon of protest.

The success of the sit-at-home order stoked anger, mainly among the northern leaders. That led to the second development that put the country’s fragile unity under duress on June 6. Citing the Igbo push for secession, a coalition of northern groups addressed a news conference at Arewa House, Kaduna where they asked Igbos to vacate the north  on or before October 1.

Unlawful Declaration

The coalition comprised Arewa Citizens Action for Change, Arewa Youth Consultative Forum, Arewa Youth Development Foundation, Arewa Students Forum, Northern Emancipation Network and 11 other northern youth groups. Representatives of the northern youth groups that constituted the coalition eventually endorsed a declaration directing the Igbos to vacate the north in absolute disregard to sections 41-44 of the 1999 Constitution.

Described as an outburst from the north, the declaration was co-signed by the President, Northern Emancipation Network, Abdul-Aziz Suleiman; President, Arewa Youth Consultative Forum, Shettima Yerima; North Central Coordinator, Arewa Citizens Action for Change, Mohammed Abdulhamid and 13 other signatories that represented different northern groups.

As contained in the text of its news conference, the coalition proclaimed that the north “will no longer be disposed to co-existing with the Igbo and shall take definite steps to end the partnership by pulling out of the current federal arrangement.” Also, the coalition declared that the north had ceased “to be comfortable or safe sharing the same country with the Igbo people.”

Besides, the coalition said that each should be allowed “to go its own way as we categorically proclaim that the north is fed up with being in the same country with this pack of Igbo partners rather than allow certain sections hold Nigeria to ransom at every stage.” Hence, it issued three directives which it said the Igbos must comply with or face the consequence.

First, the coalition asked the Igbo people to vacate the 19 northern states before October 1. Second, perhaps the Igbo people fail to comply with the notice, it threatened “to implement visible action to prove to the whole world that we are no longer part of any federal union that should do with the Igbo.” Third, effective from October 1, the coalition said it “shall begin peaceful and safe mop-up of all the remnants of the Igbo that neglect to heed this quit notice.”

Obviously, the declaration violated different sections of the 1999 Constitution as amended. It, flagrantly, breached section 41, which states that every citizen of Nigeria “is entitled to move freely throughout Nigeria and to reside in any part thereof, and no citizen of Nigeria shall be expelled from Nigeria or refused entry thereto or exit therefrom.”

Likewise, the declaration violated section 43, which states that every citizen of Nigeria “shall have the right to acquire and own immovable property anywhere in Nigeria.” It, equally, flouted section 41, which guarantees that no immovable property or any interest in an immovable property “shall be taken possession of compulsorily and no right over or interest in any such property shall be acquired compulsorily in any part of Nigeria…”

Even though it expressly violated the country’s grundnorm by all standards, no author of the said declaration has been arrested seven days after the coalition conducted itself in disregard to the letters and spirits of the 1999 Constitution. However, the Inspector-General of the Nigeria Police, Mr. Ibrahim Idris had directed the arrest of all signatories to the declaration. The fact that those who made the declaration did not go into hiding and yet could not be arrested speaks volume.

Secession Questions

In its declaration, the coalition recognised that Nigeria was a federal union, to which it argued, the Igbo people were a threat. It, also, recognised that it was voluntary to be a member of any federal union anywhere in the world. On these grounds, the coalition drew an ominous conclusion that the  north  “will no longer be disposed to co-existing with the Igbo people.”

However, the coalition never considered whether any ethnic nationality – be it Hausa, Igbo, or Yoruba – has right to self-determination if such a nationality is no longer comfortable with the federal union. Apparently, the right to self-determination is not enshrined in the 1999 Constitution. But the United Nations Charter, to which Nigeria is a signatory, guarantees such right.

Unequivocally, Chapter 1, Article 1, explains four core objectives the UN Charter seeks to achieve. Part 2 of Article 1, specifically, states that the purpose of the UN Charter “is to develop friendly relations among nations based on respect for the principle of equal rights and self-determination of peoples, and to take other appropriate measures to strengthen universal peace.”

Also, in the spirit of Article 1, the UN General Assembly adopted resolution 1514 (XV) on December 14, 1960 to further protect the rights of nations, nationalities and peoples seeking self-determination. However, the General Assembly agreed to the resolution primarily “to end the subjection of peoples to alien subjugation, domination and exploitation globally.”

