Negotiation as antidote to epidemic of separatism in Nigeria

By Magnum Onyibe

It is what was said and not said by the attorney general of the federation and minister of justice, Abubakar Malami to journalists at a press conference held on November 9 in Abuja that first indicated to me that the ice in the frosty relationship between the Igbo and Yoruba nationalities with respect to separatist agitations and the government at the centre with President Muhammadu Buhari at the helm is about to thaw. I second-guessed Malami when in response to a reporter’s question about the possibility of a political solution to the federal government’s prosecution of Nnamdi Kanu and Sunday Igboho, he stated that a negotiated settlement for the unshackling of the Indigenous People of Biafra, IPOB leader, and Oduduwa nation movement leader, was not off the table.

Without being combative, the minister of justice took time to paint the conditions precedent to such settlement.

“So, it is not a conclusion that one can outrightly make without juxtaposing associated facts relating to the reconciliation; there has to be an approach and then a counter consideration.” It is a no brainer to figure out that ‘the approach’ that Malami was hinting at is the subsequent visit by the high profile Igbo elders, politicians, and cultural leaders as well as the clergy to president Mohammadu Buhari in Aso Rock Villa on Friday, November 19, 2021, which is about 10 days after.

It is also needles pointing out that at that stage, both the expressed and unexpressed views of the minister of justice at the Wednesday press conference confirmed my haunch that it had been concluded that a political settlement of the political storm arising from the crisis of separatism rocking our country, was ipso facto.

Everything else is a mere formality.

Ostensibly, the impending resolution is owed to entreaties from leaders from the Igbo and Yoruba nations. But in reality, it may actually be influenced by leaders in the international communities who always use back channels and side meetings during global conferences to press fellow leaders to uphold certain democratic norms and ethos such as the universally acknowledged right of self-determination by individuals or groups.

The peace emissary branded as “Highly Respected Igbo Greats”, led by 93 years old Amaechi Mbazuluike, minister of Aviation in the first republic and ex parliamentarian, along with ex Anambra state governor, Chukwuemeka Ezeife, as well as Goddy Uwazuruike, a former president of Ala Ikenga, (an Igbo cultural group) plus Sunday Onuoha of the Methodist church and Tagbo Amaechi, was weighty enough to soften president Buhari’s heart to the extent that he has promised to do what he has informed Nigerians that he had not done in his six years of stewardship as President of our great country.

Here is how President Buhari couched his willingness to do the ‘unusual’ for peace to reign by freeing Nnamdi Kanu and Sunday Igboho: “You have made an extremely difficult demand on me as the leader of this country. The implication of your request is very serious.

“In the last six years, since I became president, nobody would say I have confronted or interfered in the work of the judiciary. God has spared you and given you a clear head at this age, with a very sharp memory. A lot of people half your age are confused already. But the demand you made is heavy. I will consider it.”

In my calculation, the visit and president Buhari’s response signal the beginning of the end of incarceration of Nnamdi Kanu and perhaps Sunday Igboho, both of whom have been declared the enemy of the country for their alleged roles as catalysts for the destabilizing and debilitating activities of angry Nigerians currently threatening the unity of our dear country.

And the current rapprochement which heralds the era of dialogue with, and between all the member ethnic nationalities that make up Nigeria has the potentials to ultimately foster an atmosphere of inclusiveness which is the indisputable panacea to the current ethnic and religious crisis occasioned by the exclusion from the governance of, or canceling out of non-members of the ethnic origin and religious belief of the present occupants of Aso Rock Villa which is a concern that has pushed our country to the precipice.

A peer of the Hausa/Fulani and Yoruba leaders, Tafawa Balewa and Obafemi Awolowo, proposed the inclusion of secession clause in the constitution during the formative stages of our country which Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe opposed, appear now to be the architect of the misfortune of his people- the Igbos that have been struggling to exit Nigeria also known as BIA-EXIT.

Isn’t it such a paradox that it is that decision to reject the introduction of a separatist clause in the statute book by Azikiwe back in 1953 that has turned around to hurt his people-the Igbo nation that has been seeking ways to decouple itself from Nigeria by force as was the case in 1967 when it tried to secede but failed to achieve the objective after it was defeated in the ensuing war? And it is blithe on our country’s democracy credentials that the quest to secede has remained a burning desire that is still being nursed by the Igbos after over fifty years since the unfortunate civil war ended, through the platform of both MASSOB and IPOB in non-violent ways.

Incidentally, it is the non-violence claim of lPOB in pushing their agenda that has been disputed by the authorities in Abuja, hence the proscription of the separatist group and incarceration of its members, including their leader, Nnamdi Kanu, captured in Kenya and brought to Nigeria for trial and which is the reason that the “Highly Respected Igbo Greats“ stormed Aso Rock Villa intent on softening president Buhari’s heart in the bid to get him to (as it were) temper justice with mercy by releasing Kanu from the jail unconditionally.

Presumably, a similar amnesty would be extended to Sunday lgboho, the convener of the Oduduwa nation movement that is also being held in jail in the Republic of Benin at the behest of the federal republic of Nigeria.

Now, l have engaged in the forgoing literature review, not for the heck of it, but to put in perspective, the epidemic of separatism currently haunting Nigeria like a demonic specter.

Clearly, what is currently acutely absent in our political ecosystem is the ability and capacity of our leaders to lead by consensus as opposed to the application of force as reflected by the might is right or take it or leave it mentality of our modern-day political demagogues.

That is quite the opposite of the way and manner that our past leaders- Nnamdi Azikiwe, Tafawa Balewa and Obafemi Awolowo managed our diversity through conferences during which they negotiated the partnership between the multiple ethnic nationalities with each of them tabling their issues for deliberations during the conferences held on short intervals before the military incursion into politics that originated from the 1966 military putsch.

