By Tobi Soniyi in Lagos, Onyebuchi Ezigbo in Abuja and Christopher Isiguzo in EnuguÂ Â
Igbo leaders from the South-east zone, including its governors, National Assembly members and leadership of Ohanaeze Ndigbo, rose from a closed-door meeting early yesterday in Enugu, restating the zoneâ€™s commitment to a united Nigeria.
The Igbo leaders also formally declared their support for the restructuring of the country, insisting that the process must be on the basis of fairness and equality.
The meeting was the first by the zone since some separatist groups, including the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) and the Movement for the Actualisation of a Sovereign State of Biafra (MASSOB), intensified their agitation for the creation of the Republic of Biafra.
Though the meeting avoided mentioning any of the separatist groups, their resolutions may have foreclosed any possible support for the Nnamdi Kanu-led agitation for the break up of Nigeria.
The five governors â€“ Ifeanyi Ugwuanyi of Enugu, Okezie Ikpeazu of Abia, Rochas Okorocha of Imo, Willie Obiano of Anambra and Dave Umahi of Ebonyi â€“ had earlier met at the Government House, Enugu, to harmonise their position before moving to the Nike Lake Resort, Enugu, for the enlarged stakeholdersâ€™ meeting.
Apart from the governors, other notable persons that attended the meeting included Deputy President of the Senate, Senator Ike Ekweremadu and other members of the National Assembly, former Senate Presidents, Senators Adolphus Wabara and Ken Nnamani, the President General of Ohanaeze Ndigbo, Chief Nnia Nwodo and his predecessor, Enwo Igariwey, former Chief of General Staff, Admiral Ebitu Ukiwe, former Inspector General of Police (IGP), Ogbonna Onovo and a former Deputy Inspector General of Police, Hillary Opara.
Others were deputy governors, state assembly speakers, religious leaders and traditional rulers from the zone.
However, political appointees from the South-east currently serving in the administration, especially the ministers, were conspicuously absent from the meeting and no reason was given for their absence.
In a seven-point communiquÃ© read by the Chairman of the South-east Governorsâ€™ Forum and Ebonyi governor, Umahi, to newsmen at about 1 a.m. when the meeting ended, the Igbo leaders called on the federal government and all Nigerian leaders to immediately commence a process of dialogue among Nigerians on the modalities of restructuring the country within a reasonable time frame.
They also threw their weight behind the report of the 2014 National Conference and asked the federal government to set up structures that will enable its implementation within a reasonable time.
In what appeared like a veiled reference to the quit order notice given to the Igbos resident in the Northern part of the country by Arewa youths, the leaders condemned all forms of hate speeches and conduct coming from any part of the country.
They, however, disclosed that they were taking steps to ensure the safety of lives and property of Igbo people in all parts of Nigeria, just as they equally guaranteed the safety of lives and property of all Nigerians that are resident in the South-east.
The communiquÃ© read in part: â€œAfter this crucial meeting of South-east governors, members of the National Assembly of Igbo extraction, Ohanaeze Ndigbo, and select Igbo leaders of thought on the state of the nation, the following resolutions were adopted.
â€œThat Ndigbo are in support of a united Nigeria where peace, love, fairness, justice, equity and equality of opportunity are paramount, regardless of creed, ethnicity, gender or political affiliation.
â€œThat we condemn all hate speeches and conduct emanating from any segment of Nigeria.
â€œThat Ndigbo support the report of the National Conference of 2014 and urge the federal government to set up structures that will enable the implementation of same within a reasonable time.
â€œThat the South-east governors, members of the National Assembly from the South-east and the leadership of Ohanaeze Ndigbo should henceforth constitute the official organs that will speak on behalf of Ndigbo on political matters.
â€œThat the South-east leaders, in consultation with leaders from other parts of the country, will engage the federal government on all areas of concern to Ndigbo and to Nigeria as a whole.â€
Earlier in his opening remarks, Umahi said the governors had been deliberating on burning national issues, both on regional and national levels, especially as they relate to Ndigbo, but now felt it was necessary to expand the scope.
