This is a guest post by Carl Unegbu. Carl is a Nigerian-born American lawyer and journalist. He lives in New York City.
Nigeria’s old Biafra problem has reared its head again and with it, the specter of disintegration. For a thirty-month period between 1967 and 1970, Nigeria was embroiled in a bloody civil war as its eastern region unsuccessfully tried to secede from the country under the banner of the Republic of Biafra. The latest episode in the Biafra crisis revolves around the arrest on October 19, of Nnamdi Kanu, the leader of a secession movement called the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB). Kanu is presently facing trial for sedition and treason. Since his arrest, protesters demanding both his release and an independent Biafra have repeatedly clashed violently with security forces with resulting deaths. On the international front, the European Union’s foreign policy chief recently weighed in on the matter with a policy statement and the controversy is on its way to the International Court of Justice at The Hague.
To be sure, though the wider Ibo community do not support secession, the grievances about ethnic Ibo marginalization touted by the Pro-Biafra activists resonate highly with them. In context, Nigeria by character is fundamentally a tribal society with longstanding distrust among the various ethnic groups in addition to deep seated primordial loyalties. Rightly or wrongly, most ethnic Ibos believe that since the end of the civil war in 1970 and prior to the arrival of Goodluck Jonathan at the helm in 2010, Nigeria’s central government deliberately pursued a discriminatory policy aimed at marginalizing the Ibos. It is this tribal factor that largely explains the overwhelming Ibo support for Jonathan’s re-election despite the administration’s unfortunate record of high corruption and underperformance. By contrast, Muhammadu Buhari, a northern Muslim, is particularly viewed with suspicion and distrust in much of Iboland.
Incidentally, separatist impulses and/or cries of marginalization in Nigeria are not limited to the Ibos in the Southeast. For example, after the mysterious death of Moshood Abiola as a political prisoner in 1998, separatist sentiments were heard among his Yoruba kinsmen in the Southwest around that period. Also, there was deep frustration and deadly violence in northern Nigeria after Jonathan defeated Buhari in 2011 amidst claims that the presidency should have been rotated to the north as allegedly promised – a dispute that terribly aggravated the Boko Haram problem and deeply divided the north and the south.
However, the surprising success of the National Conference of 2014 offers Nigeria a silver lining, namely, that Nigeria’s diverse constituent groups seemingly want to continue coexisting with one another if fair terms of coexistence can be arranged. Among the most valuable proposals adopted at the National Conference was the provision for power rotation among the regions in the country. Given the country’s tribal character with its unfortunate, albeit understandable, obsession with control of the national government, the power rotation option for all its rather wooden or inelegant character, seems particularly utilitarian. Quite simply, Nigerians need to take the pragmatic step of first forging a country prior to attempting to build or develop it. The notion of “power rotation” may seem crude to democratic purists, yet, each society being different, it does have genuine utility in the current Nigerian context, comparable to the archaic device of the electoral college in American presidential contests, which made the new constitution acceptable to the smaller states. In this regard, Nigeria’s National Conference of 2014 and the American Constitutional Convention of 1787 in Philadelphia can be viewed as parallel events aimed at renegotiating and improving the terms of national coexistence.
In the end, nothing short of proactive measures by Nigeria is needed. And there is genuine opportunity in this crisis for the Nigerian government to profoundly strengthen the country. Since the continued detention of Kanu in disobedience of court orders is simply incompatible with the rule of law in a democratic society, the government is bound to release him. However, the government can take the wind out of the sails of Kanu and other ethnic separatists around the country by publicly committing itself to a reasonable timeline in which to implement the National Conference recommendations. This path offers the Nigerian government a genuine opportunity for a positive outcome in the current crisis.