The hot news these days is the current notice given by some Northern ‘youths’ under the aegis of Coalition of Northern Youth Groups for the Igbo to leave the 12 Northern states by October 1 2017. The group claimed their action was a response to the persistent demand for Biafra by the Igbo. The quit notice has raised the tension level in the country by several decibels, overshadowing the tons of challenges facing the country.
There are several observations about the current imbroglio:
One, questions are often asked on whether both the agitations for Biafra and the response by the Northern ‘youths’ are mere brinksmanship – just ‘shakara’, as we will say in street language. While the practice of trying to secure an advantageous outcome by pushing threats to the brink is a common bargaining strategy, there is always the danger that other intervening variables or actors could make the situation unmanageable, leading to a very unpalatable outcome either to one of the actors or to both sides (Mutually Assured Destruction). The hate-speech and group labelling that define the current stand-off is sucking in otherwise reasonable people into taking hard-line positions, making the situation dangerous.
Two, the country’s zero-sum game approach to managing group conflicts appears to make brinksmanship attractive. Typically, once any group complains of certain grievances, others gang up either to deny that such grievances exist or go back to their institutional memories to dig up the past injustices meted to them, which they will also want addressed simultaneously. In the end no group’s grievances are addressed conclusively, leading to a wrong impression that only groups who can hold the state to ransom will have their grievances addressed. In fact, many Nigerians believe the strategy played a big role in the generous amnesty programme granted to Niger Delta militants by the late President Umaru Yaradua; in the decision to concede the presidency to the Yoruba in 1999 (after NADECO succeeded in making the country ungovernable) and in the decision to make Goodluck Jonathan the running mate to the late Yaradua. Some politicians from the South also believed that Boko Haram, especially in its earlier phase, was also about laying claims to the North’s entitlement to the presidency. I believe more Igbo elite would have spoken out against the rather infantile rhetoric of Nnamdi Kanu and his group if there was no perception that brinksmanship had yielded some rewards to some groups in the past. So what is needed to douse various separatist agitations across the country (others are merely hibernating as Biafra takes centre stage) is for us to re-think our approach to managing group grievances.
Three, if separatist agitations are across the breath and length of the country, why is agitations for Biafra seemingly more harshly received? The reason is that apart from the memories of the Civil War, which the word Biafra evokes, agitations for Biafra also stokes a fairly generalized, (even if not always openly expressed) stereotype of the Igbo as a group (not as individuals). True, every group in the world has one or two negative stereotypes attached to it, but in the case of the Igbo in Nigeria, two things compound their case: the first is that in virtually every part of the country, they are the largest ethnic group – after the indigenes. Across the world there is a ‘natural’ prejudice against a big minority group in any community, including our own indigene-settler dichotomy. Precisely because there is no other ethnic group that has the sort of concentration outside its ethnic homeland in several communities as the Igbo, it makes it difficult to compare them ‘objectively’ with other ethnic groups in terms of their relations to the host community. The fear of a large number of resident ‘foreigners’ (especially in moments of economic hardship) tends to be ‘natural’ – as we can see in the current wave of anti-immigration sentiments in Europe, USA and in our own ‘Ghana Must Go’ in the 1980s.
The second problem for the Igbo is what the Yale Law School professor Amy Chua called ‘market dominant minorities’. This is the tendency for some ethnic groups to have a disproportionate share of the local economies of their host communities. This often stirs all sorts of emotions in the locals, including negative emotions of jealousy and stereotyping. Considering the Igbo are the largest ethnic group outside the indigenes in virtually all parts of the country, it becomes understandable why it will seem that all parts of the country are ‘united’ in their negative perception of the Igbo. Understanding that these two factors are simultaneously at play in the perception of the Igbo as a group will help the Igbo to both temper their expectations from others and also to be more sensitive to the feelings of their host communities. It will equally help other ethnic groups to understand that most of those stereotypes will still be attached to whichever ethnic group that replaces the Igbo as the dominant minority group in their community.
Three, the Igbo, Hausa-Fulani and Yoruba share at least one paradox in common: while the Igbo are easily the most integrated Nigerians (you find them everywhere in the country, speaking often the languages of the locals), they are also more likely than most to complain of ‘marginalization.’ This often angers some Nigerians who accuse them of ‘ingratitude’ because they cannot understand why people who are ‘welcomed’ in every part of the country and ‘allowed to do well’ will also be talking about ‘marginalization’. My feeling is that when many Igbo use the word ‘marginalization’, they are referring to the prejudice that goes with being the largest ethnic group after the indigenes in every part of the country and also of being ‘market dominant minorities’. In several ways therefore those stereotypes are inevitable and come with the territory.
While the Hausa-Fulani are believed to be the most honest and trustworthy group in Nigeria, they are paradoxically also regarded as the most distrusted by other Nigerians when it comes to political power. This has often led to some people using such unfortunate terms as ‘hegemonic tendencies’, ‘born to rule mentality’ or ‘arrogance’ to describe them. What the agitation for Biafra (especially Nnamdi Kanu’s version of it) has done is to strengthen the stereotypes against the Igbo and unify the other Nigerians (all of which most likely have ‘Igbo problem’ in their community). But the manner of the response of the Northern youths also reinforces the stereotypes against the Hausa-Fulani.
The Yoruba are regarded as the most urbane and probably the friendliest group in the country. But they are simultaneously often accused of ethnocentrism, with their politics driven primarily by a desire to have all the Yoruba states under one party umbrella. This means essentially that we do not just have ‘Igbo problem’ but also ‘Hausa-Fulani problem’ and ‘Yoruba problem’. It is just a matter of ‘who is next?’ In fact these ethnic groups have taken turns in being seen as the problem of the country: Under Shehu Shagari, the Yoruba were said to be the ‘problem’ of the country. During the time of the political Sharia movement under Obasanjo, it became the turn of the Hausa-Fulani to wear the crown of thorns as the problem. Now it is the turn of the Igbo. So who is next?
Five, there are different tendencies within each ethnic group in this country – all of which are obscured by our stereotyping and group labelling. Therefore when we say ‘unity in diversity’, it is an error to believe it means just different ethnic groups co-existing because it means above all the country finding a way to co-exist with people who legitimately express all sorts of views that ‘shock and awe’ from different ethnic groups’ – Biafra separatists, the Arewa ‘youth’, market dominant minorities and the stereotypes we harbour of one another. The key challenge for the state is to ensure that ideas espoused by groups on the fringe are not mainstreamed. It is also the responsibility of the state to ensure that the generality of the citizens who are daily being bombarded by hate speeches (including by people who are supposed to be in very pious state in this Ramadan period) will imbibe the very wise counsel from the American educationist and author Booker T Washington when he said: “I shall allow no man to belittle my soul by making me hate him.”