According to him, as leaders, they must discuss how best to tackle the escalating challenges of security, development, the welfare of both workers and the general population, youth restiveness, the unity of Nigeria, unemployment, stagnant economy, and Igbo culture that is in a painful state of flux.
â€œHowever part of the central issues we must consider today is the manner in which the group led by Nnamdi Kanu has gone about its agitation.
â€œIt is an agenda point which I believe will dovetail into the equally sizzling political topic of the moment: restructuring,â€ he said.
On his part, Ugwuanyi expressed delight that Enugu had hosted the all-important meeting where a common position for the Igbos would be taken.
â€œNothing will please Enugu better than to be recorded in history as the venue where all Ndigbo gathered to resolve their differences and actively pursue peace and unity among themselves.
â€œMoments like this in history, call for unity and statesmanship and I therefore, call on Ndigbo to unite and love themselves. I call on our leaders to exhibit the highest standards of statesmanship in confronting the problems at hand,â€ he said.
In his contribution during the meeting, Ekweremadu had suggested that a team of South-east leaders should again meet with the presidency to demand in clear terms that any fears and complaints about marginalisation of the people of the South-east by this government, which was fuelling the agitation in the region be addressed squarely.
Ekweremadu, who also appealed for caution among those pushing for a sovereign state of Biafra, called on Igbo youths to jettison the idea of leaving Nigeria.
He acknowledged the grievances, which he said were pushing the youths to want to opt out of theÂ nation, but cautioned that it was not the best way to go.
â€œGovernment needs to take concrete steps and demonstrate commitment in addressing the said complaints. This will help the South-east leaders to manage the restiveness,â€ he added.
Ekweremadu said having invested across the country, the best option for Igbos was to team up with those pushing for the nation to be restructured.
He said: â€œThe other option left for us is a restructured federation. Ndigbo need to develop and market what it believes to be the right template for restructuring.
â€œThe Eastern Region was rated the fastest growing economy in Africa in the First Republic because the regions were relatively autonomous; resources were largely developed and controlled by the regions.â€
In this wise, he appealed to Igbo youths not to allow their emotions get the better of them but to moderate their utterances so as not to alienate those who have sympathy for their cause.
He reminded those calling for the South-east to secede that the South-south had made it clear it would not be a part of the Biafra Republic.
â€œThe truth is, times have changed, and so have political interests because 1967 is different from 2017,â€ he added.
In order to further reduce tension in the country, he advised Igbo leaders to set up a committee for continuous engagement and moderation by IPOB, other pro-Biafra organisations and their leaders to avoid hate speeches and reckless statements that would make the South-east lose its friends and sympathisers.
He also suggested that Igbos must continue to harp on restructuring, which was currently enjoying acceptance by the South-south, South-west, North-central, and well-meaning people from other parts of the North.â€
The Deputy Senate President said be believed that at the discussion table for restructuring, the Igbos would have sufficient allies that would enable them to extract a good bargain for a just and equitable society.
â€œNdigbo need a bigger space to operate. In fact, Nigeria as a country is even a small space for the enterprising spirit of the Igbos, hence our people are scattered all over Africa and are capable of dominating the economic space,â€ he added.
He also said that delegations should be sent to different entities of the North, especially Sokoto, Kaduna, Kano, Maiduguri, Adamawa, Katsina, Bauchi, Gombe and Jigawa, among others, to engage the respective governors top traditional rulers and clerics who would also help to moderate the utterances and actions of the Northern youths.
He said: â€œThese, I believe, will secure the lives and property of our people all over the North and avoid their possible mass movement ahead of the October deadline as espoused in the threat by the Northern youths.
â€œWe need to send another delegation to meet with the Chief of Defence Staff, Inspector-General of Police, National Security Adviser, and the Director-General of the Department of State Security to express our concern over the safety of the lives and property of our people living in the North and to urge them to take every necessary step to protect them.â€
But in a swift reaction to the outcome of the meeting, MASSOB yesterday kicked against the call for the restructuring of Nigeria by the Igbo leaders, insisting that anything short of a referendum for the realisation of â€œBiafra Republicâ€ would not be acceptable.
