By Reuben Abati
Fifty years after the civil war ended, Igbos do not yet feel a sense of belonging, acceptance or safety in the Federation called Nigeria. The sad part is that this belief is shared not just by the generation that witnessed the war and its deadly consequences, but Igbos across all generations, including the millennials who have been socialized into believing that there is a gap between their people and other Nigerians.
Let us not deceive ourselves about certain plain truths. The civil war is perhaps the most remarkable incident in Igbo history in the last century. The pain, the loss, all about it, is deeply imprinted in the Igbo consciousness. Whereas the Igbo nation has shown great resourcefulness since the war, and its people have proven to be enterprising and determined to hold their own in every sphere of life, including outstanding contributions to the making of the Nigerian state, there are Nigerians who still regard and treat the Igbo suspiciously.
Anti-Igbo sentiment may not be so openly expressed, but it is usually something beneath the surface. There are landlords in many parts of Nigeria, for example, who will never rent out their property to an Igbo man. The Igbo tenant is easily stigmatized. I have heard people complain that Igbo tenants are too stubborn or that when you rent a room to an Igbo man, he will end up sub-letting that one room to all kinds of persons from his village, putting pressure on the property’s limited facilities.
Some landlords insist that an Igbo tenant could even start eyeing the property, to buy it off the landlord, or if it is a shop, the Igbo trader would end up renting the entire street, and could turn the street into an Igbo neigbourhood. This stigma has been a source of agony for many Igbos seeking accommodation, particularly in Lagos, but it is of course completely baseless stereotyping. There are good and bad persons from virtually every Nigerian ethnic group.
The stereotyping of the Igbo person can also be found in the political arena. It is assumed by some persons, and such statements have been made to my hearing, that the only reason an Igbo man cannot be President of Nigeria is because every Igbo man sees himself as a potential President, and should the Presidency be zoned to the South East, the struggle for the ticket could result in inter-community strife in Igboland. The name of the group is Igbo, but when other Nigerians want to be mischievous, or perhaps out of ignorance, they refer to Igbos as Ibo, and when you try to correct them, they may insist you don’t seem to understand. It is I-Before-Others (IBO).
Igbos have also been held responsible for all sorts of things, kidnapping, drug trafficking, child trafficking, armed robbery – even when there are criminals from virtually every community in Nigeria. Meanwhile, they are one of the most vertically educated ethnic groups in Nigeria, and the most enterprising in all fields. A friend once said that if you enter any community in Nigeria and you don’t have an Igbo man running a small shop there, or engaged in some other kind of business, then you have no business staying in that community. Igbos are also obviously the most integrated ethnic group in Nigeria, which is why it is ironic that they are also the most vilified.
I wrote what I considered a harmless piece recently in which I referred to the declaration of Biafra in 1967 and quoted excerpts from the Ahiara Declaration. I got a phone call from a friend who declared that I should stop encouraging these “Biafrans”. Nothing I said made sense to him.
“You don’t know those people”, he declared.
“I know people from all parts of Nigeria,” I said.
“You don’t know Igbos. Has there been any problem in this country that you know in which Igbos have not been involved? They have started again, heating up the polity with threats of secession.”
“It is a sign that all is not well with Nigeria,” I retorted.
“Don’t mind them. I don’t think anybody wants to secede. If Igbos really want to secede, you think it is Nnamdi Kanu that will be speaking for them?”
“It takes just one illuminated soul to start a revolution.”
“Don’t bring that line. Everything is not textbook, this man. Just tell those Igbos not to include my people in whatever they are looking for. We are their neighbours. They dragged us into the civil war. This time around, they’ve gone to draw a map, including my people. Biafra does not extend to the South-South. We are just looking at them.”
“Biafra is an idea.”
“I don’t want to hear all these textbook things, I have told you. Which idea? See, most Nigerians do not support Biafra. They think Igbos are just playing games. I’ll send you some other articles written by other Nigerians and you’d see what I am talking about. People are angry that anybody will be talking about secession in 2017! Nigerians are fed up with Igbos and their games. President Jonathan gave them everything but on election day, many of them stayed at home and refused to vote. Now, they are talking secession.”
“But Yorubas are also talking about Oduduwa Republic.”
“The Yoruba are not going anywhere. What they want is restructuring, fiscal federalism. Which Oduduwa Republic?”
“The people of the Middle Belt are also aggrieved.”
“Anybody can be aggrieved. You can’t please Nigerians. And some of these things are political. Obasanjo became President, Niger Delta carried arms; Jonathan got there, Boko Haram kidnapped children, Buhari is there now, and all the ghosts of Biafra are frightening everybody. But these Igbos, tell them they are not going anywhere.”
“I am surprised you are talking like this.”
