The year Nigeria almost disappeared
By Simon Kolawole
It is time to confess my sins. All my adult life, I have never feared for the continued existence of Nigeria as much as I did in 2017. Anybody who knows me very well knows where I stand: I believe in one, united Nigeria. It is not that I am an incurable optimist or that I am the most patriotic Nigerian alive. It is just that after assessing all the issues that so easily bog us down, I have always come to the conclusion that we do not have irreconcilable differences that should inevitably lead to divorce. I have always believed that every ingredient, every resource needed to make Nigeria work is here with us. I’ve always concluded that we have been terribly let down by the ruling elite.
My stand on Nigeria — in the face of campaigns for its balkanisation along ethnic, religious and other sectional lines — has earned me plenty enemies. I know people who have stopped reading me because of that. In fact, one “egbon” I used to look up to accused me of pandering to certain sections of Nigeria as “a tactic for personal advancement, like Obasanjo (or Tinubu’s failed 2015 plan)”. He as much as said I was not a Yoruba “freeborn”. I was amused at the personal attack over differences in worldview. Of course, there is always a price to pay if you refuse to play the ethnic and religious card in political commentary, if you do not go with the flow — and that I know.
But I will be honest and confess that there were two events that shook my confidence in the unity of Nigeria in this outgoing year, so much so I got to the point of throwing up my hands in surrender and saying “it is all over”. One, the politics over the grave illness that befell President Muhammadu Buhari and kept him away in the UK for months. Two, the October 1 deadline issued to Igbo people to leave northern Nigeria because of the activities of the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB), led by Mazi Nnamdi Kanu. I had never been so scared about the possibility of another nationwide bloodshed and the risk of another civil war as much as I was in 2017.
Sometime in February, I was inside a bank when I got a call from a woman who lives in Jos, Plateau state. She sounded frightened. Let me paraphrase her: “There is a message going round in the north that Yoruba people have poisoned Buhari so that Vice-President Yemi Osinbajo would take over as president if he dies. They said the poison was placed on the curtains in Buhari’s office, that the Yoruba want to take power through the back door. The Hausa people here seem to believe this rumour. If Buhari dies, we are in trouble. They will start attacking and killing us. You know killing human beings means nothing to these people.”
I was confused. I didn’t know what to tell her. She spoke to me in a way that suggested I could do something about the rumours or the backlash that would follow if anything happened to Buhari on the hospital bed. As soon as we ended our conversation (I only said “I have heard you Ma and I will tell some contacts”), my head went into a spin. I started imagining things. If Yoruba were attacked in the north, there would be reprisal in the south-west. There would be turmoil again in the country. We could be back to the June 12 calamity of 1993 which effectively shut down Nigeria for five years. The damage to our economy is yet to be assessed and quantified.
In Buhari’s absence, things were happening at a dizzying pace. Different shades of rumours and theories flew all over the place. Far-reaching changes were effected in the military high command to such an extent that allegedly favoured northern officers. The word in town was that the military would rather take over than allow power to return to the south so “quickly”. Chief Bisi Akande, a senior member of the ruling party, issued a statement warning that what happened in 1993, when Bashorun MKO Abiola’s victory was annulled by the military, must not repeat itself. There was fire in his eyes and his words were really clear, to borrow a line from Michael Jackson’s “Beat It”.
Akande fired: “Let me warn today that those who wish to harvest political gains out of the health of the president are mistaken. This is not Nigeria of 1993. We are in a new national and global era of constitutionalism and order. We hope Nigerians have enough patience to learn from history. My greatest fear, however, is that the country should not be allowed to slide into anarchy and disorder of a monumental proportion.” Speaking in Lagos a few days later, Asiwaju Bola Ahmed Tinubu advised the military against staging a coup, warning that “Lagos will resist you”. Those who were in Lagos in 1993 would understand the implications better.
I intensified my prayers for Buhari to regain his health and come back to Nigeria alive. This had nothing to do with the fact that I am unashamedly one of Buhari’s admirers, in spite of his obvious weaknesses. My concern was for Nigeria. If Buhari had died, the crisis would be unimaginable. Killings and counter killings. We all know that the biggest undoing of President Goodluck Jonathan, for some people, had nothing to do with his performance in office but the fact that he “usurped” power when President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua died. Jonathan could never do anything right in the eyes of those who wallowed in this mindset. I never wish to see a repeat in my lifetime.
While we were at it, the 50th anniversary of the declaration of Biafra was marked with pomp. The cries of marginalisation by the south-east reached a crescendo. Kanu enjoyed enormous airtime on TV/radio and lengthy inches in the newspapers. He was everywhere on social media. And then a group called Arewa youth whatever came up with the reckless declaration that all Igbo in northern Nigeria should vacate by October 1, 2017. I froze. We normally don’t run reports that promote ethnic hate and warmongering at TheCable, and I remember the editor, Mr. Taiwo George, asking my opinion on whether or not to run the story. I advised him it was too important to ignore.
