Breaking up Nigeria is not the answer to its civil unrest | Remi Adekoya | Comment is free |

Forty-five years after proclaiming the breakaway Republic of Biafra, former rebel-leader Emeka Ojukwu was this week given a state burial by the Nigerian government.

It is unusual that the president of a country attends the funeral of a man who tried to engineer that country’s breakup. But Ojukwu is being hailed as a hero today because many in Nigeria simply believe the man had a point. Many Nigerians are unhappy with the way their country has turned out. And some, just like Ojukwu in the 1960s, are now questioning the viability of the state in itself.

In 2005, the CIA published a report warning that Nigeria, the seventh most populous country in the world, could disintegrate within 15 years. At the time, that prediction was dismissed by most Nigerians as baseless alarmism. But recent events have prompted a re-evaluation of that gloomy forecast.

The northern-based Boko Haram Islamists are currently wreaking havoc in Nigeria, ramping up their terrorist attacks and demanding that Sharia law be implemented throughout a country where roughly half the population is Christian. Northern Nigeria is predominantly Muslim, while southern Nigeria is largely Christian. Boko Haram have said that those originally from the south who are now living in the north should return to where they came from or face death. In response, some southern leaders have threatened retaliation against the northerners living in their region.

Nigeria is currently experiencing a surge in ethnic animosity fuelled by the sectarian violence, which the central government has been incapable of quelling. President Goodluck Jonathan recently described the present situation as “worse than during the [1967-70] civil war”. In January, Nigerian Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka said that Nigeria is “already progressing towards a defacto break up.”

Nigeria is the result of a 1914 British colonial decision to lump together more than 250 ethnic groups, differing in culture and social structure. In 1967, the eastern part of the country, dominated by the Igbo ethnic group, announced secession under then Colonel Ojukwu after a pogrom of Igbos living in the north. But the central government eventually battled the breakaway republic into submission at the cost of more than 1 million lives.

That laid to rest any ideas of dividing Nigeria at the time, but today a growing number of voices are saying that a breakup would be the best solution for the people living in its territory. “What’s the point of keeping the country together when it is clearly not working? Only the northern elites wants one Nigeria, and that’s because their region lacks natural resources while there is plenty of oil in the south,” a friend of mine from the south told me recently.

“If Yugoslavia and Sudan could break up, then why can’t we?” he added.

Many Nigerians from the south feel the north, where education levels are much lower, brings precious little to the nation’s table in terms of resources and human capital, yet its elites consume a huge chunk of the national budget due to their political influence.

Why not engineer a peaceful breakup and let new nations build more functional political entities with rulers who share the same values as their citizens? It sounds simple enough.

But on reflection, the belief of a breakup improving things is based on false premises. The first of these is that there is a viable configuration under which Nigeria could split today in a peaceful manner. In reality, a simple north-south divide or even a north-east-west divide simply won’t fly.

In the winner-takes-all mentality that pervades modern-day Nigerian society, no ethnic group will want to accept the role of “second fiddle” in a new entity: we would be talking of at least six, maybe even 10 new countries. How many would be able to survive? Are conflicts between them not inevitable, such as between Ethiopia and Eritrea? The post-Yugoslavian states could count on the EU for help. Post-Nigerian states would have no such luxury.

Secondly, the idea of unity even within the same ethnic group is overly idealistic. There are sub-groups and sub-groups of sub-groups within each of Nigeria’s tribes. Take away a common enemy to unite them and chaos could ensue.

There would also likely be a battle for control of the oil, which is mostly located in the southern Niger Delta region. This could spark a long-lasting Congo-like conflict.

Nigeria’s political scene today is controlled by men commonly referred to as “godfathers,” a handful of rich and powerful figures who hand-pick candidates for all the significant political offices in the country, ensuring their victory through bribes, threats and, if necessary, murder.

When their “boy,” as such a protege is called, gets into office, he repays his godfather for the “investment” made in him through bogus contracts and a host of other means. He is also obliged to turn a blind eye to any criminal activity that his godfather, or those he protects, might commit.

This system functions in all areas of Nigeria – north and south alike. So what would the creation of new countries change? Secession will not alter the situation of the average Nigerian.

Fingering religious or ethnic differences as the root of Nigeria’s problems oversimplifies the situation. The most immediate problem is the godfathers’ stranglehold on power. The people of Nigeria will not know freedom until they can unite against this menance and the corruption it brings, much as they did in forcing the British colonialists to relinquish power five decades ago.

Otherwise the outcome of a breakup would simply be smaller, weaker nations governed by systems no less corrupt and dysfunctional than today.

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Via Guardian UK

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