Why Nigeria Must Not, Cannot Break Up


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Why Nigeria Must Not, Cannot Break Up

Elite Are Major Culprits In Nigeria's Moral Problem



Dangiwa Abubakar Umar



January 22, 2005



Inter Ethnic Relations

IT would appear that our current democratic experiment rather than create the much expected stability has unleashed very strong destabilising forces with the potential of causing the break-up of the country. I am referring to the prevalent inter-ethnic and sectional violence as well as an unprecedented economic decline, which have bedevilled the nation since 1999. All parts of the country have experienced some form of inter-ethnic and/or religious violence. In the South East, the most shocking political crisis currently playing out in Anambra State is an ominous sign that all is not well with our democratic experiment. The decision by the Federal Government to support the activities of criminals in their effort to topple the Government of Anambra State spells doom for Nigeria's democracy. It is ironic that the same government, which acted so promptly to suspend an elected governor and declare a state of emergency in Plateau State to restore law and order failed to order the arrest of thugs that went to the extent of abducting an elected State Governor and burnt government properties including part of the Governor's residence. Earlier, we had witnessed the Aguleri vs Umuleri war in the same State.

In the Niger Delta, we had the Okrika vs Eleme, Ijaw vs Itsekiri, Ijaw vs Bini, Ogoni vs Andoni, Itsekiri vs Urhobo. The current militant activities of the Ijaw Youths in the Niger Delta have added a dangerous dimension to acts of nation destabilization. In the South-West we had the Ife vs Modakeke, Ijaw vs Ilaje and the rampages of the OPC. The zones in the North have been some of the most unstable in the nation. We had the sharia riots, the Bachama vs Hausa/Fulani crisis and the Tarok vs Hausa/Fulani in Yelwa Shendam area of Plateau State. The North has also become the epicentre of religious crises.

The murders of Chief Bola Ige, the then Attorney General of the Federation, Chief Dikibo, Harry Marshal and some other lesser known politicians have taken political violence to a new height. The economy has all but collapsed. This is in spite of the astronomical rise in government revenue due to the recent massive increase in crude oil prices. The Government's new economic reforms programme have so far not translated into any improvement in the welfare of the people. Indeed more Nigerians have dropped below the poverty line.

To be sure, many of the problems and crises predate this government. Perhaps that is the inherited ones which government apologists consistently refer to in their quixotic efforts to explain the administration's dismal performance thus far. But one would think that it is on account of that rot that General Obasanjo was selected as the most qualified person who could pull the nation back from the precipice and lead it to the Promised Land. To quote him, he came "to restore the years, which the locust had eaten". I am afraid that after more than five years of Obasanjo's administration things have only worsened. It is therefore evident that his much vaunted leadership skills are only in the realm of myth.


The Necessity of Peaceful inter-ethnic Relations

Peaceful co-existence between the nation's diverse ethnic groups is a necessary condition for the socio-economic and political development of the country. That Nigeria with its vast human and material resources has failed to take its rightful place in the comity of developed nations could be attributed, in large part, to the failure of its constituent units to cooperate in the building of a cohesive nation. For this country to attain stability and move forward we need to find ways of enhancing our inter-ethnic relations. It is evident that all the ethnic nationalities stand a better chance of actualizing and sustaining their development goals, in a United and Stable Nigeria. It is also difficult to see how any of the federating units can survive as a viable independent state if Nigeria were to break up. To buttress this point, I will attempt to assess the strengths and weakness of the four political zones which are expected to emerge as new independent states and into which all the existing ethnic groups are likely to coalesce in the event that Nigeria breaks up. I will start with the Niger Delta area otherwise known as the South South Zone.


Viability of Possible Splinter Mini-states

The Niger Delta or South South Zone: This zone is made up of many ethnic groups with different cultural and historical identities. They are mostly fishermen. The area is rich in oil deposits but foreign oil companies have operated it as an enclave economy. Oil exploration has polluted its environment and made fishing less attractive. Oil wealth obtained in this area makes up more than 90 percent of government's export revenue. Theoretically therefore all this wealth would accrue to the people of this area in the event of Nigeria's disintegration. The problem however is that the groups are far from being monolithic. In fact the Niger Delta boasts more distinct nationalities than most area of Nigeria. The semblance of unity that they now appear to display is due to their common interest in a United Nigeria i.e. the desire to have the oil revenue allocated on the derivation principle with its consequent increase in their disposable income, a clean environment and a greater role in the political affairs of the country. All these battles will intensify in a separate Delta Nation. I need not mention the present lack of traditional and centripetal political structures that can hold such a pluralistic nation together, without the presence of other geopolitical blocs with whom factions contending for power and influence in such a republic could enter into temporary alliances to advance their interests and checkmate the domination of other factions. Another problem which I will deal with more elaborately when I discuss the South East is the almost certain probability of Igbo expansionism which is likely to be directed southwards at their expense.

