Nigeria’s unity is eminently negotiable

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A lot has been written and said about [email protected] since the beginning of the annual October 1 independence celebrations, last year, and quite rightly so. For the historian, 60 years is like a fortnight in the trajectory of any nation, but for the political observer, 60 is a milestone in the evolution of a nation. The quiet revolution that swept aside the old Soviet Union and the creation of several splinter states in its place, including the re-unification of Germany in the 1990s, is a testament to how rapidly the building blocks of political stability or instability can be laid, constructed, and deconstructed in a blink of an eye; from Belarus to Kyrgyzstan, Georgia to Azerbaijan, Yugoslavia to Czechoslovakia, old states have been dismantled and new political entities emerged from the ruins of internecine warfare and conflict within a short spate of time. So, given that the building blocks of a viable nation are still being assembled here in Nigeria, after 60 years of trying, means that something has seriously gone awry. Parroting the well-worn line, “Nigeria’s unity is non-negotiable”, is the biggest, scandalous lie told to the public by self-serving Nigerian leaders down the decades, specifically since the end of the civil war in 1970.

The ‘non-negotiable’ slogan is an army mantra in fact: “To keep Nigeria one is a task that must be done”, and “we fought to keep this country together”, you would often hear them say. While Nigeria’s ‘unity’ may have been the Federal Government’s clarion call at the time, the war was fought for other (more pernicious) motives, notably; oil and control of resources. Resources and their control were at the front and centre of the civil war. It is equally at the front and centre of the current clamour for “restructuring”. This is no great revelation, however; it is the elephant in the room.

It is on record that those who are now hell-bent on maintaining the status quo, (centralisation of power) in this country, used to be dead against any such thing in the long past.  The first military coup of 1966 changed the calculus for them. The coup took place against the backdrop of the Cold War and ideological rivalry between the East (Soviet Communism) and West (US Capitalism). Africa and the rest of the (non-aligned) world found themselves oscillating between the two power blocs. Kwame Nkrumah in Ghana, followed by Nnamdi Azikiwe in Nigeria, were advocating and trying to advance the idea of African unity. The main plank of their vision rested on the abolition of the artificial colonial partition of Africa in favour of African ‘oneness’. Broadly speaking, in the minds of the ‘radical’ coup leaders, the quickest way to advance the cause of Nigerian brotherhood and African unity was to use the instrumentality of the state to bring that lofty goal to fruition. Partition along regional or ethnic boundaries was anathema to them, as it merely served to amplify the colonial artificial creation. Throughout the Cold War period, therefore, many African leaders subscribed to the view that a strong central state was a pre-requisite for moving Africa towards rapid development. That was the prevailing sentiment at the time. How much the rebel soldiers fully embraced that proposition prior to the coup is a matter for conjecture. However, we choose to see it now, the intention of the coup was certainly not ethnic. It was to cement a highly romanticised African and, for that matter, Nigerian ‘oneness’.

The northern oligarchy which had hitherto jealously guarded their relative autonomy in a loose federation suddenly got wise. They saw wisdom in the idea of a strong centre after all, but entirely for a different purpose. To them, a centralised authority was (and still is) an instrument for resource control. When you then graft the North’s preponderance of coercive force (military and security apparatus) onto a centralised political authority, you end up with the reality of state capture. This is the nightmarish scenario from which the southern part of Nigeria has been trying to disentangle itself, thus far, without success.  Political personnel at the top may change from time to time, and from one party to another at elections, real power will remain in the North in perpetuity for, who in the world ever surrenders a position of power and privilege voluntarily? Nigeria’s unity becomes “non-negotiable” only for those who stand to benefit the most from the status quo. So, the 1966 coup may have been a calamity for northern political leaders at first, but it has turned out to be a blessing in disguise.

Mind you, it is no longer the case of North versus South though. Politics and elite interest have coalesced in the battle for change and continuity. Northern oligarchs regularly reach out to their brethren in the South for mutual support, and vice-versa. By consequence, we have enough vested interests in the two regions which reinforce and propel each other. They now share a similar desire to preserve the status quo, even if it is against the wider political interests of their various constituencies.While the northern oligarchs have their palsied grip on power currently, their southern counterparts are wearily waiting for their turn to eat with the patience of a vulture. They are secured in the certainty of victory at the next elections, and acquiring the bounty of the presidency. Really?

It is inevitable that the next President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria will hail from the South – the North would not wish to commit hara-kiri by wantonly clinging onto office.  What is also certain is that real power will not shift along with the office. At the moment, the President, Major General Muhammadu Buhari (retd.), presides over the most lopsided public service appointments in the history of the Republic. He is not at all fazed by the justifiable criticism levelled against him for brazenly filling key institutions of state with people of the same ethnic and religious stock as himself. His coalition partners from the South have opted to tag along, look the other way, bury their heads in the sand, on the calculation that the table will soon turn. On that, they will be sorely disappointed when, in future, they try to replicate Buhari’s audacious clannishness by placing southern personnel similarly into key institutions of state over and above northern candidates. That is simply a pipe dream, I am afraid. The institutions have been packed and their line of succession pre-determined for the foreseeable future. If and when the in-coming administration attempts a significant shuffling of the personnel already entrenched, it will soon be shown the difference between being in office and being in power.

What all this boils down to is this. Nigeria is at an impasse; it is, once again, about to cross the dreaded Rubicon. The political leaders are sitting on a time bomb. The situation has gone beyond sham elections and empty rows in the National Assembly over meaningless amendments to the constitution. It is not in the gift of Buhari or any other individual or groups of individuals to “restructure” Nigeria. That is the Herculean task for Nigerians themselves to undertake. Sovereignty ultimately resides in the people; not the constitution, lawmakers, or presidential contenders. The phrase, “We the people”, in the preamble to theNigerian constitution must be anchored on real time, real people, and real place. It has been inserted in the current (1999) Constitution for decorative purposes only. It has no connection to reality. It is a fake, a lie, and a deceit. No referendum of the people has ever been conducted to adopt the putative constitution. It was foisted on all by military fiat, in like-manner with the 1914 amalgamation of the Northern and Southern protectorates. Negotiation of Nigeria’s unity is, ipso-facto, the only alternative to perdition.

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