What is to be done?
The typical response of Nigerian governments over the years to separatist agitations is to brand the agitators “troublemakers,” and send law enforcement agencies to use force to quell their agitations. This often results in casualties, stoking ethnic tensions in the process, which further hardens separatist agitations. For instance, Amnesty International accused the Nigerian security forces, led by the military, of embarking “on a chilling campaign of extrajudicial executions and violence resulting in the deaths of at least 150 peaceful pro-Biafra protesters.” The report by Amnesty International was exploited by IPOB supporters who saw it as a legitimation of its argument that its protests were peaceful and that the Buhari government used it as an excuse to kill the Igbos. Nigerian authorities denied the claim by Amnesty International, saying it was only aimed to tarnish the reputation of the country’s security forces. Although in recent times the government appears to be showing more willingness to use dialogue to solve some of the country’s separatist challenges (such as the recent remark by Acting President Yemi Osinbajo that citizens have right to discuss their continued existence in Nigeria), much more needs to be done. Below are recommendations to address these separatist challenges:
At the root of the north-south dichotomy is the distribution of power between the two blocs and access to infrastructure and privileges at the federal level. It will be helpful to institutionalize or codify the existing conventional system of power sharing and rotating the presidency between the two blocs as an interim measure—until the country’s democracy matures and trust between the two blocs and among Nigerians has improved. Strengthening the Federal Character Commission (FCC), an agency created in 1996 to ensure fairness in the distribution of jobs and socioeconomic amenities among different parts of the country, would help build trust among groups. Making it a mandatory requirement that certain federal appointments and distribution of infrastructure must have the imprimatur of the FCC will reduce the suspicion that the ethnic group in power will privilege its in-group and disadvantage others. This move will, in turn, help attenuate the anarchic character of the country’s politics.
Tolerance of uncomfortable views
One of the arguments for free speech is that through a robust competition of ideas in the political marketplace, the truth will be discovered. Unfortunately, some of the ideas that are brought into such markets are necessarily those that “shock and awe” and annoy and aggravate people. Banning them, though, will make them more dangerous by driving them underground and glamorizing the leaders of those who espouse such ideas. Indeed, when Nnamdi Kanu, who was hardly known in Nigeria, was detained, his popularity soared to eclipse those of other Biafra separatists, turning him into a cult hero among his followers and making it easier for his group to recruit and raise funds. Criminalizing separatist demands romanticizes the hush-hush agitations for independence.
Therefore, handling such uncomfortable viewpoints in such a way that they do not put stress on the system is the acme of statecraft. It is probably for this reason that purveyors of offensive views such as the as the KKK in the United States are not banned. The preference is to draw these groups’ ideas out and then out-compete them. While some argue that “proportionate force” should be used to deal with such groups, the carrot approach should always be the first line of engagement.
Referendum is another time-tested instrument for blunting separatist tendencies in the mature democracies. It is also a way of testing whether the leaders of the separatist movements really reflect the wishes of those they claim they represent and want to “liberate”’ Following from this idea, perhaps Nigeria should consider a constitutional provision allowing for a referendum among nationalities that want to secede from the union, say, once every 30 years. This will allow earnest conversations between supporters and opponents of each separatist movement. Though opponents of referendum in Africa argue that it may actually encourage secession, the counterargument by its supporters is that it could force states in Africa to be fair to all its component parts, which will convince them beyond doubt that the benefits of remaining part of the country clearly outweigh the benefits of becoming an independent state.
Prioritizing nation-building processes
Ultimately, the greatest weapon against separatist agitation is for each constituent party to feel treated fairly and be convinced that the gains of being part of the Nigerian federation far outweigh the benefits of existing as an independent country. This means the country must prioritize its nation-building processes, which currently seem to be engulfed in crisis. In addition to the tools mentioned above, the government should also consider creating a separate Ministry of National Integration to drive and coordinate efforts at the country’s nation-building processes.
While the Biafra separatist threat is receiving the most attention at the moment, many other groups hold similar goals. Consequently, the government should not wait for other separatist agitators in hibernation to get re-energized before acting.
Note: Jideofor Adibe is an associate professor of political science at Nasarawa State University, Keffi, Nigeria. He is the founding editor of the quarterly peer-reviewed academic journal African Renaissance, and co-editor of the bi-annual academic journal, Journal of African Foreign Affairs. He is also a weekly columnist with Daily Trust, one of Nigeria’s leading national newspapers and the Executive Director of the think-tank, ROGAN Leadership Foundation. The author can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. This blog reflects the views of the author only and does not reflect the views of the Africa Growth Initiative.