Apart from the suspension of the constitution which the advent of the involvement of the military in the political affairs of our country foisted, the mantra ‘unity of Nigeria is not negotiable is the other mortal blow that the military imposed on the nation. How can an agreement or union not be negotiable?

So in the good old days, the unity of Nigeria was negotiated by the leaders of the east, north, and west, later mid-west and our country did not break up. That is in stark contrast with the current dispensation whereby the mantra: the unity of Nigeria is not negotiable, is oft-touted by the powers that be in Aso Rock Villa. The simple rule of the thump about partnerships and marriages is that if they can not be negotiated, they would ultimately be broken.

The unfortunate civil war of 1967-70 with its horrific consequences ingrained in our memories is likely the driver for the mindset of Aso Rock Villa that the unity of Nigeria is not negotiable.

But as genuine as the desire to keep Nigeria as one indivisible entity is, it appears to me that the ineffectual and ineffective proclamation by the leaders in Aso Rock Villa that Nigeria’s unity is not negotiable may be doing more harm than good to “The labors of our heroes past…” which may end up being in vain if peradventure our country unhinges.”

I went on to add that if a referendum was called today, l am of the conviction that most Nigerians would opt to remain in Nigeria if equity and justice are restored through the observance of federal character principle-a unifying policy enshrined in the 1999 constitution of the federal republic of Nigeria.

Presumably, it is likely that it is the acquiescence of Aso Rock Villa apparatchiks with the reasonable sense in that opinion piece that might have in one way or the other also pricked the conscience of those in the orbit of power and therefore one of the motivating factors for the softening of president Buhari’s heart towards the separatists as reflected by his resolve to apply a less military approach to the resolution of the conflict, which is autocratic, and instead rely more on negotiation-democracy’s prime and most efficacious tool for settling disputes.

If President Buhari unshackles, Nnamdi Kanu, and Sunday Igboho, (as he appears set to do) and thereafter brings IPOB and Oduduwa nation agitators to the round table for negotiation, he would have neutralized the highly toxic relationship between ethnic nationalities that have wreaked unprecedented havoc on the nation and severely damaged the fabric of unity in our beloved country.

What is more: if the gale of separatism is stymied, President Buhari would be listed as a warrior for peace alongside the president, Umar Yar’adua of blessed memory who reigned from 2007-2010, (during which period he literarily quenched the fire in the Niger delta made worst by his predecessors-Sani Abacha and Olusegun Obasanjo who had applied brute force in the management of the conflict) by offering amnesty to militants in the region who had made it extremely difficult for oil/gas exploration to happen in the region which is the treasure trove of Nigeria.

In conclusion, as an encouragement to president Buhari and perhaps to hasten his decision to free Nnamdi Kanu and Sunday lgboho, he should adopt or mimic the good initiative of the former president of South Africa under the apartheid regime, late Frederick de-Clerk, who is a rare and noble gesture, freed the iconic Nelson Mandela from prison where he was serving a jail term for fighting for the end of apartheid which is white minority rule over the black majority in South Africa-a practice that has gone down in history as man’s greatest inhumanity to man.

As Nigeria is now on the cusp of an end to the scourge of separatism ravaging the nation, evidenced by the recent accommodating utterance by president Buhari in response to the request by “The Highly Respected Igbo Greats” the good old tool of negotiation preferred by diplomats for settling conflicts, holds the ace as it has proven over the years to trump the tyrannical resort to the use of barrels of gun preferred in the autocracy of which Nigeria is not one.

As President Buhari prepares for his exit from Aso Rock Villa in 2023, restoring peace and unity in Nigeria in the 11th hour of his reign by freeing the leaders of the separatist groups, Kanu and lgboho along with their followers would be another feather on his cap. It would be on top of the accolades that the outgoing president is already earning for making it possible for the amendment of the electoral laws allowing for the transmission of election results by INEC electronically.

Expectedly, all eyes are currently on Mr president as the nation awaits the official signing of the amended electoral bill 2021 into law.

It is doubtless that it is another way that president Buhari would be leaving a positive legacy on the electioneering process in our country where integrity in the system has improved after his second term election in 2019 as reflected by the fidelity of the results of Edo (Sept.2020)and Anambra (Nov. 2021) states gubernatorial contests adjudged to have been conducted by INEC leveraging innovative and technology-driven systems.

Like the proverbial Oliver Twist that wants more, Nigerians await the introduction of electronic voting to further boost the integrity of our political office election process; introduction of state police for robust security at the sub-national level for more effective protection of the lives and properties of the masses dwelling in bandits and terrorists ravaged hinterland; and restructuring of the political system for an egalitarian society as well as the rotation of the presidency to our Igbo brothers and sisters for the sake of equity, before the curtain falls on what thus far has been described as a very tumultuous Buhari era.

In the event that Mr president meets the high expectations in the Things-To-Do-List catalogued above, he would be leaving Nigeria as a much better country than the condition he met in 2015 when he won the presidency.

But would President Buhari respond to the stimuli? Since he seems to be finicky about how he would be judged by posterity, l would argue that mr president would keep striving to leave an admirable legacy.

That is why l am willing to wager a bet that he would try his best to replace his initial sordid reputation of being a divider-in-chief (as his traducers like to characterize him) to being a chief unifier (which his admirers would love him to be ) in his later days in office by ensuring that he ticks off all the boxes in the list of expectations of most Nigerians that l earlier highlighted before the 2023 terminal date of his tenure.

*Onyibe, an entrepreneur, public policy analyst, author, development strategist, an alumnus of Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Tufts University, Massachusetts, USA, and a former commissioner in Delta state government, sent this piece from Lagos.

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