 

It states that such subjection “constitutes a denial of fundamental human rights, is contrary to the Charter of the United Nations and is an impediment to the promotion of world peace and co-operation.” Apparently, the content of the resolution is not limited to hastening the process of decolonisation. It, equally, recognises that all peoples “have the right to self-determination.”

Also, the resolution never entertains reasons that can undermine the exercise of such right. That is why it states: “By virtue of that right, they freely determine their political status and freely pursue their economic, social and cultural development. Inadequacy of political, economic, social or educational preparedness should never serve as a pretext for delaying independence.”

Under these legal instruments, the pursuit of self-determination is right pure and simple. Likewise, legal pundits argued that the sit-at-home protest, which the Igbo people observed on May 30 to mark the 50th anniversary of the Biafra struggle, was lawful under the 1999 Constitution. So, they said, such an action should not stoke anger from any part of the federation.

Mr. Ebun-Olu Adegboruwa, a human rights lawyer, cited section 39 of the 1999 Constitution, which guarantees the right to freedom of expression for every citizen irrespective of his ethnic nationality, political affiliation or religious background. Adegboruwa, thus, argued that sit-at-home protest “is a form of civil disobedience, recognised worldwide and employed as a weapon of peaceful protest. It is meant to express dissatisfaction in a peaceful manner.”

He, also, cited section 41 of the 1999 Constitution, which guarantees the right to freedom of movement. Under the section, he argued every citizen “has the freedom of movement. This includes freedom not to move. As government cannot restrain movement, it cannot compel movement as well. So, every citizen has absolute right to decide to move or not to move. This cannot amount to a crime under law, to warrant threat from any quarter.”

Condoning Illegalities

Undoubtedly, the northern leaders are not oblivious of where the laws stand on the issue of hate speech and what international legal instruments say about the right to self-determination. Yet, the response of the Arewa Consultative Forum (ACF) and Northern Elders Forum (NEF) to the ultimatum the northern youth groups gave the Igbo people was disappointing.

In the statement issued by its spokesperson, Mallam Muhammad Biu about 48 hours after the October 1ultimatum, the ACF disowned the coalition of northern youth groups on paper. But the coalition issued the quit notice at Arewa House, a clearing house for all northern agenda. The forum warned the coalition against any act that could threaten the corporate existence of Nigeria.

But the Forum observed that it appreciated the frustration of the northern youth groups with the activities of MASSOB, BIM and IPOB. It never pinpointed how the activities of the secessionist movements are frustrating the northern youths; neither did it explain how the sit-at-home protest affected the northern youths, even though the Igbo people in the north complied almost 100 percent.

Similarly, the NEF threw its weight behind the northern youth groups, even when the declaration violated, not just the  constitution, but extant international legal instruments. In an interview its spokesperson, Prof. Ango Abdullahi granted about 24 hours after the police directed that the arrowheads of the coalition be arrested, the NEF never admitted that the northern youth groups constituted graver threat to Nigeria than secessionist movements themselves.

Rather than recognising the threat the coalition posed to Nigeria’s fragile peace, Abdullahi condemned the position of the Northern Governors Forum (NGF), which had requested the security agencies to arrest the promoters of the coalition and probe the motive behind their action. He, also, expressed disappointment at the position of the NGF for failing to support the youth groups and condemn the Igbo people for merely exercising their rights, which the UN Charter guarantees.

Abdullahi, therefore, said the northern elders “are disappointed outright at the decision the NGF took on the declaration of the youth groups. It is also disappointing that the NGF disowns and condemns the agitation by the young, agile and progressive youth groups. Let me ask the governors. Who are they representing? Are they representing the spirits, ghosts or people of the north?”

Aside, the NEF spokesperson argued that it was hypocritical for the Igbo people “to continue to live in other parts of Nigeria and still agitate for Nigeria’s disintegration. The Igbo people are busy calling for the Sovereign State of Biafra; yet they live in other states of the federation. From all indications, their leaders, including governors, are behind them.” However, Abdullahi never explained how the Igbo action became an offence under the law.

