We know very well that the toad does not run in the daytime for nothing; if it is not after something, then something must be after it. Although Nigeria is not new to agitations of all kinds, the nation has of recent been caught in a cacophony of agitations by different groups and sections of the country. In particular, these agitations have been most pronounced in the South-east, where the activities of various pro-Biafra groups have been most pronounced. There have also been loud and well-meaning voices in the South-east and all over the country strongly canvassing a restructuring of the country.
All these point to the fact that there is widespread dissatisfaction over how Nigeria is presently constituted and run. The South-east region, in particular, has, no doubt, been at the worst receiving end of the structural imbalances with ripples of disequilibrium in the distribution of resources and opportunities since the end of the civil war in 1970. This, as we know, are at the root of the disquiet and agitation by various groups for a sovereign state of Biafra.
Although the Biafra agitation has been with us even during the regimes of former Presidents Olusegun Obasanjo, Umaru Yar’Adua, and Goodluck Jonathan, it was managed, through tact and semblance of inclusiveness. Thus, after Ralph Uwazulike’s arrest and release from detention by the Yar’Adua administration, the agitation withered greatly. It was even much less noticeable under the Jonathan Administration because the South-east was given a greater sense of belonging.
Therefore, the renewed and aggravated agitations across the South-east, the hero status of the leader of the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB), the growing pro-Biafra sentiments in the South-east, and the widespread feelings of alienation and disgust with the Nigerian project since after the 2015 general election can be traced to the mistreatment of the region, which graduated from marginalization to exclusion, based on the 97 percent and 5 percent policy of the present administration.
However, while our people have every reason to be aggrieved and the right to vent their frustrations and seek equity and justice by democratic and non-violent means, we should also not allow our emotions to rule over our reasoning. As our people say, it will not be good to hear that the she-goat delivered in tether when elders are at home. Questions would eventually be asked. History would inquire if no elder was at home when the toad put to bed and the baby toad grew up a puffed creature because no one cared to stretch its hands or legs.
There are two major opinions as to the way forward for Ndigbo at a trying time like this. We have mostly the younger generation, who believe they have had enough of the Nigerian union, which they have described in unprintable terms. The other is restructuring, which seems to appeal more to the older generation.
Beyond sentiments, it needs to be emphasised that Nigeria is a sovereign state, with a defined territory recognised by the international community. She is a member of the United Nations (UN), African Union (AU), and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), among others. This territory includes the South-east region.
While the right to self-determination is guaranteed under the international systems, specifically the United Nations and African Union, this right has laid down procedures that must be religiously followed. For instance, while the call for referendum is legal; they do not come by fiat. Referendum is the ultimate result of wide and long negotiations, consultations, and processes involving the international community as we have seen in the cases of Scotland in the United Kingdom, Catalonia in Spain, Quebec in Canada, and recently in Puerto Rico as well as the successful secession of East Timor from Indonesia, Eritrea from Ethiopia, and South Sudan from Sudan.
Unless these due processes are observed, as in the case of Eritrea, East Timor, and South Sudan, such enclaves will not be recognised as sovereign states by the international community. I have followed incisive arguments on this matter and looked at the history of other secessionist efforts in other parts of the world. For example, about 43 years after it broke away from Cyprus in 1974, with the help of the Turkish Army, the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (Northern Cyprus) is yet to be recognised as a sovereign nation by any nation because of lack of due process. The citizens can only travel with the passport of Turkey as citizens of Turkey, not Northern Cyprus. Today, there is widespread agitation by citizens of North Cyprus to be rejoined to Cyprus.
There is also the case of Somaliland. Almost three decades after it declared itself a sovereign state from the Federal Republic of Somalia, the best the self-declared Republic (British Somaliland) has achieved is recognition as an autonomous state, but still part of Somalia in spite of the fact that Somalia is a failed state.
We also have the Russia-backed breakaway Eastern Ukraine, which still uses the Ukrainian international passport and currency, several years after. It does not matter that it is backed by Russia, a world super power.
In the Caucasus, the breakaway South Ossetia and Abkazia from Georgia are only recognised by Russia more than 10 years after. They can only travel as Russian citizens with Russian international passport. The international community still recognises them as citizens of Georgia.
Ndigbo also need to understand both the local and international political tides and sentiments to be able to make the right choices because the considerations for self-determination go beyond just the South-east.
Already, extreme utterances and actions by some key elements in the agitation for Biafra are taking tolls on our goodwill, friendship, and the sympathy we enjoy. Insults hurled at religious and political leaders of other regions are not helping us, politically.
Today, discordant tunes over the boundaries or territories of a prospective sovereign State of Biafra is growing in proportions with the hard wickets hurled at our neigbours and compatriots.
Indeed, as things stand today, the greater part of South-south region have continued to discountenance the idea of Biafra, perhaps, for these utterances or fear of becoming a minority within another sovereign state.
Only recently, the Governor of Rivers State was in Sokoto to reiterate that the people of Rivers State are rather in support of a restructured Nigeria, not a sovereign state of Biafra. Similarly, the people of Delta State have reiterated that Delta State, including the Anioma cultural zone, which is Igbo, will not be part of Biafra.
The truth is, times have changed, and so have political interests because 1967 is different from 2017. So much water has passed under the bridge and we have to be realistic.
