Monday, 2nd October 2023

We must change the way we live!

By Odia Ofeimun
23 March 2015   |   9:23 am
SINCE no serious ethic has emerged to make people feel secure, or make them believe their turn would ever come in the scheme of things, unionization has been entered as some kind of assurance, insurance or energizer.


SINCE no serious ethic has emerged to make people feel secure, or make them believe their turn would ever come in the scheme of things, unionization has been entered as some kind of assurance, insurance or energizer.

A wide sense of its implications is easier to grasp if one begins by viewing it from the standpoint of Northern Nigeria, an area in which ethnic agitations for self-governance had been ruthlessly and terroristically repressed since Frederick Lugard’s indirect rule system cemented the region-wide ethnic-leadership of the Fulani aristocracy. The ground was set for it by a former colonial resident in Katsina, Richmond Palmer, a follower of Lugard, with an in-fighter’s determination who, as Lieutenant Governor of the North, organized a pressure group, the Conference of Residents that laid the foundation for an Arewa union.

Fortunately for Nigeria, and unfortunate for its designers, the Arewa union has been so ritually unfair to many ethnic groups in the North, perpetuating grand unitaristic reflexes, and promoting a racial code of association and leadership, that it has invited resistance, especially in the Middlebelt, where open riots, on a recurrent basis, have taken the format of civil wars across the decades. Of course, resisting the Arewa code always amounted to hacking at established authority. From very early, the resisters championed agitations for more regions to be created as some sort of protective cultural geography for their nationalities to be self-governing within the Federation. But British colonizers scuttled the idea of new regions or states by threatening to delay independence.

Not even the hardiest nationalists dared to wish for delay. However, after independence, the political party, Action Group, and the ethnic groups most vehement in demanding the creation of states along linguistic lines made for it. They were trashed with treasonable felony trials and their leaders jailed.

This did not end the competition for ascendancy between the regions, ethnic groups, and their unionized expressions and political parties. The scuffle between ethnic fractions within the regions and, between the three majority ethnic groups at the national level, actually increased. The Igbo State union, represented by the National Council of Nigeria and Cameroun, NCNC, and its coalition partners in the Northern People’s Congress NPC and Northern Elements Progressive Union, NEPU, minders of the Arewa code, cooperated to smash the AG opposition but could not agree on the sharing of the spoils.

Each was actually a mirror-image of the other in terms of unitarist pursuits and the brazen bid to get more than a fair share of the so-called national cake. Almost predictably, their irreconcilable interests led to coups and countercoups that ended in a three-year civil war which unfortunately failed to address the core issue: how to manage ethnicity and the ethnic unions.

It was however a straight triumph for Northern unitarists who had actually rampaged and carried out a counter-coup against an Igbo-led unitarist ofeimunconstitution for Nigeria in 1966. Although several states, due to pressure, were created, and many more over the decades gave relative self-governance to many ethnic groups within the Federation, the old unitarist pursuits asserted and maintained by a military-dominated Arewa Code, overtook the Constitutions crafted for the country by successive administrations.

Rather unilaterally, Arewa unionists removed all the stops that made Federalism appear a reality in Nigeria. By preventing regions or states from having constitutional jurisdiction over critical items in the political economy, they compounded the national question, putting national resources in other parts of the country under an Arewa code that had overtaken the centre. The magnitude of the crisis in national affairs was heightened by the colonially engineered and perennially disputed population figures, which had become a historical ambush yielding a culture of disrespect for statistics, a virtual commitment to planlessness in the overall economy, and tolerance of corruption as a national ethic. The fact that successive heads of state were children of the Arewa brideschamber or impositions by an Arewa cabal, nailed the picture.

The hard part for those on the receiving end came with the annulment of the June 12 1993 Presidential elections won by Chief MKO Abiola, an Egba Yoruba whose victory revealed, in an almost conclusive manner, that Nigerians, left to themselves, would choose aright across ethnic lines but for the intervention of the Arewa wielders of the veto in Nigerian politics.

It provoked the disadvantaged ethnic majorities and the much-repressed minority ethnic groups, to agitate under the National Democratic Coalition, for a national architecture based on fairer principles. At the heart of the agitation was the demand for the restructuring of the Federation and the haggle over the weighted principle of derivation in revenue sharing.

