By Bisi Lawrence
Playing host to a group of officials, mostly of Northern extraction recently, to mark the end of the Month of Ramadan and to celebrate the Eid el Fitr festival, President Muhammadu Buhari grew ebullient in the spirit of the occasion. He declared that the unity of Nigeria was not negotiable. The remark has given rise to reactions over a wide spectrum of judgment. Opinions are of course divided into two main camps—those who agree, and those who do not. Swinging around the fence are also those who leave you unclear of whether their yea be yea, and their nay be nay.
Fortuitously, the President also referred to the reigning slogan of those trying days around the period of the Nigerian Civil War when the prospect of the unity of Nigeria was in a very shaky situation. It was on everybody’s lips:
“To make Nigeria one is a task that must be done!”
There were politicians who cared little about how many parts the country was made of as long as they got their main chance in the deal; there were also genuine patriots who were also very keen to see it through; and, of course, there were the innocent ones who mouthed it just for the sound of it. Only one patriot – and I should write that with a capital ‘P’ — seemed to know the score. He had been in prison where he was held in duress vile to silence his voice because of the truth he declared about the Biafra issue. At the first opportunity he had on his way home from the prison, he loudly made Nigeria joined the slogan, but in his own way:
“To make Nigeria one,” he countered, “justice must be done!”
And that voice of great renown was once again raised to argue that the unity of Nigeria can be negotiated. He is eminently right, as several other Nigerians have supported him. The question we must answer is this: Did Nigeria ever have what could really be described as “unity”—except on the occasions when our national football team, the Super Eagles, were engaged in a serious international encounter? That was truly the period when one might say we were in harmony with one another, in the expression of the same feeling, in the desire of one aim, and in the pursuit of the same goal.
We have always been at loggerheads, even from the post-colonial days, when our differences as distinct elements of various nationalities stood between us and a common destiny. We clamoured together for independence from the colonial rule which super-imposed a geographical unit on our identity, but failed to bind us together as a nation. Our tongues and tribes indeed do differ, as the former National Anthem clearly related, but so also do our cultural appetites and our inherent aspirations.
We do not think alike, we do not speak alike, we do not act alike. We are Nigerians because insensate historical fate has thrown us together in close proximity, without our knowledge of the implications. Nobody ever seems to pause and wonder what we sincerely mean to one another. It is presumably accepted that we would, that we should accept one another as we are, for what we are. It has not worked out that way.
In his fascinating biography of Sir Ahmadu Bello, the late Sardauna of Sokoto and Premier of the defunct Northern Region of Nigeria, John Paden recounted an oral traditional story of a meeting between Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe, Premier of the Eastern Region and the Northern Premier. Ever open and urbane, the Eastern Premier approached his Northern counterpart and said, “Let us forget our differences… “ But the Sardauna replied, “No, let us understand our differences. I am a Muslim and a Northerner. You are a Christian and an Easterner. By understanding our differences, we can build unity in our country.”
“By understanding our differences”… that is from where the task of “making Nigeria one” begins. Mistrust and bad faith stand firmly at the borders of our differences today, keeping us no nearer now than we had been, at least, some seven decades ago: that was when some Igbo inhabitants of Lagos went about arming themselves with machetes and sticks to defend themselves from the indigenes that never caught up with what was going on.
It was the same good old Zik who preached good sense to his people, by explaining that the Egungun masquerade, which some Easterners found repulsive, was not staged to frighten or harm them in any way. It stopped the tendency of some Igbo men preferring to live on the Mainland, instead of the Island.
The clamour for Biafra has risen from the level of a negotiable demand to the pitch of another armed confrontation. As we once pointed out on this page, contending groups are now developing within that demand, though they are, all the same, joined by the common issue of resource control. But there are other pressing issues which cover a wide area of perennial interests, like the National Grazing Bill, the uneven choice in federal appointments and the persistent stifling stricture of a unitary control against a federal fiscal procedure.
Not negotiable? The unity of this land has to be negotiated.