Brexit, Biafra and the ‘referendum’

I will start with a footnote: I believe in one, united Nigeria. Not that I am the best patriot in town, but I just love diversity. I love the Nigerian diversity. I love suya, edikaikong, ofe Owerri and banga. I love it when Onyeka Onwenu sings in Yoruba and Funmi Adams croons in Hausa. I love the Pidgin English woven from virtually every Nigerian tongue.

I love it when I’m in church and everybody is singing Yoruba, Hausa, Igbo, Efik and Urhobo songs with excitement, dancing vigorously, waving handkerchiefs. I feel proud as a Nigerian. I love it when Chiemele marries Ayodeji and Mfon weds Efe. I am delighted when I see Emeka Ike in a Yoruba movie. That’s me.

Truth be told: I’m crazy about diversity — which I think is an attribute of God. It was TY Bello that sang: “And the universe/it shows me Lord how diverse You are/How wonderful/How beautiful You are.” I’m sorry, but I do not desire to live in a society where everybody is Yoruba, where everybody is Christian, where everybody is my height, where everybody is dark like me, where everybody dresses like me. It would be so, so boring. And I think nature abhors it. Look around you. We talk of birds in generic terms, but there over 8,000 species. Your dogs are not of the same species. Your cats are not. Diversity is a fact of life. I just love the Nigerian rainbow.

But I am also not an idiot, strictly speaking. The Nigerian union is clearly not a bed of roses. There is intense political competition among the big ethnic groupings, and the Igbo have for nearly 50 years expressed a desire to get out of the union, to be on their own. They feel marginalised. Yet, the Igbo — like many other groups — have distinguished themselves in virtually every field of human endeavour: science, technology, industry, sport, creative industry, media, finance, name it. Not just locally but also globally. In the opinion of many Igbo thought leaders, they would be better off in their own country, hence the perennial agitation for Biafra.

The Igbo have often found themselves on the periphery of power, starting from the events surrounding the January 1966 coup and the chain reactions thereafter. Although, the declaration of the Republic of Biafra in 1967 did not survive the horrendous civil war, there is no denying the fact that the sentiments are still strong in different gradients. The campaign for Biafra resurfaced in the early 2000s as Nigeria returned to democracy under President Olusegun Obasanjo. It seemed to have faded in the five years of President Goodluck “Azikiwe” Jonathan, but it has surfaced yet again under President Muhammadu Buhari.

Thursday’s decision by British voters to pull out the UK from the European Union is bringing another dimension to the Biafra agitation — a campaign was promptly started on the social media pushing for a similar referendum to determine if the Igbo should also exit the Nigerian union. And after giving the Biafra agitation a hard thought for years, I am coming to the conclusion that if it is indeed the wishes of the majority of Igbo people to leave Nigeria, perhaps the time has come to do something about it. It is now 46 years since the civil war ended, but the generations born during or after the war are still campaigning for the actualisation of Biafra.

I am beginning to think that we need to be more strategic in engaging with the Biafra idea. I am often reminded that it is only riff raff and rented crowds that are on the streets agitating for Biafra, and I wish it were that simple. The sentiments, may I repeat, are still very strong. Indeed, ideologies die a natural death when there are no new generations of purveyors and believers. But we cannot say the same thing about Biafra. It has diehard believers. Those at the forefront of the campaign today are offshoots of the original purveyors; some are even grand offshoots. But the sentiments remain the same: we want out; we want our own country.

Therefore, how long can the rest of Nigeria hold on against such a deep-seated emotion that has survived for at least 49 years? Will ignoring or criticising the agitations solve the problem? How long are we going to downplay this emotion? Of course, I can give you one million reasons why I think the Igbo are better off in Nigeria, and why I prefer them to remain in Nigeria, but it is not about what I feel but what the Igbo want for themselves. The real task, then, is to find out: what do the Igbo really want? Do they want Biafra or a bigger share of the political space? Do they want Balkanisation or a bigger say in Abuja? These are the critical questions, in my opinion.

Will a referendum be necessary to determine the fate of Biafra? No matter how popular this may be among the Biafra agitators, a referendum is highly complicated. One, there is no portion of the Nigerian laws that allows for a referendum, much less to determine the balkanisation of the country. The first step would be to amend the constitution to make a legal provision for the adoption of a referendum. This will require at least 24 state houses of assembly and two-thirds of the National Assembly to approve — and the assent of the president. I honestly do not see this sailing through, except it is pre-arranged and pre-agreed by all concerned.