“What is the matter with those people? They are all over Nigeria. They are even selling land in Lagos. But no outsider is allowed to buy half a plot of land in Igboland. You carry Igbo girl sef, na problem. Go and check your email. I will send you other perspectives on this matter.”
Before long, I received a mail indeed. The fellow had put together a collection of anti-Biafra, anti-Igbo articles which he urged me to read, with the rider that I should pay particular attention to the fact that some of those articles were written by Igbos. I ignored the rider. Some of those articles could have been ghost written. What is clear, however, is that all is not well with Nigeria. We are a country that needs to be rescued from the centripetal forces tearing us apart, and the leading forces today would include, as was the case before now, ethnicity, religion, the politics of hate, and citizen alienation.
If my review of the stereotyping of Igbos in Nigeria and the reported conversation with an Igbo-hater does not fully convey the seriousness of this situation, then the June 6 ultimatum issued to all Igbos living in Northern Nigeria by a coalition of Northern Arewa youth groups should.
A group called the Northern Emancipation Network, comprising 16 Arewa youth groups, has asked all Igbos living anywhere in Northern Nigeria to pack their bags and baggage and be out of the Northern region by October 1, 2017. When the 19 Northern Governors met and dismissed the threat as misguided, the young Arewa Igbo-haters issued a riposte and more or less asked the Governors to shut up. Their message is that since Igbos no longer want to be part of Nigeria, they should get out, because they, Arewa youths, do not want belong to the same political union with Igbos. They are angry that on May 30, the Movement for the Actualization of the Sovereign State of Biafra (MASSOB) and the Indigenous Peoples Organization of Biafra (IPOB) succeeded in shutting down a part of Nigeria to mark the 50th anniversary of the declaration of Biafra.
The arrogance of the Northern youths is insufferable. It speaks to virtually everything that other Nigerians are uncomfortable with about the Fulani North: a born-to-rule, hegemonic tendency. It is an assault on the Nigerian Constitution, to the extent that the Constitution does not grant any individual or group, the right or the power to determine where any Nigerian may live or work or die or acquire property. All Nigerians are equal before the law. The Northern youths, who do not think so, held a meeting, a press conference, and issued statements. The Governor of Kaduna state, Nasir el-Rufai asked the Nigeria Police to arrest them for promoting ethnic hatred. The only response we have had from the Police Headquarters so far, is from one Jimoh Moshood, described as Police Spokesman telling Nigerians that the Arewa youths “are not sitting in the market waiting to be picked up.”
Moshood, if you actually said that, then you should be relieved of your position forthwith. If you are a spokesperson and you have nothing intelligent to say, the best option is to remain silent, otherwise whatever you say will be used against you in the court of public opinion. So, the Nigeria police only arrest people when they go to the market and wait to be arrested? Is that the new police that we now have? The Northern Emancipation Network called Igbos all kinds of names – “unruly, reckless, insatiable, uncultured, confrontational, ungrateful” – and since they issued their ultimatum, the polity has been heated up, ethnic hate has been promoted, the Igbos of Nigeria have been further alienated.
This was how the civil war of 1967-70 started. Nigeria cannot afford another civil war. No country survives two civil wars. Already, Igbos in the North are reportedly relocating back to the South East or elsewhere in Nigeria. Young Nigerians from the North, the East and the South started the civil war. The politics of ethnicity and the rhetoric of hate ignited the fire that consumed the nation for three years. The scars have not healed because 50 years later, the youths of the North and the East are again lighting up the fire of hate. On June 6, the Northern Emancipation Network also asked Northerners in the East, I hope this includes the peripatetic herdsmen, to return to the North!
The Nigerian Government must take this on-going febrile conversation between the North and the East more seriously than it appears to be doing. The security agencies do not have to go to the markets to look for what is not there.
When there is a threat to the state, it is their duty to identify the threat and act on it. All persons who are working hard and making provocative statements to cause a national crisis should be monitored and checkmated. With all the difficult challenges facing this country, at this moment, our security alert system should be pushed a notch higher.
If the security agencies fail to act, particularly on the matter of the coalition of Northern youths promoting Igbo hatred, the Federal Government would have committed a grievous sin, likely to be interpreted as aiding and abetting. And there would be persons who will legitimately ask: are we confronted with a hand of Jacob and voice of Esau situation? Who is sponsoring the Arewa youths? Who granted them the permission to use the platform of Arewa House to spew anti-Igbo hate speech? Who is blocking their arrest by the security agencies? What those boys have done is even worse than the threat of secession by Nnamdi Kanu and his supporters.
But the message is clear: Nigeria is not yet a nation. A country where any group or association can threaten to expel another group is not yet a nation. The common enemy is not the secessionists. The common enemies are the political leaders, the tribal demagogues, the political opportunists, the religious bigots, the paid shamanists, who continue to manipulate Nigeria’s destiny to suit their own purposes. There can be no country except the people love the nation and the state.