Recently, Biafra has been in the news. The 17th of October arrest of Nnamdi Kano, a young firebrand who has been gaining attention for his advocacy of the cause of Biafra by any means necessary, brought the movement into national prominence. Within weeks, protests erupted in parts of the southeast and south-south states, which resulted in attacks on Hausa people living in Port Harcourt. But for the intervention of the army, some of them would have been killed. And the protests give no sign of abating: on Wednesday, thousands of youths were in the streets of Onitsha, the capital of Anambra State, demanding Kanu’s release. This time, nine people were killed and buildings in the premises of the Central Mosque as well as trucks were burnt. Kanu remains in detention and there is little information on the progress of the case.
The self-styled Biafra movement contains a useful message for all Nigerians: the need for a true platform on which to engage urgent socio-economic issues and find solutions without being driven to extremes. In the current climate of declining oil revenues and foreign reserves, Nigeria’s government has had to make some tough choices. A restriction on imports and on foreign exchange makes sense if the goal is to keep the naira value against the dollar. However, such measures are not neutral. They will affect people who buy and sell foreign goods and those who buy inputs for their manufacturing operations. Igbo traders are likely to be hit hard.
While the steps being taken by the government will open up new opportunities in Nigeria’s economy, some will be affected more than others, and not all actors will be positioned to benefit from the changes. Engaging losers of policy would probably go a long way to defusing hostility and resistance. Moreover, many in the south east claim that the infrastructure in the region is the worst in the country. With the most vibrant commercial market in the West African sub region, they resent the fact that they lack a port and are forced to use Lagos and Port Harcourt ports to bring in their goods. The Second Niger Bridge, which has been in the works for eons, has still not been built. While the recent past administration courted the South east, in real terms it did not do enough to turn around the general perception of federal government disregard and neglect.
The Point is that these are legitimate concerns – ones that the pipe dream of Biafra cannot solve any better than past federal administrations have done. And while the new federal government is well within its rights in enforcing the law against invitations to political violence – which Nnamdi Kanu made – it should also see this moment as an opportunity to foster spaces for the productive airing of grievances and achievement of real solutions. Because the channels we currently have are clearly not working. Given the current financial situation of the states, with more than half struggling to pay the salaries of public servants, and those governors clamouring for bail outs, it is unlikely that there would be the mental space to take on developmental efforts, which require a much longer time horizon to yield results.
The imperative of satisfying current demands will make it hard for those governing to plan for the future. Alternatively, why can we not put the zonal structures to better use? In the Southwest, we already have the Development Agenda for Western Nigeria Commission. In the south-south, there is the BRACED Commission and the Niger Delta Development Commission; and in the south east, there is the South East Nigeria Economic Commission. For the north, there is Arewa Consultative Forum and the President’s Initiative for the North East. While the states are caught up in the four-year electoral cycle and the shorter-term monthly recurrent expenditure cycle, the regional bodies, being unelected, can, therefore, focus on socio-economic challenges that require a longer time horizon.
Elections are important because without political power, politicians can do little. However, without demonstrating credible development outcomes, the political system will lack legitimacy, so it is important to carve out space for development thinking, planning and implementation within the country’s democratic structure. We have been through this process of post-election unrest before. In 1999, following the election that restored democratic rule, suddenly there were popular demands in several states in the north for shar’ia law.
The slow pace of judicial cases in Nigeria probably made the issue popular, while the perception that the north had lost power to the south made the advocacy timely. We will likely face similar populist uprisings in the future. While democracy gives everyone the right to express themselves, the government should make sure that those who use their grievances as an excuse to attack non-indigenes and peaceful civilians face the full brunt of the law so as to curtail the violence.
The push for fragmentation will ultimately be side-lined by creating a functioning system for effective national cooperation. Other countries, from the fiercely independent tribes of the Arab Emirates to the original thirteen colonies of the United States, have done it before; why can’t we?