Emboldened Coalition

Different interventions have been made to assure the Igbo people of their safety in any part of Nigeria.  The federal government has, for instance, asked the Igbo people “to ignore the ultimatum to quit the north  on or before October 1. In a statement by the Minister of the Interior, Gen. Abdulrahman Dambazau, the federal government urged the Igbo people and other Nigerians “to go about their businesses without fear of molestation.”

In the same spirit, the Kaduna State Government condemned the declaration of the coalition. It, thus, directed that the promoters of the coalition should be arrested and prosecuted, allegedly for making incendiary statements capable of undermining national security. It, also, directed that its Ministry of Justice “should prepare charges and prosecute the signatories and anyone complicit in arranging this egregious assault on the rights of fellow citizens.”

Likewise, the NGF under the leadership of Borno State Governor, Mr. Kashim Shettima warned against hate speech, though asked the Igbo people “to remain calm and go about their legitimate businesses” without entertaining fear from any quarters. He assured them that nobody “can dare to intimidate, harass or dehumanise them in any of the 19 northern states. We cannot afford to take chances. We cannot afford to toil with the destiny of Nigeria.”

However, apparently, the support the coalition garnered from the ACF and NEF emboldened its promoters. After the Nigeria Police directed that it arrowheads be arrested, the coalition convened another meeting at Arewa House, where its members agreed that the threat of arrest “will not stop them from insisting that the Igbo people should leave the north.”

Abdul-Aziz Suleiman, a leader of the coalition, confirmed that the northern youth groups reconvened after the threat of arrest. He said the coalition decided that there “will be no retreat, no surrender. Contrary to the position by Kaduna State Government, we are not advocating violence. Our declaration did not mention violence at all. The Igbo have consistently insisted that they do not want to be in Nigeria. Let them, therefore, go back to their places.”

Portentous Signs

For Afenifere, a Yoruba socio-political organisation, the conduct of the northern youth coalition is an ominous sign. Consequently, it said the insistence of the coalition that the Igbos should vacate their region “is a source of grave concern and threat to our national unity.” In a statement by its spokesperson, Mr. Yinka Odumakin, Afenifere noted that the disposition of the northern youth coalition “is not good for the country in any way.”

 

Afenifere likened it “to holding a knife to the tiny rope that still holds the country together.” Unlike 1967 when the northerners had no coalition to fight the Igbo, it said such coalition “will no longer be possible. This time, the north will not get support from any Yoruba leader.” Hence, it warned the northern elders that their conduct might be the beginning of the end of Nigeria.

Afenifere explained that carrying out their threats would be a prelude “to another pogrom. These elements have over the years showed their propensity to attack people, but like the Chinua Achebe said, they are holding a knife to the tiny rope that still holds the country together. We hope if the northern groups still have elders, their elders should call them to order.”

Failing to yield to the voice of wisdom, Afenifere said it “may be the beginning of the end of Nigeria, as we know it. In 1967, the north had a coalition to fight the Igbo. But that coalition is no more there today. We know the people that fought the last war and won it. We can boldly speak for the Yoruba nation. Why should the Igbo people be threatened?

“For northerners to tell them to leave the north is sad. If the north  thinks they can declare another war against the Igbo, it will not work. If they see any Yoruba man joining them to fight the Igbo, then that person must be a mercenary. The Igbo did not fight any group; neither did they cause any crisis. They only expressed their grievance in a peaceful manner.”

Beyond what might have transpired in the last fortnight, there are three cogent lessons. First, as Prof. John Ayoade once observed, if what people want from an institution is contrary to what the institution can give, the result is at best a blending of processes that work at cross purposes. He, thus, said this appeared “to be part of the problems of Nigerian federalism.”

Likewise, Ayoade, an Emeritus Professor at the University of Ibadan, observed that no federation “is an outfit for command and control by the federal authorities exercising the power of domination.” So, since every federal union is a product of compromise, constitutionalism, the rule of law and political justice, it thus follows that the current federal structure in Nigeria “is no longer sustainable, hence the need for political restructuring.”

As canvassed in an address he gave to mark the 2017 Democracy Day, the Acting President Yemi Osinbajo said Nigeria “belongs to all of us. No one person or group of persons is more important or more entitled than the other in this space that we all call home. We have a responsibility to live in peace and harmony with one another, to seek peaceful and constitutional means of expressing our wishes and desires…”