War of Words vs. War of Deeds

On March 18, 2013, five coordinated explosions took place at a bus car park in the main city of Kano, causing an yet uncertain number of fatalities. Such attacks have been constant in Northern Nigeria and often target Christians. In fact, the targeted bus car park is a major hub from where people move to other states, including southern ones. In the same way, the bus car park is located in an area inhabited by mostly non-indigeneous peoples, i.e., Christian southerners, of which Igbo ethnics – the largest ethnic group in the South-East geopolitical area – comprise a major part .

Official numbers point out to about 25 fatalities. Other unofficial sources point out to more than 100 casualties. This brutal violence spurred indignation among Christians in the North and South of Nigeria. The leader of Ohanaeze Ndigbo – a pan-Igbo group in Kano – stated that “this is the worst experience of the Igbo in Kano; we have lost over 60 souls, while five buses were burnt to ashes . These show that we have always been the target of the attacks”.

Can this event mark a shift in the future development of Nigerian Affairs, by returning to the past in some way? It has indeed the potential. In order to understand the reasons behind this and why a “return to the past” is possible, we have to look at the historical background of tensions between the Igbo ethnic group and the Nigerian political establishment.

The North and the South

The North of Nigeria comprises three-quarters of Nigeria’s territory and contains about half of the population in the country. Adding to this, it is largely Muslim and Hausa-speaking, traditionally governed by a Fulani ruling class.

The South, on the other hand, is mainly Christian and animist. Before independence it was divided between two geopolitical zones: the West, dominated by the Yoruba ethnic group -comprised about two-thirds of the population in the region – who had developed their education, trade and administration, and benefited from early interaction with European powers, thus absorbing a variety of Western skills. The East, in turn, was the poorest and most densely populated region in Nigeria. Paradoxically, it was the region with the best educated population. The majority, about two-thirds of the region’s population, belong to the Igbo ethnic group, characterised by its highly skilled artisan works and trade.

Ever since European meddling, there has been a wide developmental gap between North and South. Right after independence the North, which comprised slightly more than half of the Nigerian Population, had less than 10% of the country’s primary schools enrolments and less than 5% of secondary ones. This disparity was seriously reflected in government positions, which were mostly filled by highly educated Southerners, mainly Igbo. As a matter of fact, not even 1% of Nigerian officials, at a national level, were Northerners.

This disparity was in part due to the greatest interaction the southern region in Nigeria had with European powers in terms of trade, and social and institutional changes inherent to it. On the other hand, the North had kept focusing on its centuries-old across-desert trade. One other reason was the lack of presence by Christian missionaires in the North, the likes of whom were the main vehicles for a western style education. Thus, western education was kept at bay.

On January 1st 1914, the two British protectorates – North and South – merged under the same political unity. This move was justified with the need to divert funds raised in the South – extracted from primary commodities such as palm oil – to the deficit-run North. It was indeed understood that the South had the ability to subsidize the North until it could become self-sufficient.

Keeping with the merge, the system of indirect rule had been put in practice by the British colonial masters. The North maintained their administrative system, where power layed on traditional native chiefs, namely the Emir, who in turn was dependent on the British governor. Regarding the South, it was divided in nine provinces and each allocated with a resident native governor. This meant a radical change for the East, where for centuries a traditional village-level political organization was the organizational system. Thus, for the East the appointment of local administrations was somewhat of an alien interference in their ‘normal’.

As a result of this system, some groups in the East resisted British indirect rule, only to be answered with punitive military interventions. In the end, some parts of the Igboland, in the East, were officially absorbed into the British Empire as late as 1918. Regarding the North, the Emir became a fully protected ‘regent’ by the British, which allowed him to exert power abuses. One example of such abuse was the promulgation of legislation dictating that every inhabitant in the North (Muslim or not) would be under the jurisdiction of Islamic Courts.

In 1945, in order to avoid such irregularities resulting from the system of indirect rule, British governors intended to promote Nigerian unity. Therefore, colonial rulers included the North in the central legislature. This event established an uneven federation with the North having twice the size and population of the other two established regions (South-West and South-East). Adding to this, regional councils were at the same time created for the three regions, something which, contrary to the unifying intentions, promoted tribalism in Nigerian poltiics.

As a result, due to several ethnic and political antagonisms, and also to some demands for self-determination by specific groups, the 1954 constitution gave the West and East their own government, assembly and public servic. Although a Federal structure was then established, it left the North as the commanding side due to its population numbers, a fact which could potentially cause a stranglehold to the political process. The North was capable of dominating the combined weight of the East and West.

