In short supply is the strategic mindset which sets direction, creates the framework for renewing the federal bargain in a multi-ethnic and multi-religious society. Related to this is the mantra approach to national unity built on the war-time slogan, “To keep Nigeria one is a task that must be done” or “The unity of Nigeria is non-negotiable.” It is this mental framework which explains why our leaders believe that by detaining Nnamdi Kanu, the director of Radio Biafra, which evokes the pirate “Radio Kudirat” of the 1990s, the rising Neo-Biafran groundswell will simply vanish. As is becoming increasingly obvious, strong arm tactics, or even judicial murder, as in the case of Ken Saro-Wiwa, merely postpone the day of reckoning for a nation that refuses to confront its true identity.
A recent book on comparative federalism, edited by influential American political scientists, states in its introductory section that “Nigeria is the only federation discussed in this book whose future is uncertain.” That was not revealing an obscure reality, but pinpoints the vulnerability of a nation state, where the wide play of centrifugal forces is the norm, rather than the exception. Professor Richard Joseph, it was, who not so long ago referred to a statement made by a Northern politician to the effect that several of today’s rulers appear to lack an instinctual understanding of how Nigeria works. That same insight was articulated by a former Vice-Chancellor of Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria, the late Ishaya Audu, who remarked jokingly that Nigeria can be likened to the flowing Hausa dress “babanriga”. When you adjust it on the left, the right side of the dress threatens to come unstuck, and begins to flap in the winds.
To be sure, Biafra today is little more than nostalgia for a republic that in reality was far from the ideal which it professed. The youths agitating for it, with a touch of Nollywood eccentricity, contacted Biafra through a garbled version of history mixed with a huge dose of myth, since history is no longer taken seriously in our schools. Biafra, to clarify, was an autocratic state suffused with internal contradiction such as, for instance, the repression of non-Igbo minorities who were forcibly conscripted into its bastion. It aspired to an alluring socialism in the shape of the “Ahiara Declaration”, but backslid, in the end, to a military oligarchy. Founded on ethnic self-determination, it became little more than a showpiece of the ravages of warlordism.
Its contradictions notwithstanding, it represented the aspiration of self-determination, ethnic justice and true federalism in the larger context of a Nigeria which almost routinely denied these rights.
Calling Nigeria a Zoo as one of the Neo-Biafran leaders did may appear unpolished, but it does underline the arbitrariness of successive leaders, the syndrome of rotating power through the whim of autocrats, rather than civilised and agreed procedures. It also underlines the exploitation of techniques of blackmail employed by disaffected ethnic groups in order to force their demands of power rotation on a system lacking firm procedures. In this perspective, the Yoruba, it is said, invoked the June 12 movement and the National Democratic Coalition, to procure a Yoruba presidency, the Niger Delta used the Ogoni struggle and the militancy of their militias to achieve a South-South presidency, the Hausa allegedly employed Boko Haram in its early incarnation to force upon the nation the need to restitute northern marginalisation. In the same vein, or so the argument runs, the Igbo political class are nurturing their own terror instruments to draw global attention to the historic neglect of the Igbo, and to win the coveted price of an Igbo presidency.
In other words, if Nigeria is indeed a zoo, it suggests that the rule of combat is the brandishing of physical strength and threat to employ the Samson option, which is to bring the roof crashing down on everyone, if grievances are not heeded. But Nigeria need not be a showpiece of dysfunction in which disaffection can only be rectified by the invention of terror. Only a political class hooked on short term remedies can afford to live in the kind of squalour in which nothing can be taken for granted. For there is the possibility, that the wild dogs trained for the purpose of raising the social thermometer and compelling attention to grievances, may be impossible to silence, even when the initial objective of resolving a few grievances has been achieved.
Evidently, the cry of Igbo marginalisation and a return to Biafra have been with us for some time. Even the Ikemba of Nnewi, Chief Chukwuemeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu, in partial recognition of the activities of the Movement for the Actualisation of the Sovereign State of Biafra, called for “a Biafra of the mind.” Presumably, he meant by this that there was a need to tackle the structural inequities that resulted in the creation of Biafra. Talking about structure, Nigeria would have been a much better and greater country had the Aburi Accord which in effect prescribed a confederal state or at least, a weaker centre with powers devolved to subnational authorities, been implemented. Recall for example, that the competitive regionalism of the First Republic in which the centre was coequal to the regions produced accelerated development and is today seen as the golden age of Nigerian federalism. It is a rebuke of successive leaders that they have failed to engineer consensus around a more federal union, than the country had ever enjoyed.
The exception to this appears to the National Constitution Conference of 2014, which took far-reaching decisions in the direction of a more equitable federalism. It is not a perfect document, as it contains some glaring contradictions, such as the recommendation to create more states. But it remains an important starting point for reinventing and making more equitable, Nigerian federalism. For example, if the centre is weakened, the recurrent agitations by ethnic groups to control the Presidency will go down, while the federating units will become the locus and agency of development. Until this happens, we can expect unending wails about internal colonialism on the part of disadvantaged ethnic groups.
Important too, is the need for leaders, especially the President to reinforce the symbols of nationhood, through gestures, appointments, and policies. There is a link between some of the early appointments made by President Muhammadu Buhari, believed to have disfavoured the Igbo who did not vote for him, and the resurgence of the pro-Biafran movement. The point to take home is the need for our leaders to be conscious of the national history of interethnic strife, and a costly civil war. They should also bear in mind that perceptions once formed are difficult to erase.
Finally, the authorities should display a more sense of humour and tolerance in handling dissent, in a democratic setting. Imagine how easily pressure can go down if Buhari were to invite Kanu, for a chat in the Presidential Villa as opposed to the current official belligerence.