Opinion: Obasanjo’s Biafra Solution is Dumb. Here is why
By Jideofor Adibe
Former President Olusegun Obasanjo has reportedly called for dialogue with those agitating for Biafra. Speaking at the event, ‘Biafra, 50 Years After’ at the Shehu Musa Yar’Adua Centre recently, Obasanjo was quoted by the Vanguard of May 25, 2017 as saying:
“But I think, we should even appeal to those saying they want to go, we should not tell them to go, we should make them understand that there is enough cake to share.”
With due respect to the former President, pacifying Biafra agitators cannot solve the problem of separatist agitations in the country because the agitations cut across the country. We have for instance the episodic agitations for Oduduwa Republic, Arewa Republic and Niger Delta Republic. There are equally those who use euphemisms such as demand for ‘sovereign national conference’/ ‘restructuring’ and ‘resource control’, to express various shades of separatism. In the North, there are people who talk about the North as if it is a country within a country. This too is separatism.
It will be wrong to assume that other separatist agitations are dead simply because they have been out-shouted by Biafra agitators – just as Boko Haram eclipsed other insurgency groups in the country. The truth is that the other separatist groups are neither dead nor have they given up on their ‘struggle’. They are merely hibernating, waiting for trigger events. Any effective solution to agitation for Biafra must therefore go beyond the current simplistic narrative and find out why separatist agitations cut across the country. The truth is that several groups are de-linking from the Nigerian state into ethnic cocoons, often with the State as the enemy. Elsewhere I called this a ‘de-Nigerianization’ process.
In essence, to believe that once the Biafra problem is solved the country’s journey to nationhood will continue smoothly is to be ahistorical: Did we not try to pacify the Niger Delta militants with the same mistaken belief that it is all about ‘sharing the national cake’? Did it end militancy in the Niger Delta on a sustainable basis? Did we not try to pacify the Southwest elite with a Yoruba presidency in 1999 after NADECO and others made the country ‘ungovernable’ following the annulment of the elections won by M.K.O. Abiola? Has it stopped demands for ‘Sovereign National Conference’, ‘restructuring the country’ and even for Oduduwa Republic from them? Having a President of Igbo extraction is therefore unlikely to be the antidote to Biafra. The truth is that while agitations have a lot to do with access to power and privileges, it will be simplistic to reduce them to these two features.
A crucial question is why Biafra agitation has grown to be what it is today when their co-agitators have chosen to hibernate?
Separatist movements feed on local grievances by magnifying those grievances and positioning themselves as liberators or messiahs. Understandably separatist agitators often find it difficult to play these roles effectively when ‘their own brother’ is in power because they will lack the critical local support.
Mistakes early in the life of the Buhari government played into the hands of the agitators and hardened perceptions of exclusion or being targeted for punishment. Again herding Nnamdi Kanu, leader of the Indigenous Peoples of Biafra (IPOB), into prison turned an otherwise unknown fellow into a cult figure, which radicalized his followers. And the fact that he was in detention for 18 months and refused bail – despite court rulings to that effect – stoked ethnic solidarity, even from people who are averse to his brand of rhetoric.
As several of us have argued repeatedly, a template for handling separatist agitations and groups that express ideas that ‘shock and awe’ already exists in the mature democracies. In such societies, groups, including hate groups like the British National Party in the United Kingdom and the KKK in the USA are not banned because of the fear that banning them will drive them underground and make them more dangerous. It is also feared that herding leaders of such movements into jails will turn them into cult figures and lead people to romanticize the ideas they espouse. For this, the preferred strategy in such societies is to allow them to exist within the ambit of the law so that their ideas will be drawn into the marketplace of ideas and outcompeted. Such societies will also often have the ‘clear and immediate danger test’ before the activities of such group will be banned or met with force.
While the rhetoric of some of the Biafra agitators could be annoying to power wielders, a true test of statecraft is the capacity of leaders to calmly handle ideas that shock and awe in such a way that their solutions to the problem will reduce stresses on the system, not exacerbate them. This has not happened with the approach to the Biafra agitators, and until recently also with the Niger Delta agitators. We saw where that nearly got us with the Niger Delta agitators.
I was in a conference recently and someone in response to my presentation said that while he welcomed “constructive criticisms” and protests from individuals and groups, he felt the state is right to clamp on individuals and groups it feels are security risks. The problem I had with that intervention is that in the countries we look up to, the government is not allowed to arbitrarily determine what “constructive criticisms” is and what is not. This is the whole notion of rule of law. How do law enforcement agencies deal with separatist agitations in the mature democracies?
We cannot effectively deal with many of the challenges facing the country unless we are able to improve our statecraft and develop more robust ways of dealing with group grievances. We tend to have a zero-sum game approach to group grievances: once any group expresses its grievances, others will either gang up to shut up the group or deny that the perceived injustice was genuine or go back to their museums and archives to dust up past injustices meted to their own group, which they will also want addressed before any other’s grievances are attended to. In the end, we move in circles and no one’s grouse is resolved. This is probably one of the reasons why every part of the country has a perceived sense of injustice meted to it and an institutionalized memory of hurt. It is also probably part of the reasons we have this wrong notion that if you want your grievance to be attended to, you must first demonstrate a capacity to hold the system to ransom. There are many people who believe that NADECO’s demonstration of its capacity to make the country ‘ungovernable’ made it possible for the presidency to be conceded to the Yoruba in 1999. In the same vein some people have argued that Jonathan was chosen as running mate to Umaru Musa Yar’adua as a way of pacifying the Niger Delta militants. Fate eventually made him the President when his boss died in 2010. Again one of the conspiracy theories around Boko Haram by Jonathan’s supporters was that it was geared towards undermining his government so that power could ‘return’ to the North in 2015.
We need to break this cycle that makes the country forever hang on a precipice and develop a more creative, win-win template for handling group grievances. Ironically, a feeling that the country is not working also fuels feelings in some groups that they will be better off on their own.
The ultimate antidote to separatist agitations is for every part of the country to feel clearly that the benefit of being in the Nigerian federation far outweigh the benefits of having their own separate country. This is why the campaign for Quebec independence from Canada has never succeeded since the 1890s; it is the same reason why the Scottish quest for independence has never succeeded in the over 300 years since it became part of the United Kingdom. In the USA, no secessionist attempt ever succeeded despite the fact that by 2012, as many as 30 of the 50 States in the country had filed secession petitions with the “We the People” programme on the White House website. Each failed on the strength of its inability to compete with contrarian ideas.
Historiography – the art of writing history – is deployed for several purposes, including imbuing pride in a people (such as the Negritude movement, the Black-and Proud movement). It could also be deployed to create or sustain bond of unity through collective victimhood narrative among people (such as the Holocaust, Slavery and Colonialism narratives among the Jews, African-Americans and former colonized peoples of Africa respectively). Biafra has several narratives but one of its greatest appeals to many Igbos is as a unifying bond through a shared victimhood narrative. In this sense, the triumphalism and paranoia in some quarters whenever the word Biafra is mentioned is unhelpful as it helps to stoke the agitations.
Op–ed pieces and contributions are the opinions of the writers only and do not represent the opinions of Y!/YNaija
The author tweets @JideoforAdibe.