It would have been enough to dismiss the ultimatum by some northern groups asking Igbo residing in their region to quit before October 1 or face dire consequences, as the ranting of overzealous and misguided youths. But against the background of Nigeria’s precarious situation, after pro-Biafra agitators grounded activities in South-eastern Nigeria; shutting down major towns on May 30 in commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the declaration of Biafran independence, it is risky to ignore, or take lightly, the drums of war being beaten by Arewa youths. The ultimatum is divisive, rabble-rousing and because it pits Northerners against Igbo, the implication is dangerous to the polity. The order is indecorous and inappropriate and will do nothing, other than widen existing cleavages and fan the embers of disunity. If northern leaders saw anything wrong with this vilification of Igbo, it is taking them too long to make this known. Their body language rather shows a tacit endorsement of like-minded anarchists pursuing a sectional and self-seeking agenda. Nigeria fought a civil war to keep the nation together. No one should therefore treat this threat with levity; the federal government should call Arewa youths to order.
Reprehensible, divisive and disruptive, Nigerians must see this threat by Arewa youths clearly for what it is: cheap blackmail intended to coerce Igbos and other Nigerians to acquiesce in the injustices on which the nation has been built upon for decades. This is a clear and present danger to national unity. It is an ultimatum that, even as it pretends to address an important national issue, is severely diminished in appeal and concern. It is further rendered unacceptable by targeting Igbo. How can anyone reasonably think like these Arewa youths? Do they even understand that Nigeria is a democracy and a country of federating units? Did it ever occur to them that such an ultimatum could also offend other sensibilities such as geopolitical balancing? This is not the kind of divisive position any ethnic group should want to identify with particularly at this time when the nation is trying to rise above tribal and political cleavages accentuated in particular by bigotry and fundamentalism.
The three-month ultimatum seethes with disdain against Igbo. Granted it may have been issued out of frustration with agitations for self-determination championed by Movement for the Sovereign State of Biafra (MASSOB) and Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB); nevertheless, in content and form, the order was improper. Of course, northerners have the right to respond to Igbo clamours for independence. But if northern youths were really interested in Nigerian unity, they will not be giving the Igbo an ultimatum to leave their land. Even if Nigeria breaks up today, this does not give northern youths the right to seize the property of the Igbo. The Igbo are free to live and own property in any part of the world, including the north as foreigners, if the country breaks up. In this regard, northern leaders have much to do to wean their youths off the destructive path they are set to take by their ultimatum.
That Nigeria is still faced with such a deep challenge to its foundations is genuinely troubling to all patriots. All is not well with the country and there is severe discontent with the current political arrangement. Besides, it is not only the Igbo who have been asking for a redefinition of the terms of the existence of the Nigerian nation. The south-south and the south west have also called for the same purpose. It is therefore ludicrous for northern youths to single out the Igbo for intimidation. Certainly, there would be no need for any group to leave Nigeria once a proper restructuring has taken place. This is because all the political, cultural and economic issues will be addressed in the process of restructuring.
Nigeria fought a civil war, from 1967 to 1970 after its sovereignty was threatened by the Biafran secession. Unfortunately, the issues which occasioned the 30-month civil war are still present in Nigeria, almost to a volcanic level as eruptions surface occasionally in different sections of the nation. Generally, Nigerians are dissatisfied with the structure on which governments are run. Insecurity, lopsided appointments, ethnic arrogance evident in the conqueror mentality of some public officials, and the idea that some parts of the country reap great financial benefits without contributing to the national pool are some of the issues agitating the minds of citizens. The pro-Biafra agitations and sporadic acts of violence from the Niger Delta are symptomatic of this disenchantment. Such concerns should therefore be looked into in a profound and structured manner. In the past, the Odua Peoples’ Congress (OPC) made demands on the federal government but when Yoruba elite saw the trajectory of the OPC, they stepped in to mainstream and re-directed the group. The question then is what Ndigbo is doing on this matter?
Unlike the Yoruba elite and the OPC, Ohanaeze Ndigbo has decided to keep mute over the ultimatum. The refusal by the President-General of Ohanaeze-Ndigbo, Chief Nnia Nwodo to comment, preferring to “watch as events unfold” is feckless and an invitation to anarchy, especially as pro-Biafra agitators see the northern ultimatum as vindication of their quest for an independent Biafra. Quite predictably, Igbo youths under the aegis of Ohanaeze Ndigbo Youth Council (OYC) have expressed outrage describing the development as a security threat and a crime against the Nigerian State.
OYC has called on Igbos resident in the North and other areas outside the South-East to get ready to defend themselves in the event of any attack. OYC President, Mazi Okechukwu Isiguzoro, and the group’s National Secretary, Okwu Nnabuike, said in a statement that the ultimatum was a declaration of war and should be treated as such. “We, however, wish to state unequivocally that Igbo are not cowards. Ndigbo want to make it categorically clear that the era of taking property belonging to Ndigbo by force is gone. We won’t let that happen again. This country belongs to all of us. Any attack on our people shall receive commensurate reaction. We will not leave the North for the northern youths after developing the North with assets and business investment worth over N44 trillion.”
In all of this, all should remember that violence is not the only option open to agitators. The 1967 experience was a violent one and it did not achieve any noble objective. Terrible memories of wanton destruction of lives and property still abound. This is the time therefore for strategic thinking. The fact that most citizens are currently disenchanted with the current political arrangement provides a platform for negotiations. Ohanaeze should seize the moment and not leave the political and historical fortunes of the Igbos to the hotheads of the day.
It needs to be reiterated that the unity of Nigeria is fundamental. The country’s sheer population size, natural and human resources and land mass are invaluable assets to any nation which can put its house in order. But that unity must neither be taken for granted nor abused by bigots and jingoists. The terms of mutual co-existence, whenever challenged should be systematically and positively addressed. One of such times is now. The Buhari administration, riding on the crest of popular will that brought it to power in 2015, should set the machinery in motion for Nigeria’s greatness as a properly run federation. That way, it would etch its name in the history books as the architect of modern Nigeria.
It is, indeed, sad that Arewa youths have chosen to see the call for restructuring as a weapon by Igbo to break up the country so that others would not have access to the natural resources. In this regard, it is incumbent on northern leaders to wean their youths off the destructive path they are set to take by their ultimatum. The atmosphere in Nigeria today remains palpably tense; it is time for all Nigerians to be vigilant and work for national unity. The slightest infraction against it must be protected and any attempt at its erosion must be resisted. Nigeria does not need another civil war.