SATURDAY INSIGHT STORY
“In times like these, it’s helpful to remember that there have always been times like these.” – Paul Harvey Aurandt
Over the course of the greater part of the last seven years or thereabouts, I have always struggled against the persistent urge to break my privately imposed self-restraint about dabbling in, and joining the fray to discuss what I personally consider as political or politics related matters affecting the country. This voluntary restraint, which has sometimes been very difficult for me to abide by, began exactly one month shy of seven years ago today, precisely on July 12, 2010, following my conscious decision to take up an appointment requiring that I maintain a completely apolitical disposition at all times, as much as humanly possible.
Certain strange happenings around the country within the last few weeks or so, have thrown up a lot of questions, leaving one wondering what exactly is going on, or wrong with us all. In the immortal words of Dr. Theodor Seuss Geisel, however, “sometimes the questions are complicated and the answers are simple.” While on the surface of it, these seemingly innocuous and separate, but closely related series of events might appear to be predominantly ethnic or tribal in nature, the underlying factor behind them may not be unconnected with the fallouts of the 2015 general elections, as well as the ever looming politics around the 2019 general elections, which is now just under two years away.
Almost two years to the day since leaving that particular appointment on June 30, 2015, one somehow still finds oneself beholden to that vow, which one has successfully managed to keep thus far, with very few exceptions; those exceptions being the handful of times I felt inexorably compelled to utilise particular information at my disposal to attempt to dispel certain misconceptions being conveyed to the general public regarding specific events around the job I was a part of. Other than that, all my previous interventions during the intervening period have had something to do with specific issues involving the African continent or matters affecting the larger world as a whole.
In view of the grievous implications surrounding the all too familiar clear and present danger associated with these unfolding events within the country over the last few weeks, however, I feel highly obligated to break this vow, once again, in order to appeal for the utmost of caution on all sides, especially from the proponents of such needless exchanges that are increasingly threatening to heat up the entire polity, with expectedly very dire consequences on us all, if proper care is not exercised by all the parties concerned.
While many people may rightly or wrongly regard it as a direct response to the May 30, 2017 shut down of major towns across the South East by the Independent Peoples of Biafra (IPOB), in commemoration of the golden jubilee of the Civil War, and in pursuit of their growing agitation for the actualisation of their self-declared Republic of Biafra, the so-called “Kaduna Declaration” of Tuesday, June 6, 2017 by a coalition of some self-styled aggrieved Northern youth organisations under the aegis of the Arewa Youth Consultative Forum (AYCF), giving citizens from that particular part of the country a three months ultimatum to pack their bags and leave the North by October 1, 2017, has predictably sent massive shock waves across the entire length and breadth of the nation. The full details of that hasty ‘declaration’ made for, and on behalf of the entire population – comprising the young and old – occupying the geographical space called the North, which was immediately followed, two days later, by another joint press statement of Thursday, June 8, 2017 “on the fallouts of the Kaduna Declaration”, are already in the public domain.
In their own response dated Saturday, June 10, 2017, another group tagged the ‘Youths of the Oduduwa Republic’ came up with their own warning in form of an unsigned “Lagos Declaration”, stating that as from the 7th of June 2017, any mention of the term Biafra again on what they consider as ‘their soil’, “will automatically, without recourse to any other warning, earn the Igbos an eviction notice from Oduduwa Republic,” comprising the six states of the South West of the country. In between, the self-styled Region of Niger Delta, aka Rondel, emerged with their own version of threats and ultimatums, following what it described as a well attended meeting held at a secret location in Rivers State, by way of ‘The Rondel Covenant’ tagged “A Demand for the Independence of Rondel in 2018”, in which it also, amongst others, gave “all northern oil block owners three months notice from October 1, 2017 for them to leave the Niger Delta Region or face unpredictable adverse consequences”, and citing the immediate arrest, prosecution and conviction of all those behind the ‘Kaduna Declaration’ as their minimum demand for negotiation.
