With right-wing populism being mainstreamed across the world – there is a genuine fear that separatist agitations (micro-nationalism) may be mainstreamed in the country if President Muhammadu Buhari does not get things right in his second term in office. Separatist agitations around Biafra have tended to drown other putative separatist groups in the country. Among the Yoruba for instance, echoes of separatism come in different forms – from intermittent muffled calls for an Oduduwa Republic, to demand for Sovereign National Conference and its later incarnate ‘Restructuring’. In the North, there are occasional half-hearted demands for Arewa Republic (especially under Obasanjo and Jonathan) while some people in the region talk of the North as if it is a country within a country. In the Niger Delta, apart from the demands for Niger Delta Republic, shades of separatism are embedded in the demands for ‘resource’ control by regional activists. In essence there is a fairly generalized feeling of alienation and dissatisfaction among the various constituents of the federation, a situation that has also deepened distrust and incentivized separatist agitations.
I believe that a major reason why separatist agitations have not been mainstreamed in Nigeria is because leaders of such movements either do not have the sort of credentials that will make elites of their societies to identify with their movements or they adopt strategies that the elites regard as reprehensible. Take for instance Nnamdi Kanu and his IPOB.
While he is able to tap into the generalized feelings of being marginalized in Igboland, few Igbo elites and intelligentsia think much about him and his strategy. The Igbo society where he comes from is an achievement- oriented society, and though some may defend some of IPOB’s actions, my feeling is that it is more of a defence of ethnic pride than of what IPOB or Nnamdi Kanu stands for. It is inconceivable that in such an achievement-oriented society as the Igbo society, Igbo elites will openly embrace a movement led by one who has not distinguished himself in any area of life. In fact some Igbo elite blame Kanu’s rather uncouth style as springing from a sort of compensation complex. The same was also largely true of the Gani Adams faction of OPC before he changed strategy and was embraced by the Yoruba elite. Today he has mainstreamed from being an artisan OPC leader to ‘Aare Ona Kakanfo, Gani Adams.
Just like the mainstreaming of right-wing populism was thought unthinkable in Europe and the USA some 15 years ago, there are a few developments that raise the fear of the unthinkable happening here – that separatist agitations can be mainstreamed (i.e. the elites and respectable members of the society may key into them):
One, recently a political organization, Egbe Omo Oduduwa, announced that it would conduct a referendum in South West zone of the country on August 8, 2019 with a view to federating Ekiti, Osun, Ondo, Oyo, Ogun and Lagos states into forming the Oduduwa Region of Western Nigeria within Nigeria. The group said its decision was “in response to the numerous crises in the country and the inability of the centralized security apparatus of the Nigerian state to provide a safe environment for decent human existence all over the country, especially in Yorubaland.” The group said it chose the path of referendum, “rather than lamentation or for armed activities in the name of self-defence” as a way of signalling “the unworkability of a Unitarian [system] in a multiethnic amalgam”.
Some of the questions the group posed in the planned referendum include:
(i) Whether Governments of Ekiti, Ogun, Osun, Oyo, Ondo and Lagos States should negotiate with each other with a view to forming a FEDERATION of STATES to be known as ODUDUWA REGION OF WESTERN NIGERIA and (ii) whether the said REGION should negotiate with the Government of Nigeria and the remaining 30 states or any group of states that have also agreed to Federate and the administration of the Federal Capital Territory to achieve AUTONOMY/SELF-DETERMINATION for the said REGION within a Federation of Nigerian Constituent Units.”
While I am not by any means endorsing the above group and its agenda – or even the legality of its action- I feel theirs is a more enlightened way of starting a conversation on self determination which every ethnic group has a right to. It differs markedly from the subsisting separatist brands which I feel mistake bravado for bravery, and rudeness for fearlessness. By making it more like a call for conversation, in a non-confrontational, non-rude manner, it opens up the possibility of the elites and intelligentsia in the affected parts of the country openly taking part in it. And this is where I believe the danger lies. This will be the mainstreaming of separatism agitations.
Two, there are just too many discontents across the country that can provide a fodder for mainstreaming separatism - unless the Buhari government moves quickly to douse the discontents and feelings of alienation from the state system.
One area of grouse is the question of herdsmen attacks on farmers, the prevalent belief in the South that they are treated with kids’ gloves because they share the same ethnic and religious identities with the president, and the consequent politicization of the whole issue – as issues are wont to be in the country.
In many parts of the South for instance, there are stories (some obviously contrived) of Fulani herdsmen hiding in several forests, and attacking villagers episodically. For instance in an article on May 24, 2018 entitled ‘Fulani Herdsmen Have Turned Ondo Into Unsafe Place As They Kidnap, Rape Us, Ondo Women Lament’, Sahara Reporters reported of protests by aggrieved women in Ondo state against rising cases of attacks, kidnapping and rape by suspected herdsmen. Conspiracy theories had long claimed that the ‘Fulani’ herdsmen were part of Buhari’s Islamization agenda (despite the fact that the problem predates Buhari). The conspiracy theory gained further traction when former President Olusegun Obasanjo accused the Buhari government of harbouring ‘Fulanization and Islamization’ agenda. The government’s unwise decision to announce plans to set up a radio station that would broadcast exclusively in Fulfude language shortly after Obasanjo made his allegation added fuel to the mistrust of the government and its agenda.
In South-east, in addition to the generalized conspiracy theories and accusations against herdsmen, the manner APC shared leadership positions of the National Assembly without taking them into consideration, and talks of zoning the Presidency to the South-west (which produced a President for eight years [1999-2007] and has a sitting Vice President] in 2023 are deeply offensive to many people from the area and adds to the separatists’ arguments that the area is unwanted in the Nigerian federation. Separatists tap into discontents such as these, and it becomes dangerous if framed in a manner and led by people acceptable to the elites.
Three, it is unhelpful for some people to grandstand and pretend that they are more patriotic than others, or that they have a bigger stake in the country than others – whenever issues around the national question are raised. People who feign patriotism or anger whenever the word ‘separatist agitation’ is mentioned often use such pretension as brinksmanship or give themselves away as disproportionate beneficiaries of the current unity or patriotism projects. The aphorism, ‘the unity of this country cannot be negotiated’ overlooks the fact that ‘unity’ – just like ‘patriotism’- is not neutral in the inter-and intra group competitions for power and privileges. A subsisting unity or patriotism often mirrors the power configuration of the contending classes and groups in the society.
Four, though I was disappointed that Buhari did not give an inaugural speech on May 29, 2019 or make some key appointments that will give a sense of urgency to his government, I remain hopeful that he wants to leave a lasting legacy to this country. I see his problem more as ‘not giving a damn’ to what people think of him so long as he is convinced he is doing the right thing than as someone working to actuate any hidden agenda. But that, in my opinion, is not the way to go. The President will simply have to recognize the importance of optics in governance and move rapidly to change the narrative with the quality of people he will appoint to offices in his second term, including ensuring that all parts of the country are made to feel like stakeholders in Project Nigeria. Nation-building should be privileged because unless you have a nation, any solution thrown at any of the country’s myriad problems will quickly become part of the problem. The easiest way to defeat separatist agitations – which by the way is not abnormal in countries that are agglomeration of different ethnic nationalities – is for the constituent units to manifestly feel that the benefits of being in the union far outweigh the benefits of being independent. This was what has been used consistently to defeat Scottish separatism in the United Kingdom and agitations for independence by Quebec in Canada. And it is possible to use such arguments to defeat separatists here too – if Buhari can bring the force of his personality to do the right things.