In the eight years of Obasanjo’s presidency, there was no headline-grabbing demand for Biafra. Ditto for the eight years of the Yar’Adua/Jonathan presidency. However, within months of Buhari’s presidency, the Igbo demand for Biafra has become deafening.
Without a doubt, the blame for this new impetus must be laid firmly at the doorstep of President Buhari. Moreover, rather than attenuate it, the president and the APC have exacerbated separatist tendencies in the country.
This was part of the reason why people like me did not support Buhari’s election as president of Nigeria. I have written severally in Vanguard that Nigeria must remain a united nation. In my column of 4th March, 2014 entitled: “Re-inventing Igbo Politics in Nigeria,” I maintained that: “Nigeria cannot survive without the Igbo.” The following week on 11th March 2014, I wrote another article entitled: “Nigeria Cannot Do without the North.”
I remain persuaded by both positions. But if Nigeria is indeed to remain united, there are certain things that must be said and done. The problem with the Buhari administration is that it seems totally impervious to these imperatives.
There is no question that, as one of the major ethnic groups in Nigeria, the Igbo have been hard done by. Since the civil war 45 years ago, they have been treated as if they were a minority ethnic group in Nigeria when in fact they are one of the majorities. No Igbo has been considered worthy of being head-of-state. The South East of Ndigbo is the only one of the six geopolitical zones of the country with five states. All other zones have six or more. Indeed, the number of local governments in the North-East is virtually double that of the South-East. As a result, the Ndigbo receive the smallest amount of revenue allocation among all the zones, in spite of the fact that some of the South-eastern states are among the oil-producing states.
The roads in the South-east are notoriously bad. Government after government have simply ignored them. Inconsequential ministerial positions are usually zoned to Ndigbo. Time was when it seemed the lackluster Ministry of Information was their menial preserve. It is also a known fact that every so often the Igbo are slaughtered in the North under one guise or the other. Many are forced to abandon their homes and businesses and run for dear life. The people who perpetrate these acts never seem to be arrested or prosecuted.
When a major tribe is treated procedurally as second-class in their own country, there will be a demand for self-determination sooner rather than later. When a group of people feel unsafe in their own country, they cannot but be expected to decide to opt out. It is not the responsibility of the government to imprison the Igbo in Nigeria. It is the responsibility of the government to ensure and guarantee that they feel safe and are treated with respect.
Discrimination against the South: While these issues have been brewing under the surface for some time, the lop-sided tendencies of President Buhari have brought them all out to boiling-point. In his first-coming as head-of-state in 1984, Buhari antagonised Ndigbo by locking up Vice-President Alex Ekwueme, an Igbo man, in jail in Kirikiri; while President Shehu Shagari, a Fulani man was only placed under house arrest. In addition, Buhari arrested and jailed Ojukwu, another Igbo icon for no just cause.
As Chairman of the Petroleum Trust Fund, Buhari discriminated blatantly against the South and especially the South-east. For example, his PTF built only 4,440 kilometres of roads in Southern Nigeria representing a paltry 24%; while 13,870 kilometres were built in the North representing 76%. Of these figures, the Southeast and South-south combined only received 13.5%.
Under the PTF’s National Health and Rehabilitation Programme, NHERP, the entire South got 0% allocation, while the North got 100% in the tertiary programme. In the vocational programme, the entire South had only 3% while the North had 97%. The same was for the primary side where the South had only 12% but the North was allocated 88%. The secondary area was no different. While the North had 86% percent, the South had just 14%.
Disenfranchisement of Ndigbo.
These anomalies have been duplicated to date in the seven months of Buhari’s presidency. In the first place, Buhari won virtually without Igbo votes. In order to diminish Jonathan’s votes, a major assault was made against them; recognising that they are some of the staunchest Jonathan supporters. INEC ensured that, far more disproportionately relative to other geopolitical zones, millions of South-East voters disappeared between 2011 and 2015.
Only 7.6 million voters were registered for the 2015 election in the South-east, and only 5.6 million PVCs collected. Compare this with Buhari’s North-west, there were 17.6 million registrations and 15.1 million collections. While in the South-west, there were 4.2 million votes in 2015, relative to 4.6 million in 2011: in the South-east, there were only 2.6 million votes in 2015, relative to 5 million in 2011; a drastic drop of 2.4 million.
