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A historic handshake for freedom (2)

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By Ochereome Nnanna

IN the first part of this article, we agreed to some extent with the assertion that the South has tended to queue up behind the North whenever the latter decides on the direction it wants to take Nigeria. Their decisions are usually based on Northern interests dictated solely by the Caliphate’s ideology for the nation.

The South follows suit even after furiously kicking against some of these decisions. The South finds itself helpless as the North continues with impunity to impose its interests on the nation while thwarting every move by the South for changes that would bring about equity and genuine national unity. The South lives in “One Nigeria” at the North’s “gunpoint.” It does not have to be so.

Handshake Across the Niger

The North’s ability to leverage on its humongous landmass and real or imaginary population majority to impose its will on the South owes mainly to the fact that the Presidency, the Army, Police and the rest of the security and intelligence apparatuses used to maintain coercive powers over the citizenry, have been in Northern control. Even when the Presidency by some fluke slips into Southern hands (as it did when Olusegun Obasanjo, Ernest Shonekan and Goodluck Jonathan were in that office), the office holders still go out of their way to accommodate the North far more than the North is ever willing to accommodate the South.

There is this psychological apologetic tendency towards the North as if the Southern officeholders are mere temporary tenants nervously waiting to give way to the “landlords” or “real owners” of the Presidency. Many Southern leaders have come to accept the second-class citizen syndrome which concedes political power (which belongs equally to all Nigerians) as a sole “property of the North.”

Perhaps, because of our prolonged colonial and military backgrounds, the Nigerian Presidency has also been an independent powerhouse of its own. Because Northerners had a prolonged iron hold on power, they were able to recreate the Presidency after their own image. Bishop Matthew Hassan Kukah’s book: Religion, Politics and Power in Northern Nigeria (Spectrum Books, 1993) actually describes the Aso Villa developed by military President Ibrahim Babangida as a palace built to reflect a typical Muslim mosque courtyard. When Obasanjo was elected President, he tried to tone down this imagery by building a chapel to counterbalance the mosque effects and restore the multi-religious essence of the nation’s seat of power.

After Obasanjo was sponsored by the North to power in 1999, he started projecting the power of the Presidency as being bigger even than that of the almighty North. He won his re-election in 2003 with the sheer power of incumbency. All efforts by some Northern politicians, including Muhammadu Buhari to snatch it from him (including the illegal and brazen introduction of full Sharia in 2000) flopped. Obasanjo’s efforts to change the constitution and elongate his tenure after 2007 only failed because the entire country rose against it. He then proceeded to  implement his “Plan B” by picking the late Umaru Musa Yar’Adua and his running mate, Goodluck Jonathan, to succeed him. Had Obasanjo allowed the political tide to run its natural course, Dr. Peter Odili would have clinched the People’s Democratic Party presidential ticket and the Presidency in 2007. The North had virtually queued up behind Odili.

Again, in 2011, President Goodluck Jonathan, having served out Yar’Adua’s tenure, was able to rally the South and most of the North to win the presidential election by a landslide, despite coming from the least populated state (Bayelsa, with eight local government areas and a population of about two million people).

But the interesting irony was that when Jonathan wanted to run for a second term, he ended up as first Nigerian president to lose to the opposition in 2015. He could not re-enact his 2011 feat because the Boko Haram war, the Chibok Girls saga, the ponderous  ways  he handled governance and alleged corruption took away much of his popularity. It also happened because one of the zones of the South – the South-West – shifted its support to the North. Despite having produced the president for eight years between 1999 and 2007, the South- West, through a different political party, sought power and therefore joined Buhari in a coalition which broke the Southern ranks. Once the South cannot come out as a united front, the Middle Belt always moves back to the Northern fold.  This was exactly what happened in 2015. Whenever the South is broken, the Middle Belt drifts back to the North but once the South is together, the Middle Belt (especially Benue, Plateau, Taraba and sometimes Kogi and Nasarawa states) tend to swing southward.

The Middle Belt is the nation’s “swing region.” The implications are obvious. Since the Middle Belt tends to share progressive ideals with the South, a united South can leverage on it and the support of progressive-minded Caliphate North elements to give Nigeria the unique taste of its socio-economic and political vision. We would then be in a clear position to choose between the typical Northern approach to development and that of the South. A strong and united South in cahoots with the Middle Belt and progressive North will change Nigeria for the benefit of all. It will no longer be possible for the country to remain rooted in its morass of better forgotten medieval headaches.

This was exactly the vision of the Council for Unity and Understanding, CUU, which the retired Commodore Ebitu Ukiwe, Chief Anthony Enahoro, Pa Adekunle Ajasin, retired General Theophilus Danjuma, retired Air Commodore Dan Suleiman and the rest of them had pursued between 1991 and 1994 when the CUU transformed into the National Democratic Coalition, NADECO. The coalition of Southern leaders and Middle Belt leaders fought for what they called “power shift.” They tried to use NADECO to actualise it by having the late Chief Moshood Abiola’s annulled presidential mandate restored. The mandate could not be restored but the struggle yielded a number of positive fruits.

Without the CUU/NADECO initiatives, the North would never have agreed to share power with the South through the rotational presidency which was wrought with fierce Northern resistance at the Abacha Conference. Without it, the North would never have agreed to concede power to Obasanjo after Abiola was murdered in Federal Government’s custody. The CUU/NADECO initiative of 1991/1994 was termed Handshake Across the Niger. I am not sure if there was a link between the Handshake event that took place in Enugu last week Thursday and the pioneering episode of 1991/1994. If there wasn’t, then it was a grievous failure of the sense of history. This is  more so because some of the originators of the CUU/NADECO struggles are still alive.

That the Handshake summit in Enugu which involved mainly the traditional rulers and leaders of thought was so well attended by delegates of the Yoruba and Igbo groups as well as others from outside the two zones, was a great morale lifter showing that the South is at last waking up to itself. I am sure that the South-South groups will be fully involved in the Handshake project from now henceforth.

I live to see the day when all the three zones of the South will stand together, not necessarily across a drawn battle line against the North but as equals in negotiating the terms of our national unity and cohabitation. When that day comes, gone will be the insult of telling us that Nigeria’s unity is “non-negotiable.”

Southerners live with this insult because they approach a united North as three miserably isolated zones from which the North can pick and choose just as it likes.


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