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Secession agitations, killings a blot on 61st independence anniversary

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John Alechenu takes a look at Nigeria’s struggles with secessionist agitations which appear to have worsened in recent times

On October 1st of every year, Nigerians at home and abroad irrespective of their socio-political backgrounds, line up a series of events to celebrate or, at least, mark the day Nigeria got its independence from the British colonial masters. The country became independent in 1960.

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In 1914, the Northern Nigeria Protectorate and the Colony and Protectorate of Southern Nigeria were amalgamated to form a single Colony and Protectorate of Nigeria by the British colonial administration.

The amalgamation of over 250 diverse ethnic nationalities from the two separate provinces, without their knowledge or consent, reportedly led to mutual suspicions and ethnic tensions among the various tribes who were afraid of being dominated by others.

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It is worthy of note that these diverse groups had different identities, religions as well as administrative systems, which they were all keen to preserve before they were forced together. Each had its set of elite who dominated the political class.

The Richards Constitution of 1946 replaced the defective Clifford Constitution of 1922. It was as a result of the weakness of the Clifford Constitution that the Nigerian nationalists began to pressurise Sir Bernard Bourdillon, the governor of Nigeria from 1935 to 1943, to give them a new befitting constitution. It was Sir Bernard Bourdillon who split Nigeria into three regions: North, East, and West in 1939.

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The North, which has the largest land mass and population to boot, was dominated by Hausa-Fulani Muslims who practiced a feudal system.

The largely republican Igbo dominated the East while the highly educated and sophisticated Yoruba held sway in the West. Due to the rivalry between the elite groups of these three areas, the politics of the era was largely built around ethnic identities.

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The Action Group held the West, the Northern Peoples Congress was in charge in the North while the National Council of Nigeria and the Cameroon, was the party of choice in the East.

The parties also differed in ideologies – for example, the NPC and the AG were more favourably disposed to a loose confederacy, while the NCNC preferred a unitary/united structured country.

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Ethnic tensions rose with the Jos and Kano riots of 1945 and 1953 respectively. A move by the mainly Christian and animist South towards independence in 1953 was resisted by northern representatives.

An elder statesman and former Presidential Liaison Officer, Tanko Yakasai, echoed these sentiments when he told Sunday PUNCH that the North decided to reject the motion calling for independence in 1953 largely due to its fear of domination because it wasn’t prepared in terms of western education.

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He said the North rejected the motion “because as at 1953, the entire Northern Region, which had 75 per cent of Nigeria’s landmass and about 55 per cent of the country’s population, had only one graduate, Dr. R.A.B Dikko.

“At the same time, the South had thousands of graduates from different fields of expertise including law, engineering, medicine, administration, social sciences, etc. with about 90 per cent of the public services manpower in the North were made up of expatriates or Nigerians from the southern part of the country.

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“Action Group leaders rejected the compromise proposed by the northern legislator in order to enable the north to prepare itself for independence.

‘‘This is because if Nigeria was granted independence by 1956, the North would be under the control of the civil servants from the South, a situation that will put the North under perpetual domination of the South, particularly people from the Western Region, which had the preponderance of the public servants at the time.”

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These tensions have refused to go away several decades later. Nigeria first became a republic in 1963, but soon afterwards bowed to military rule, after a bloody coup d’état on January 15, 1966.

Military officers who were predominantly from the South-East killed several prominent political and military leaders from the North and the South-West.

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The leader of the coup, the late Major Chukwuma Nzeogwu, in his coup speech among other things, said, “Our enemies are the political profiteers, the swindlers, the men in high and low places that seek bribes and demand 10 per cent; those that seek to keep the country divided permanently so that they can remain in office as ministers or VIPs at least, the tribalists, the nepotists, those that make the country look big for nothing before international circles, those that have corrupted our society and put the Nigerian political calendar back by their words and deeds.”

The counter coup by northern officers and the pogrom of mainly eastern civilians and some military officers set the stage for a brutal civil war which started in 1966 and ended in 1970 with the surrender of the secessionist Biafra Republic.

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Before the civil war, precisely on February 23, 1963, a young idealist, Isaac Boro, led his armed comrades in a 12-day armed struggle against the Nigerian state.

He declared the Niger Delta Republic which he said was no longer a part of Nigeria owing to what he described as the environmental degradation of the area as well as the unfair treatment of Niger Deltans in the sharing of revenues accruing from oil exploration activities.

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His rebellion was crushed. Boro was imprisoned but later freed and granted amnesty by the then federal military government led by General Yakubu Gowon (retd). Skirmishes with ethno-religious colourations have hunted Nigeria over the years.

An insurrection led by largely poor northern youths protesting the killing of their spiritual leader, Mohammed Yusuf, by security forces gave birth to the Boko Haram insurgency which has lasted for several years till date.

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The militants have grown from ragtag fighters to a group of well-armed terrorists with international connections. They have increased their list of demands to include the establishment of an Islamic republic. Designated as one of the world’s deadliest terrorist groups, the Boko Haram terrorist group has killed thousands and forced several others to flee their homes.

Growing inequalities as well as actions and inactions of the regime of the President, Major General Muhammadu Buhari (retd), have given rise to fresh secessionist agitations by Igbo youths under the aegis of the Indigenous People of Biafra led by Mazi Nnamdi Kanu, and a group of Yoruba youths led by Sunday Adeyemo aka Sunday Igboho.

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For the Igbo there have been complaints of systematic marginalisation in appointive and elective offices since the civil war ended in 1970.

They have also taken issue with the refusal of the Nigerian state to support the emergence of an Igbo man as President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria.

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The Executive Director of the Human Rights Writers Association of Nigeria, Emmanuel Onwubiko, argued that the president has no one else to blame for the rise in criminality and secessionist agitations under his watch.

He said, “What the President does is to practice his deep-rooted nepotism and favouritism in appointments, whereby he prefers his fellow Fulani/Hausa northern Muslims to hold such strategic portfolios as heads of the Department of States Services; Inspector General of Police, Comptroller Generals of Customs and Immigration; Director-General of the National Intelligence Agency and the Nigerian Security and Civil Defence Corps.”

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Onwubiko said there was no way such actions would not have a telling effect on the country. According to him, 61 years after Independence, Nigerians ought to be celebrating nationhood and integration but that the reverse was the case this time round.

However, the Chairman of the Buhari Media Organisation, Niyi Akinsuji; differed. He argued that it would be uncharitable for any person or group of persons to blame Buhari for the rise in criminality.

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He said, “When people want to push forward a narrative, we will suggest that they support them with facts not sentiments. President Muhammadu Buhari has risen to the occasion by providing the kind of leadership others before him have been unable to provide.

“It is untrue to claim that only his kinsmen have been appointed into his cabinet and other sensitive positions, this is simply not true, every section of this country is represented. For Mr. President what is paramount is Nigeria and all his actions have been tailored towards leaving behind a Nigeria all of us irrespective of ethnic, religious or political affiliation will be proud of.”

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An elder statesman and foremost Ijaw national leader, Chief Edwin Clark, expressed the view that the nation is not yet beyond redemption

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