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Monday 18 December 2017

Nigeria: A primer on stoking separatism

Nigeria: A primer on stoking separatism

By R. Andrew Crowe

Calls for the rebirth of the defunct Republic of Biafra have been increasingly heard on the streets of Nigeria in recent times. Since the reunification of Nigeria and Biafra in 1970, it appeared that the world looked forward to a new Nigeria that would have been vigilant to the national political injustices that alienated one of the most important ethnic groups in Nigeria - the Igbos and their cousins - to the point of seeking a country of their own, by force.

But soon enough, it was to become clear that, rather than do the sensible opposite, some successive Nigerian regimes have used unitary tactics to further alienate the Biafrans in Nigeria's oil belt. While some previous regimes had made-pretend that this was not the case, the current regime that came to power some two years ago has made no secret of its disdain for the former Biafrans.

It may well be that, guided by a certain sense of forlornness, the people of former Biafra appear to have succumbed to this new low until the coming of a fiery Nigerian-borne British citizen by name of Nnamdi Kanu. He alone is responsible for the recent reawakening of the passions that have managed to push-back at President Buhari's evident mistreatment of the former region of Nigeria that was once Biafra. The rapid-fire growth of the Biafra independence movement since 2015 is proof of its popularity and gives the inkling that all is not well in Nigeria of the current era.

Mr Kanu heads an internationally coordinated and well-organized group best known by its acronym - IPOB, which has disavowed the military option (unlike in 1967) but is instead calling for a referendum. As recent as few months ago, governors from the Biafran region were already talking with Mr. Kanu, but in September this year, Mr Buhari ordered his military to crackdown on Mr Kanu and his followers, leading to many casualties. This - plus other recent military excesses against IPOB - has, in almost textbook style, conversely increased domestic and international support for Biafra's independence, even when it appears that its domestic manifestation has been driven underground for the moment.

The Nigerian government’s military response was wrong if the intention was to secure Biafra's loyalty or get Mr Kanu to back down. It's instructive that, at the time of the military operations, Mr Kanu was already amenable to Nigeria's justice system under which he is still standing trial for some offenses relating to the Biafran agitation. He was out on bond and there was no credible indicator that he was verging on jumping bail. Matters would have just been left that way.

Independence movements commonly start with a small number of idealists, yet quickly grow when central governments respond with repression. In such circumstances, the desire for freedom takes root and flourishes. So, the first responses of central governments to secessionist movements are critical to their outcome. While that of Scotland, Quebec and a few others slowed due to the pacifist approaches of their central governments, that of Nigeria appears to be on the rise.

There are currently millions of open followers of Mr Kanu and many more that are passive. This is perhaps part of the reason the government of Mr Buhari panicked and decided to pursue the military option. Yet, the bloodshed and trauma such approach has produced are well in excess of possible practical gains for Nigeria's nominal unity.

All considered, with high risks to its leaders and the uncertain path to success, secessionist movements are rarely about lack of patriotism for one's mother country but is certainly a pragmatic response to the injustices of such mother country. Even with popular support, these movements rarely have the military capacity to impose their will on the state from which they intend to secede.

It, instead - like IPOB - seeks to raise national consciousness to a point where it hopes will encourage dialogue for a better union or a 'velvet' divorce. Kanu's rhetorics may have been passionate and frank but that he was already talking with Nigeria's leaders was demonstrative enough that he was adequately attuned to the realpolitik of an independence struggle. So, what was it Mr Buhari secretly feared that led him to pitch his troops against civilians; and even proceeded to get them declared terrorists when he very knows they that are not?

Sans this misguided militarist approach, Kanu may continue to pursue independence for Biafra but may likely be persuaded to, in the interim, accept a new autonomous Biafran state in a truly federated Nigeria. Scotland is a good example, all with its national teams (separate from Britain) in international sports.

It bode well that, prompted by the meteoric rise of Kanu's movement, some of Nigeria's important regions - such as the Southwest - have suggested that what is more practically needed in Nigeria of the moment is a relatively high level of regional autonomy like it was before Nigeria's civil war. The logic is that loosening the ties that bind can ease tensions and make the federating states and the central government more stable. A wiser Buhari should have seized on this as a cover to launch sincere talks with Kanu.

The Nigerian President's response to Biafra's demands is therefore precisely the wrong response for a leader wishing to quell or contain a popular secessionist demand. It was, after all his policies that sparked the present calls for independence. Has he for once pondered the salutary effect a dramatic change in his policies and talks with Mr Kanu would have had on the Biafran independence movement?

Buhari may believe that he is strengthening his faltering support base in the Muslim north of Nigeria by appealing to ethnic sentiments in favour of Nigeria's nominal unity and duplicitous federal system. But imposed control will likely prompt further and more deeply entrenched separatist sentiment that may - in the course of time - lead to a founding of a Biafra that will be on its own terms and that of the international community, all to the detriment of Nigeria.

During colonialism, Biafrans were at the forefront of Nigeria's battles with oppression, and it could be that the current push for independence is very telling of their historical proclivity at breaking free from oppression. Already some serious foreign lawsuits are pending against some highly placed Nigerian officials and there are increasing prospects of International Criminal Court interventions. Should it come to this, the cost of such fallouts would exceed any possible benefits to Nigeria.

The question therefore is this: How can the national government in Abuja step back from an ultimate showdown, not only with a large chunk of its estranged citizens but with a watchful international community? The answer is simple: Nigeria's president should know enough to stop stoking the fire of separatism in a country he says he wishes to unite.

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