Growing agitations for self-determination are ringing like church bells across the country. The campaigners have raised questions about the effectiveness of the amalgamation of disparate ethnic nationalities that constitute the geographical entity known as Nigeria. They have questioned the fragile unity that exists in an atmosphere in which various minorities feel they have been marginalised.
Calls for greater autonomy and self-determination by leaders of militant organisations, community and religious leaders as well as local politicians are usually based on feelings of marginalisation, socio-political exclusion and economic deprivation that give rise to grinding poverty. Demands for self-rule are often based on perceived benefits of self-governance. There is the perception that new nation states will bring government nearer to people and thereby improve their socioeconomic conditions.
Everyday people ask numerous questions that put to test the truth behind the nation’s unity: How can diverse ethnic groups live together in peace and achieve their economic, political, social and educational objectives? Is there strength in living in a nation that comprises unequal ethnic groups that are marked by visible differences in language, cultural traditions, religious practices, and general lifestyle? Is there value in associating with all these groups that are conflict-ridden?
It will be counter-productive to use coercion to silence and cage ethnic groups that feel their interests are no longer represented in the country. Some countries do things peacefully while others use violence to settle disputes. Here are some examples. In the UK, a referendum was organised to determine whether the citizens preferred to remain in the European Union or whether they should pull out. The campaign was conducted peacefully. That was freedom of expression in action. No one held a gun over anyone’s head, threatening and compelling them to vote against their personal wishes.
On 30 August 1999, the United Nations conducted a referendum for people of East Timor, a former region of Indonesia, to determine whether they were happier to remain as a part of Indonesia or whether they should go their own way. When the votes were tallied, the results showed that 78 per cent of the people opted for independence. Although there was unimaginable violence that consumed many lives before, during, and after the referendum, the wishes of the people were honoured and violence did not incinerate their desire.
Another often cited case is the peaceful breakup into two countries of the former Czechoslovakia. The dismemberment led to the emergence of two countries, namely Slovakia and the Czech Republic. Here is how The New York Times of 1 January 1993 reported the epochal event: “The breakup, which was carried out in just a few months, has been relatively smooth. Czech and Slovak officials divvied up military equipment, foreign embassies and other assets on a two-to-one ratio, reflecting their populations. Even a prisoner exchange has been planned, with 1,500 Slovaks in Czech jails to be traded for 300 convicted Czechs being held in Slovakia.”
The newspaper reported further: “The breakup has produced its comic side as well. Reporters found a town where the ski chalet is in one country and the slopes in another. They uncovered postal routes that criss-crossed between the two countries and even a village where the train station and the town it serves were in different countries.”
History, therefore, shows that different conditions prevailed prior to, during and after the breakup of nation states. Fear of the unknown is generally what drives scepticism about the viability of new countries. There are also worries about what the economy of the new country might throw at the citizens, the challenges of cultivating diplomatic relationships, paucity of infrastructure, problems of funding higher education, challenges of establishing and sustaining a public hospital system that will attend to the healthcare needs of citizens, etc.
Regardless of what happened in other countries and how they resolved their problems, we must examine critically the subsisting situation in our home front. Although state officials are nowhere near providing a deliberative space for citizens to debate whether Nigeria should remain as it is or whether disintegration would serve the greater good, we all need to grapple with some important questions. One question that will engage both the advocates and opponents of a unified or divided Nigeria is: What are the advantages and drawbacks of Nigeria remaining as it is or being carved into different countries, as was the case in the former Yugoslavia? When we look at other countries that are multicultural, multi-religious, and multi-ethnic in composition, we wonder how they manage to live harmoniously.
When some people argue there is strength in numbers and that we should accept that point as a key reason Nigeria should remain, as it currently exists, other people counter by saying there is no strength in numbers if some members of a federation feel they are being treated as second-class citizens in their fatherland.
There is no question that there is deep-seated anger across the country. That is why we have the Boko Haram insurgency in the North, boiling anger and restlessness in the Niger Delta region, and growing agitations in the East for revival of Biafra (an idea that led to conflagration that consumed thousands of lives in a fratricidal civil war that lasted more than three years). Another question we must deliberate on is: Why is there so much anger and hatred against the state and political leaders?
The nation is going through a crucible. Any uncompromising militant group that emerges now will automatically open a new battleground that will stretch the resources of security forces that are yet to put out the fires that are burning in the North, Southeast, and Niger Delta region.
It used to be said, during the Nigeria-Biafra hostilities, that to keep Nigeria one was a task that must be accomplished. That task was achieved quite alright but at what price? Rather than entrench peaceful coexistence, the civil war sowed the seeds of restiveness spawned by feelings of marginalisation in the region. Ongoing agitations for recreation of Biafra are an appeal for recognition within the Nigerian state as well as nostalgic memories of the bitterness that marked the war years, and a recollection of the passion that drove the desire for independence. Another factor that is fuelling the restlessness (perhaps, the most valid) has been attributed to feelings of marginalisation, the sentiment that people in the southeast are not good enough to hold senior and sensitive positions in government.
Add these two factors and you have a deadly mixture of anger, rising frustration, hopelessness, and depression. When you talk with people in the Southeast, they tell you that at no point in Nigeria’s history has the region felt more marginalised than now even though the government’s public relations spin doctors tend to disagree. True or false, the people feel they have been excluded, isolated and their voices muffled.
To overturn the present mood of people in the Southeast requires an accelerated programme of economic and community development that will create jobs, that will empower the people and reassure them they are very much an important part of the nation. It will also require someone with special people-to-people skills to broker genuine peace, present the facts, reduce the tension and promise to take more inclusive decisions that will show appreciation for the region.
In the Niger Delta, the roots of the restlessness are clear. Environmental damage, socioeconomic deprivation and lack of federal presence have combined to turn a previously peaceful area into a region of unrest, kidnapping, mindless killings, financial extortion and blowing up of oil pipelines and installations. The people feel they have been abandoned because they have been patient for too long. They want government to recognise their problems and accord to them their fair share of the national wealth that is produced in their own soil. All you need to understand why the people are so enraged against political leaders at federal and state levels is to observe the frequency of oil spills that continue to damage their environment as well as the sheer poverty that has incapacitated people in the region. If all of these don’t grab your sympathy or emotion, nothing else would.
In the North, the Boko Haram uprising is driven chiefly by religious fanaticism, a radical religious ideology and an unrestrained ambition to convert to and force-feed an entire country with, the doctrines of a particular religion. The masterminds of the insurgency do not recognise the Nigerian state. They want to rule by force. That is not going to happen.
Regional activism or crusading for self-rule is not a straightforward, easy and one-dimensional problem that can be solved because each agitation for sovereignty is inspired by a different set of agenda. The common element that unifies the various groups pushing for independence is a sense of ennui or dissatisfaction with the present system.
Every pro-independence group pushes the argument that their members are fed up, outraged and uncomfortable in a nation in which federal and state governments have overlooked their region. They argue that if they are not recognised in their fatherland, and if they don’t gain anything from the union, there would be no need for them to continue to stay within the nation.
These issues are being debated vigorously in mainstream and online media, including online discussion forums, personal blogs and other non-traditional channels of communication. One way out of the present nightmare that stares the nation in the face is for federal and state governments to create or facilitate an environment in which every ethnic group should feel safe, important, respected and appreciated.