I was fearful of the likely outcome of the ultimatum. If the Igbo did not quit as demanded, would they be attacked and killed in the north? Wouldn’t the Igbo also retaliate in the south-east? Would the tit-for-tat stop there or degenerate into a bloodbath that would bring back memories of 1966-67 and lead us into another civil war? My biggest fear was that even if the Arewa youth eventually withdrew the quit notice, the people on the streets might still go ahead and attack Igbo people. The group was playing a very dangerous game and toying with emotive issues whose consequences no one could predict. In all honesty, I was really, really scared.
I began to review my positions on the unity of Nigeria. In my mind, I started moving away from “One, United Nigeria” to “anybody that wants to go should go”. After all, South Sudan left Sudan. Eritrea ditched Ethiopia. Soviet Union broke up. Yugoslavia disintegrated. Deep down my heart, I still desired one Nigeria — a rainbow coalition whose strength is in its diversity. But I came to the conclusion that while ordinary Nigerians have learnt to live with, and tolerate, one another, the political gladiators — including their intellectual sidekicks — are bent on pursing the agenda of balkanisation. The political class has continued to disappoint and manipulate the ordinary Nigerians.
In the chaos though, I was comforted by the moves made by prominent Nigerian leaders to douse the tension. As a journalist, I was privy to some of the underground peace moves made by prominent statesmen. Many of them do not talk openly but are selflessly working day and night to prevent ethnic and religious conflagration in Nigeria. In the end, the Arewa ultimatum was withdrawn and Igbo were not attacked in the north. My fears melted. Well, the elites are masters of brinksmanship. Most importantly, though, Buhari did not die. I honestly can’t say if Nigeria would still be in this shape if Buhari had not returned alive. God be praised.
Okay, Nigeria has survived another turbulent year. There is peace. But the best conclusion would be that this is the kind of peace you find in a graveyard. The issues always exploited by the political elite are still there. It is only a matter of time before these sentiments are whipped up yet again in the competition for political power and patronage. We have survived yet another turbulence that tested the foundation of our nationhood. I continue to wish that the unity of Nigeria would be strengthened. I wish the agents of balkanisation would have a rethink. But I am intelligent enough to know that we have not seen the last of it. Nevertheless, I remain a believer in one Nigeria.
I first heard of the name George Weah in 1988. Iwuanyanwu Nationale had defeated Tonnerre Kalara of Yaoundé, Cameroon, 2-0 in the first leg, second round of the African Club Champions Cup (now called CAF Champions League) in Owerri. They were suddenly gasping for breath as the Liberian mercilessly terrorised their defence in the return leg. Iwuanyanwu still managed to beat them 3-2 after all the drama. Weah would go on to Europe to do great things. He has now been elected president of Liberia in the most fascinating fashion — including returning to school to get university education after his first failed presidential bid in 2006. What a strike! Sensational.
ON YUSUF BUHARI
My prayers and wishes are with the First Family over Yusuf Buhari’s motorbike accident on Tuesday night. From what we are hearing, the president’s only surviving son suffered serious injuries in the accident. Biking and car racing are dangerous sports that are not yet properly regulated in Nigeria — even though they have been with us for a while. It is usually the children of the rich who engage in these sports here. I would suggest that, if possible, the useless velodrome at the national stadium, Abuja, should be converted to a racing arena so that people can exercise their hobbies in a safer environment. Government could even earn revenue from it. Commonsense.
The time has come for us to finally admit that Nigeria is a country like no other. It is the only OPEC member that imports petrol! It is the only country that has refineries that are not working! It is the only country that regularly spends billions on “turn around maintenance” of its refineries without results — and yet continues to hold on to those refineries! It is the only country in the world, bar warzone, where fuel scarcity and fuel queues are integral to national culture! It is the only country in the world that does not have the competence to import petrol! It did not start today. It won’t end today. That is why we are Nigerians. Jokers.
BROUGHT IN DEAD
Nigerians have been having fun on the social media over the latest round of appointments by President Muhammadu Buhari. Far from the usual ethno-religious analysis, the interest this time is in the comical inclusion of names of dead people on the list. You call that posthumous national service! Something tells me most of the appointees were nominated in 2015 when Buhari’s supporters thought he would hit the ground running, but somebody did not bother to do due diligence before throwing the list to the media in 2017. If the list was indeed prepared in 2015, does it mean it took over two years to make it public? Killjoys.