Cavalierly, the latter principle had been downed through several variegations, from 50% in the First Republic to 1% under General Muhammadu Buhari as dictator, and, after litigations long-commenced by Professsor Ambrose Alli as Governor of Bendel State, upped to 13%. It took armed resistance threatening oil production in the Niger Delta and a stand of attrition by several ethnic-based organiations in the National Democratic Coalition to force the over-parochialized military authorities at the Centre to design a placation-cum-pacification strategy that brought Chief Olusegun Obasanjo, a retired General, an Egba-Yoruba like MKO Abiola to power as President in 1999.

Incidentally, Obasanjo had functioned as a subaltern within the Arewa code in his first coming as a Head of State in 1976. This time around, however, he was expected to restructure and correct the lopsided nature of the Federation that empowered Arewa hegemonists to make him sign (although he said he didn’t sign) a secret pact of loyalty before he was allowed to become President again. He was also expected to correct the military overhang that made it possible for him to be “elected” President without Nigerians being allowed to see the Constitution supposedly enacted by “we the People”, but actually determined by decree.

Not being able to deal with either of these, because he was distracted by a bid for an unconstitutional third term agenda, he left the situation worse off than he met it. His failure made it obvious that without a restructuring of the Federation, and some form of self-governance for the different ethnic groups across the country, the whole Federation would become a jungle of warring unions and ethnic fractions and factions, each seeking to ward off, or gain some advantage over the other by forming makeshift coalitions for momentary payoffs.

This became gratingly obvious in the case of the Niger Delta, the oil producing area responsible for more than 80% of national revenue in the past five decades. An area made up of minority ethnic groups, its travails exposed a non-transparent national order amenable only to acriptive principles of zoning, quotas and vetoes, and the repression of one part of the country as a basis for controlling the whole. Roundly divided into oil-blocks, handed over to cronies of incumbents in power, without allowing proper involvement of the indigenes of the areas except, mostly, as sufferers from untold environmental degradation, the Niger Delta has been exploited within a misbegotten principle.

As spelt out by a sassy member of the 2005 Political Reform Conference, it calls for the human material in the area to be evacuated if they cannot bear the environmental degradation and biocide being complained about. OiI exploitation, in essence, has followed quite unconscionable, arrogantly insensitive, and downright unjust informalities and impunity! Especially when considered in the context of the violent repression and hanging of the Ogoni leader, Ken Saro Wiwa and his eight kinsmen, whose fates brought it home to all how inter-ethnic bad blood in the struggle over oil largesse was leading to judicial murder by a Government refusing to follow even the tenor of its own bad laws.

The natural consequence of this judicial mayhem was the rise of armed militants in the Niger Delta. It was an upgrade beyond mere petitioning, mass action, and the general civil disobedience that had featured in Niger Delta unionism. It may well be argued, in this regard, that the degraded circumstances under General Sani Abacha’s dictatorship obliged other ethnic and regional unions to move beyond civil disobedience and to adopt armed formats, in pursuit of a balance of power or balance of terror, in order to escape undue savaging, if not annihilation.

No one knowing this would fail to see why, thinking of advancing the economy, fighting corruption, or maintaining security in the country has become centred on, first, correcting the ethnic disjunctions that have given rise to amoral and immoral platforms in our public space. In particular, the Niger Delta situation has since made it plain that neither repressive government action, the amnesty granted to the militants, nor the placatory recruitment of a Niger Delta indigene as a Vice President and then President of the country, can outweigh the necessity for restructuring of the Federation as a core demand beyond ad hoc fire-fighting.

By the way, this was where the picture stood, even before it was roughed up after President Goodluck Jonathan came into office, and the activities of Boko Haram heightened through suicide bombers and positional armed insurrections in the North east into the North West to force other Nigerians to accept their antipathy towards western education as well as bow to their notion of Sharia, as against the position of more orthodox muslims. The intriguing part is that there have been too many operatives of the Arewa code who began to see Boko Haram as the North’s response to Niger Delta militancy until they realized they could not determine who was in control.