The 1957 constitutional revision established that the West and the East would be granted self-government as soon as they wanted. Moreover, a prime-minister was agreed by the three geoplotical parties – Alhaji Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, a former northern separatist supporter. Despite being a Northerner, Balewa was not a Hausa-Fulani. The newly appointed prime-minister came from a minority group, which meant that as such he could symbolize Nigeria as a whole. Nonetheless, he was still percieved by some as a puppet from the Muslim North.

As the North had the dominant position in Nigerian affairs, it made sense that the other major ethnic groups, Yoruba and Igbo, would demand a wider measure of autonomy. Moreover, the dominant party in the East at the time – the National Council of Nigeria and the Cameroons (NCNC) –
defended the creation of other smaller new states across Nigeria, so that no state would be large enough to dominate any others. According to this logic, the cause for Nigerian unity would be strenghtened.

In October 1960 Nigeria attained independence from the British, and a promised future was portrayed for it. Nigeria was seen as the giant of Africa, from which leadership in modernisation, industrialization and economic growth would be provided. However, such hopes faded as soon as politics re-started. The issues that had been dividing Nigeria, based on ethnic and religious loyalties, became even deeper entrenched in people’s minds than a common Nigerian national identity. The 1959 elections for the House of Representatives showed the strenght of ethnic identity in Nigerian politics.

A power struggle within the West’s dominant Party, the Action Group (AG), provoked clashes between opposing factions. Nigerian Prime-Minister, Balewa, imposed a state of emergency in the Western region, suspended the constitution and appointed one administrator to run the region on behalf of the Federal Government until the end of the year. Obafemi Awolowo, AG’s leader and supporter of the Party being an opposing force to power (against one other faction puppeted by Balewa, who favoured a coalition with it) , was arrested, along with the bulk of the party’s leadership under charges of conspiring to overthrow the FG.

The AG ultimately lost power in its own turf. A coalition between the NCNC and a new party – the Nigerian National Democratic Party (NNDP) created and presided by Samuel Akintola, the same individual who led the faction which favoured a coalition was created -, coupled with Northern support, managed to rig the elections and ultimately undermined AG’s influence. Lawlessness and violence grew in the South-West, leading to bloody clashes, in which hundreds died.

Despite getting some personal gains from joining the federal government, the NCNC got disgruntled with the new economic plan which concentrated the bulk of federal capital expenditure in the North, and also by the rising allocation of political, civil and military positions to less qualified northerners. In addition, Balewa and his fellow northeners’ assertion in mantaining power over federal affairs, as the AG case showed, worried NCNC politicians.

One other factor which worsened the fragile relation between the NCNC and the North was the population census of 1963. The North managed to keep their population above 50% of the total Nigerians, thus maintaining Northern political numerical advantage towards the South. The results were rejected by the Eastern region and also by the recently created Mid-West regional government (both held by the NCNC). On the other hand, the NPC, the new NNDP and the Western faction of the NCNC accepted it.

Under this context, the NCNC and the AG formed an alliance – the United Progressive Grand Alliance (UPGA) – aiming at breaking northern dominance. However, the game had a new twist. The Nigerian Prime-Minister, Balewa, persuaded the Nigerian President, Azikiwe – himself an Igbo and member of the NCNC – to ally with him. The benefits inherent to being part of the Federal Government spoke louder, resulting some NCNC members to agree joining the NPC.

The 1965 elections in the West came at a time when the region was under a calamitous situation, where law an order seemed to be completely absent. The election results were broadcasted by the Eastern Region radio, who declared that the UPGA had won. On the other hand, the Federal Radio announced an NNDP victory. Violence soon resurged. There were now voices calling for the military to intervene and restore order.

All in all, corruption was widespread, the social gap was increasing, Federal and State Governments were inefficient, unaccountable and unable to provide security and welfare to their population, and the Constitution seemed to be constantly overturned by the interests of a few in maintaining control over the country.


On the path to war

It was in this context that on the night of 14th – 15th January 1966, a group of young military officers staged a coup. Senior leaders were assassinated, including Balewa, Akintola and the Saurdana of Sokoto, Amadu Bello. The coup was widely well received in the South, with violence in the West ending and peace returning to the region.

However, suspicions started to arise in the North regarding the motives behind the coup. After all, six of the seven main military conspirators were Igbo officers, and no Igbo politician was killed. It was widely perceived in the North that the true goal was to install an Igbo-led military government. In addition, Igbo individuals were promoted in the army, an act which fueled even greater fears of Igbo dominance across the North.

The coup leader, General Ironsi, an Igbo, immediately abolished the Federal System, since according to him it was the source of all evils that had been ravaging Nigeria since independence. A united Nigeria would be his goal, something which scared Northerners, who seeing the civil service being merged nation-wide, they would lose jobs to higher educated and more experienced southerners.

