Why Confab of Ethnic Nationalities is Dangerous Mohammed Harunna

Last week, I concluded my three-part rebuttal of Professor Ben Nwabueze thesis that Northern unity is an obstacle to national unity, except for one of the several reasons he supported his thesis with. This reason, as he put it, was that “it is generally believed” the region’s “political, traditional and religious leaders” are the sponsors of Boko Haram’s insurgency “in pursuance of an agenda aimed at promoting northern domination and the supremacy of Islam in the affairs of Nigeria.”

I said in my conclusion that of all the reasons he adduced in support of his thesis, this was the most absurd. I then promised to say why today and also to examine the misguided idea, of which he is a leading advocate, that a national conference of the country’s ethnic nationalities is the panacea for our retrogression as a nation.

Before I do so, however, I should say again that I totally agree with the learned professor’s conclusion that “What should engage our concern and concerted effort is how to bridge the chasm resulting from the North-South Divide.” (Emphasis his).

In reaching this conclusion he said there has never been “one pan-southern organisation to countervail those in the North” until the formation of the Southern Nigeria Peoples Assembly (SNPA) in July 2012. This is probably true. However, it is so only up to a point. What the professor forgot to add was that the absence of such an organisation was not for want of trying. Certainly, he could not have forgotten so soon the late Chief Chukwuemeka Ojukwu’s short-lived pursuit of his famous “hand shake across the Niger.”

The professor could also not have forgotten so soon the famous First Southern Leadership Summit in Enugu in December 2005, apparently sponsored by Obasanjo’s presidency, whose primary objective was to denigrate the North. Not least of all, he could not have forgotten so soon how the South formed an alliance with the Middle-Belt which met regularly during President Obasanjo’s 2005 Constitutional Conference with the sole objective of isolating the so-called Core North.

If all these efforts came to naught it was not because Northern unity was an obstacle. It was essentially because of bad faith among the promoters of Southern solidarity as Professor Itse Sagay, himself a member of the conference from Delta, said in several newspaper interviews at the end of the conference.

Unity, as the Nwabueze admitted, cannot in itself be a bad thing. “The creation of a pan-southern organisation to match those in the North,” he said, “is perhaps not a bad thing in itself.” What he found worrisome, he said, was the adversarial motive of those seeking for a united southern front.

The catch then is the motive, not the act, of unity in itself. Clearly then it amounts to double standards for the professor to say southern unity is not a bad thing in itself but northern unity is. The North may be accused of remaining united to retain power permanently but at least two facts belie such an accusation, namely (1) in one of the fairest, freest and most peaceful elections in the country in1993, the region voted solidly for a Southerner, Chief M. K. O. Abiola, as president and (2) virtually all the region’s leaders were agreed that, following the debacle of the inexplicable cancellation of that election by the military regime of General Ibrahim Babangida, the next president of the country must come from the South.

All of which takes me to my contention that the idea of a conference of ethnic nationalities is misguided and a non-starter. Before then, however, let me explain why I said the professor’s accusation that the North sponsored Boko Haram insurgency in pursuit of the region’s hegemony and Muslim supremacy in the country is the most absurd of all the reasons he has against Northern unity. Clearly implied in this assertion is that Boko Haram is meant to undermine President Goodluck Jonathan, a southerner and a Christian.

That this position is absurd is evident, first, from the fact that his sole evidence is the say-so of the president of the Kano State Chapter of Ohaneze, Chief Tobias Michael Idika, whom he quoted as saying in an interview in the Sunday Vanguard of August 4, 2013, “The culprits are politicians, religious leaders and traditional rulers from the North. As far as I am concerned, Boko Haram is the creation of bitter politics.”

As a professor and a senior advocate of law, surely Nwabueze cannot deny the fact that a serious charge as that of sponsorship of mass murder requires a quality of proof higher than the mere say-so of anyone, more so someone obviously as aggrieved as an Ohaneze chieftain whose Igbo kindred have been victims of Boko Haram terror. This, I am sorry to say, is clearly shoddy scholarship.

Secondly, Boko Haram predated Jonathan’s presidency on his own steam in 2011 by at least nine years. During most of that period the sect was completely non-violent. It became violent from 2009 only after its members had been systematically persecuted and killed by our security forces at the instance of the then Executive Governor of Borno State, its home base, Alhaji Modu Ali Sheriff, not because of their creed that Western education is sin, a creed widely regarded by most ordinary Muslims and their clerics alike as heretic, but because it became highly critical of what it said was the governor’s venality and anti-people policies and programmes.