The South East: The South East is inhabited by the highly industrious, enterprising and relatively culturally and linguistically homogenous Igbos. The area has a fairly well developed infrastructure which is now in a state of decay and a large stock of capital for internal investment. Its major drawback is its landlocked nature and a stifling lack of living space. The population density is too high already and will overflow if Igbos living elsewhere were to return home enmasse. There is already a high incidence of communal clashes in Igbo land because of this pressure on land. This will most certainly spill over to the Niger Delta if we break up. In fact, Igbos might be tempted eventually to seek natural defensible borders and try to expand toward the Benue and thus clash with the Tiv and Idoma in the process. The case of a possible aggression against the South South is further enhanced by the twin problem of the unsolved abandoned property palaver and its extension to the true status of Port Harcourt, and the existence of quasi Igbo ethnic groups in that zone e.g. the Ikwerres and the Ika-Igbo. Some might foresee the possibilities of international guarantees for the South-South spearheaded by the multinational oil companies against such aggressions but we can never under rate the desperate measures which a people fighting for their existence can take. For an essentially trading and outgoing nation to find itself landlocked in such a confined space would be a sure recipe for perpetual turmoil. Igbo irredentists and those who are nostalgic about a Biafran empire may argue that with their innovativeness and drive they could recreate a Japan or Taiwan in Africa. It is instructive to remind them here that informed analysis has already concluded that the future in Asia belongs to China and India rather than Japan simply because of their relatively bigger sizes and larger populations. Besides, an intervening period would be necessary for the Igbos, if Nigeria were to break-up, to refocus its citizens from trading to manufacture, which entails a reorientation that will take education more seriously than is now the case. The sacrifice which necessarily have to be made by the people while that refocusing goes on may prove too difficult to bear, especially in a situation where such independence occurred by default, i.e. as a reaction to external stimuli, rather than arising from a consciously thought out strategy. It is no wonder therefore that people with analytical minds like the Ikemba Nnewi are already talking of a Biafra of the mind rather than that of territory.

The South-West: The South-West is clearly the most culturally and linguistically homogenous groups in Nigeria. The Yoruba who inhabit it are the most politically sophisticated in the country. They are also the richest in terms of industrial possessions and capital. They have a large pool of well educated manpower and good infrastructure, especially sea and airports and adequate land resources. However, the seeming political unity which the Yoruba now display is definitely tied to the existence of Nigeria. That unity is likely to give way soon as Nigeria breaks up. The Yoruba wars of the 19th Century are instructive in this analysis. The most poignant pointer to this scenario is the fact that the acclaimed cradle of the Yoruba, Ife, has been embroiled in a bitter civil war with its closest neighbour, Modakeke. The Yoruba need their two sparring partners, the Hausa/Fulani and the Igbo to divert attention from their internal contradictions and local problems. Besides, the economic strength of the Yoruba lies chiefly in their taking advantage of the Indigenization Decree of 1975 to take control of the Nigerian economy. This was at the time when the Igbos who could have competed with them were politically and economically emasculated and the North had not fully understood the significance of that exercise and truly lacked the capital. The Yoruba themselves know it as a fact that their wealth and prosperity depend largely on their monopoly of the Nigerian market either through the sale of locally produced goods, since they own most of the local industries, or through their disproportionate representation on the boards and management teams of multinational corporations. The Yoruba know on which side their bread is buttered and that is a United Nigeria, albeit one in which equity and justice are enhanced. An economic implosion which would attend Nigeria's break up would accentuate intra-Yoruba contradictions and its leadership is very much conscious of that fact. It would therefore go to great lengths to avoid that occurrence. Their strategy of non-violent agitation during the June 12 struggle speaks volumes in this regard.