Shortly after, a series of anti-government demonstrations and riots against Igbos, led to bloody clashes resulting in hundred of Igbos being killed and property destroyed in Northern towns. Violent clashes also occurred in the South between Northern troops – who made up the bulk of the infantry – and Igbo ones.

The violence resulted in a counter-coup. In july 1966, northern officers killed Ironsi and other Igbo officers. Lieutenant Colonel Yakubu Gowon, himself a Christian from a minority tribe in the Middle Belt, was named leader of the new regime. His first act was to restore the Federation. The West and Lagos recognized Gowon, but in the East, the military governor, Lieutenant Colonel Emeka Ojukwu, refused to accept Gowon as supreme commander.

The continuing massacre of Igbos in the North made Ojukwu even more reluctant in negotiating with the new regime. Thousands of Igbo died and a mass exodus to the Eastern region then took place. At the same time, Igbo retaliated against Northerners based in the South, leading to an exodus by their part.

Federation-East relations deteriorated even further. The Eastern region declared the expulsion of all non-easterners from the region, and appropriated federal corporation, railways, schools, courts, while at the same time building a full administration, training their own armed forces, purchasing weapons and acquiring sources of revenue. The Eastern region began to act as if it was independent from Lagos.

The idea of regional autonomy and, to a certain extent, secession, was gainning ground in the minds of south-eastern Nigerians. As a matter of fact, the superior education and language skills acquired during British rule by the Igbos, led them to create urban cities which facilitated infrastructural and economical development. Moreover, the 1960´s oil boom gave an additional incentive to secession since it provided a massive source of revenue – the bulk of oil fields are located in the South-East. Nigeria’s oilfields located in the East began production in 1958 and by 1967 provided Nigeria with 20% of its total Federal revenue – expected to double within a few years.

Furthermore, as already noted above, the Federal army’s upper echelons consisted mostly of Igbo officers. With the secession, those same officers became part of the new Eastern army, something which improved significantly the new army technical capabilities and expertise.

All in all, secession seemed to be a viable option. The South-East had the infrastructures, the qualified people, the military leverage, and sources of revenues which could sustain the birth of a new nation. Indeed, independence of the Republic of Biafra was declared on May 30th 1967, a year after anti-Igbo riots commenced. Notwithstanding, despite the relative high levels of hope and due to unfavourable circumstances, the cause to create a new state was destroyed after two and a half years of brutal and bloody war. Biafrans were isolated, starved and despaired until they surrendered in january 1970.

It is a fact that amnesty was granted to Igbo military personnel who fought on Biafra’s side, ultimately incorporating them into army ranks. However, Igbo were deprived for almost 40 years from participating in high political and military positions. Such move might have been enacted out of fear that a new Igbo-sponsored coup would take place once again.

This is the background to the bloodiest event in Nigerian history. It had as its main protagonists the Federal Government, largely dominated by the North since independence, and the South-East, largely controlled by the Igbo ethnic community.

An expanding crack in the Nigerian pavement

The March 19th attacks on the bus car park is part of a sequence of attacks targeting Igbos across Northern Nigeria. It brings back memories from the events which led to communal fights between Igbos and Northerners and that, ultimately, led to the Biafra war. Shortly after the attacks, the new Igbo leader, and also leader of the Movement for the Actualization of the Sovereign State Of Biafra (MASSOB), Chief Ralph Uwazuruike, declared that Igbo are ready to go to war once again.

The Movement for the Actualization of the Sovereignty of Biafra is a non-violent group which has the main goal of achieving self-determination. At the group’s core stands the will to reinstate the Republic of Biafra as an alternative to a Nigerian Federation. Despite the seemingly impossibility of an Igbo-led Republic being created in the South-West and South-South, as it was proclaimed in the original Biafran declaration of independence, the danger of a renewed conflict is not that unlikely.

It is a fact that the Igbo feel quite accomodated under Goodluck Jonathan’s administration, in the way that this new administration has been integrating Igbo ethnics into high official positions. Such is the case of the appointment in 2010 of the first Igbo, General Onyeabo Azubike Ihejirika, as Chief of Army Staff, in forty-four years – after Ironsi. Other Igbos have also benefited from this administration: The Secretary to the Federal Government, the Deputy Senate President, the Co-ordinating Minister for the economy and Petroleum Resources Minister are Igbo ethnics.

At a first glance, there does not seem to be enough motivation for the Igbo to concentrate its forces on the realisation of the Biafran dream. However, there might be a factor which can change that equation: the ‘fear of the future’.

Politics and power in Nigeria have historically been a zero-sum game. In other words, when two parties compete for something, what one loses, the other wins. This can be seen when looking historically at the conditions which led to the Nigeria Civil-War, and compare it with the recent fragile balance between North and South.

