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Nigeria at 61 – a Nation Torn Between Unity and Secession Threats –

After surviving a three-year civil war, series of military coups, and now in a democracy, Nigeria’s political skyline remains beset by dark clouds of secession at 61. In this report, Yinka Olatunbosun, Sunday Ehigiator and Chiamaka Ozulumba examine the trends from post-independence to date and how they raise questions about national unity.
The atmosphere of celebration was gleeful- as hopeful Nigerians watched the British flag lowered whilst the Nigerian flag was hoisted amidst the cheering audience gathered at the Tafawa Balewa Square in Lagos. Expectations were high. The energy was infectious.
Nigerians had secured the right to rule themselves in their own way. Prior to this beautiful day, a new constitution established a federal system with an elected prime minister and a ceremonial head of state.
The NCNC- headed by Azikiwe- formed a coalition with Balewa’s NPC after neither party won a majority in the 1959 elections. Balewa served as the prime minister, a position he had held since 1957, while Azikiwe took the largely ceremonial position of president of the Senate.
On November 16, 1960, Azikiwe became the first governor-general of a federation of three regions: North, East and West, with Lagos as the federal capital. Each region was headed by a premier with a governor as ceremonial head.
With the UN-supervised referendum, the northern part of the Trust Territory of the Cameroons joined the northern region in June 1961. In October, Southern Cameroon united with Cameroon to form the Federal Republic of Cameroon.
On October 1, 1963, Nigeria became a republic. Azikiwe became president of the country. Meanwhile, as Prime Minister of Nigeria, Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, from 1960 to 1961, functioned as Foreign Affairs advocate of Nigeria. In 1961, the Balewa government created an official Foreign Affairs and Commonwealth Relations ministerial position in favour of Jaja Wachuku, who became, from 1961 to 1965, the first substantive Nigerian Minister of Foreign Affairs and Commonwealth Relations, later called External Affairs.
Balewa was murdered in a military coup on January 15 1966, as well as his old companion Sir Ahmadu Bello. The circumstances of his death remain unresolved, setting a template for how many deaths in politics would pan out for decades. His body was reportedly discovered at a roadside near Lagos six days after he was ousted from office. Buried in Bauchi, the news of his assassination sparked violent riots throughout Northern Nigeria and ultimately led to the bloody counter-coup of July 1966.
The Civil War and the Unfinished Business
The civil war was indeed a product of ethnic rivalry that got out of hand, to put it mildly. Five weeks after its secession from Nigeria, the self-proclaimed Republic of Biafra is attacked by Nigerian government forces. It was reported that some Hausas in northern Nigeria began massacring the Christian Igbos in the region, prompting tens of thousands of Igbos to flee to the east, where their people were the dominant ethnic group.
The Igbos believed that Nigeria’s military government was oppressive, repressive and lacked the ability to develop the region or even allow it to survive. On May 30, 1967, Lieutenant Colonel Odumegwu Ojukwu, nicknamed the warlord and other non-Igbo representatives of the area, established the Republic of Biafra, comprising several states of Nigeria.
After diplomatic efforts by Nigeria failed to reunite the country, a war between the country and Biafra broke out in July 1967. The survival of Biafra would have meant the loss of Nigeria’s largest oil fields. hTo make the secession work, Ojukwu’s forces made some initial advances, but Nigeria’s superior military strength gradually reduced Biafran territory. Biafra was gradually overcome- lost its oil field, which accounts for its chief revenue. Without the funds to import food, an estimated one million of its civilians died due to severe malnutrition. There are different accounts of this civil war, with many pointing accusing fingers at the international community.
The United Kingdom and the Soviet Union backed the Nigerian government, while France, Israel, and other countries supported Biafra. On January 11, 1970, Nigerian forces captured the provincial capital of Owerri, one of the last Biafran strongholds, and Ojukwu fled to the Ivory Coast. Four days later, Biafra surrendered to Nigeria. Thus, the Biafran nation became a dream. There was no proper reconciliation to reintegrate the breakaway group or any recorded effort to address the lasting trauma left by the deadly war on the aggrieved citizens. And that was the unfinished business.
Failed Attempt at Democracy
After ensuring that Nigeria remained as one, Gowon remained in government till 1975 when Murtala Mohammed, another major player in the war, took over power as the head of state on July 30 until his assassination on February 13 1976. Lieutenant General Olusegun Obasanjo, a Yoruba, succeeded Murtala Muhammad. As chief of staff of Supreme Headquarters, Obasanjo was Murtala Muhammad’s deputy and had the support of the military from 1979 to 1983 with Alhaji Shehu Shagari.
The military regimes of Murtala Muhammad and Obasanjo benefited from a tremendous influx of oil revenue that increased 350 per cent between 1973 and 1974, when oil prices skyrocketed, to 1979, when the military stepped down. Increased revenues permitted massive spending that, unfortunately, was poorly planned and concentrated in urban areas. A minor recession marred the oil boom from 1978 to 1979- the year Shehu Usman Aliyu Shagari became the first democratically-elected president after the transfer of power by the military head of state Gen. Olusegun Obasanjo in 1979, giving rise to the Second Nigerian Republic.
