‘United’ by a Rope of Sand

Like Kigali in April 1994, there are beats of ethnic war drums from northern and southern Nigeria that may end up in pogroms or genocide. Since 2011, there have been systemic assassinations of southerners in northern Nigerian cities. Churches have been blown apart, homes have come under attack, restaurants have been bombed, and motorists have been ambushed and gunned down once they are identified as persons of southern ethnic extraction. It all started as Boko Haram suicide missions to champion Islamic cause and avenge the killing of their former leader, one Mohammed Yusuf by the usually trigger-overjoyed police officers in 2009. It then steadily metamorphosed from (and at best remains a combination of) war on the police, war on political opposition, war on the state, war on Christians, and lately, to war on southern Nigerians.

It is generally assumed that the Christian community in the north is predominantly southern; hence the casualties in the Islamists’ assaults in the worship places have been Igbo and Yoruba people. The Madalla Christmas Day bombing of a Catholic church was a direct affront on Christians and southerners. The attacks on Deeper Life and CAC churches a week after, in which about two dozens of people were gunned down in the middle of a service, have ethnic implications. After all, Boko Haram had even issued a 3-day ultimatum to southerners and Christians to leave the north within three days or be wiped off in an ethno-religious Jihad.

Following the declaration of Jihad on the Christians and southerners, and on the expiration of their ultimatum, Boko Haram swung into action. They entered the churches in Mubi and Yola and killed southern worshippers; burnt a vehicle conveying southern elements, roasting in the process some of the occupants, who were mainly Yoruba; gunned down four Igbo people at a filling station in Gombe as they made attempt to flee to the south; encountered a botched attempt to bomb the Livingfaith Church in Kaduna with a car filled with explosives last Sunday as service was going on; and have killed pockets of southerners in many serial killings that have been either underreported or unreported.

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However, Boko Haram is not alone in this ethnic cleansing agenda. There have been counter declarations and offensives. Elements from the south too have made good their threat that the Boko boys do not have the monopoly of violence. After their own counter ultimatum to the northerners to leave the south within three days, Egbesu boys have made spirited efforts to send the Hausa-Fulani community packing in the Niger Delta. Youths in Sapele threw a bomb into an Arabic school; and the Hausa communities in the south-south, southeast, Lagos, Ibadan and Benin have been in trepidation since their folks started the senseless and systematic killing of southerners. The notorious pan-Yoruba group, Odua People’s Congress (OPC) had even sworn to avenge the slaughter of Yoruba in the Boko Haram assaults in the north, and palpable fear has overwhelmed the Hausa populace in major southwestern cities.

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The offensives and counter offensives between the north and south is a very ominous one. It is a call to anarchy and eventual disintegration. We had crossed that road before. After the counter coup of July 1966, northerners began serial killings in Igbo communities in northern and western Nigeria to avenge the perceived Nzeogwu-led ‘ethnic cleansing’ of the Hausa-Fulani leadership in both the State House and the military high command six months earlier. The entire north went up in flames with thunderous shouts of ‘araba’ (meaning let’s divide) with southeasterners as victims of the murderous rage. There were uncontrolled killings of the Igbo in the north and in the military barracks in the southwest. The northerners had seen no basis for unity: the culture, heritage and religion were fundamentally different from that of their strange bedfellows. So, why the union in the first place? The situation got more chaotic and the result was a 30-month war that left a huge scar and sore that is yet to heal.

The current trends are not just reminiscent of that past. They are signs of what may occur. The patterns are too similar: Boko Haram is pursuing an ethnic agenda. Not a religious one! “Boko” or “Western education”, to me, means “southern heritage”, which is “haram”, or “unacceptable”. That was why between 1999 and 2007, the Sharia killings in the north were not different from the expression of ethnic sentiments as now with Boko Haram. It is unfortunate that northern Christians are also killed as they have nowhere else but the north to go. They own the north as much as Boko Haram and Hausa-Fulani ethnic supremacists own it. That northern Christians are also attacked can also be likened to one of the natural occurrences in war whereby civilians become unavoidable casualties. Moreover, some ethnic supremacists may need to kill their kinsmen to achieve their goal. In Rwanda in 1994, Hutu supremacists killed many of their fellow Hutus because they were moderates supporting the Tutsis. The political elite in the north sponsoring the ethnic militias called Boko Haram are smarter not to present an ethnic picture this time around. But the outcomes, as we can now see, are principally ethnic. Religion is just a smokescreen for an agenda to put an end to the unworkable Nigerian ‘nation’. The culture, heritage and religion are still fundamentally different; nothing has changed. And the ultimatum for the Christians to leave the north is an indirect call for disintegration. The same old agenda of ‘araba’. No wonder, it is being followed by pogroms as was the case from August 1966 to May 1967.

The patterns of inter-group relations in Nigeria from 1966 to date only point to one undeniable fact: ‘Nigeria’ is better a fiction than a reality. The marriage has never worked. Ethnic sentiments have become more rife than it was during the colonial experiment. The 1914 creation was a very poor one. It was the proverbial building of a mansion’s foundation on quicksand, and tying of the nuptial knots with a rope of sand. Who would blame the colonialists when the merger was just for their own economic and administrative convenience? It is like merging banks for recapitalization purpose. When it does not work, there can be a demerger. When it is forced, it crumbles by manifestations as corruption and intrigues. Corruption and underdevelopment can never depart from Nigeria because in the minds of many, there is no Nigeria; no sense of commitment to a Nigeria that they did not create. Nigeria is just like a goldmine for fortune-hunters to plunder. However, if there are negotiated delimitations or separation by a national conference, rather than chaotic disintegration, things could get better. Countries have tried this and had their peace.

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Today, so many independent nations have emerged from the unworkable Soviet Union. In Africa, Southern Sudan left the horribly ethno-religiously divided Sudan. For Nigeria, we want to continue to deal with what is antediluvian: an antiquated European experiment that was never meant to work beyond 1960. But if the Federal Government believes in our corporate existence and wants it to remain, then it has to apply reason and action. It either convenes a national conference that will set the bounds of sectional sovereignty; or depart from the mistakes of Gowon in the pre-Civil War days, by not using police action against Boko Haram and other insurgents. It must first crush Boko Haram by smart military intelligence and might.

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