A clampdown on Boko Haram, in the earlier days, was roundly described by General Muhammadu Buhari as an injustice to the North. Nor is it easy to explain it in terms of poor people seeking to draw attention to their plight through armed propaganda, using sophisticated weaponry purchased with monies that could have ended the poverty being touted as the goad to insurrection. Boko Haram, as it turns out, has become a metaphor for how one part can make the country ungovernable for others as was threatened after the 2011 Election by Northern opponents of President Goodluck Jonathan even in his own party. Whether or not a relationship exists between Boko Haram and the elders of the Arewa Forum who insist that power must be returned to the North, the truth remains that they are making a proprietary claim that parallels and affirms the position of insurgents who may not have faces but have exactly the same demands.

One artfully parallel movement that subsists along the same axis and one that has masterminded frequent assaults on communities across and beyond the North, is manned by armed herdsmen who have added their own peculiar dimension to the mayhem of our era. Its members, reputedly from within Nigeria, but also from as far as Mali, have attacked and intermittently disrupted livelihoods in other communities purportedly in their search for grazing fields. Interestingly, they are backed by pressure groups campaigning across the public space and through a bill in the National Assembly for a special Grazing Reserve Commission to oversee the establishment of grazing reserves in every local government across the Federation. After ten years in the grazing reserves, the proponents insist, the herdsmen would become indigenes.

This is the intriguing part: that they are not just insisting on rights of citizenship but wish to create their own towns within other towns and to have their own jurisdictions over areas that once belonged to other clans and ethnic groups. In a way, it amounts to using threats of impending attacks by Kalashnikov-wielding herdsmen to seek a veto over territories that once belonged to known ethnic groups. It has provided added reason for many communities which feel unprotected by regular national security personnel, to resort to self-help unions in order to feel safe.

In the face of rampaging ‘herdsmen’ whom the constitution of the country is being importuned to make provision for, it is a particularly threatening prospect for others. Especially so, when a nationally acclaimed leader functioning under the Arewa code could go to Governor Ajimobi of Oyo State, after a spate of clashes between herdsmen and farmers, to declare that ‘your people are killing my people’.

His must be deemed a necessary outcry. Except that it fails to provide for the only modern solution that has a chance of lasting; which is, the establishment of proper ranches, a bounteous industry, for meat, dairy and leatherworks for the herdsmen in the areas of their primary domicile. Of course, to all right thinking people, this one sure way of ensuring that herdsmen no longer need to barge into and destroy other people’s farms with their cattle or harass neighbours for grazing reserves in places where they share no racial or ethnic empathy. To insist on protecting their way of life by destroying other people’s ways of living is certainly no way to modernize or protect an ethnic, occupational, or regional group.

In the face of such threatening possibilities haunting many communities across the country, it seems perfectly understandable that even moribund ethnic unions are being resuscitated to meet the challenge. It is sad because it indicates a return to the better-forgotten days of inter-tribal warfare. So, tongue-in-cheek, it may be asked what form of action should the detribalized take when well-equipped, ethnically-based assaults by people of a known ethnic stock swoop or sneak upon others of a different ethnic stock, and are seeking to redefine the ground, taking land, livelihoods, and loved ones in their stride.

There is no question about it but that, with the Nigeria-wide propaganda of arms by the herdsmen, the riots and guerrilla ruptures in Tivland, Nassarawa, the Plateau, and even as far as Oyo and Ogun states, are more than mere skirmishes. Rather, they have become fixtures of the Nigerian political landscape that won’t go away but are actually extending to other parts of the country.

Unless they are studiously reined in, if not dissolved, they deserve to be seen in the same frame as Boko Haram, which was quite well-funded by an Arewa caucus of State Governors under President Obasanjo’s cocooning of Arewa politics for his own personalized ends, until President Umaru Yar’adua put a stop to it. What this says to all thinking Nigerians is that the end of Boko Haram is no end to terror.

With the additive of a legislative pressure group, seeking grazing reserve for herdsmen of an identifiable ethnic stock, members of other ethnic stock are confronted with demands to buy peace at too high a price from faceless insurgents. It is a high price that Professor Jubril Aminu explains when he argues that the herdsmen have needed to upgrade from merely carrying sticks to bearing Kalashnikovs in order to fit into the pattern of the more dangerous times of today.