Buhari, Babangida and the Cry for Democracy
Gen. Muhammadu Buhari became head of state after a coup d’état on December 31 1983, ending the Second Republic. Gen. Ibrahim Babangida overthrew his vicious regime in a coup d’état on August 27, 1985. Babangida served as military head of state from 1985 until 1993, when he “stepped aside” amidst widespread protests against his annulment of the June 12, 1993, presidential election.
June 12 carries huge significance for older Nigerians. On this date, a presidential election was held for the first time since the 1983 military coup. The results of the election were never released. But unofficial results gathered through the various polling stations by civil society groups across the country indicated broad national support for the presidential candidate of the Social Democratic Party, Chief Moshood Kashimawo Olawale Abiola.
Despite his popularity and the turnout, the election results were annulled. Babangida justified the annulment claiming it was necessary to save the nation. In the 1999 presidential election – the first democratic election in 16 years – Obasanjo decided to run for president as the Peoples Democratic Party. Obasanjo won the election and was reelected in 2003. Umaru Yar’Adua, also of the PDP, assumed power in 2007 and ruled for three years. He died in office aged 58. He was succeeded by then Vice President Goodluck Jonathan. Jonathan completed Yar’Adua’s term and won a substantive term in 2011. He failed to secure reelection in 2015 after the dictator-turned-democrat Buhari defeated him.
Renewed Calls for Secession
Just when Nigeria is struggling to meet the international standards of democratic rule, a new breed of secessionists have emerged, registering anger and fanning yet again embers of wars. One of them is Sunday Adeniyi Adeyemo, aka Sunday Igboho.
Nicknamed after his hometown, Igboho, he first gained public attention following his role in the Modakeke-Ife communal crisis in 1997, where he played an active part. After several years of being almost invisible, Igboho came back to the limelight last year, when he used the country’s Independence Day celebration on October 1, 2020, to call for the creation of an independent Yoruba Republic.
Although he was widely ridiculed for the idea at the time, today, he is taken more seriously. He has become a lightning rod for grievances related to land rights. He courted more popularity this January when he gave an ultimatum to Fulani herders in Ibarapa to vacate the land after the killing of Dr. Aborode and enforced the same.
In early July, Igboho fled the country after authorities violently raided his home in Ibadan on July 2, 2021, as the authorities cracked down on separatist figures. He was arrested in the neighbouring Benin Republic on July 20 by Benin security agency, allegedly trying to travel through the country’s airport without the right documentation.
Nigeria demanded his extradition to Nigeria while accusing him of stockpiling arms, which he categorically denied.
Held by Benin authority, his legal representatives continue to battle against his extradition to Nigeria vehemently.
Igboho has gained support and sympathy from a wide range of notable Nigerians.
The Nigerian-British Nnamdi Kanu is a pro-Biafra separatist and the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) leader. Kanu founded IPOB in 2014 to restore the separatist state of Biafra, which existed in Nigeria’s Eastern Region during the Nigerian Civil War. As the director of a United Kingdom-registered radio station named Radio Biafra, Kanu propagated Biafran separatism. On October 14, 2015, Kanu was arrested on treason charges in Lagos and detained for more than a year, despite various court orders demanding his release.
When in court, Kanu appeared regularly wearing a Jewish prayer shawl and head covering. He said in court that he “believes in Judaism” and considers himself a Jew and oftentimes has led his Biafran people to various Jewish prayers and religious observances.
April 28, 2017, Kanu was released from prison on conditional bail. Within the period of his release, Kanu jumped bail and fled overseas. He said this was in response to the invasion of his hometown by security forces and the subsequent death of his parents in that incident. While abroad, Kanu played a major part in the insurgency in Southeastern Nigeria, as the Nigerian security forces attempted to quash IPOB’s armed wing, the Eastern Security Network (ESN), resulting in a low-level conflict in early 2021.
Despite the fighting, Kanu maintained that IPOB was interested in a peaceful solution and achieving Biafran independence without violence. On June 27, 2021, news of Kanu’s arrest spread across all social media platforms. According to the report, he was arrested by Interpol in Kenya and repatriated to Nigeria. He has since been in detention and facing a trial.
Kanu’s arrest sparked anger among Biafran separatists and other Nigerians supportive of his cause. The World Igbo Congress (WIC) described the arrest as an “illegal abduction and international gangsterism.” Following his arrest, questions had been raised over what was termed “Kanu’s disregard of the Nigerian constitution” to abscond bail in 2017.