The North: The North has vast arable land, rivers and streams, a large population with the potentials for both positive and negative influence and a large market which in today's economic realities is only potential since it needs a fundamental reorientation to make its large population become an economic asset. It is landlocked with a significantly illiterate population, relatively poor infrastructure which could however be improved at low cost given the nature of its terrain. It also has an appreciable amount of capital for investment although that is concentrated in a few hands. The North is also highly polarised between the Muslim Core North and the Christian Middle Belt. Indeed the passions are presently running so high that even in this audience some might question my failure to analyse the prospects of the Middle Belt independently from those of the North. All the same, in the event that Nigeria breaks up, the North would also encounter many problems. These include being landlocked, either losing the bulk of its artisans who are mostly southerners or paying more materially to retain them as a compensation for the inevitable restrictions on their political rights, an accelerated and possibly violent dialectical process in which conservatives would first gain ascendancy for the liberals to confront them head on later and an anomalous situation where vast opportunities for investment especially in agriculture would exist without the matching trained manpower and capital to exploit them. Another problem which would result from the Core North/Middle Belt situation is that of minority sentiments and the fashioning of a political arrangement which would accommodate them or, in the extreme case of the Middle Belt opting out as a separate nation, how its boundaries are to be drawn. Lastly, as is the case with every group, the emergence of the Middle Belt as a sovereign political entity would bring to bold relief its contradictions as already analysed in case of the South South.



It is therefore clear that whatever isolated and temporary advantages might accrue to certain interest groups in the event of Nigeria breaking up, many more groups would record a net loss. This dilemma is most pronounced in the case of the Igbos and the Middle Belt, the former for obvious reasons and the latter because it would face the dilemma of going with the Core North and facing possible religious marginalization or standing alone and being subjected to pressure both from the North and the South. If it were to decide to join the South in a loose Federal or Confederal arrangement, the foreseeable problems between the South-East and South-South could make the notion of a political South a non-starter. Even the Western countries who our leaders tell us could benefit from our balkanisation might pause because the now globalised economy makes huge politically cohesive markets very desirable if only because very harmonised macro-economic policies over wide areas encourage better returns on capital. However, all this may not be enough to convince the majority of Nigerians on the need for us to remain one unless there is an atmosphere of mutual respect and a conviction on the fairness of the system. It is that realisation that made some of us willing to make the supreme sacrifice in the struggle against what we perceived as injustice i.e. the struggle for the actualisation of the June 12 mandate. Many years after the damage had been done some of our most vitriolic critics then surreptitiously started creeping back to congratulate us on our foresight and pleading their underestimation of the danger which we faced as a nation as a result of that monumental injustice. But we must learn from history to avoid repeating its mistake. For that reason we must henceforth stop the politics of brinkmanship. We must reconcile ourselves to the existence not only of tremendous possibilities for us and our children in a united Nigeria and also recognise our political and religious differences and therefore seek mutual compromise rather than pursuing narrow personal and ethnic interests all the time. While we recognise that it is not possible to totally eradicate conflicts in any society, more so a pluralistic one like ours, we can aim at minimising such conflicts in order to achieve national consensus. But why do these conflicts occur?
Causes of Inter-ethnic Conflicts
The search for better inter-ethnic relations as a means of achieving national stability must begin with the identification of the major causes of inter-ethnic conflicts. Outstanding among them are amalgamation, colonial rule, elite manipulation, poor economy and low literacy rate/ignorance and bad leadership. We will analyse them in turn.

Amalgamation: It is strongly argued that a major reason why the country's ethnic groups have failed to co-exist harmoniously was the manner in which groups with sharp ethnic and cultural differences were forced together into a single political structure. This was the view of Sir Peter Smitters, the Parliamentary Private Secretary of State in the Colonial Office from 1952 to 1959. I quote: "During the debate for the Independence of Nigeria the view of the Secretary of State at that time, with which I agreed, was that in Nigeria we should attempt to put together a large and powerful state with ample material resources which play a leading part in the affairs of the continent and of the world. This was attractive but it involved forcing several different ethnic and cultural groups into a single political structure. In exculpation, it must be said that we did not then have the example of the collapse of Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union before our eyes. It should now be clear for all but the willfully blind to see that it is extremely dangerous to force diverse racial and social entities into a single rigid political structure."
The late Sir Ahmadu Bello also characterised the amalgamation as a mistake. Similarly, the late Chief Awolowo had cause to describe Nigeria as a mere geographical expression and an artificial creation. It has since become attractive to hold that amalgamation responsible for inter-ethnic rivalries and tensions in Nigeria. But this view ignores the fact that other countries with a similar mix have been able to successfully create strong politics out of their diverse groups. We have the examples of India and Indonesia to cite. Nigeria's ethnic nationalities contain a mixture of positive cultural values which can very well serve the cause of national unity. Such values as respect for hierarchy and constituted authority, group feeling and family bonding are useful traits in nation building. Unfortunately, we have been unable to utilise such virtues. Instead, we have emphasised those aspects of our cultures which further cause divisions between us. We have as a result allowed our ethnicity to slide into ethnocentrism. By this we have set our various peoples on a struggle for the imposition of their ethnic hegemony on others. Actually I believe the major mistake by the British was in their failure to achieve a deeper integration of the people, rather than concentrating only on the mere amalgamation of the administrative structure. In fairness to them however, Sir Smitters' rationalisations notwithstanding, we all know that the conscious divide and rule colonial policy of the British best suited their main goal of economic exploitation.