While Kano, Katsina, Kaduna, Jigawa and Bauchi posted their traditional humongous figures; Imo, Anambra and Abia posted relatively disappointing figures. While the internally displaced Northerners in the North-East could vote; internally displaced Igbos from the North could not. While the card-readers failed in many parts of the South-east, suggestive they were programmed to fail; they worked in most parts of the North. In places like Lagos and Kano, many non-indigenes, including the Igbo, were not even given their PVCs.
Making of a hero: President Buhari then added insult to injury by stating on his visit to the United States that he could not be expected to treat those who voted for him in the same way as those who did not.
He said: “(Going by election results), constituencies that gave me 97% cannot in all honesty be treated, on some issues, with constituencies that gave me 5%. I think these are political realities. While, certainly there will be justice for everybody but the people who voted, and made their votes count, they must feel the government has appreciated the effort they put in putting the government in place.”
While his media assistants later tried to water down this disturbing statement, the reality was that, apart from the constitutionally-stipulated requirement that every state must be represented in the presidential Cabinet, Buhari has virtually ignored the Igbo in his appointments.
Two moves showed the level of insensitivity of the Buhari administration to these anomalies. The first was the decision to move Boko Haram prisoners down from the North to the South-east; a move firmly resisted by the Igbo as it would have made them a target of suicide-bombers. The other was the blunder of placing Nnamdi Kanu, the director of Radio Biafra, under arrest; charging him with treason and terrorism.
All the government has achieved by this is inflame passions in the South-east. It has also made a hero out of Kanu. Those who did not know about Kanu before now know him. Those who were not disposed to Biafra before are now shouting Biafra. For weeks on end, Biafra has become the biggest news item nationwide, with agitations, demonstrations, threats and arrests.
Agenda for action: The government needs to apply more wisdom here. At the moment, it has become the biggest promoter of Biafra by the way it has gone about things. The idea of Biafra cannot be killed with a sledge hammer, if at all. What is required is to address the root causes that impelled Biafra. Unfortunately, it would appear the Buhari administration is unwilling to do this.
As a matter of urgency, Nnamdi Kanu must be released unconditionally. If the government persists in labeling him a terrorist, his supporters might decide to become terrorists. Nigeria already has enough problem of Boko Haram conflagration in the North-east. We cannot afford to light another fire in the South-east.
Kanu was living in England. If he were a terrorist, he would have been arrested there. The fact that he lived there without constraints or restraints shows he was not considered a threat, either to Britain or to Nigeria.
It is not a crime to fight for self-determination; it is a right. The government must not give the impression that Nigeria is a prison where we must all live, irrespective of the living conditions. The government needs to address the grievances of the Igbo. Their roads and bridges must be built. Their waterways must be opened up to the Atlantic Ocean.
Eastern sea-ports must be developed. Railways must link their mercantile cities to the North. Their coal resources must be profitably exploited for the benefit of their unemployed youth and citizenry. An additional state must be created in the South-east to bring it up to par with other geopolitical zones.
Moreover, we need to revisit again a critical issue addressed during the truncated National Conference: the issue of resource allocation. This is a major gripe of the Igbo and it is a legitimate gripe. It is not in the interest of Nigeria to continue in this age-old practice where all the states gather every month in Abuja for handouts, whether they are productive or not. This gives the wrong impression that some states are insisting on being piggy-backed by others. We need to develop a system that rewards and encourages productivity.
Those who produce should be allowed to keep disproportionately what they produce, instead of the current situation where they are required to share it disproportionately with those relatively less productive. The truth of the matter is that every part of Nigeria is resource rich. Every part of Nigeria has the requisite manpower. Unfortunately, our current over-concentration on oil militates against the development of other indigenous resources.
A situation where national resources are distributed according to the number of local government councils, and where there is now supposedly only 96 local government councils in the South-East, relative to 186 in the North-west does not suggest equity and justice.
The disgruntlement in the South-east about the Nigeria project will not disappear by ignoring it. It will not disappear by arresting Kanu. It will not disappear by issuing threats. Neither will it disappear by denying the youth of the South-east their freedom of speech and assembly.
Today, the demand for Biafra remains the demand of a minority of the Igbo. If the root causes of their anger are not addressed, the minority will soon become the majority. If that happens, Nigeria might unravel. I repeat what I have stated before: the Nigeria of our manifest destiny cannot be realised without the Igbo.
Femi Aribisala is a scholar and international affairs expert. He is currently an iconoclastic church pastor in Lagos. He is also a syndicated essayist for a handful publications in Nigeria. He tweets from @FemiAribisala.
The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author.