On the occasion of his arraignment in court on June 29, 2021, Kanu told the presiding judge that the Nigerian military forced him to flee the country in 2017, following attempts to assassinate him after sending his parents to their early grave. Kanu’s continued detention has continued to fuel unrest in the eastern parts of the country, with IPOB members continually declaring sit-at-home orders on several occasions in various eastern states, including a sit-at-home order already declared for October 1, 2021.
Often, these orders have been accompanied by violence and bloodshed, resulting in the loss of lives of innocent citizens, some of whom flaunted the order.
Omoyele Sowore has gained both popularity and notoriety as a Nigerian human rights activist. A US permanent resident, his building blocks for the pro-democracy campaign started with his days as a student union leader. A former presidential candidate, and a critic of the Buhari administration, Sowore has survived military rulers and is determined to fight to be heard even if he would end up behind bars- alone.
The Sahara Reporters founder and leader of the #RevolutionNow movement, Sowore, was arrested by DSS on August 3, 2019, ahead of a planned nationwide #RevolutionNow protest. Several notable Nigerians, such as Femi Falana (SAN), Prof. Wole Soyinka, Oby Ezekwesili and many other activists condemned the arrest, accusing the government of violating his human rights. He was later charged with “conspiracy to commit treason and insulting President Muhammadu Buhari.”
On September 24, 2019, Sowore was granted bail by the Federal High Court Abuja on the condition that he surrenders his international passport within 48 hours, which he complied with. However, the DSS refused to release Sowore, claiming ignorance of the court order. The DSS’ refusal to release Sowore led to protests at the UN Plaza in New York, led by Sowore’s wife and sparked a global decry on Nigeria’s failed democracy.
On September 29, 2019, Sowore made his first appearance in the media since his detention. He spoke on his poor treatment while in custody, including being locked up in a dark room without the sunlight. He also alleged that Boko Haram top commanders engaged in high-level terrorism, whom he had encountered in custody, had access to telephone, TV and even cable in their cells, which he did not enjoy.
The court, however, set Sowore free on December 5, 2019, confirming that he had settled his bail terms. However, there was a wind of change on December 14, 2021, when DSS operatives evaded his premises and re-arrested him. He was then released on December 24, 2019. On December 31, 2020, Sowore was re-arrested in Abuja and four other activists following a small demonstration denouncing police and other human rights violations.
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This time, he was charged with unlawful assembly, criminal conspiracy, and inciting a public disturbance. But, on January 12, the Chief Magistrates Court in Abuja ordered his release on bail, and the police complied.
The court set Sowore’s bail at N20 million, with his passport still being withheld and a condition that he remain within the Federal Capital Territory (FCT) until the case is determined.
The Question of National Unity
While millions of Nigerians at home and in the diaspora are unsure about the future of Nigeria’s democracy with the renewed calls for secession, prominent Nigerians have warned against a sad repeat of history. For instance, Vice President Yemi Osibanjo addressed these concerns recently at a press conference.
“This country is ours, whether we are press, politicians or religious people, the country is ours, and we must do everything to ensure that the country remains safe, secure, and united, and this so important,” said Osinbajo. “I thank you for your civic vigilance, for the very kind words you have spoken about Nigeria, and for remaining steadfast in your belief for the rule of law and press freedom in the country.”
He added, “As I keep saying, the elite in our country, those of us who have had the benefit of education, positions and all of that, we owe millions of our people who are poor, who have no access and have no voice, a duty to ensure that we don’t let things become worse for them. It is important for us to continue to emphasise that the unity of this country is crucial because if the country breaks up in any way or becomes the subject of what some people will like it to be, all of us will lose out. Obviously, the elite will survive in any way, but the vast majority of our people will not.”
But former Vice President Atiku Abubakar seemed to share a different sentiment.
“I find it amusing when people declare Nigeria’s unity as fixed and non-negotiable while doing everything in their power to destroy that fragile unity. A marriage cannot be declared as non-negotiable while doing everything to sow seeds of discord in that same marriage,” said Atiku. “Nothing in the relationships among peoples is fixed for eternity. You cannot declare your marriage as non-negotiable while doing everything to sow seeds of discord in that same marriage. You can whip groups of people into forming a country, but you cannot whip them into forming a nation. Nations are built through conscious or even unconscious agreement by peoples who believe that being together is, on balance, more beneficial than being apart.”
On several occasions, Obasanjo had acknowledged that Nigeria is severely challenged.
“Any Nigerian who does not feel concerned about the challenges of this country is a human being without being human. The fact that we are not making Nigeria what God wants it to be is not the fault of God but our fault, particularly the leaders,” the former president noted. “It is better for Nigeria to remain as one indivisible nation than for each tribe to go its separate way. I am a strong believer of one Nigeria, but not one Nigeria at any cost, but one Nigeria where every Nigerian can feel proud that he or she has a stake in this country.”
At 61, the nation certainly needs more than mere flashes of optimism, prayers and fresh political posters to address the thorny issues at the core of our national unity.
Read the original article on This Day.
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