Colonial Rule: It is a known fact that the colonial administration was created for the major purpose of exploiting the colonies. The people therefore held no stake in the colonial states. If anything they considered it as predatory and evil. It did not serve their interests. This attitude continued into the post independence period. The state continued to be regarded as an exploiter and an alien. The ability of the post colonial state to unite the people became constrained to the extent that only those ethnic groups which controlled the government has a stake in it while the others felt alienated and sought refuge in their ethnic enclaves.

Elite Manipulation: No one has so perfected the divide-and-rule tactics, of the colonial masters like the Nigerian political elite. In its search for socio-political and economic advantage, the average member of the Nigerian elite will seek to reinforce the fears of members of his ethnic group; the ones he identifies as "my people". In his tactics he finds ready scapegoats in the maladministation of governments. The failure by the leaders to exercise power justly and equitably serves the ethnic jingoist very well. He readily seizes on the situation to pretend that he is fighting in the interest of his people. Of course the motive in most cases is personal aggrandisement. The proliferation of ethnic and sectional political organisations and militant groups such as Afenifere, Ohaneze, ACF, APC, OPC, Ijaw Youth and MOSOP is not necessarily aimed at enhancing the bargaining power of the ethnic groups in the federation but rather at the appropriation and consolidation of the power of most of the leaders of such groups.

Poor Economy and Corruption: This government's new economic programme, the National Economic Empowerment and Development Strategy (NEEDS), which is another name for the Structural Adjustment Programme (SAP), has a very negative impact on the country's economic growth. It has therefore led to unprecedented social dislocation. For example, industrial capacity utilisation has fallen below 40 per cent and that is for those industries that have continued to weather the storm against all odds. It should be noted that over 30 per cent of our industries have shut down nationwide. You may be aware that over 90 percent of textiles companies in Kaduna (It's major industries) have closed down. About the same figure of Kano's large scale industries have also shut down. The story is the same in most states. The unemployment rate is now running at about 30 per cent. It has been difficult to keep count of the galloping figures of inflation rate; but they have ranged between 15 to 20 per cent annually, in the last four years. Over 70 percent of the population is now living below the poverty line. Our reward system is now so grossly perverted that less than 3 percent of the population controls over 60 percent of the nation's wealth without adding any significant value to its productive base. The operation of a mono-cultural economy i.e. oil, has depressed other more beneficial and elastic sectors, as the economy becomes more dependent on oil as its major engine of growth and source of government revenue. This and the environmental degradation caused by oil extraction have caused a strain between the oil producing areas and the rest of the country.

Corruption has also done incalculable damage to the economy. In the last five years government has not implemented any of its budgets. Nigeria is currently rated by Transparency International as the third most corrupt nation in the world, which to many observers is a gross underassessment of the corruption that takes place here. So, the rampant outbreak of ethnic and religious violence and other escalating social vices are largely attributed to the sharp decline of our economy and the pervasive corruption in our society.

Low Literacy Rate/Ignorance: A literacy rate e of less than 40 per cent is certainly a social catalyst for inter-ethnic and religious violence. After all it is difficult for an ignorant/illiterate person to overcome his natural prejudice not to talk of one which is consciously and deliberately created and sustained for him by an amoral elite for its own selfish interest.

Bad Leadership: Bad leadership has been the bane of our national unity. Most Nigerian leaders have elevated nepotism to an art in the administration of the state. In every aspect of development the leader's ethnic group enjoys undue advantage, from the siting of government projects to manpower recruitment, placement and promotion. This perversion has accentuated inter-struggles for the control of government. The agitation by the various sections to have the presidency zoned to them or else should be understood in this context. It is that attitude of our leaders at all levels that causes every section to believe that its interest can never be adequately protected unless its own "Son" occupies the top position. A leader that rules through nepotism can only earn respect of his section while he alienates the rest of society. Unfortunately only a handful of our leaders have been able to rise above this base level.

