The more I hear President Muhammadu Buhari and senior officials of his government say that Nigeria’s unity is non-negotiable, the more I get the feeling of déjà vu. Vice-President Yemi Osinbajo made a similar remark in June 2017 when he was Acting President. Last week, Kogi State Governor Yahaya Bello said Buhari reinforced the message that Nigeria was inseparable or unbreakable when he went to update the President on the state of the barricades placed to obstruct the supply of foodstuffs and cattle to the southern part of Nigeria by the Amalgamated Union of Food and Cattle Dealers of Nigeria.
Speaking with State House correspondents, Bello said: “Mr. President expressed concern over the insecurity in the land… He urged every one of us to continue to go about our lawful businesses in the country, that Nigeria’s unity is not negotiable, that Nigeria must be united, peaceful and that Nigeria must be prosperous.”
Unfortunately, peace and unity cannot just be verbalised. They cannot be imposed on citizens in an environment in which everything is falling apart, in a situation in which lawlessness and impunity have dominated national life. Incidentally, these sentiments were also expressed in an interview granted by Professor Itse Sagay, chairman of the Presidential Advisory Committee Against Corruption. The interview was published in The Sun of Saturday, March 6, 2021.
Asked about his greatest fear for Nigeria, Sagay said clearly and methodically: “It is disintegration. We are in a situation in which we are warring among ourselves; in which different sides representing different ethnic groups, different religions are in a state of conflict or confrontation with each other. There is need for consensus. There is need to agree that this country should survive and there are certain basic minimum factors or considerations that must exist. One is safety. The Constitution recognises that the government is obliged to provide the two main things that it is constituted for: security and welfare. So, in that area, we are failing and we need to take urgent steps to address it…We should make sure we take steps to ensure that nobody has the courage to say he wants to attack another person, community or rob another person or kidnap anybody.”
It is all right to talk about national unity but unity cannot flourish in a vacuum, or on a platform of unequal treatment of citizens. These officials are unable to make a fair assessment of the mood of civil society, particularly with regard to the existing tensions in the country, and especially the selective way the government accords or denies privileges to people based on their ethnicity, religion and region of origin.
Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka has disagreed vigorously with the government’s idea that Nigeria’s unity was non-negotiable. Speaking at a colloquium held in Kaiama, Bayesla State, on Friday, July 14, 2017, Soyinka systematically and logically knocked down the government’s argument. He said: “We must stop confusing the argument, mixing up the argument. When people, especially former leaders, especially those who bear enormous responsibility, speak on the question of breaking up or not breaking up, it always sounds hypocritical and dogmatic and dictatorial and that statement is that the unity of Nigeria is non-negotiable. No! That, for me, is a falsity. Anything is negotiable… Most nations came into being through negotiations.”
Soyinka advanced the unassailable view that citizens must be free to discuss their future and the nature of the country in which they reside. He argued that Nigeria’s unity must be discussed widely and openly to address growing feelings of marginalisation of various ethnic groups. No one can find flaws in Soyinka’s logic. It is founded on the principle of justice. It contradicts the idea that Nigeria’s unity is sacrosanct, untouchable and, therefore, not open to public discussion.
Contrary to public expressions of ill feelings, government officials continue to propagate the view that there is nothing wrong with Nigeria as presently constituted. They say that even if there was a problem, it would not be solved by calls for reorganisation of the country. It is that kind of blind and dishonest argument that threatens the future of Nigeria.
Within the public sphere, there is the prevalent view that Nigeria has ruptured, and people cannot continue to live on a false premise that the future would be better. The current situation cannot remain as it is because people’s lives have been severely disrupted by growing insecurity, people’s future has been placed on hold for too long, and various ethnic groups have reached a point in which they no longer see themselves as valued members of a country that regards them as burdens rather than assets.
As I argued previously, Nigeria is a federation of unequal partners, unequal ethnic nationalities, unequal religious denominations, and unequal states. It is a federation in which some regions constitute the industrious monkeys that work tirelessly while other regions are happy to serve as the baboons that benefit from the sweat and hard labour of the hardworking regions. This is described in a local phraseology as: monkey de work and baboon de chop.
Nigeria is involved in an ill-defined partnership in which some regions see themselves as divinely ordained to produce political leaders and heads of key government ministries, departments and agencies.
These and other injustices constitute the reasons why many groups do not see themselves as a part of the national project to unify the country. The argument is that, if the north, south, east, and west cannot be treated equally, if some regions are accorded preferential treatment in federal appointments in total disregard for the Federal Character principle, then there is no basis for anyone to sing the national unity hymn.
The charade must end. What is the point of political leaders preaching equality but practising inequality? What is the value in talking about fair treatment of all Nigerians while justifying unfair treatment of other ethnic groups and regions, or moralise about the rule of law but do nothing when Fulani herdsmen trash national laws and operate with impunity by destroying farmlands and means of livelihoods of people in other parts of the country? The hypocrisy cannot continue under the present arrangement.
Everyone is now fully aware of their privileges and entitlements. Advocating peaceful coexistence and national unity cannot eliminate the prevailing anger and feelings of injustice, discrimination, marginalisation, and the fire that is exploding in people’s stomach. Civil society is exhausted and can no longer participate in a one-sided debate over national unity in a country where a majority of ethnic groups are treated as unequal partners.
There is a limit to which you can suppress people’s wish for fair treatment. The government’s apathy to acts of brigandage, kidnapping, rape and destruction of farmlands by itinerant and lawless herdsmen must be condemned. It is disgusting when the government overlooks the destructive activities of this anarchic group of herdsmen and then uses top-heavy military force to suppress non-violent vigilante groups in the South-South, South-East, and South-West of the country. It is now evident that the government is not ruling with equal measure in the interest of all Nigerians.