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Our secessionist hubby

News and commentary in the country for much of last week was about the more than 20 Yoruba Nation “agitators” who, dressed in military camouflage…

News and commentary in the country for much of last week was about the more than 20 Yoruba Nation “agitators” who, dressed in military camouflage and armed with guns and charms, stormed the Oyo State Government House and State Assembly complex in Ibadan, to declare a “Democratic Republic of Yoruba” and hoist its flag. They were swiftly arrested by the police and are now awaiting trial.

So far, they have also been roundly condemned by most Nigerians, including by notable Yoruba leaders and groups. President Bola Ahmed Tinubu, himself a Yoruba man, and the second Yoruba person to hold the highest office in the land in 25 years, in a country of about 300 ethnic groups and languages, condemned the agitators and warned that they must pay a price for their transgression. Following the president, many important voices in the country, including newspaper editorials and columnists, have called for immediate and forceful prosecution of the agitators over the incident, which the police described as a “treasonable felony and terrorism”. Meanwhile, the Oyo State government has since demolished Yoruba Nation buildings across the state.

As a country, we have been here before. In fact, we have always been here. Secessionist tendencies have been a marked part of our politics since before independence in 1960.  Major Gideon Orkar’s failed coup of “forced secession” took place exactly 34 years ago today on 22nd April 1990. A child born that day is biologically a grandparent today. But even on that day in 1990, many Nigerians would doubtless have noted that the question of secession or not had been definitively settled 20 years earlier in 1970. And yet, here we are still talking about the same issue every now and then more than six decades as a nation-state. Secessionism, it would seem, is a political hubby of sorts in this country.

Why, then, is secessionism so enduring and simply refusing to go from Nigeria? One answer, I think, is that secessionist impulses are fuelled largely by the abject ignorance of those who hold them, including among many who should know better. First, Nigeria’s secessionist agitators, if we might call them that, and their apologists in the media and elsewhere, misunderstand the conditions for “national self-determination” and those for secession. It is true that national self-determination is a right recognised by the United Nations, a body to which Nigeria—and most other existing states—is a signatory.

In practice, however, self-determination is a right that applies mainly in the context of imperial or colonial powers governing distant lands and peoples. Nigeria is neither. As presently constituted, federal Nigeria does not exercise sovereignty over Yoruba land or Igbo land or any other ‘land’ in Nigeria as a result of colonial or imperial conquest, even if the federation itself is a product of colonial experience. Self-determination applies in the context of Nigeria—or any part of it—as a British colony, but once the new nation-state is formed, as the Nigeria of today, any talk of self-determination effectively means “secession”.

That would effectively be an attempt to dismember a country. No serious nation-state in the world would allow that, as we have seen in the cases of the Basque region in Spain, Chechnya in Russia, Kurdistan in Turkey, antebellum Southern United States, and of course, Biafra in Nigeria. It makes no sense for a group of Nigerians to be talking about self-determination against Nigeria as if the country were a foreign power. In fact, it is in this sense that Nigerian laws deem secession for whatever reason a treason, rightly or wrongly.

Still, there is another, older, more rabid and pervasive, kind of ignorance which underlies secessionist tendencies in Nigeria. You see, almost all the dominant political arguments in Nigeria from 1960 to date have been framed against “the North” or “Northerners”. Resource control, state police, fiscal federalism, restructuring, marginalisation, a more ‘democratic’ constitution etc, ‘unbalanced appointments’ have all been presented at some point in terms of reducing the ‘power’ or ‘dominance’ of Northern Nigeria over the rest of the country. Secessionism is merely the extreme version of this broader discourse around perceived regional inequality in the country. It is this underlying sense of “taking back power” from the North that gives secessionism, restructuring, fiscal federalism, etc, much purchase even among people who should otherwise know better, even if other reasons may also be valid.

This discourse itself, however, is based on wilful ignorance, or at best serious misunderstanding of the real Nigeria that stares us in the face every day. Statistically speaking, the 19 northern states combined have considerably smaller representation in the federal government’s employment system than the 17 southern states combined, even though the former are larger in both population and land mass. Federal institutions are also more widely represented or situated in the southern states than in the northern ones. Also, overall, southern states receive several times more federal allocations of revenues than northern ones. In 2023 for example, 13 out of 19 northern states were in the bottom half of combined allocations, with only six northern states in the top 18 states and the FCT.

And perhaps most significantly, the northern states have almost no representation at all in Nigeria’s organised private sector in terms of jobs at all levels, even though private business in Nigeria, organised or otherwise, depends considerably on government spending. Large private corporate organisations in subsectors like banking and telecoms still have relatively low representation from northern states, including in regional, zonal or local branches of these businesses situated in northern states. In fact, at the higher and more senior levels of the Nigerian private sector, I doubt if northern representation is up to five per cent overall, and I am much convinced this is more a question of opportunity than ability or qualification.

In the non-profit sector of non-governmental organisations (NGOs), nationally, the representation of Nigerians from the northern states is almost zero. In fact, the only spaces of opportunity for Nigerians in the northern states are their state governments; spaces they still share to some extent with other Nigerians, a gesture that is flatly unreciprocated across southern states. The only area where the North has any advantage in anything Nigerian is in voting strength, but that too has only been used to elect three out of five presidents from the South since 1999. In short, there is hardly any empirical or objective basis for anyone in the South to be crying marginalisation or talking secession, except as a form of what a good friend called “kukan dadi” (tears of joy) in our private conversation last week. If anything, it should be people up North that should be talking about seceding out of Nigeria since there is very little left for them within it across all sectors of the government, economy, and society. But that too is not necessary.

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