On its part, the Middle Belt Forum, led by its President, completely dissociated itself from the ‘Kaduna Declaration’ a day after it was made, declaring that it was ready to accommodate the South Easterners, in the event that they were forced out of the core North, even as the Urohobo Nation, in a statement signed by the Senator representing Delta Central Senatorial District, as well as another group calling itself the Ufedo Foundation, representing the Igala Kingdom in the Eastern part of Kogi State, categorically rejected their respective purported unilateral inclusion in the flag or map of Biafra by agitators from a section of the South East geo-political zone, which they proceeded to describe as “conquest mentality,” and “fraud and grave insult,” respectively.
The thin line connecting the above seemingly choreographed, fast and furious, back to back ultimatums, counter ultimatums, dissociations and rejections would appear to be that they were all made by the self-acclaimed youth groups in each of the increasingly disparate sections of the country, claiming to be tired of what they perceive as a forced union that incidentally came into being long before any of their respective members was ever conceived, leaving one to wonder what exactly is the place of the elders, women and children, who will invariably suffer the most from any resulting conflict, in the whole affair; or, whether, indeed, they were even consulted at all, in the first instance.
This is especially so, when one takes full cognizance of the fact that the vast majority of the people behind these dangerous statements did not get to experience the horrors of the Nigerian civil war fought between 1967 and 1970, and are, therefore, not in any position to comprehend the full implications of what they are perilously toying with. In their respective analyses of the ‘Kaduna Declaration’ from their most preferred perspectives, a group of people from a particular section of the country likened it to what they described as a similar pogrom that led to the civil war all those decades ago, while a different group from another part went back a little further to trace the genesis of the crisis to an earlier event that occurred on January 15, 1966.
As Ralph Waldo Emerson wisely admonishes, “before you open your mouth to speak, please make sure it’s an improvement upon the silence”.
Mercifully enough, other than the initial veiled attempts at taking full advantage of the situation to stoke up the fire by the now predictable lone wolf in the person of a one time Minister of Aviation, the equally anticipated charge by Ohanaeze Ndigbo Youth Council on their members resident in the North to defend themselves, as well as the perhaps not-so-unexpected call by the leadership of Movement for the Actualisation of the Sovereign State of Biafra (MASSOB) for the Igbos to leave the North, a welcome sense of calm and reason is prevailing at last, beginning first with an early welcome statement issued by the Kaduna State government strongly condemning the quit notice, and calling for the prompt arrest of all those behind it. Since then, the Federal Government; the Northern Governors Forum; the South East Governors Forum; the Arewa Consultative Forum (ACF)-effectively countering an earlier show of support to the AYCF stance by one of its leading lights; the Ijaw Youth Council; Afenifere, and a host of other well meaning individuals and groups have also lent their strong voice against the threat.
While one may not also have personally witnessed war first hand, having been born during the course of the civil war, one is aware of its horrors fairly well enough to caution that we must all be very careful about what we may be wishing upon ourselves; and a cursory look at the social media comments by many of our increasingly restless youth leaves one particularly sad about the whole unfortunate turn of events. This is because part of the job I did in the past required that I participate in election observation missions to other countries and other similar external engagements, and I can vividly recall the chilling experiences I had while on a number of such missions to some of the post conflict societies in West Africa and other parts of the world.
During one such visit to observe the 2012 elections Sierra Leone, I came across a middle-aged amputee begging for alms in front of a major supermarket adjacent to the Nigerian High Commission office in Freetown, who was said to be doing fairly well before their unfortunate eleven-year brutal civil war between 1991 and 2002, which left an estimated 50,000 to 300,000 people dead and another 2.5million internally and externally displaced. While I was not in a position to independently verify the claim, a staff at the Nigerian High Commission told us he was reliably informed that the man was the very first person to be amputated by the deadly Revolutionary United Front (RUF) forces, as part of their utterly repulsive campaign to discourage people from voting in elections by severing different sections of their hands, which they disdainfully categorised as either short sleeve or long sleeve, depending on what area they would eventually chop off. In a chilling CNN footage I watched a few months afterwards on life after the war, a brave young man informed the reporter he now lives on the same street with the same person that severed his two hands from the elbow, whom he encounters everyday, but had simply chosen to accept his fate, so as not to reopen fresh wounds, which may eventually result into another conflict.
