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The Ogoni, the North and the quest for political autonomy

By Ogaga Ifowodo
TWO weeks ago, a faction of the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People led by Goodluck Diigbo proclaimed political autonomy.

The action appears to be the outcome of internal wrangling over the implementation of the report of the United Nations Environmental Programme on the devastating impact of oil on Ogoniland and how to mitigate the disaster. But Diigbo claims that it was prompted by an irresponsive government set on ensuring that the Ogoni “will continue to suffer from historic injustices”.

The declaration, controversy aside, is not a new development as it merely echoes the 1993 Bill of Rights on the basis of which MOSOP mobilised the Ogonis to halt oil production in its lands and confront the Nigerian state with its atrocities.  The faction of MOSOP led by Ben Naneen has disavowed the declaration, but not the allegations of neglect and devastation, saying only that the Ogoni have yet to decide, collectively, “to seek the path of sovereignty as a solution”.

For my purposes here, the procedural question matters little. As Diigbo has explained, the declaration is not an act of secession. “We are acting with legitimacy to reclaim all of our rights, without exception,” he says, and that to me is the heart of the matter.

Those words describe the struggle of the Niger Delta to salvage its ecology and economy from a viciously exploitative Nigerian state. While the ruling cabal of this state founded on colonial domination cannot agree on anything pertaining to nation-building, it is wondrously united in the goal of sucking the Niger Delta dry of its oil and gas and blighting its land and waters.

But this mindless expropriation mirrors the subjugation of the country as a whole. The irony of a Niger Delta ethnic group declaring political autonomy while one of the region’s own, Goodluck Jonathan, is President points to the truth of our predicament: No matter the ethnic identity of the president, the colonial edifice called Nigeria will continue to crumble brick by brick until we convene a sovereign national conference for the urgent task of rebuilding.

But since our so-called leaders will not hear of anything not to do with the sharing of political offices and petro-dollars among themselves, only one option is open to those aggrieved by Nigeria: Gradual withdrawal of loyalty to the totalitarian centre. That is the meaning of Diigbo’s declaration.

As it happens, the Niger Delta is hardly the first to demand, by word or deed, a renegotiation of the articles of association. When in 1953 the Northern delegation stormed out of a House of Representatives session in Lagos at which the Southern delegates were intent on independence sooner rather than “as soon as practicable”, they were insisting on political autonomy.

In the end, it was the small matter of customs duties and access to the sea that dissuaded Ahmadu Bello, leader of the North, from succumbing to what he acknowledged in his autobiography as the “very tempting” idea of secession then sweeping the region like a gale.

Truth is that the North has always been fierce about political autonomy. At the various regional conferences to discuss the framework of devolution of powers to a central body, the North issued the South an ultimatum: 50% of the seats in the central legislature or no further part with Nigeria. It desired the loosest federation possible, essentially indistinguishable from confederacy.

The concession of greater representation would later be backed up by dubious population figures. With the British in their corner, the North played the game of political brinkmanship to perfection. The 1952 census, aimed at establishing the basis of electoral constituencies, turned demographic logic on its head by proposing, in effect, that the closer to inhospitable domains, in this case the Sahara Desert, the greater the population density.

That paradox has haunted every subsequent census and has been instrumental to the North’s sense of political entitlement, of its people as first among equals in Nigeria. Alhaji Yusuf Maitama Sule may have given the most arrogant expression to this notion by reserving governance for the Hausa-Fulani, but it is a widely shared belief of the Northern elite.

It is the view that Junaid Mohammed, echoing the Northern Governors Forum and the Arewa Consultative Forum, stated recently while rejecting the proposed restructuring of Nigeria into six equal geo-political regions split evenly between North and South. Democracy, Mohammed reminds us, is “a game of numbers” and so the North, awarded 60 percent of Nigeria by census figures, cannot be equal to the South.

So good is the North at this mathematical democracy that the numbers have grown from 50% representation to 60%! And once again, it is either this or … “anarchy,” says Mohammed. More anarchy, presumably, than Boko Haram is currently causing the country.

This restatement of the North’s ultimatum to the rest of Nigeria began on 27 January 2000 when Ahmed Sani, as governor of Zamfara State, enacted the first Shari’a penal code in Northern Nigeria, a deed emulated by all of the core Northern states.

It was tantamount to judicial secession since it violates the constitutional prohibition of the federal or any state government from adopting a state religion. Freedom of religious belief and worship notwithstanding, the extension of Shari’a to criminal law breaches other core constitutional provisions governing evidence, due process, human rights and the dignity of the human person.

And then there is the ultimate question of the grundnorm or basic law: the constitution or God? If, for the sake of argument, we say the latter, whose interpretation and whose credo of revealed wisdom would prevail?

The Ogoni declaration may be the product of factional in-fighting but it is a legitimate and commendable act of self-determination. Confronted by a stone deaf government that loves to play dumb and blind as well, we must all begin to withdraw group loyalty to the centre. It is already happening, anyway, what with all the ethnic platforms and militias, so why not make a declaration of it?


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