…As Biafra agitators, Arewa youths push for referendum
By Onyedika Agbedo
FIFTY-YEARS after the Nigerian civil war, the Federal Government is under immense pressure to yield to calls to restructure the country in a manner that will resolve the differences and disharmony within the system and pave way for the peaceful co-existence of her people. The pressure is coming against the backdrop of the current restiveness in many parts of the country with the Independent People of Biafra (IPOB), the Movement for the Actualisation of the Sovereign State of Biafra (MASSOB) and a coalition Arewa youth groups all urging the Federal Government and international orgnisations to facilitate a referendum that would quicken the exit of the Igbo from Nigeria.
The calls came on the heels of the shut-down of major towns in the south-eastern part of the country last May 30 by members of the IPOB/MASSOB and other pro-Biafra groups purportedly meant to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Biafra. Elated by the success of the sit-at-home exercise, MASSOB had last Friday released a statement where it disclosed that all the groups agitating for the peaceful restoration of Biafra would work together to actualise the goal through a United Nations-supervised referendum.
In the statement signed by its leader, Uchenna Madu, MASSOB had noted: “The sit-at-home exercise was declared and observed as a litmus test of the popularity and public acceptance of IPOB and MASSOB; it was also observed as a prelude to the coming Biafra referendum.
“The referendum to determine the willingness, decision and resolve of the people of Biafra to leave Nigeria is the next stage of the struggle. The referendum will determine and resolve the Biafra question; it will give room for the people to willingly decide their future and existence in Biafra or Nigeria; it will also enable the international communities to ascertain the willingness of the people of Biafra to be separated from Nigeria.”
Apparently in response to the sit-at-home exercise and the quest for a referendum by the pro-Biafra groups, the northern youth groups, which included the Arewa Citizens Action for Change, Arewa Youth Consultative Forum, Arewa Youth Development Foundation, Arewa Students Forum and Northern Emancipation Network last Tuesday gave the Igbo up till October 1, this year, to leave the northern region. The coalition also advised all northerners residing in the South-east to relocate from the region before the date.
“From that date, effective, peaceful and safe mop-up of all the remnants of the stubborn Igbo that neglect to heed this quit notice shall commence to finally eject them from every part of the north.
“And finally, all authorities, individuals or groups are hereby advised against attempting to undermine this declaration by insisting on this union with the Igbo who have thus far proved to be an unnecessary baggage carried too far and for too long,” the groups warned in a signed by one of their leaders, Abdulazeez Suleiman.
The threat by Arewa youths had attracted widespread condemnation from across the country, which prompted the Inspector-General of Police, Ibrahim Idris, to order the investigation and arrest members of the groups. The United Nations had also in its reaction to the ultimatum, through its Resident Coordinator in Nigeria, Edward Kallon, called “for tolerance and a spirit of togetherness in transparency to address the concerns of all the citizens in a peaceful manner.”
But the Arewa groups had remained defiant. In a statement last Thursday also signed by Suleiman, they insisted that the Igbo must leave Nigeria and also called on the federal government and international orgnisations to facilitate a referendum that would quicken the process.
“We reiterate our call on Nigerian authorities and recognised international bodies such as the ECOWAS, AU and UN to hasten the initiation of the process for the final actualisation of the Biafran nation and with it the excision of the Igbo out of the present federation,” the statement read.
Although the development has left the fog of uncertainty, confusion and apprehension in the political space, many political observers believe that it represents an outward expression of the frustrations within the Nigerian federation hence the need for restructuring.
Second Republic politician and chieftain of Ohanaeze Ndigbo, Chief Guy Ikokwu, told Sunday Sun in interview that any referendum that would ensure the restructuring of the country would be encouraged. He said: “A referendum or plebiscite is a constitutional modality to determine the view of people in their enclaves, states and nation on vexed issues. In the case of Nigeria as a whole, the referendum which Nigerian elders and organisations in particular reference to Ohanaeze Ndigbo, Igbo Leaders of Thought, Afenifere and the South-South leaders are demanding is for the immediate actualisation of a restructured Nigerian federation; for true, fiscal federalism, resource control and optimal development of the country instead of the present retardation in all spheres of developmental activities. We believe that not less than 85 per cent of the citizens of Nigeria today in a well-organised referendum if held within the next two months will vote ‘yes’ for a restructured Nigeria.”
Ikokwu added: “The few people who are talking against restructuring should know that when Nigeria is restructured, our economy will grow by at least seven per cent annually and we will be able to take care of the needs of our people. At the moment there is no justice; there is no fair play. And the citizens in each of the six geo-political zones are aggrieved. Boko Haram members are indigenes of the North-east and they are aggrieved; IPOB and MASSOB boys in the South-east are aggrieved; the militants in the South-south are aggrieved.
“So, if people are now talking about referendum, it is left for the Federal Government in association with international organisations drawn from the United Nations that have the competence and knowledge on such matters to initiate it so that it will be a just accreditation of the wishes of the people. Many countries in the world had conducted referendum to decide serious constitutional issues. It has happened in Britain, Germany, France, the U.S., and in many Asian countries. So, we should not shy away from these things; it can be done. The issue is that there can be no peace where there is no justice. If a referendum will guarantee justice, fair play and equal opportunity, we should not shy away from it. Nobody wants strife for people to be killed; strife sets countries backward instead of moving them forward.”
