By Obi Nwakanma
Last week, a coalition of “Northern youths” rose from a meeting in Kaduna and issued ultimatum to the Igbo residents of the North to leave the North or face reprisals by October 1, 2017. I disagree fundamentally with the order to arrest the signatories of that ultimatum. It is within their rights to speak freely.
The expression of wish remains exactly what it is, a mere expression, until desire is pressed to real action. That is, only when they back their threat with real action can they be said to have committed a real crime. Until then, this ultimatum should be considered a mere wish. All that can be done is to condemn these youth for their xenophobic declaration, or perhaps even try to reason with them, and counsel them. Which is not to say that the police and all the bodies responsible for domestic security should not place the signatories of this threat under surveillance. But the order to arrest them is in my view unnecessary and extreme. Arresting them might in fact have an unexpected blow-back: it could legitimize them and turn them into political heroes in some quarters. So, no. Do not arrest them. Watch them. This quite dramatic declaration nonetheless mirrors the interesting splits in the national polity, and the transformation of the debates since the Biafran activists campaigning for separation have upped their game in their own defiant ways. Alarm was triggered naturally for those who remember 1966, and the pogrom in the North; the truckload of Igbo bodies ferried home, including headless corpses, and disemboweled pregnant women, sent down on the death-train from the North to Enugu. Many of those images instigated the Igbo resolve to declare Biafra, and hardened the grounds against any further discussion, short of separation, from the old federation.
The killings in the North also instigated one of the greatest human migrations in the 20th century. Over a million displaced Igbo fled from the North, and returned to the East. That movement created a frenzy of both revival and disenchantment. The deep wounds have not been allowed to properly heal; and it has resurfaced in the current agitations, and the current threats. The various attempts to find solution to the mistrust led to the meetings in Aburi. Aburi provided, and perhaps is still the template for the restructuring of Nigeria. But I jump ahead here. And so, let me return to the issue of the threat by these northern youth to the Igbo in the North. Various voices, including known merchants of chaos, are seeking to profit from this ridiculous ultimatum. Some have urged not only the Igbo, but all southerners to begin to leave the north. Dr. Femi Okuronmu, former senator and member of the Afenifere elders forum has also raised a startling allegation, that the Inspector General of Police, a northerner, is already surreptitiously supplying arms to these youth, even as he officially condemned their declaration.
This is a serious charge, and the National Assembly should investigate this. The issue for Dr. Okuronmu however is that there’s no known marker of difference between the Igbo and the Yoruba in the North, so the Yoruba too should plan to leave, to avoid being massacred. And so it seems indeed that we have finally arrived at that stage many of us have been predicting as the possible fate of Nigeria if Nigeria’s political leadership failed to right the ship of state: it is called, the crossroads.
A nation is not merely its institutions and its ceremonies. It is not about the personal security of the heads of its government and functionaries. It is not about empty gestures of power. It is about that consillient relationship between the government and the governed. The most vital organism of nation is its people, and whereas the state is the force of created history, it can only exist and be constituted with people. So, those who continue to assert that Nigeria is indivisible and that Nigerian “unity” is non-negotiable should now take a cue from what is happening. If the Igbo and the so-called southerners should leave enmasse from the North, that would not only be the end of Nigeria as we know it, it would come with gruesome consequences. The consequences might even lead to another possible civil war, and this one will be different. What the Biafran activists have demonstrated is that you cannot force people against their will to participate in, and belong to a nation, where they feel abandoned; where they feel that the nation failed them, that the nation does not protect them; does not value them; discriminates against them; and that the very existence of the nation itself is a threat to their own lives and well-being, and that increasingly, because of the polarities in the rituals of affirmation, that they have nothing in common with parts of the current nation with whom they have been forced to cohabit.
A good number of the Igbo have already left the north and do not wish to go to the north. A vast number of them are championing separation from Nigeria, and so the threat in the so-called “Kaduna declaration” is of no effect to them. They welcome it because it only feeds the pyre already prepared for Nigeria. If the Igbo leave the north, Nigeria ends.
It is as simple as that. But soberer thought must prevail north and south. The agitation for Biafra was a low-burning oil until Muhammadu Buhari was elected into office as president. Still thinking of Nigeria of the 1970s and 1980s, Buhari proceeded to establish a government that made discrimination against the Igbo a brazen and official policy.
It re-awakened old, festering grudges. Rather than deal with this rapidly evolving situation like a true statesman, Buhari threw an ordinary Nnamdi Kanu in jail, and turned him into an extraordinary rallying figure of a movement that was at best at that point still in the fringes.
A young generation of the Igbo were looking for a new voice to carry their message of discontent, and they have found him. And it has startled certain elements in the North. Nigeria’s unity is negotiable. The Biafran agitation has made certain of that. You must negotiate with these Biafrans. You cannot threaten or intimidate them. Those who understand Igbo psychology know that the more you threaten the Igbo, the more you harden their resolve.
So, the Kaduna declaration might only unify the Igbo, a vast number of whom still have hope that Nigeria could still work with tenderer care, to the goals of the separatist movement. It is right that important voices in the north and nationally have risen to condemn the declaration. But it must not end there. The Igbo shall not leave the north, and shall not be treated as strangers or mere visitors to the north for as long as Nigeria exists. They must have all the rights pertaining to Nigerian citizenship in the north, as is available to those who claim prior indigeneity to the north.
The Igbo cannot be stampeded out of the north, and in the light of prior experience, given that Nigeria’s security organizations – the secret service, the military, and the police – have always not been able to fully provide or guarantee the security of the Igbo residents in the north in past events, the Igbo, and every other group of Nigerians who feel threatened by the declaration of these Northern youth, supported by some of their so-called “elders,” have enough time from now till October, to organize their own self-defence and prepare for emergencies, and be ready to repel as forcefully as necessary any attack on them.
The Igbo in the north must seek and cultivate allies too: not every northern youth wants the Igbo dead or out. Whatever else happens, the Igbo or southerners in general must not abandon the north. They must stand and fight for their lives and their rights. That’s the only way. That Kaduna declaration must be made to be exactly what it is: a puerile threat.