On another visit to Liberia a year earlier to observe their own general elections, a very likeable person I met, who turned out to be a Magistrate Court Judge, offered to take us out on the eve of their elections. Our outing was going on fairly well under the glittering Monrovia night sky, until I mistakenly brought up the issue of their country’s equally brutal civil war, when his mood suddenly changed without any prior notice. After what appeared to be an eternity of silence, he was almost close to tears when he pleaded that I drop the topic; his reason being that he had personally witnessed the merciless butchering of his own family members and very close friends during theunfortunate conflict. He went on to state that because of the horrors he had experienced, he could no longer afford to watch a movie where a single gunshot was being fired. That completely innocent and very unintentional indiscretion on my part, totally unsettled me, and has turned out to be one of my biggest ever regrets in life to date.
During yet another discussion with the Rwandan Ambassador to the US on the sidelines of the Chinua Achebe Colloquium at Brown University, Providence, Rhodes Island, in February of 2011, he calmly disclosed how easily I could have fallen victim on account of my tall and slim physical frame and facial features, which closely resemble those of members of one of the sides to the conflict, if I happened to be visiting that country during the period of the genocide that engulfed the East African nation in 1994, with very little or no effort made to verify my true identity. This terrifying exchange immediately comes to mind whenever I happen to come across anyone listening to the audio or viewing the video clips in which the IPOB leader describes the country as a zoo, and its inhabitants as animals; an eerie reminder of that infamous Rwandan local radio broadcast inciting the Hutus to violence in a “final war” against the Tutsis, who were frequently derogatively referred to as cockroaches.
A close review of the fallouts of that infamous ‘Kaduna Declaration’, which elicited the deluge of responses by the different groups across the country, by way of social media commentaries and direct personal discussions with some individuals in the North, reveals two broad categories of reactions. On the one hand are those who tend to wholeheartedly support the ultimatum contained in the statement in its entirety, on account of what they perceive to be the endless barrage of insults being ceaselessly directed at them by the targets of that unfortunate eviction order; this set of people somehow appear to be completely unaware of the legendary Mahatma Gandhi’s admonition that “an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind”. On the one hand, are others who are totally against it, and are calling for greater restraint; this second group would seem to subscribe to the British economist, Ernst Friedrich “Fritz” Schumacher’s school of thought that states, “any intelligent fool can make things bigger, more complex, and more violent. It takes a touch of genius – and a lot of courage to move in the opposite direction”.
In between the two, lies a third group that would appear to be in the majority: people who view it as nothing more than a timely warning to those they regard as very pompous, and who believe that the world revolves strictly around them; those who think – rightly or wrongly – that without them, others cannot survive, and that they should, therefore, be treated with the utmost of respect that they do not accord others; a group of people they accuse of taking over and dominating commercial activities in virtually all markets – big and small – across the land, while finding it difficult to grant access to the tiniest of stalls for others to trade in any of the markets they own and control within their own land.
Whether the underlying motive behind these latest round of tensions and the resulting growing craze and agitations to go it alone may happen to be commercial or political in nature, the most important issue for consideration right now is that we must all have to be very careful with the way we go about handling it, as the prognosis of an all out confrontation by all sides is very grim, going by the ugly outcome of similar conflicts witnessed in far smaller nations on the African continent recently. One remains cautiously optimistic, however, that, depending on how delicately we are able to successfully navigate our way through this latest phase in the series of the perennial disagreements amongst our component parts, we shall, hopefully, be able to settle our differences and march collectively forward towards our manifest destiny together as a single unit, once again, as we have always done; and this, too, like all others before it, shall pass.
––Abdullahi Usman (firstname.lastname@example.org)