This systematic persecution and killings of its members climaxed in the July 2009 military raid of its headquarters which in turn led to the extrajudicial killing by the police of its leader, Muhammad Yusuf, his father-in-law, Baba Fugu, and Sheriff’s Commissioner of Religious Affairs, Buji Foi, both of them prominent members of the sect.

The military raid in July 2009, ordered by Jonathan’s predecessor, Umaru Musa Yar’Adua, a Northerner and a Muslim, wiped out the sect. Or so we thought, until it returned with vengeance within a year after Yusuf’s deputy, Abubakar Shekau, who had been presumed killed in the raid, surfaced from nowhere to resume its insurgency.

It is obvious from the way President Jonathan has surrendered himself to the military in his policy on tackling the Boko Harm insurgency that the lesson of the return of Boko Haram about a year after we all thought the sect was dead and buried, has not been learnt. The rejection of this lesson has led to widespread suspicions in the North that the authorities do not want to end the insurgency because ending it would make it difficult, if not impossible, to rig the 2015 elections in a region widely regarded as hostile to his stay in office. In other words, the professor’s accusation that Boko Haram is a political weapon cuts both ways.

Finally, it is absurd for anyone to think, as Nwabueze obviously does, that a sect, whose creed is widely regarded as heretic by the mainstream religious and secular leaders of the North alike, will be their weapon of choice for propagating their faith; obviously, nothing can be more self-defeating than a position like Boko Haram’s which ridicules and tarnishes their faith.

In any case it should be obvious by now from attempts on the lives of prominent traditional rulers in the North like the Shehu of Borno and the Emir of Kano and from the number of Muslims and their clerics killed or attacked by Boko Haram – a number which President Jonathan himself has acknowledged is more than the number of Christians killed – that even if anyone in the region ever sponsored the sect, those purported sponsors have since lost control over it.

To return to our topic of today, i.e. the misguided idea that only a conference of ethnic nationalities, sovereign or otherwise, will solve our problems let me say that my reasons are simple and straightforward.

First, all the figures of the number of ethnic groups in Nigeria are, at best, intelligent guesses. Once upon a time the figure was 250. About thirty years ago it rose to over 500. Recent estimates talk about over 600. Of these over 400 are said to be in the North.

These numbers are intelligent guesses because they assume that ethnic groups are frozen in time and space. Nothing could be more inaccurate. As Professor Peter Ekeh, who, sadly, seems to have changed his position since the recent ascendancy of the Delta region in Nigerian politics, said in his 1980 inaugural lecture as a professor of History, the ethnic groups as we understand them today were not as they were before our colonisation by the Whites.

“By 1820,” he said in that essay, “an Ekiti man would have been astounded if he were called a ‘Yoruba man’ whom he understood, if he were so knowledgeable, as a man from Oyo. In any case, an Ekiti man would probably need an interpreter in order to communicate effectively with a Yoruba man in 1820.”

Even more recently the Ikwere, he said, “have rediscovered a new identity separate from the Ibo. Less than thirty years ago, the Urhobos and the Isokos were the same ethnic groups. In the early sixties, following the creation of the Middle West State, there was a separation between the two and so they are now two different groups.”

President Jonathan himself is an epitome of this fluidity of our ethnic groups. There is widespread belief, not exactly discouraged by the man himself, that he is Ijaw. The fact is that he is not. Rather he is Ogbia, which is hardly known outside his Bayelsa home state.

The numbers of ethnic groups we peddle are also mere guesses because they assume the dialects within each language are intelligible to each other. Again this is not true. Among the Nupe, my ethnic group, there are at least a dozen dialects such ad Bassa-Ngeh, Kakanda and Dibo, whose language, as someone from Bida, I do not understand. And what is true of Nupe is true of all the ethnic groups in the country, except perhaps the smallest ones.

Clearly the composition of a national conference, sovereign or otherwise, would be highly problematic to say the least if it is based on ethnicity.

Beyond this there is the more fundamental problem that no nation or society in the world has ever developed using its ethnic groups as the building blocks. On the contrary, it is only when a nation or society becomes cosmopolitan in its composition, with mutual accommodation of all the cross cutting ties of the religions, skills, and cultures, etc, by its various groups, that it becomes great. Variety, as the saying goes, is the spice of life.

No segment of our country captures the variety of the religions, ethnic groups, etc, in our country today like our federal constituencies. So if we must go ahead with the national conference in these interesting times when we should be pre-occupied with more pressing issues like those of security and corruption, let us choose those to represent us on the basis of our federal constituencies, not ethnic groups.

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In the beginning...Let there be Light http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Japheth_J._Omojuwa

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