Two, no president will sit down and wilfully crack up his country. One of my favourite quotes from former President Goodluck Jonathan is: “I inherited one Nigeria, and it is not under my watch that Nigeria will disintegrate.” I do not know how any president would go into a meeting and come out smiling that he just signed an agreement to break up Nigeria. It is very unrealistic to think President Buhari would push for a referendum as the British PM David Cameron did over Brexit. Many in the president’s corner will argue that he is dealing with agitations for different things from all the corners of the country and Biafra is just one of them.

Where do I stand? I stated it earlier — I prefer one Nigeria. Anyone who is familiar with my writings and opinions over the years will know that I have always argued that the problem with our nationhood is not our diversity but the political management of it. Every country has diversity issues to deal with — ethnic, language, race, class, sexuality, religion, gender, and so on. These issues stoke tensions, no matter how subtly, from time to time. But the countries that have made progress are those that are managing these tensions with equity, fairness, justice and accommodation. Luckily, they do not need any referendum for that.

More importantly, however, political tensions — often expressed, or evident, in ethno-religious agitations in Nigeria — are capable of being resolved when the economic issues are being genuinely addressed and economic opportunities are well spread across board. I have always believed that the average Nigerian is not asking for too much, but when you have unemployment and poverty and insecurity ravaging the land, political tensions are inevitable. That again highlights the need to develop a robust economy, create opportunities, provide infrastructure, improve security, and address youth unemployment and restiveness. It is a nationwide problem.

On the political management of our diversity, I would like to state yet again that every part of Nigeria must have a stake in government. No part must feel like there is an agenda to keep them out or relegate them. No matter how much we theorise, this feeling is a major driving force behind the resurgence of Biafra agitations and it has to be skilfully managed. I have no idea what is going through the mind of Buhari, but I would suggest that he should douse the tension created by this notion. He has enough problems in his hands; the ones that can be addressed with a stroke of the pen are the quick wins. That will not need a referendum.

“I do not know how any president would go into a meeting and come out smiling that he just signed an agreement to break up Nigeria. It is very unrealistic to think President Buhari would push for a referendum as the British PM David Cameron did over Brexit”

I would like to inform those who are interested that Faith Andrews, the 14-year-old girl with end-stage kidney disease that I wrote about on April 10, 2016, has successfully undergone a transplant in Abuja. She is recovering very well. You would recall that Prof. Isaac Adewole, minister of health, took interest in the case. The surgery was paid for by the federal government. But there is one point I want to hammer home: kidney failure is becoming an epidemic and government must now classify it as a public health issue. I will keep saying this until it is done. Imperative.

I thought it was a joke when some militants said, recently, that they were encouraged to continue their bombing campaign so that the military could overthrow our democracy. But the army chief, Lt. Gen. Tukur Buratai, has been holding meetings with senior officers to assure Nigerians that there would be no coup. Anybody old enough to experience military rule as recently as under Gen. Sani Abacha will never wish for a coup. Is it the underground detention cells that are attractive? Is it the bombing of media houses and killing of journalists? Is it the state-sponsored assassination of activists? Terrifying.

Three Nigerian lawmakers were accused of sexual misconduct in the US by the hotel staff, according to the American ambassador to Nigeria, Mr. James Entwistle. All of them have vehemently denied the allegation. Rt. Hon. Yakubu Dogara, the speaker of the house of representatives, has asked for evidence. In the interest of justice, fairness and closure, I think we have to get to the bottom of this matter. This was a development that generated global headlines. It would be very sad if events push it into oblivion and all we end up with are mere allegations and mere denials. Inconclusive.

So the British voted to leave the EU. Actually, those who swung the outcome were senior citizens above 60 who are still glamourising the “good old days” when the UK was an Island, metaphorically speaking. It is quite interesting, isn’t it, that it was after the result that many Britons started asking Google: “What is EU?” Shoot first, ask questions later. The outcome threw global economy into turmoil, but things will hopefully settle in the weeks ahead. The British economy will gain some and lose some, expectedly, but it will take years for the impact to be fully understood. Mistake?


This Article was written by Simon Kolawole 

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