The time to repair the roof is when the sun is shining. -John F. Kennedy
The increasing wave of agitations by pro-Biafra groups for the establishment of a Sovereign State of Biafra has expectedly stirred the Hornet’s nest. Accessing the internet these days leaves you dazed by the intellectual firepower of the protagonists of Igbo Secession from the Nigerian State system. However, in the midst of the ongoing rumpus and trepidation elicited by this renewed spate of agitations, the wider security implications of the impending conflict between the Nigerian State and one of its chief constituent groups, is the primary concern of this column, especially in the wake of government’s forceful clampdown on the suspected arrowheads of this secessionist movement.
In reaction to the upsurge of secessionist agitations in some parts of the South-East, some individuals who are said to be arrowheads of the movement, have been arrested by Nigerian security forces in what was claimed to be a clampdown on obdurate dissidents disturbing the peace of that section of the country. This was preceded by the purported jamming of the broadcasting frequencies of Radio Biafra, the media mouthpiece of the Biafra Zionist Movement (BZM), one of the chief groups agitating for Igbo secession from the Nigerian federation and the establishment of a Sovereign Republic of Biafra.
However, caution is advised in the handling of this conflict, considering its historical antecedents and likely multiplier effects on the country as a whole if allowed to escalate further. Nigeria already has searing security issues to contend with and can ill-afford another conflict on a new front. Nigeria has always been in critical ferment: it has fought one bloody Civil War and has had to contend with several other low and high intensity insurgencies. That is why it is quite shocking that successive governments have consistently failed to learn from the country’s sordid, gory and horrid history by carving out a more constructive and sustainable stratagem for handling domestic conflicts, especially separatist agitations.
It is not as if separatist agitations are peculiar to these parts. In fact, they are standard bargaining strategies adopted by groups the world over who feel estranged in pressing home their points; used as bargaining gambits in asking for more inclusion and better representation. Catalonia (Spain), Basque (Spain and France), Venice (Italy), Flanders (Belgium): Xinjiang (China), Kurdistan (Iraq, Iran, Turkey and Syria) et al have at different times agitated for independence, with varied consequences. While war was the outcome in some cases, more peaceful outcomes were the result in other cases.
The truth is that whether a country continues to subsist in its original form depends on how it handles dissent. The adversarial posture being assumed by the authorities could worsen matters the same manner the confrontational conflict handling styles of previous governments ultimately resulted in the escalation of conflicts that would have been peacefully settled without resorting to fisticuffs; conflicts that simple symbolic actions, structural and institutional reforms, in conjunction with other non-combative confidence building measures would have easily checked. Most of the conflicts that have reared their heads in Nigeria over the years started off in form of muted protests. They escalated when the state adopted force as its conflict handling style. From the Civil war, the Niger Delta crisis, and even the ongoing Boko Haram insurgency in the North-East, the same forceful approach, with its concomitant negative outcomes was the preferred rule of engagement.
This column is calling for a systematic joint-problem-solving process of dialogue to be employed by the Mohammadu Buhari led government in engaging these disenchanted Nigerians in serious deliberations aimed at deactivating this ticking time bomb. They shouldn’t wait until conditions worsen before reacting, as has become the tradition in these parts. If the Nigerian government can extend the olive branch – amnesty proposal – to Boko Haram, a known terrorist group that has murdered thousands of hapless Nigerian citizens in a bloody insurgency that shows no signs of abating, it should extend the same arm of fellowship to fellow Nigerian citizens peacefully making their own legitimate demands. If the Nigerian government can grant amnesty to Niger Delta militants who for so many years sabotaged the production of oil, the country’s chief revenue earner – though they had reason to, as it were – it should listen to the pro-Biafrans.
The advocates of an independent State of Biafra do not seek the balkanization of the Nigerian State. They are rightfully expressing their misgivings about the vassal Status the Igbo nation occupies on the Nigerian Pyramid forty five (45) years after fighting a Civil War that was caused by the same issues they are still grappling with today. They should be granted audience to properly air their grievances. In the same way it behooves the government to ensure the peace and security of the nation, using all legitimate means available to it, it is also its fiduciary responsibility to ensure that the rights of all the individuals and groups domiciled within its borders are respected. The pro-Biafra agitators are Nigerians who are pointing out the structural incongruities stalling the proper functioning of the Nigerian State.
There is a limit to what force can achieve, especially when the issues at stake involves a people’s survival. Whether anybody wants to accept it or not, Igbos like other ethnic nationalities in Nigeria are free to determine the terms of their continued membership of the Nigerian federation. Their collective right to self determination cannot be taken from them. Any attempt to do this is an invitation to chaos. When you begin to hound a people for daring to ask for more inclusion in a system they are supposed to have consented to belong to, you court trouble. When you hound a people for asking for their rights, you help them win more sympathizers to their course as people begin to view your forceful measures from the binoculars of an oppressor. This could have multiplier consequences. For instance, the struggle against Apartheid by blacks in South Africa won more supporters to the course when the highhandedness of the white supremacists became too extreme for the watching world to bear any more, ultimately resulting in the defeat of that monstrously apathetic, inhumane system. Accepted that no serious country would fold its arms while its sovereignty is threatened by breakaway groups, a measured approach to the matters at stake would suffice as the most reasonable preventive bulwark against the likely negative outcome of a forceful approach.
If anything, the authorities should exploit the opportunity created by the brewing conflict to begin to address the growing sectarian dissensions in the country that are attributable to the skewed and unjust tilt of Nigeria’s political order. The pro-Biafra agitators have pointed out some operational weaknesses in the structural configuration of the Nigerian State system. They have spoken the minds of most Nigerians. Thus, it is the responsibility of those in authority to seek out more civilized ways of addressing the obvious incongruities in the operation of the federation as currently constituted. These problems are not peculiar to only the Igbos; they are Nigerian problems that can only be solved by Nigerians themselves through a process initiated and determined by them. Some suggestions have been put forward by both experts and laymen as panaceas to this national quandary: a Sovereign National Conference, creation of more states in some parts of the country to bring them at par with others, adoption of fiscal federalism and, in extreme cases, the outright dissolution of the unholy union. It is the fundamental duty of the Nigerian government to bring Nigerians together to consider which of these options is better for the country.
President Mohammadu Buhari should be more constructive in his handling of this impending crisis. He must firmly resist the temptation – or prodding of his advisers – to adopt a confrontational approach to this issue. Rather than being adversarial, he should embrace dialogue as the most reasonable option that can result in a more positive outcome that would be acceptable to all stakeholders concerned. Clamping down on them will only embolden them, possibly resulting in worst-case scenarios, than would have been envisaged. According to the popular maxim, “Prevention is better than cure”. The time to act is now. The mistakes of the past must be avoided. Rather than war-war, it is better to jaw-jaw. As succinctly stated by the mystically minded Albert Einstein, “Peace cannot be kept by force; it can only be achieved by understanding”.
God save Nigeria!