Dear President Buhari, Nigeria’s Unity Is Negotiable! By Chido Onumah
Since the public presentation of the book We Are All Biafrans and the intervention of a former vice president of Nigeria, Atiku Abubakar, who chaired the event and delivered a speech titled “Restructuring for Nigeria’s national unity” – a speech I recommend to everyone interested in the unity and survival of Nigeria – the issue of restructuring Nigeria and negotiating its unity has once again taken the centre stage of national discourse.
No less a person than President Muhammadu Buhari has had to weigh in on the debate. During his Eid el-Fitr message to Nigerians on Wednesday, July 6, 2016, he was reported to have said: “I assure them (in reference to the Niger Delta ‘militants’) that when we were very junior officers, we were told by our leaders, by the Head of State, Gen. Gowon, that to keep Nigeria one is a task that must be done…we never thought of oil. What we were after is one Nigeria. Please, pass the message to the militants that one Nigeria is not negotiable. And I pray they better accept it. The constitution is very clear…I assure them there would be justice.”
Before President Buhari’s admonition, Nobel Laureate, Prof. Wole Soyinka, had noted during a parley with The Punch on Tuesday, June 28, 2016: “I am on the side of those who say we must do everything to avoid disintegration. That language I understand. I don’t understand (ex-President Olusegun) Obasanjo’s language. I don’t understand (President Muhammadu) Buhari’s language and all their predecessors, saying the sovereignty of this nation is non-negotiable. It’s bloody well negotiable and we had better negotiate it. We better negotiate it, not even at meetings, not at conferences, but every day in our conduct towards one another.”
The opinions of these two prominent Nigerians reflect the two divergent opinions on the issue of restructuring Nigeria or negotiating her unity. I had planned this article – that was before President Buhari’s remarks – as a cautionary note to the Left, progressives and genuine patriots in Nigeria. I believe they are the only ones predisposed and sincerely open to solving the current crisis. Regrettably, this is one issue that has divided the Left, progressives and patriots in Nigeria. This division has defined the kind of response – ranging from obfuscation and doublespeak to outright denial and combativeness – that has made it impossible to have a coherent national narrative and action plan. Since those who ought to speak out and act have maintained criminal silence and indifference, they have yielded the space to conservative analysts of every hue, hypocrites, blackmailers, anarchists, and fifth columnists.
So what are the issues in contention? There seems to be a general agreement, even among those who brought us to this near-tragic end, that Nigeria is not working for Nigerians. However, and this is where the divergence of opinions sets in, Nigeria is not working not because it is not workable, but because it has been rigged to fail. Take the issue of the civil war (1967-70) which President Buhari alluded to. That war was fought in part because of natural resources (oil specifically). That was the driving force of the so-called federal offensive and to some extent it also defined the geo-politics of what would become the secessionist Republic of Biafra. After 30 months of fighting and millions of lives lost, there was a “negotiated” settlement. A truce was declared with the catchphrase “No victor; No vanquished.”
Unfortunately, 46 years after the end of that internecine war, low-intensity conflicts by state and non-state actors are raging across the country, from Boko Haram in the North-east, Islamic Movement in Nigeria (IMN) and Arewa People’s Congress (APC) in the North-west, the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) and other groups in the South-east, the Niger Delta Avengers and Bakassi Strike Force (BSF) in the South-south to the Oodua Peoples Congress (OPC) in the South-west and potential avengers in the North-central. What this tells us is that that war didn’t really end and hasn’t ended. What then do we do to fix Nigeria? The simple answer would be to return to the negotiation table.
To be clear, Nigeria has always been negotiated. The problem has been that the “victors” or those who control power at each round of negotiation have unilaterally defined the structure and politics of the country going forward. Again, I return to the issue of oil. Before independence in 1960, this was the “sharing” formula for crude oil revenues: Oil producing states (region) retained 67.4% of revenues, the federal government got 20%, non-oil states (regions) got 12.6%. After the civil in 1970, the regime of Gen Yakubu Gowon through Decree No. 13 “negotiated” a new formula: Oil producing states retained 45% of revenues, the federal government got 55% while non-oil states got 0%. In 1975, the regime of Gen Murtala Muhammed in another round of negotiation through Decree 6, came up with this formula: Oil producing states would retain 20% of revenues, the federal government got 80% and non-oil states got 0%. In 1976, Gen Obasanjo, then military dictator, in his omniscience, gave oil producing states 0% of revenues while the federal government got 100% and the non-oil states got 0%.