Uchenna Madu, leader of MASSOB, in a statement he issued in Enugu said his group had insisted on several occasions that it was opposed to the restructuring of Nigeria because the foundation and intention of establishing Nigeria as a state do not favor restructuring.
The group similarly hailed the Ohaneze Ndigbo Youth Council under the leadership of Okechukwu Isiguzoro for standing boldly and positively identifying with the current realities of Biafra consciousness.
â€œThe British-sponsored Northern domination of Nigeria political and military lives of the country can never allow restructuring which will never favour the unproductive and cursed region of Northern Nigeria.
â€œThere is no shortcut to our aspirations of achieving Biafra sovereignty; we cannot support restructuring or Igbo presidency. We believe in outright self-determination for Biafra independence from this British yoke entity called Nigeria.
â€œA Biafra referendum is inevitable now that the Pro-Biafra groups have mutually and intimately formed a common ground and platform that is based on oneness, unity and general interest of Biafrans.
â€œWe shall consistently, unrelentingly and continuously press and demand a referendum that will determine the fate and choice of the identity of the people of Biafra,â€ he said.
Madu observed that though MASSOB was not against the agitators for restructuring or implementation of true federalism, he said his group believed that such adventure would never be actualised because there is no trust and confidence among the regional ethnic leaders.
Meanwhile, despite these positions, the National Vice Chairman of the All Progressives Congress (APC), South-South, Hilliard Eta, has gone against the position of some his party members, stating that it will be a wise decision to start the process of restructuring of the country now to avoid being forced to do it by a crisis.
The party chieftain said he believed that the countryâ€™s economic, political and social backwardness could be traced largely to the awkward and unsustainable structure of Nigeria.
Speaking in an interview with journalists at the weekend in Abuja, the APC zonal chairman said the party agreed to restructure because it was clearly stated in its manifesto.
â€œIf you have restructuring in the manifesto of the party, it is settled that the APC is for restructuring. Not only is the APC for restructuring, the governors elected on the platform of our party have come out to tell the nation that they are also for restructuring,â€ he said.
According to Eta, any documents that could help the representatives of the people in the National Assembly with a constitutional amendment should be assembled for the purpose of finding a common ground on the issues in contention.
â€œWhether it is in 2014 or in 2010 conferences, I prefer that the restructuring of Nigeria should start immediately. The reason is that our economic backwardness, our political backwardness, our social backwardness can be traced largely to the awkward and unsustainable super-structure of the country and not the sub-structure of the country.
â€œSo it is important that we restructure now so that we will not have the unnecessary duty of having to force ourselves to the table.â€™
The APC chieftain welcomed the move by the Senate to take a look at the last national conference report as a way of kick-starting the process of dialogue.
â€œI think it is a good place to start, all of these documents from the 2014 conference, the one that was conducted by Babangida or Abacha, wherever it was conducted should be brought together.
â€œNigeria has never been short of ideas. These ideas are found at the shores of government and that is a good place to start and Nigerians who may not have had an opportunity to contribute to those that we have on the shores of government should also be given an opportunity to do so.â€
While appealing to Nigerians to be patient with the APC-led government, the party chieftain decried the criticism from the opposition People Democratic Party (PDP), which he said had been in power for 16 years but never cared about Nigeriaâ€™s restructuring.
â€œThe PDP, unfortunately, because whenever these things are done I think that they were just amplifying or reciting the propaganda of the PDP, but I beg to tell you that the PDP was in power for 16 years, yet they never cared about restructuring. Today, the PDP is all over the place talking about restructuring.
â€œI donâ€™t know if it is essentially about the APC but some Nigerians are very quick to make judgments with regards to the APC-led government. APC has been in power for two years and in the two years you are aware of what has attended our presidency.
â€œIt is disingenuous for people to now look at the APC and say these things. So I think Nigerians should be a little patient with us.
It is unfortunate that the unsustainable sub-structure of Nigeria has brought the agitations in the manner they have come at this time when the APC is in power and we are not afraid of the responsibility and the challenges,â€ he said.