Dateline: December 15, 1991. The prospect of ethnic cleansing was palpable and war drums sounded unusually loud in East and Central Europe when we landed at Ferigehy International Airport in Budapest, capital of Hungary, that freezing afternoon. One hour earlier, my heart literally sank when we boarded Malev, Hungary’s national carrier in Frankfurt, Germany, because of what appeared to me to be poor visibility.
It was ten clear years away from 9/11 but as the aircraft taxied, preparatory to takeoff for the one-hour flight to Budapest, I started wondering if the Hungarian crew was on a suicide mission! The pilot must have sensed my apprehension because, just before he lifted the aircraft, he came on the public address system to confirm that visibility on the day was one of the poorest in his career. He nevertheless went on, typical of professional aviators, to assure us that it was okay to fly. The pilot was not done.
He went on to say how ‘honoured’ he was to fly a Blackman for the first time in his career! He was right; aside me, there was no black as we queued to be checked-in in Frankfurt. As it turned out, the pilot landed us at Ferigehy International Airport with the expertise only a professional aviator could boast of: there were no bumps and jerks, no repulsive smell from screeching tyres and no tensed and scared faces anticipating the worse!
Even at the best of times, East and Central Europe do not rank as choice tourist destinations. This is even truer for the early ‘90s when that part of the world was in complete turmoil. That was when former compatriots who had co-habited for long and, who suddenly realized that they could no longer be good neighbors, organised themselves into death-bearing militia groups, turned against each other.
More surprises awaited me: I turned out to be the only Black facilitator at the conference and the only black guest at the Hotel Agro which served as home for us for the duration of the conference. Throughout my stay in Budapest which included facility trips across the border. I learnt, and painfully too, that the right place to see black faces was to take a trip to any of the holding places for drug pushers.
Appropriately organised for young professionals in East and Central Europe, the conference had a well-thought out theme, Is Europe big enough for all Europeans?, a topic that has been slightly modified for this write up. What informed the theme was the serious and seemingly irreconcilable contradictions that enveloped East and Central Europe then. The conference was an idea by the organizers to avert the looming crisis. Sadly, the guns have started booming to signal the worst pogrom the world saw since Hiroshima and Nagasaki before we exited the region.
Apparently, it was the hope then that the region would ultimately avert the looming contradictions that followed glasnost and perestroika. The resulting ethnic cleansing is a sad reminder that there were extremists who thought Europe was not big enough to accommodate all Europeans. Under three decades, similar contractions, among them suspicion, intolerance and outright hate that led to very painful socio-economic dislocations in Eastern and Central Europe are beginning to manifest in Nigeria. Isn’t Nigeria big enough for all Nigerians?
After a heady co-existence spanning one hundred and five years, even the deaf in Nigeria need not strain their ears to discern the war drums. But, truth is that those who beat the drum of war fail to take Nigeria’s unique attributes into consideration in their wrongheaded campaign. What is more, proponents of a balkanized Nigeria fail to realize that their campaign is one home-grown fallacy which they are trying to force down the throat of a predominantly peace-loving people. The campaign is fuelled by a mythical north- south divide.
Each time proponents of breakup mouth their favourite but wrongheaded subject matter, they neglect to take into account God’s own hand in the historical events that birthed Nigeria in 1914. For instance, a cursory look at the seventeen states that make up southern Nigeria shows that there is no way a country would be founded on the basis of any of the two major religions. Anyhow it is juggled, there is scant chances for the predominantly Yoruba-speaking south-west, where there are as many Muslims as there are Christians, to be referred to as part of a Christian south!
The Muslim population in Yorubaland is not a minority group! Even if, as it is wrongly assumed, the average Yoruba Muslim is liberal with his religion, it is very unlikely that they will be prepared to succumb to the idea of a Christian Republic of Oduduwa. In the whole of southern Nigeria, it is in the South-South and the South-East geo political zones that we find indigenous Christian populations in the majority. But again, there are indigenous Igbo who are Muslims just as we have indigenous Muslims in Rivers and Edo states whose interests must be considered each time we gibber the utopian idea of a Christian south.
Of the three geo-political zones in the North, only the North-West may be described as predominantly Muslim! And even at that, there is a significant indigenous Christian population in the zone whose interests must be considered too. There is no state in the North Central and North East where Christians could be referred to as an insignificant minority. None! In fact, Muslims constitute a clear minority in, at least, two states in the North-Central. And, by the way, which state in the North-East is ‘predominantly Muslim’? Is it Taraba, Gombe or Bauchi? Or, Borno, the birthplace of Boko Haram?
Though the agitation for a breakup may have ethno-religious and political undertones, fact is, the agitation has more to do with the economy. Very few Nigerians will resort to violence if the economy is working and if more people are engaged in one form of trade or the other. A lot of the frustration in the land results from a situation when a few find themselves in government, mostly through means that are foul, violent and criminal, and corner the commonwealth.
It is time for the poor to refrain from playing the pawn. After all, we are all victims of marginalization. One way or the other, we have all been wounded in the quest to build this nation. Our wounds should not drive us to the precipice because, at the end of it all, it is the innocent majority that suffer the consequences of war.
Magaji <firstname.lastname@example.org> is based in Abuja.