‘Nigeria’s unity far from settled, negotiable’
The avalanche of negative reactions trailing President Muhammadu Buhari’s assertion last Monday that “Nigeria’s unity is settled and not negotiable” indicates that, indeed, the country’s unity is far from settled.
Rather than calm frayed nerves, the assertion has raised the tempo of the calls for restructuring that have dominated national discourse in recent times, with some saying that renegotiation and restructuring were the only guarantees for Nigeria’s continued unity.
President Buhari had, in a national broadcast on August 21, two days after his return to the country after a 103-day extended medical vacation in London, told Nigerians that after he joined partisan politics in 2003, Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu, the late Biafran leader, had paid him a visit in his hometown in Daura where both of them had discussed and analyzed Nigeria’s problems in great detail and came to the conclusion that the country must remain one and united.
No, Nigeria’s unity is negotiable
But Chido Onumah, coordinator, African Centre for Media and Information Literacy (AFCICMIL), said on Friday that President Buhari’s comment that Nigeria’s unity was settled and non-negotiable was quite unfortunate, suggested that the president might still be running the country with a 1956 mindset.
“We have passed that stage in our political evolution. I personally believe in the unity of Nigeria. It is only Nigerians who can decide whether Nigeria is negotiable or not. The president is just one out of 180 million Nigerians, even though he is the Commander-in-Chief,” Onumah said in a telephone chat with BDSUNDAY.
“No Nigerian can stand up and say the unity of Nigeria is not negotiable. Nigeria is negotiable. Nigeria was negotiated at the beginning of its existence and continued to be negotiated over the years,” he said.
Onumah said the bigger issue to worry about was why there are so many agitations in the land.
“Why are some people still concerned about the unity of Nigeria? Why is there so much disability? That, for me, is a bigger worry or concern that we should focus on,” he said.
He also chided the president for citing his conversation with the late Ojukwu in 2003, where the president said that both of them had agreed that Nigeria’s unity is sacrosanct, arguing that whatever both men agreed on was not binding on the rest of Nigerians.
“That part in the president’s speech was not necessary. I don’t know who is writing the president’s speech because as far as I am concerned, that was the worst speech we have seen in recent history. The president didn’t address issues bothering the country that require presidential address to calm. You don’t tell me that the constitution says Nigerians are free to live in any part of the country. I know what the constitution says. Some people have already violated that by issuing a quit notice. What I expected the president to do was to issue a warning to whether it is IPOB, Arewa Youths, or Niger Delta militants,” he said.
“If the purpose of mentioning Ojukwu was in regards to IPOB, the purpose has failed woefully. Nnamdi Kanu that is leading IPOB now is probably older than Ojukwu when he led the Biafran war. You can’t tell him that what you agreed with Ojukwu is binding on him and his followers,” he told BDSUNDAY.
Onumah warned that considering the current happenings in Nigeria, if urgent steps were not taken to address all the issues, it was possible for the country to drift into danger like what happened in Somalia where ethnic war broke out due to slow response to similar situation.
“Should we wait until different ethnic nationalities that make up Nigeria start killing one another? It is important, therefore, that we resolve as a people what we can do and how quickly we can engage each other to ensure that there is some sort of acceptable and amicable solutions to the issues confronting us,” he said.
Earlier on Wednesday, the Southern Leaders Forum (SLF) had said President Buhari’s claim that Nigeria’s unity is settled and non-negotiable is untenable, adding that the meeting between the president and Ojukwu could not have been a Sovereign National Conference whose decisions cannot be reviewed.
“The claim that Nigeria’s unity is settled and not negotiable is not tenable. Every country is in a daily dialogue and there is nothing finally settled in its life. Stable nations are still fine-tuning details of the architecture of their existence, how much more Nigeria that has yet to attain nationhood? If we are settled as a nation, we will not be dealing with the many crises of nation-building that are afflicting us today, which have made it extremely difficult to squarely face issues of growth and development,” the forum said.
“The British negotiated to put the various ethnic groups together. All the constitutional conferences held in the years before independence were negotiations. When the North walked out of the parliament in 1953 after Chief Anthony Enahoro moved the motion for independence, it took negotiations to bring them back into the union after an eight-point agenda, which was mainly about confederation,” it said.
