from EMEKA OKONKWO in Abuja, Nigeria
ABUJA, (CAJ News) – FEARS of a coup may have been allayed with the return of President Muhammadu Buhari after a lengthy absence due to ill health but the panic gripping delicate Nigeria has taken a new dimension as an ultimatum issued by the major ethnic group for other tribes to vacate some parts of the country approaches.
Coupled with terrorism by the Islamic militant Boko Haram sect escalating, with over 20 000 civilians killed (unofficial figures suggest the toll is 100 000) and some 2 million displaced, the West African powerhouse has to contend with inter-ethnic relations at their most fractured nation in recent years with the deadline some diehard members of the majority Hausa for the Igbos to leave the northern parts of the country due at the end of this month.
At the centre of the brewing conflict are the Hausa (largely Muslim), are the largest ethnic group with 29 percent of the 190-million population, and the Igbos (predominantly Christians), who are third with 18 percent. The Yoruba are the second largest tribe (21 percent) in Africa’s biggest country by population, and with over 500 tribal groups.
While the government of Buhari (a Hausa), who nonetheless has spent the better part of the tense period in the United Kingdom for health reasons, audios and videos urging the North to attack the Igbos in the region are in circulation on the internet and social media.
The Hausa-language audio messages urge northern Nigerians to destroy the property of Igbo people and kill anyone who refuses to leave by October 1, the date given in the ultimatum by a coalition comprising the Arewa Citizens Action for Change, Arewa Youth Consultative Forum, Arewa Youth Development Foundation, Arewa Students Forum and Northern Emancipation Network on the Igbo Persistence for Secession.
The diehards threatened “consequences.”
With the brutal history between the tribes, also playing itself out in the bloody clashes between the predominantly Hausa nomadic herdsman and mostly Christian farmers, the worst is feared.
The Arewa coalition’s ultimatum issued in Kaduna is reaction to the resurgence of secessionist tendencies orchestrated by the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) and Movement of the Actualisation of the Sovereign State of Biafra (MASSOB) south of Nigeria, an Igbo stronghold. Biafra is a state formerly independent from Nigeria until it was incepted after a civil war 47 years ago.
The so-called Niger Delta Watchdogs from the region earlier threatened all Northerners to quit the region although no deadline was given.
Other threats have come from the Nnamdi Kanu-led Radio Biafra, which is advocating for independence of the region. Kanu is the leading proponent of Biafra autonomy.
It is accused of fanning hate speech and propagating Igbo (southern) supremacy.
Ultimatums and counter-provocations between the two tribes have characterised their relations.
IPOB and MASSOB have in recent months been engrossed with the idea of actualising a sovereign state of Biafra and have gone about this venture in a manner that is largely unacceptable to the majority of Nigerians.
Igbo Ekunie Initiative (IEI), a coalition of professionals in Nigeria and the Diaspora, is not taking idly to the threats and thus urged the southerners and Christians to permanently quit the northern parts of the country for their safety as the deadline issued by the northerners “approaches.”
“Since the Northern led federal government is unwilling to protect lives and property, the responsibility for such protection, therefore, falls on each and every individual,” IEI said.
IEI President, Maazi Tochukwu Ezeoke, and Secretary, Lawrence Nwobu, signed the statement.
They discouraged any southerner or Christian living in or investing anywhere in the north to put that on hold “until further notice.”
“Taking cognizance of the ever increasing crisis of nationhood, we urge the federal government to organize a referendum where all component units will choose if they want to remain in Nigeria or not, and where they will collectively decide on how they want to be governed.”
Francis John, executive director of Hope Africa, warned apportioning blame.
“We must collectively solicit continuous peace and tranquility with dignity and respect for each other,” John said.
Rifts between Hausa and Igbo are long and deep but have been dormant until recently. In modern history, they are traceable to the 1966 coup and assassination of the northern top elite, including Prime Minister Abubakar Balewa.
It is argued the British colonisers purposefully sowed seeds of conflict between the two groups.
In 1914, the British Empire joined the Southern and Northern Nigeria Protectorate to form the single colony of Nigeria.
The unification was done for economic than political reasons as the north had a huge budget deficit. The colonial administration sought to use the budget surpluses in the south to offset this shortfall.
A group of United Nations human rights experts is wary at the history of violence repeating itself.
In a joint statement, they expressed “grave concern” an ultimatum ordering the Igbo to flee their homes by October 1.
“We are gravely concerned about this proliferation of hate messages and incitement to violence against the Igbo and their property, especially considering the previous history of such violence,” the experts said.
The experts comprise Mutuma Ruteere (special rapporteur on contemporary racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance), Fernand de Varennes (special rapporteur on minority issues) and Anastasia Crickley, Chairperson of the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination.
The trio expressed “deep concern” some prominent local leaders and elders had not condemned the ultimatum, hate speech and the perpetrators.
There have been scant investigations, no prosecutions or punishment in the wake of the ultimatum and creation, publication and circulation of hate songs and audio messages.
“The government must be vigilant as hate speech and incitement can endanger social cohesion and threaten peace by deepening the existing tensions between Nigeria’s ethnic communities,” UN experts jointly stated.
Buhari’s All Progressives Congress government (APC), which is overwhelmed by the Boko Haram crisis since it assumed power on a campaign premised on tackling runaway corruption, is seen as having taken the foot off the pedal lately to address simmering factionalism that is diminishing its prospects in the elections due in two years.
There was alarm during the more than 100 days he (Buhari) was out of the country for treatment of an undisclosed illness after rumour some diehards from the party had sought the military’s aid to topple Buhari’s government.
The alleged machinations, fuelled by Buhari’s lengthy absence, were supposedly a nefarious bid by the northern hardliners within the party to block the ascension of his deputy, Yemi Osinbajo, a southerner, to the presidency in the event of the death or retirement of Buhari.
Nigerians have warmed up to Osinbajo, an affable law professor, during the period he has acted as president in the absence of Buhari who has displayed traits of his former dictatorial self.
Buhari, a military dictator in the 1980s, is seen as a liability to the party ahead of the next polls because of his ill-health.
Meanwhile, speaking in his hometown of Daura in Katsina State, he affirmed the right of Nigerians to live anywhere in the country regardless of their state of origin.
The president dismissed the ultimatum.
“Every Nigerian has a right to live, work and thrive in any part of the country, irrespective of their backgrounds,” Buhari said.
– CAJ News