Azuka Onwuka: How possible is Nigeria’s break-up?

The current political, ethnic and religious tensions in the country, accentuated by the tussle for the 2015 Presidency, have begun to make many people raise the alarm that the often misquoted and misrepresented personal comments of the participants at the United States’ National Intelligence Council conference of the possibility of a break-up of Nigeria in 2015, if certain things occurred, is about to come to fruition.

Many people have often quoted the United States’ Central Intelligence Agency as the body that made that prediction so as to give that misrepresentation more authenticity. But reports show that some participants at the National Intelligence Council conference had noted that if some junior officers were to stage a coup in Nigeria, it could cause a crisis of immense proportions in Nigeria, which could destabilise the West African sub-region.

But are the fears of a possible break-up of Nigeria real or exaggerated? Another question is: Given the constant tensions in Nigeria, why has it not disintegrated?

Going down memory lane, the closest Nigeria came to disintegration was between July 1966 and January 1970. A counter-coup against Maj.-Gen. J.T.U. Aguiyi-Ironsi had led to the massacre of Igbo civilians, especially in the North, with an estimated 50,000 of them killed. That incident led to bad blood between the Eastern Region, led by Lt. Col Chukwuemeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu, and the rest of Nigeria, led by Lt. Col. Yakubu Gowon. There were efforts to settle the differences, the culmination of which was the Aburi Accord in Ghana, under the chairmanship of Ghana’s military head of state, Lt.-Gen. J.A. Ankrah. But it failed to stop a war that raged from 1967 to January 1970, which claimed the lives of over one million people, most of whom were Igbo. But at the end of the war, Nigeria still remained one in spite of discontent.

The second incident closest to breaking up Nigeria was the annulment of the June 12, 1993 presidential election, won by Chief M.K.O Abiola, by Gen. Ibrahim Babangida. This injustice was greeted by protests. While the scheduled date of Babangida’s exit of August 27, 1993 drew near, there were fears that the self-styled Evil Genius wanted to extend his stay in power, and the junta of Babangida heightened the tension in the land by the propaganda that Abiola was mustering an army to invade Nigeria. Just before August 27, there was an exodus of people from Lagos. Happily, that day came and went quietly with Babangida handing over power to an Interim National Government led by Chief Ernest Shonekan.

Gen. Sani Abacha subsequently sacked the Interim National Government and unleashed a gruesome dictatorship on Nigeria from November 1993 to June 1998. There were frequent strikes and protests. The fears that Nigeria would disintegrate heightened. That fear evaporated when Abacha died in 1998 and Abiola followed suit a month after.

But before the June 12 crisis, there was another incident that had the trappings of a break-up: the 1990 military coup led by Major Gideon Orkar. The curious part of that coup was the announcement of the excision of some Northern states from Nigeria. If that coup had succeeded, the fate of those Northern states would have hung in the balance.

Then came the Niger Delta insurgency of the first decade of the 21st Century. The region had complained for a long time that despite producing the wealth of the nation, it was being treated shabbily and its land polluted. Armed groups started the bombing of oil installations as well as kidnapping of foreigners working in the petroleum industry in the region. It looked as if that would lead to a pull-out of parts of the Niger Delta from Nigeria, until in 2009 when President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua initiated the amnesty programme.

That was followed by the violence of the Islamic fundamentalist group known as Boko Haram in some Northern parts of the country. The sect’s members bombed schools, markets, churches, mosques, military offices, media houses etc. Given Boko Haram’s audacity and continuous attacks, it was feared that its attacks, especially on Southerners in the North, could lead to reprisals in the South that could spark off an ethnic war. But it was managed until President Goodluck Jonathan declared a state of emergency in the three Northern states of Adamawa, Borno and Yobe this year.

Furthermore, in 2011, the plan of Jonathan to run for president also caused tension in the land, especially from the viewpoint of the North. His ambition to run was viewed as negating the gentleman’s agreement to rotate the Presidency between the South and the North. The death of Yar’Adua in office had cut short the turn of the North, it was further claimed. Nevertheless, Jonathan ran and won. There was bloodshed in parts of the North, but the nation trudged on.

Now that the 2015 presidential election is on the radar, tensions have risen again. Some tactless individuals in the North have threatened that if the North does not rule in 2015, there will be trouble. Their fellow tactless counterparts in the South-South have replied them that if Jonathan does not rule in 2015, there will be trouble. The 2015 election has therefore been given an ethnic hue again, with many fearing that there will be trouble. The current crisis in Rivers State has further worsened the situation.

However, I believe that the future of Nigeria is not threatened in the nearest future for some reasons. The first is the existence of petroleum in the South and lack of it in the North. Oil is the major national glue in Nigeria. Nigerians have become so lazy that the fear of not getting the proceeds from oil is the beginning of patriotism and oneness.

Second, even though there are armed groups in different parts of the nation, the Nigerian Army is still stronger than all of them. These armed groups do not operate under a united platform that will make them more formidable, and so they are individually of no match to the Nigerian Army.

Third, there is the often unspoken fact that deep in the hearts of Nigerians, they really want to be Nigerians. Nigerians may spew hatred about one another on Monday over underage marriage or the Presidency, but on Tuesday, if the United Kingdom or the United States threatens Nigeria over gay rights, Nigerians will suddenly come together to tell them to take a jump. If schoolchildren are killed in Borno State on Wednesday, Nigerians will exchange angry words and ask for the nation’s disintegration, only to return on Thursday to celebrate the victory of the Super Eagles at the African Cup of Nations as one nation on Sunday. It is a funny type of marriage.

However, the problem is that Nigerians are angry with the poverty in their land in spite of the immense wealth of their nation. They feel frustrated by the corruption, the frequent ethno-religious bloodshed, the marginalisation, the injustice, the unequal opportunities, the harsh environment for personal attainment, to mention but a few. When the citizens of a nation are prosperous and safe, they think less of disintegration.

Finally, from North to South and from East to West, Nigerians are diverse in their worldviews and orientations. The continued attempt to make Nigerians move together as one on all issues of life – including on religious and ethnic matters – will continue to cause problems. A true federal system of government like that practised in the US, the UK, Canada, Switzerland, Belgium, etc, is meant to allow the different federating units to retain their identity and worldview while pursuing national visions with their compatriots.

What Nigeria has today is a pseudo-unitary system of government, where everything takes place in Abuja and every state has to conform to what Abuja wants. The states and zones are forced to accept lifestyles that run against their beliefs just for the sake of other states and zones. If this is not changed through constitutional means or a national conference, Nigerians will continue to feel trapped in a nation that they love but which continues to suffocate and frustrate them.

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