At a press conference with the theme ‘Only Restructuring will Ensure the Unity, Peace and Development of Nigeria’, the SLF, whose membership includes Reuben Fasoranti, Ayo Adebanjo (South-West), Edwin Clark, Albert Horsefall (South-South), John Nwodo, Joe Irukwu (South-East), amongst others, said the composition of the National Assembly was clearly jigged and the National Council of State was not open to Nigerians. As such, it is the president’s responsibility to initiate the process of any discourse on constitutional changes within the democratic framework.
Trailing the Southern Leaders Forum, the Ijaw Youth Council (IYC), a Niger Delta group, also disagreed with President Buhari, saying Nigeria’s corporate existence as one nation of multicultural groups remains unsettled and negotiable.
Eric Omare, leader of IYC, likened the president’s position on the national question to military approach and one that came short of addressing sub-structural issues that spark agitations.
“The solution in the opinion of the IYC is for President Muhammadu Buhari to take practical steps towards addressing the causes of persistent agitations in the country rather than shutting the door of engagement that would lead to the resolution of the agitations,” Omare said.
“Mr. President must do away with politicking and rise up to the national challenges as a statesman. We strongly hold the view that threats of brute force would not quell the agitations. It is only sincere and painstaking discussions that would solve the problems. This is because some of the agitations are genuine and need to be addressed,” he said.
A coalition of Niger Delta groups joined the fray, faulting President Buhari’s position on Nigeria’s unity.
In a statement made available to journalists in Abuja, the coalition warned that without restructuring as being suggested by prominent Nigerians, the nation would not remain united.
“We wish to thank all well-meaning Nigerians who threw their weight behind restructuring and disassociated themselves from the president’s position on restructuring. We want to remind him (Buhari) that without restructuring, there would be no united Nigeria,” it said in the statement.
The coalition said it was surprised that President Buhari said the unity of Nigeria was not negotiable when “indeed he did not believe in other Nigerians apart from those from the North”.
Signatories to the statement included John Duku (Niger Delta Watchdogs), Ekpo Ekpo (Niger Delta Volunteers), Osarolor Nedam (Niger Delta Warriors), Henry Okon Etete (Niger Delta Peoples Fighters), Asukwo Henshaw (Bakassi Freedom Fighters), Ibinabo Horsfall (Niger Delta Movement for Justice), Duke Emmanson (Niger Delta Fighters Network), and Inibeghe Adams (Niger Delta Freedom Mandate).
Olu Fasan, London-based lawyer, political economist and visiting fellow, London School of Economics, in an article in BusinessDay earlier in August, challenged the complacency at the heart of Nigeria’s leaders’ assumptions about the unity of Nigeria and insisted the country’s unity was negotiable.
“President Buhari once said that ‘Nigeria’s unity is not negotiable’. And, recently, Acting President Yemi Osinbajo echoed the same sentiment by saying that ‘Nigeria is indissoluble’. Of course, as statements of hopes and wishes, it’s difficult to fault them. But as statements of certitude, they bother on complacency. A country cannot decree unity; it must cultivate and nurture it,” Fasan said in the article ‘Nigeria’s unity is negotiable: Don’t take it for granted’.
He said given the Buhari government’s antipathy to political restructuring, which even former military dictator Ibrahim Babangida recently advocated, question arises regarding the rationale behind the president and the acting president’s confident assertions about Nigeria’s unity.
“The only way the government can ensure Nigeria’s unity without a negotiated political settlement is to use the coercive power of the state to enforce it. Indeed, recently, the military issued a statement vowing to protect the lives and properties of Nigerians anywhere in the country in light of the threat by the Arewa youths to eject the Igbo from the North. Surely, if a country has to use its armed forces, not to fight external aggression, but to ensure its internal unity, it is paying a heavy price for that unity. But a forced unity is not unity, and can’t be sustained,” he said.
Fasan contended that “no country is indissoluble, especially if it’s a political invention rather than a natural or organic creation”.
Citing the United Kingdom, where successive governments have not tried to impose ‘unity’ or pretend that all is well but have recognised the concerns that could trigger break-up and responded to them by devolving more and more powers to the nations and regions, he said although every British prime minister would want to keep the UK together, no one could categorically say the country is indissoluble or that its unity is not negotiable.
“Truth is, in a multi-nation country, powers must be devolved rather than centralised to avoid creating tensions and encouraging separatist forces,” Fasan said.
