Obasanjo, apostle of One Nigeria, repudiates unity at any cost

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*Obasanjo

Ayo Olukotun

“I am a strong believer in one Nigeria but not one Nigeria at any cost but one Nigeria where every Nigerian can feel proud that he or she has a stake in this country”

 -Former President Olusegun Obasanjo, Channels TV, June 9, 2021.

The reportorial and editorial crafts are obviously agenda-setting ones. Consider, for a moment, how vast the powers of reporters and their editors are. Between them, they decide what is newsworthy, what and what is to be ‘buried’ deep inside the news train. No less importantly, and as theorists of news framing tell us, they select or even pre-select the degree of prominence to give particular news items; they ask and answer questions such as, should this be positioned on the front page or even ignored altogether?

Why are these ruminations necessary, the readers may ask? Precisely, because in the story under consideration which narrates Obasanjo’s chiding of agitators for secession, there was an important caveat quoted in the opening paragraph which ought perhaps to have provided the headline for an account published on Thursday by virtually all newspapers. Let me explain. Obasanjo’s position and posture as an apostle of national unity are familiar. In one of his books, he revealed that even as military president and as a southerner, he rooted for visibility and importance to the then number 2 man, General Shehu Yar’Adua, in order to achieve ethnic and religious balance in a divided nation. As civilian president, using the same tactic, Obasanjo devolved a lot of power to Abubakar Atiku as Vice-President until the parting of ways when Atiku nearly ruined his chances for election for a second term. In other words, both in precept and action, Obasanjo has carved a niche for himself as perhaps the leading exponent of Nigerian unity through balancing and harmony among the country’s combustible ethno-religious mix. What is novel, therefore, in the wake of renewed calls by some ethnic groups for secession is that Obasanjo gave minimum conditions for achieving Nigerian unity, while amplifying that his advocacy for national unity is not one of stupidity or docility which accepts meekly what it calls unity at any cost. For this writer, this is the central thrust or should have been made the central thrust of Obasanjo’s most recent intervention.

Regrettably, however, reporters and editors settled for what is already well-known about Obasanjo’s views and admonitions on unity and secession. This leads us to question whether the campaigners for national unity realise why the agitation for secession has come up so truculently in this season. Far from being morons, idle minds or mischief makers, those advocating secession (not to be equated with war mongers) are doing so, as the Ekiti State governor, Kayode Fayemi, recently posited, “out of frustration”. Frustration with what? There is a widespread belief that several of the underpinnings which kept our federation in relative harmony and balance have been in the last few years dismantled. A few examples will make the point. In contrast to the Obasanjo doctrine of mainstreaming a Yar’Adua, a northerner and a Muslim, to counterbalance a Christian and Southern President even under a military regime, the circumstance today is, sad to say, extremely different. Do a quick headcount of the major holders of executive and legislative power and you will come up with a preponderance of one religion over another. Not just that alone, everyone knows about the marginalisation, deliberate or not, of the Vice President, Prof. Yemi Osinbajo. There also is the much-talked about imbalance almost deliberately carried out in federal appointments, the most conspicuous of which is in the area of national security where a particular ethnic group and religious identity predominate. That is another way of saying that in a semi-authoritarian style, the logic of Nigerian federalism, federal character, and consociational imperatives as well as the inclusive mandate of the 1999 constitution, flawed as it is, have been more or less brushed aside.

True, these sins of commission and omission are mitigated a little by party politics in which the ruling party, to stay afloat and in deference to its founding obligations, has allowed a measure of balancing. But no one is left in doubt who pays the piper and dictates the tune. So, it is not just that we have an over-centralised constitution but politicians have become steadily more loyal to their ethnic and religious affiliations.

Furthermore, in a season of raging insecurity, almost every part of the country suffers. But some suffer more than others. Earlier this week, to cite an instance, The PUNCH in an editorial entitled, Banditry: Benue State under siege, lamented as follows: “a horrible time, killings that mimic ethnic cleansing are escalated. The bloodletting is traced mainly to daring killer Fulani herdsmen and local militias fighting for communal control”.

The editorial, not the first of its type, went on to document instances where officialdom has looked the other way while Benue State became and still remains a killing field. Benue is of course not the only tormented area in the current dispensation. Fresh in our minds are the murder and mayhem at Igangan, Oyo State in which prominent Fulani leaders were fingered with some justifying the killings as reprisals. For me, this is the second important reason why the agitation for secession outcry is escalating. Citizens have the feelings that they have lost control of a state which is not only increasingly capricious but whose preferences more and more coincide with those of a particular ethnic extraction. To be remembered in this connection is the famous thesis by Lt. General T.Y. Danjuma (retd.), that “the military is not neutral”.

The Yoruba have a wisecrack that roughly translates, “Orisa, if you cannot favour me, kindly just leave me the way you met me and do not destroy me.” In the current delicate situation of Nigeria, what some calling for secession are saying is that if they will not be advantaged by the federal might, that power should at least not be deployed to destroy them or put them miserably perpetually on edge. Obviously too, there is the logic of weak governance performance which makes everyone except the most privileged extremely unhappy and unable to actualise their dreams. It is not enough for the apostles of unity to shout, mantra-like, “the unity of Nigeria is not negotiable” or “to hell with secessionists”. They must seek to understand why the groundswell is fast becoming a deafening clamour and with that understanding, they should then begin to adjust their behaviours, policies and attitudes to incorporate the disaffected instead of further alienating them.

There is merit in the viewpoint once espoused by comparative politics scholar, Prof. Eghosa Osagae, that if the 1999 Constitution is faithfully implemented, Nigeria would have concluded a round of restructuring. We may debate the point of view but it at least shows us how much we have meandered from that which the constitution stipulates. Above all, the current custodians of state power should do more listening than talking or labelling. That will be more in conformity with democratic ethos than what will appear to be ‘in your face’ disposition and attitude.

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