Unlike in the years preceding the civil war, the North is not getting any stronger than the South in political and economic terms. It is in fact getting less influence and power over Nigerian affairs. As a result, the North looks at its weaker hold on power and the rise of Igbos in government and military hierarchy as a ‘return to the past’. In other words, the North fears the come-back of a southerner/Igbo threat to its culture, traditions and influence in regional and national affairs.

In what concerns to Igbo fears, the recent spat of attacks on Christians in the North has seriously increased grievances across Igbo population. In the same way that happened in 1966, Christians are being targeted by Northern Muslims, but this time those attacks are not being openly sponsored, nor looked at with a blind eye, by the Federal Government. In fact, the attacks are being staged by non-state actors, under the banner of religion. These actors go by the name of Boko Haram which, depending on personal opinions, can be considered a group in itself or more of an idea manipulated by different interests in order to achieve certain goals.

The North is deeply divided along religious and ethnic lines. It is widely known that attacks on Christian communities in the Middle Belt Region, and in the North in general, has been on the rise for the past 15 years. Such attacks have also increased grievances across the South, who see fellow Christians, regardless of ethnicity, being targeted by something which has been on the headlines of every newspaper around the world: Islamic Fundamentalism.

Adding to this, allegations that religious militant groups are being actively sponsored by Northern political leaders, input an element of government participation in the attacks on Igbos. As a result, Igbo grievances target the installed public powers. Whether such claims are true or not, it is a fact that a simple rumour can instigate ultimatums and warnings by Igbo-sponsored organizations, which might seriously endanger the country’s unity. Nigerian historical developments feed this “fear of the future” by Christians, namely Igbo.

The Northern elite, in its turn, is fighting to keep their proeminence in Nigerian politics through the means of religious affections. Since the North is ravaged by poverty and ignorance (extremely low levels of literacy and education), the swiftest way to mobilize the masses, and consequentially gain ground in the North, is to manipulate what gives sense to peoples’ lives, i.e., religion. How easy it is to manipulate an individual who is deeply connected to his religious beliefs and has nothing else apart from it in his life to provide hope? How easy it is to support groups who originally were created with the intention of fighting corruption and bad governance, and afterwards manipulating them into playing the big-fishes’ games?

After the March 18 attacks, fear of retaliatory attacks by Igbos became very present among northerners living in the South East. According to recent reports, some northerners, especially Hausas, have taken refugee in security buildings as fears of retaliation for the March 18th attacks grew. A recent statement by MASSOB’s leader depicts the volatile situation: no retaliation will take place, but in case violence towards Igbos continues, action will have to be taken.

All of this might get worse once the campaigns for the 2015 Presidential elections take off. The incumbent President, Goodluck Jonathan, is a Southern Christian who, as already stated, promoted th rise of Igbo people in Politics, Armed Forces and Civil Service. On the other hand, there is a new mega party comprised by the main opposition parties, from South to North, which will pose a magnanimous challenge to the rulling People’s Democratic Party (PDP). Former Major-General and President, Mahammadou Buhari, is rumoured to be one of the leading figures considered to run for the Presidency. In fact. Buhari is widely popular among Northern Muslims, and has the ability to mobilize his fellow Northern Muslims against the Southern Christian President.

It is worth taking into account that the new mega party also includes the Igbo-dominated All Progressives Grand Alliance (APGA), which is quite popular in South-Eastern Nigeria. The Southern party stated that one of the reasons for having joined this new mega party is the fact that it is the party which offers really prospects of realizing the dream on an Igbo Presidency. However, it is argued that this merge was not consented by some factions within the party and Igbo community, which makes sense, as Buhari, and its Northern support, will never allow for an Igbo-led Nigeria. One cannot forget that, as we have seen throughout this piece, Northern interests intend to dominate Nigeria politics.

Therefore, tensions within the mega-party – on who will be chosen to run for Presidency -, and Muslim/Christian bigotry, will dominate Nigeria for at least the next couple of years. The essence of recent developments is similar to what preceded the Nigerian Civil-War, and the element which may define whether an all-out war will break out once again between the South-East and the Northern interests, is the response respective youths will enact. And here the most important factor is the ability of Muslim and Christian – namely Igbo – leadership to control its youth branches. Youths are known to be volatile and unstable, normally driven more by emotions than by reason. All in all, the surge of pogroms in the South, coupled with the ones in the North, would lead to a migration pattern similar to the one that took place when of the South-East’s reluctance in negotiating with the Federal Government before the Civil-War. Increasing tensions in the North between Muslims and Christians, and the way Igbo youths will answer in the short-term, may define Nigeria’s future.



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