As I earlier said, there is serious clamour for Northern Cyprus to rejoin Cyprus. Beside the frustrations from isolation, the economy is also at the heart of it. The Monday, June 26, 2017 edition of UK’s newspaper, The Telegraph estimates that the reunification of the tiny island could boost its Gross Domestic Product (GDP) by GBP5 Billion.
South-east’s political future should therefore be put in context of its economic interest and survival. The Igbos have larger chunk of their investments outside the South-east. Our people have invested heavily in every nook and cranny of Nigeria. They are into trading. Imagine a situation where a Republic of Biafra would have to depend on Nigerian passports to travel out.
Importantly, as I mentioned earlier, we are not certain that the South-south will go with the Biafra idea. And in the event that they do not, what are our options for economic survival? Flowing from this, what guarantee do we have for international support if the main oil bearing region pulls out, knowing that no nation is a Santa Claus?
Nigeria has never been as divided as it is today. The hate rhetoric is getting worse by the day. Parting ways under such level of bitterness could be risky to the investments and lives of the South Easterners. Realistically speaking, is it possible that all Ndigbo living in the other parts of Nigeria, many of whom were born and bred outside Igbo land, and have been well assimilated by their host communities will return home? Many have never visited home and do not even speak Igbo language. Can we realistically expect those who have their investments in other parts of Nigeria to willingly abandon them and head home?
Although international systems seek to guarantee the security of lives of peoples and their properties on either side of the divides, should there be a self-determination process that leads to the emergence of a new nation, such guarantees are not absolute and difficult to enforce, especially in a society such as ours. The quit notice and hate spewed by the Arewa youth to Ndigbo point to the fact that all is not well. And it calls for caution because the mother hen does not run without looking back to know the fate of her chicks.
Right template for Restructuring
The 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. The 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.
I believe Ndigbo will thrive, probably more than other regions, under a federal structure that guarantees substantial autonomy, justice, equity, security, and prosperity for Ndigbo wherever they live.
What we need is a federalism where each constituent part fends for itself to promote industry. We need a federal arrangement that guarantees and allows every constituent state or region to be primarily in charge of its aspirations and preferences to catalyse competitive development. We need a mutually agreed arrangement that allows every component to take charge of the security of lives and properties of citizens through decentralised policing, while the Federal Government takes care of defending our territorial integrity. We need a federal arrangement where the best excel, and does not have to be sacrificed in the name of federal character. We need a restructured federation where the Igbo man or woman, and indeed, every Nigerian can live and ply his or her business without any form of discrimination, molestation, and destruction of his or her life and property on the flimsiest excuses. Igbos should be better off in a federation where they freely exercise their democratic rights without being hounded and killed by security forces. We need a federal structure that guarantees smart and efficient government. And I believe these are possible if the leaders and constituent parts of the nation come to the table with sincerity of purpose. We should push for that, please.
(i) Going forward, we need to set up a committee for a continuous engagement and moderation of IPOB, other pro-Biafra organisations and their leaders to avoid hate speeches and reckless statements that will make us lose our friends and sympathisers.
(ii) We need to send a team of South-east leaders to have yet another meeting with the Presidency, this time to tell them, in clear terms, the need to address the fears and complaints about marginalisation of the people of the South-east by this government, which is fueling the agitation in our region. Government needs to take concrete steps and demonstrate commitment in addressing the said complaints. This will help the South-east leaders to manage the restiveness.
(iii) The Igbos must continue to emphasise restructuring, which is presently enjoying acceptance by the South-south, South-west, Northern-central, and well meaning people from other parts of the North. I believe that at the discussion table for restructuring, we will have sufficient allies that will enable us extract a good bargain for a just and equitable society, where we will, no doubt, excel. Ndigbo need a bigger space to operate. In fact, Nigeria as a country is even a small space for the enterprising spirit of the Igbo, hence our people are scattered all over Africa and are capable of dominating the economic space.
(iv) We need to send delegations to different entities of the North, especially Sokoto, Kaduna, Kano, Maiduguri, Adamawa, Katsina, Bauchi, Gombe, Jigawa, among others, to engage the respective governors and top traditional rulers and clerics who will also help to moderate the utterances and actions of the Northern youth. These, I believe, will secure the lives and properties of our people all over the north and avoid their possible mass movement ahead of the October deadline contained in the threat by the Northern youth.
(v) We 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 properties of our people living in the North and to urge them to take every necessary step to protect them.
Finally, whatever choices we make, we must not allow ourselves to be ruled by our emotions, but by reasoning. The same tree stump does not trip a wise man twice. We must learn from the past and act wisely and decisively. Likewise, we must endeavour to present our demands in a civilized manner and in a language that is cognizant of other people’s sensibilities, not in a provocative or rancorous manner.
Going forward, we need to set up a committee for a continuous engagement and moderation of IPOB, other pro-Biafra organisations and their leaders to avoid hate speeches and reckless statements that will make us lose our friends and sympathisers.
Senator Ekweremadu is the Deputy President of the Senate, and delivered this address at the meeting of South-east governors, National Assembly, Ohanaeze Ndigbo and Igbo leaders on political developments in the South-east and state of the nation on July 1, 2017