The most topical and controversial issue on the front burner of political discourse in Nigeria today, perhaps even more popular than the fight against corruption, is the issue of restructuring, or the more ‘notorious’ clamour for regional autonomy and secession. From the cacophony of opinions on the issue, it is clear that there is not a single, universally accepted understanding of these terms among Nigerians. Each person’s concept of the meaning and ramification
of restructuring depends on the side of the ethnic or socio-political divide he is operating from. Positions, therefore, range from the extremist separatist position to the milder stance of demand for power devolution from the center.
In the last few years a lot of nationalist movements have sprung up representing virtually all the geopolitical zones in Nigeria. The interesting thing about them is that they all have one central theme; each group wants to separate their ethnic people from the Nigerian state. This is unarguably the singular most important socio/political development in Nigeria since post-colonial era.
The Nigerian state (space) has become too toxic and it is choking out of existence every good and noble trait that is found in each ethnic group that makes up the union. Some even believe that the Nigerian space, given the manner of its amalgamation (without consultation) of the mostly culturally, religiously and linguistically diverse federating units, cannot survive for much longer. The current Nigerian socio/political arrangement is simply at best the most unfortunate thing that has happened to the various ethnic constituents of the geographical space.
Agitations around Biafra have drowned out other separatist voices, giving the wrong impression that Biafra is the only separatist threat in the country. Close observers would however notice that there is separatist agitation in virtually every area in the country—underlying the fact that the foundation for Nigeria’s nationhood remains on shaky ground. Among the Yoruba, for instance, echoes of separatism come in different forms—from a direct call for Oduduwa Republic to those championing a Sovereign National Conference to decide if the federating units of the country still want to continue to live together, and, if so, under what arrangements. In the North, there are intermittent demands for an Arewa Republic, while some talk of the “north” as if it is “a country within a country.” In the Niger Delta, apart from the demand for Niger Delta Republic, shades of separatism are embedded in the demands for “resource control” by regional activists. In essence, there is a fairly generalized feeling of alienation and dissatisfaction among the various constituents of the Nigerian federation, a situation that has also deepened mistrust and incentivized separatist agitations. However, because there has never been a referendum in any of the areas agitating for separation, it is difficult to know whether the leaders of the various separatist groups actually reflect the wishes of the people of those areas or whether the agitations are mere masks for pursuing other agendas.
FACTORS THAT HAVE ENCOURAGED STRUCTURING/SEPARATIST TENDENCIES IN NIGERIA
According to Jideofor Adibe, an associate professor of political science at Nasarawa State University, there are five key factors that have led to the present upsurge in separatist agitations in Nigeria:
There is a big disparity in geographic size and population among the various ethnic, religious, and cultural groups in Nigeria, which makes notions like “fairness” and “justice” relative and contentious when it comes to access to power and the allocation of investments by the federal government. For instance, the northern part of the country constitutes about 79 percent of the country’s land mass and an estimated 53.6 percent of its population. Power sharing and access to privileges at the federal level are often at the heart of the north-south conflict.
Transition from dictatorship to liberal democracy
The desire for groups in a diverse country to clamor for self-determination is, in the case of Nigeria, exacerbated by the fact that in newly democratizing states, there is often a tendency for pent-up feelings—that were not allowed expression during periods of dictatorship—to be released under the freedom of speech guarantees of liberal democracy. Since virtually every part of the country has an institutionalized memory of hurt and feelings of injustice that it wants addressed, such freedoms of expression understandably sometimes include separatist threats—sometimes as bargaining chips.
Inability to conclusively resolve group grievances
Nigeria seems to struggle with the skill to conclusively resolve grievances by several groups in the country, with the consequence that many groups appear to have institutionalized memories of hurt or perceived sense of injustice, which they popularly express as “marginalization.” This inability to conclusively resolve group grievances has contributed to the rise of the notion that only groups with the capacity to hold the state to ransom will have their grievances addressed. For instance, some believe that the Yoruba-led National Democratic Coalition (NADECO), which vigorously challenged the annulment of the 1993 election, made the country “ungovernable,” and thus influenced the concession of the 1999 election to the Yoruba. Similarly, many believe that the protracted violent agitations of the militants in the Niger Delta played a role in the choice of Goodluck Jonathan as running mate of Umaru Musa Yar’adua in the 2007 elections in the country.
The ethnic factor
Ethnicity is often used as a veneer by the elites to mask their intra-elite and intra-class struggles over power and resources. Over time, in Nigeria ethnicity has acquired a more objective character, tending towards more or less an ideology and a prism through which most government measures are filtered. It is also a potent instrument of mobilization. For instance, the fact that Nnamdi Kanu was detained for a long period of time and denied bail, despite court rulings for him to be so released, stoked ethnic solidarity, even from people averse to his brand of rhetoric. The dominant ethnic groups routinely use threats of secession as bargaining tools when things are not going their way.
Separatists tap into group grievances
Separatist movements feed on local grievances by magnifying them or making whatever obvious benefits their in-groups get from the Nigerian federation to appear less than what other parts of the country get. This makes it easier for them to position themselves as liberators or even messiahs to such groups. In this way, separatists, including Biafra agitators, often use a shared victimhood narrative as a tool of mobilization and bond-building among the people they claim they are trying to “liberate.”
Nigeria’s separatist movements attract a “mixed multitude:” some are in it for personal gain; some use it as a bargaining chip; and others are in it for full regional autonomy or secession. At the same time, there are so many internal contradictions within each separatist area such that it is not at all clear that if honest conversations and referendums are allowed these forces of separatism will carry the day. Largely because of this—and also because of the contradictions within the separatist movements themselves—many surmise that the various separatist agitations, if not unnecessarily inflamed, are likely to wither on their own as the country’s democracy matures, the economy improves, and citizens move on to other challenges.
Excerpt from a paper Presented by
AMBASSADOR AKIN O. FAYOMI
at a ROUNDTABLE on RESOLVING THE CRISES IN NIGERIA’S NATION BUILDING PROCESSES organized by ROGAN FOUNDATION, Abuja. 7 DECEMBER, 2017