He said Nigeria’s unity is too fragile to be taken for granted.
“I see the efforts that the British government is making all the time to strengthen its union of over 300 years through constant constitutional and political settlements to devolve powers and make its constituent nations happy. By contrast, Nigeria was brought together by military force, through the power of the ‘Maxim guns’, and, sadly, it is being kept together by fear of military action, not by negotiations, concessions and consensus. A country that can’t jaw-jaw will war-war. Nigeria needs a political settlement, and must be restructured. It is dangerous complacency for any leader to ignore these imperatives and simply assert that Nigeria’s unity is not negotiable. You can’t impose unity; you must cultivate and nurture it!” he said.
But it was Adams Oshiomhole, immediate past governor of Edo State, who got a raw taste of workers angst when he described those campaigning for restructuring as those who have lost out in the 2015 elections and jobless individuals who are now taking the job of spokespersons for certain section of the country.
Oshiomhole, a former Nigerian Labour Congress (NLC) president, was one of the five discussants at a colloquium organised by the NLC in Abuja to discuss the agitation for restructuring of the country, with the theme “The Labour Movement and the future of a United Nigeria: What Role for Restructuring”.
But his speech was interrupted with shouts of “no, no, no” for over 10 minutes by angry Nigerians and had Justice Alfa Belgore, who was chairman of the event, and Ayuba Wabba, NLC president, not intervened, the disappointed workers threatened to stop Oshiomhole from speaking further.
Down memory lane
It was not the first time the president had made such a statement. While receiving a cross section of prominent Nigerians who paid him Sallah homage at the Presidential Villa, Abuja on July 6, 2016, Buhari, in a message to Niger Delta militants, had said, “I assure them that the saying by General Gowon that to keep Nigeria one is a task that must be done. In those days, we never thought of oil, all we were only concerned with was one Nigeria.
“So please pass this to the militants, that one Nigeria is not negotiable and they had better accept this. The Nigerian Constitution is clear as to what they should get and I assure them there will be justice.”
Also, during a meeting with 36 state governors on June 21, 2017, the then Acting President Yemi Osinbajo had told the governors point-blank that Nigeria’s unity was sacrosanct.
“Nigeria is indissoluble,” Osinbajo had said while charging the governors to “ensure the security of lives and property” in their states.
The meeting with the governors was part of a series of meetings the acting president had with ethnic, religious and political leaders to douse tensions in the country that escalated after a Northern youth coalition asked all Igbo people living in Northern Nigeria to leave the region before October 1.
In the same vein, Senate President Bukola Saraki, at a special session to mark the second anniversary of the Senate on June 9, 2017, said the unity of Nigeria was not negotiable and warned those insinuating Nigeria’s breakup to desist.
“We must stand clearly and act clearly to defend this country. The unity of this country is not negotiable. There is no room for division and we must live by example,” Saraki said.
Other senators who spoke on the occasion, including Shehu Sani, chairman, Senate Committee on Local and Foreign Debt, Godswill Akpabio, the Minority Leader, and George Akume, chairman, Senate Committee on Army, echoed the same sentiments.
It would also be recalled that while inaugurating the National Conference in March 2014, President Goodluck Jonathan had made it clear that while the conference could discuss every other matter, the issue of the indivisibility and indissolubility of Nigeria was a no-go area.
“It is our expectation that participants in this conference will patriotically articulate and synthesize our peoples’ thoughts, views and recommendations for a stronger, more united, peaceful and politically stable Nigeria, forge the broadest possible national consensus in support of those recommendations, and strive to ensure that they are given the legal and constitutional backing to shape the present and the future of our beloved fatherland,” Jonathan had said.
The ‘no go area’ clause was added in the conference modalities by the Presidential Advisory Committee on National Conference after it said it discovered that majority of Nigerians wanted the country to remain as one indivisible entity.
Speaking in support of this stance in a Channels TV programme that year, Adetokunbo Pearse, a political analyst, said there were other issues needing more attention than the issue of national unity.
“Every issue should be discussed except that Nigeria should be divided. Issues about new structure for the country, about whether we should go back to a parliamentary system of government could be discussed. You can go there to say that the six geo-political zones should be the structure of the country. You cannot go to the conference and say Nigeria is a failed state and that we should break up,” Pearse had said.
CHUKS OLUIGBO & NATHANIEL AKHIGBE
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