Also speaking with Sunday Sun, a public affairs analyst, Jide Ojo, said the current state of the nation was the evidence of lack of trust and confidence in the polity called Nigeria.
His words: “The agitation for what people call true federalism, fiscal federalism or restructuring has been on for a very long time. It is on that basis that we have had all manner of constitutional and political reform conferences, the most recent ones being the National Political Reform Conference of 2005 and 2014 National Conference. It’s all because there are fundamental issues with our federalism, which has to do with the sharing of the so-called proverbial national cake. A lot of people feel that they are shortchanged in this federation, which has led to a lot of minority agitations. So, what we are experiencing at the moment is not a today’s phenomenon; it was even part of what led to the civil war 50 years ago.”
Ojo added: “So, we need to restructure because this federation is not working. I believe in political and economic restructuring. I don’t advocate going back to the parliamentary system or regionalism that people are clamouring for; and we should not create additional states. We should rather maintain the present structure and ensure the devolution of powers from the exclusive list to the concurrent list. We copy the American presidential system where the states are semi-autonomous from the centre. Why can’t we copy the entire features of presidential system as obtainable in the U.S?
“The issue is that the earlier we restructure the better for this country. The time to restructure is now and we don’t have to set up another ethnic nationalities conference. The report of 2005 and 2014 conferences are good enough; all that is required is for the Federal Government to distill the reports and send the appropriate executive bills to the National Assembly for legislation. With the right political will and sincerity of purpose on the part of the President, I believe that we can achieve some good results before 2019.”
Second Republic lawmaker and Convener, Coalition of Northern Politicians, Academics, and Businessmen, Junaid Mohammed, on his part, blamed the Federal Government for the rising tension in the land, saying there had not been attempts in the past to bring disorderly groups to book.
Mohammed said: “I don’t know whether people still remember that it wasn’t Arewa youths that first started threatening other Nigerians. Other groups had done that before now. So, I wonder why people are just coming to realise the danger of that kind of thing only now. As far as I am concerned, the people who started issuing threats to other Nigerians is the Oodua Peoples Congress (OPC), which is affiliated to Afenifere. They are followed by IPOB and other pro-Biafra groups. I am aware that Nnamdi Kanu and the Igbo elite behind him have been threatening other Nigerians and Nigeria. I am not aware of any group in the East or in the West that has come out to call attention to the dangers such threats portend. So, I don’t know why it’s only now that the nation is realising the dangers such threats hold.”
He added: “I want also to say that what is happening now is merely the culmination of the irresponsibility of this government. When Arewa youths issued the threat which I understand was a follow up to what Nnamdi Kanu did and what he has been doing before he went to detention and after he came out on bail, nobody in the government said anything. Now, the primary responsibility of any government is the protection of lives and property. If a government cannot guarantee lives and property of all Nigerians wherever they are without any let or hindrance, that government has failed. So, to me, Buhari’s government has failed.”
He added: “Now, if the Igbos are complaining about marginalisation, other Nigerians are also complaining about marginalisation. But the Yorubas cannot complain of marginalisation. Today, it is an Igbo man who is the Governor of the Central bank of Nigeria; Minister of Trade and Investment; Minister of State for Petroleum; and I could go on and mention several other people from the region who are holding very important positions in government even though the total votes Buhari got from the South-east region is less than 64,000. But the constitution is very clear that every state must have a minister and all the Igbo states have benefited. But as far as I am concerned, no Nigerian has the right to threaten other Nigerians. But you cannot also blame only the Arewa youth group while ignoring the threats emanating from the Igbo elite who are manipulating Nnamdi Kanu and allowing him to go and do what he has been doing; and the Yoruba elite who are playing their old game because during the civil war they incited the Igbo to go away and they would follow. But when the Igbo seceded, they came and took their jobs, businesses and homes.”
Mohammed continued: “They are now talking about restructuring; they should tell us what is restructuring. What do they want out of it? I was a member of the 2014 national conference and the conference could not arrive at any conclusion as to what restructuring means. All we had were the Igbo saying they wanted an additional state. Where and how they wanted it they did not tell us. They were just saying there must be equality.
When Kano State and the East Central State were created, Kano had a bigger population. Today, there are five states out of the East Central State while there are only two states out of Kano (Kano and Jigawa states). So, if they are telling us that restructuring means that they will have more states, they should explain to us what that means.”
Amid the tension, the Minister of Information and Culture, Alhaji Lai Mohammed, last Thursday foreclosed any plan by the Federal Government to tamper with the current structure of the country.
According to him, restructuring the country was not a priority for the President Muhammadu Buhari administration but addressing the high level of corruption, economic downturn and insecurity in the country. Mohammed also stated that the secession messages and hate speeches flying around were not new to the government, noting that it had envisaged it and had been sensitising Nigerians to its dangers. Whether such sensitisation would have the capacity to roll back the bourgeoning threat to Nigeria’s unity would become clear in the nearest future.