Evidently, other Nigerians who realize the implications of this, are, in effect, being put on notice that they will be routed unless they unionize, not just in the old ways of writing petitions to the District Officer but along self-help lines of para-military orders. This is the hard tackle. Without mincing words: it calls for an objective national army that can be deployed as a vanguard of unity. There are foolish Nigerians, among some of the most voluble of the so-called progressives in the country who, like slaves in search of masters, are rooting for foreign powers to stamp their military boots on our soil to maintain peace.

This was how slave trade and slave wars were ended with colonial mandates, following demands by ‘enlightened’ natives merging with enlightened world opinions, in favour of foreign interventions in Africa. Except that, today, a military solution, home-grown or foreign, is not a passable requirement unless it is based on getting a multi-ethnic and multi-religious society cohabit in harmony, if not amity.

This brings urgency to the issue of finding principles and programmes around which consensus may be built for lasting answers to the questions asked by Remi Sonaiya in her book, Igniting Consciousness: Nigeria and other Riddles. She has asked why does loyalty to a sub-set far outweigh loyalty to the whole? I prefer to restate the question: why can’t loyalty to a subset become loyalty to the whole? Or how can loyalty to a subset become loyalty to the whole?

Fortunately for Nigeria, many ethnic groups and nationalities are not so much wishing to go it alone but are harping on the necessity to design a way of cohabiting without grating against one another. The aim is not to divide Nigeria in terms of an endgame for the Federation as predicted by a United States Security Council Report but to ensure a system of true Federalism, true, in order to distinguish it from the unitarized forms of the past. And, in order to put in place a means of eliminating the narrow frames of reference wishing to reduce all to one language, one religion, and one political persuasion.

Thankfully, the pressure of majority of the ethnic groups across the country is more towards a less terror-involved environment, with sensible economic, political and cultural, especially educational policies, which must eschew a basis for the propaganda of arms that may be envisaged or carried out by Arewa unionists, Niger Delta militants, the O’dua People’s Congress, OPC, Movement for the Sovereign State of Biafra, MASSOB etc or herdsmen of indeterminate nationality.

While arrant terror or its possibility continues to hover around normally peace-loving communities, and the regular police and military formations across the country appear unable to stare down ethnic and regional jingoists, it becomes a serious question of what is to be done? It is an urgent question that Governors fudge when they, who come to power on the basis of a coverall promise of providing welfare for all, can be heard in their weak moments threatening to deal with clans and ethnic fractions from particular parts of their states?

As I see it, with so many different groups threatening to make the country ungovernable for one another, the challenge is not so much how to seek withdrawal of enthusiasm from ethnic unionism but to have recourse to a form of ethnic mobilization that pursues less incremental predisposition towards competitive inhumanism.

I would argue, to be positive, that one needs patience, a genuine capacity for empathy, and a zeal for knowledge about ways of lifting our communities up, in order to be at home with a new way of mobilizing communities. This is not merely to stand up to armed propaganda and legislative encirclement but to offer an enduring formality for civic organizations that can stand up to contingencies in peace and war.

It is another way of saying that, as we ourselves climb up in the world, and into answers beyond the kinds that we deplore or cant abide, we need to consider ways of identifying with our communities away from the ambushes of our history. As for those of us who have bought into the ideology of criminalizing ethnicity instead of addressing it, the realities of our times demand we do better than hide our irrelevance by dismissing the paths open to us.

Surely, one path open to us is to configure how we advance to build a new way of unionizing our people. And that is what this lecture is all about: It is about going beyond the criminalization of ethnicity and addressing it, not as a problem that will be resolved by neutering but by involvement and commitment of a different kind from the usual.

I must add a caveat here to the effect that: it does not help my self-respect to treat my hometown as backwoods, an area of darkness, or a dump of parochialism whose self-mobilization I should essay to dissolve. What do I put in place of what I may well dissolve? If I credit my place of birth or origin with backwardness and can prove it, even easily, how do I make a difference by turning my back! and ceding the area to more of the deplored debilities, whatever they may be? What kind of world would we have if supposed bearers of light turn their backs on their places of origin in order not to be considered parochial or atavistic? Who will protect or develop the languages that the people speak? Who will insert modern historiography in their annals, and raise the level of choreography in their dances and festivals? Who will speak for them when other champions mind only their own turfs? Who will help to show that minding one’s turf should not be about undermining, ignoring or disparaging other people’s turf?
•Ofeimun presented the speech above to Ikolo Esan at Egua’e, Ekuma.