President Shehu Shagari who came to power in 1979 brought a bizarre twist to the “sharing” formula. He retained the Obasanjo formula of 0% allocation to oil producing states and 100% to the federal government to be shared in this order: 50% shared equally among states, 40% shared based on population and 10% based on land mass. By 2000, during the reincarnation of Gen. Obasanjo as civilian president, a new revenue sharing formula was negotiated which gave oil producing states 13%.
As Prof. Yakubu Aboki Ochefu notes in the introduction to the book Nigeria is Negotiable, “Beginning from the Berlin West Africa Conference of 1884-85, the ‘negotiated’ existence of what eventually became Nigeria in 1914 (unfortunately, negotiated without the input of those who would eventually become Nigerians) has always been a part of its historical experience. Under British colonial rule, the economic and administrative structures of the country were continuously rejigged until independence in 1960.
“Between the official versions of the decolonisation history that gives a prominent role to our nationalist heroes for winning independence from the British, to others who believe in the ‘conspiracy theory’ of decolonisation, the process of how the region with the least democratic credentials ended up as the driver of a new democratic enterprise epitomizes aspects of the negotiated experience. As a country on its ‘third missionary’ journey to a truly democratic nation, the fundamental questions of nation building that began over 100 years ago have not been fully and or properly answered. We must collectively negotiate to ensure that we retain the map (of Nigeria) but change the way we exist under that map.”
On April 22, 1990, a group of young Nigerian army officers – mainly from a section of the country (the same army President Buhari told us last week fought to keep Nigeria one) – attempted to overthrow the military regime of Gen Ibrahim Babangida. While that abortive coup lasted, the rebellious soldiers excised five states of the federation – Sokoto, Borno, Katsina, Kano and Bauchi. That coup and the excision order were popular and well-received in many parts of the country. Clearly, if that coup had succeeded, the aftermath would have been another civil war. Gen. Babangida responded to that mutiny by dividing Nigeria into 30 states from 21 (just as Yakubu Gowon divided Nigeria into 12 states from four regions in 1967 to weaken the Biafra secession).
Having told ourselves a few historical home truths, let us quickly avail ourselves of one more opportunity to reclaim Nigeria. When people call for restructuring Nigeria, they make the call for a reason. And it should not be dismissed peremptorily. The rulers of the country use every opportunity to speak about the unity of Nigeria and hardly do anything to build or enhance that unity.
I don’t think the issue really is about the unity of Nigeria. Undoubtedly, many Nigerians want to live in a united Nigeria. It is important, therefore, that we do not conflate the issues. The call for restructuring Nigeria has nothing to do with the “dissolution” of Nigeria. You can believe that “Nigeria is non-negotiable” and still support the call for restructuring the country. That call is basically about building an inclusive and equitable nation; one in which your worth and position are determined not by where you come from or your religion; a nation founded on a popular constitution validated by “we the people”.
On a final note, let me emphasize that restructuring Nigeria has become a “categorical imperative” for the country. It is either we restructure or perish! Restructuring Nigeria is not an elitist concept (even if it is sometimes used by sections of the ruling elite to negotiate power) neither is it about splitting Nigeria. We can restructure (or negotiate) Nigeria without changing the internal map of the country; it is more about resource control rather than resource allocation; more about devolution of power and, therefore, responsibilities. It is about enhancing citizenship rights and the existential confidence in the country.
Of course, restructuring Nigeria is not a silver bullet or cure-all for our problems. But we can’t take on our problems as a nation without a generally acceptable and workable structure. In a sentence, we MUST “re-federalize”.
Onumah’s latest book is We Are All Biafrans. He can be reached through firstname.lastname@example.org; Follow him on Twitter: @conumah