It happened when nobody expected it. On Tuesday, 6 June 2017, a coalition of youth leaders in northern Nigeria issued an order urging all people of the Igbo ethnic group residing in that region to leave before 1 October.
The order was issued in the wake of a meeting in northern Kaduna State, where several youth groups, including the Arewa Citizens Action for Change, the Arewa Youth Consultative Forum, the Arewa Youth Development Foundation and the Arewa Students Forum, met to thrash out issues that affected Nigeria’s unity.
The national government is stepping up to avert a recurrence of such violence.
The order included this statement: “With the effective date of this declaration, which is today, Tuesday, June 06, 2017, all Igbos currently residing in any part of Northern Nigeria are hereby served notice to relocate within three months and all northerners residing in the east are advised likewise,” the coalition said. “From that date, effective, peaceful and safe mop-up of all the remnants of the stubborn Igbo that neglect to heed this quit notice shall commence to finally eject them from every part of the north.”
Nigeria has some 250 ethnic groups, and the announcement has been fuelling tensions in a country where ethnic diversity causes greater division than unity. The Igbo make up one of the biggest ethnic groups in Nigeria and this ultimatum came nearly a week after a sit-at-home protest, organised on 30 May 2017, by the secessionist group the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB).
A History of Division
On 30 May 1967, the various ethnic groups of Nigeria’s south-east, including the Igbo, tried to secede from the country and form an independent nation called the Republic of Biafra. This attempt came after northern mobs killed around 30 000 Igbos and forced 1 million refugees to flee the region. The civil war that followed left more than 1 million people dead.
Although the war ended in January 1970, pro-Biafra movements such as IPOB are still agitating for separation. Over the last few years, IPOB has gained traction among the majority of Igbo youth, who believe they will be better off as a separate nation.
The announcement is fuelling tensions in a country where ethnic diversity causes greater division than unity.
The 30 May sit-at-home order was issued to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Nigeria’s civil war, commonly referred to as the Biafra War, and resulted in major markets, mostly in the south-east of the country, being shut down. It was this action that provoked the ire of the youth groups in the north, according to the coalition.
“The persistence for the actualisation of Biafra by the unruly Igbo of south-eastern Nigeria has lately assumed another alarming twist which involved the forceful lockdown of activities and denial of other people’s rights to free movement in the south-east by the rebel IPOB and its overt and covert sponsors,” the coalition’s statement read.
Reaction to the statement came largely in the form of condemnation, although there was support for the youth leaders from the north in a handful of cases.
Governor Nasir el-Rufai of Kaduna State, which is in the north-central part of the country, urged security officials to arrest members of the groups that gave the Igbo that three-month ultimatum. Governor Rochas Okorocha of Imo State in south-eastern Nigeria, himself an Igbo, said the threat to forcefully evict Igbos from the north was “nonsensical and inciting”.
However, Aminu Suleiman, who hails from Northern Nigeria’s Kano State and is a lawmaker in Nigeria’s lower parliament, supported the coalition of youth leaders and said that people of south-eastern Nigeria had “taken this country to ransom” and were causing “serious problems”.
Nigerian government moves decisively
The federal government feels that Nigeria has been here before and it does not want a recurrence of the painful events of the civil war. Government is therefore stepping up to avert a recurrence of such violence. Nigeria’s vice president, Yemi Osinbajo, who has been in charge following President Muhammadu Buhari’s absence for medical reasons, has been holding a series of meetings with leaders from both regions. On Tuesday, 13 June 2017, Prof Osinbajo met with leaders from northern Nigeria and held discussions with leaders from south-eastern Nigeria on Wednesday, 14 June.
Wars sometimes start not with bullets, but with words. – Vice President Yemi Osinbajo
Next week, the acting president is hoping to hold meetings with religious and traditional leaders from both regions, then with governors, before finally convening a general meeting where all parties will meet and thrash out their issues.
It is a tough job, but Osinbajo understands the complexity of Nigeria and the role of ethnicity in such circumstances.
“Every stone thrown in the market place will hit targets that are not even intended. We must address hate speeches that show intolerance,” he said. “No one who has seen the horrors of war – even just on TV – would wish it on their worst enemy. Wars sometimes start not with bullets, but with words.”
As for hate speech, more of that is likely to come. However, for a country that is already battling an Islamist insurgency, which has devastated its north-eastern region, it is far better to prevent a full-blown war by quelling tensions when they are still in the formative stages.
Unaddressed grievances and ethnic rivalries continue to create far greater tension than Nigeria can take. There is a need to act decisively to facilitate a healing process that will ease such tensions and help Nigerians to believe in togetherness.