Having briefly analysed the causes of our problems, one may become so depressed as to conclude that they are beyond human solution. But we must continue to make efforts. So, I will now identify what in my view are some possible solutions to those problems. These include reducing the size of government, diversifying the economy, better funding for education and public enlightenment.


Possible Solution

Reducing the size and Role of Government: I believe that there is too much government in our lives. The vast role of government has made it so unyielding, powerful and inefficient that we need to make it smaller and less intrusive. Government is less expensive, less powerful and more effective when it concentrates on its traditional functions of guaranteeing security and to some extent creating the enabling environment for efficient production by the private sector. The private sector must be given free rein to operate the economy. This will reduce market distortions and cut down on areas of public patronage which has been a major source of cronyism. The negative effects of too much government manifest in all tiers but it is more glaring and destructive at the Federal level. The roles of the Federal Government should therefore be reduced and devolved to states and local Governments. By this we will reduce to a large extent the destabilising inter-ethnic rivalry for the control of the Federal Government. In this regard I agree in principle with the macro-economic politics of this present administration but what I quarrel with is the opaque and corrupt manner in which its reforms are being carried out.

Economic Diversification: Oil, which forms less than 25 per cent of the country's GDP, has continued to be the source of over 90 per cent of government's revenue. In order to ensure the nation's greater socio-economic stability, government must try to diversify the economy by greater investment in other more durable and beneficial sectors such as agriculture, manufacturing and education. A situation in which less than 3 per cent of the budget is allocated to agriculture does not lend credence to government's claim of economic diversification. Less emphasis on oil will also reduce the tension in the Niger Delta and encourage other sectors to contribute more to the economic development of the nation and make her self-sustaining.

Better Funding for Education: The role of education in public enlightenment and national development cannot be overemphasised. It is for this reason that UNESCO recommends a minimum share of 26 percent of national budgets to education. Our current allocation falls far short at less than 5 per cent. All tiers of government must therefore endeavour to correct this anomaly.

Public Enlightenment: Public enlightenment is a veritable tool for the breaking of inter ethnic barriers. The Nigerian Press and educational institutions must play greater role in this. With respect to the Press, the present difficulties facing Nigerians may turn out, in my view, to be a blessing in disguise. I say so because the erstwhile stereotyping in managerial abilities and degrees of responsibility for the nation's problems according to ethnic extraction, which some sections of the Press in their jingoism had promoted in the past, should by now totally lose its appeal to rational Nigerians. In this regard I am amazed to see the same Press still concentrating on Zones and ethnicity rather than personal capabilities and antecedents in its promotion of contenders for future political offices, from Local Government to Presidential levels. I am, however, gladdened to note the detribalised and rational approach to burning national issues which some newspapers and magazines, which need no introduction to this audience, adopt. We need more media houses to follow their example.




Most discerning people now accept that Nigeria is facing a crisis of gigantic proportions, which it is in our collective interest to solve as quickly as we can. And the only way to begin to solve a problem is by discussing it in as dispassionate a manner as possible, given the prevailing circumstances. With the fears surrounding the clamour for a Sovereign National Conferences gaining such prominence as to becloud even the problems which the conference should putatively address, platforms such as this provide a golden opportunity for such a discourse, especially with the calibre of personalities assembled here.

In the past, the necessity for Nigeria's existence as a United Nation had been largely presented as an article of faith. As a result, Nigerians have treated that unity much in a religious but impious and pharisaic manner, i.e. with outward reverence but inward scorn. Objective analysis however now shows us that continued unity is mutual symbiotic for all sections of this nation and that we shall all be net losers in one way or the other if we were to break up.

Since the poor masses are already down and therefore need fear no further fall, the class which is likely to suffer most in such an event is the same elite which is now the main cause of our problems as well as the very group which can provide the solutions to them. It is therefore in the interest of that group, as a dialectical if not a moral imperative, to do all it can to steam the tide of disintegration that is threatening Nigeria and whose symptoms manifest in incessant inter-ethnic conflicts. Each member of that elite can contribute, either as a part of government, a member of civil society groups or even as an individual, to minimise such conflicts and help rebuild Nigeria. We can do so through a strategy of minimising the politics of ethnicity and brinkmanship, contributing to the fight against corruption and injustice and opening the minds of our followers through education rather than exploiting their ignorance for our selfish ends. Many people think that Nigeria's problem is structural, I beg to disagree. I hold that our problem is rather a moral one and that the greatest culprits are our elite. That elite must change its way if Nigeria is to survive.


Umar, former Governor of Kaduna State, spoke at a recent seminar at the Uthman dan Fodio University, Sokoto.


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