By Dare Babarinsa
At what point would it have occurred to General Ibrahim Attahiru, the Chief of Army Staff (COAS), that he was actually on the last flight. The ritual of descending by the plane must have sounded routine enough last Thursday until the pilot announced that the weather was bad and he would need to land at Kaduna International Airport, instead of the military one. It was while on the approach to the runway that death met the general and his team of 11 military officers. It was a fiery end. The Chief of Army Staff, a position he assumed so enthusiastically last year, had died in harness. Nigeria has entered another period of mourning.
It was a missed opportunity that our Commander-in-Chief failed to show up at the funeral of his Chief of Army Staff last Saturday. Such an occasion would have provided another opportunity for President Muhammadu Buhari to restate the reason for the war against the Boko Haram insurgents. Buhari was represented at the solemn occasion by the Minister of Defence, Major-Gen Salihu Magashi and a coterie of other high ranking officials. But that was an occasion the President should have shown up.
In truth, the Boko Haram snake is scorched, but not killed and that is causing a lot of concerns for many Nigerians. There have been a lot of improvements since 2015 when President Muhammadu Buhari took office. No longer could anyone say that Boko Haram is hoisting its flag on a swathe of Nigerian estate. The cowardly terrorists are now a shadow on the run, preferring to harass and taunt, but hardly waiting for any serious battle. Yet the Boko Haram is alive if unwell. It is clear that it is being reinforced by the international Islamic terror network especially through the ISIS and other terror merchants.
The Boko Haram insurgency seems to have opened the door to many other groups’ intent on challenging the authority of the Nigerian state. We are not talking of those looking for the fast bucks; the lone drug dealers, the robbers, the pirates and yahoo boys. We are now dealing with well-organised criminal gangs involved in mass kidnapping, piracy, drugs, serious Internet crimes and murder on an industrial scale.
In a class of its own among the new challengers are those looking for independence for their ethnic groups from the Nigerian federation. At the last count, Nigeria has at least 250 ethnic groups. It means if these people have their way, we may be having more countries from Nigeria than the rest of the world put together.
The road to secession is not a fancy road, but many people have found it attractive in the past. First reason being that Nigeria itself was founded without the consent of Nigerians. No one in this country, none of our ancestors was consulted or invited to deliberate on the idea of Nigeria. It was a purely British idea. When the amalgamation was consummated in 1914, it was done at the instigation of the British imperial power and one of its princelings, Sir Frederick Lugard, a British colonel who was hired as a mercenary from India by the United African Company (UAC), was made the first Governor General. Lugard was an ambitious man. He wanted the capital of his new country to be in Kaduna, but he was overruled by London, that insisted on the primacy of Lagos.
During the crave for independence, Western Region was the first to gain Internal self-government. That means in all things, Western Region was free to pursue its own policies except in those areas of exclusive jurisdiction of the federal centre, including defence, foreign relations, currency, customs and the national ports. In the heydays of our struggle against the military regime of General Sani Abacha, my colleagues and I had wondered why the Western Region did not ask for independence outright instead of internal self-government. We were privileged to discuss this with Chief Michael Adekunle Ajasin, the first elected Governor of Ondo State, former President of Egbe Omo Oduduwa, leader of Afenifere and Leader of the opposition National Democratic Coalition (NADECO).
Papa Ajasin said indeed the issue was debated shortly after the London Constitutional Conference of 1958. Chief Obafemi Awolowo, the Premier of the Western Region, had gone to the conference with three major demands. He wanted the creation of four more regions: Middle-Belt Region, Borno Region, Calabar-Ogoja-Rivers Region and Mid-West Region. The request was rejected. He wanted the Ilorin and Kabba Provinces of the Northern Region peopled by the Yoruba to be merged with the Western Region. The request was rejected. He wanted the Lagos FCT to be merged with the Western Region. The request was rejected.
It was after this comprehensive defeat that the leadership of the Action Group (AG), the ruling party, met in Ibadan. The issue of whether Western Region (now Oyo, Ogun, Osun, Ekiti, Ondo, Lagos, Edo and Delta States) should go it alone was exhaustively debated. In the end, the meeting agreed that the West must remain parts of Nigeria. It was also resolved that the West must continue to fight for greater powers for the regions. Of course, the meeting resolved that the AG would continue to campaign for the creation of more regions.
During the struggle of the 1960s when Awolowo was imprisoned and the West was in turmoil, not once did Awolowo go back on the resolution of his party. We are indebted to the late Chief Olaiya Fagbamigbe who compiled most of Awolowo’s speeches into a trilogy. There is none of those speeches when he advocated for the dissolution of the Nigerian federation. During the Leaders of Thoughts Conference of 1966, the West did not advocate for the dissolution of the Federation. On the eve of the Nigerian Civil War, Chief Awolowo led a delegation to Enugu to hold a historic meeting with Colonel Chukwuemeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu, the military Governor of the Eastern Region, to dissuade him from the planned secession of the region, which was soon to assume the name Republic of Biafra.
During the struggle against military rule, I cannot remember any group advocating for the dissolution of the Nigerian federation. With the swearing-in of elected governors in 1999, we were dissatisfied with the constitutional arrangement foisted on the South-West. The Alajobi Committee of the Yoruba Nation still believe that it is only the regional arrangement that would best serve the interest of our people. Indeed, at our summit in Isanlu, Kogi State, in 2001, the Alajobi resolved thus: “It is the right of the Yoruba people to live under one government within Nigeria if possible, outside Nigeria, if necessary.” The kennel was that if other groups are intent on dissolving the federation, we have no right to insist on keeping it.
The new campaign for succession by some of our younger elements, most of whom were not part of the struggle against the military, leaves one with unease. They have not been able to articulate their thoughts properly in the public space. Instead, they have been abusing those they perceived to be opposed to their line of thoughts as “Fulani slaves,” a new invention of their struggle, which is heavy on sloganeering. I cannot remember Chief Awolowo, Papa Ajasin, Chief Ige or Papa Abraham Adesanya, referring to some of their opponents like Chief S.L Akintola, Dr Koyejo Majekodunmi, Chief Remi Fani-Kayode, Chief Richard Akinjide and others as Fulani slaves. Instead, they would summon a thousand arguments into battle.
The future of Nigeria would not be determined by the rogue herdsmen, the Boko Haram terrorists, the purveyors of mass murder and other merchants of violence. It would be determined by those who are ready to trade in ideas that can stand the test of time. We have seen now that it is only the 1963 Constitution that came into being properly in the history of Nigeria. That does not invalidate the current Constitution which our president, the governors and other public officials have sworn to defend and uphold. It only means that in the 1963 Republican Constitution, we have a guiding map and those of us who believe in a new constitutional arrangement are not talking or working in vacuum.
It is in the defence of the current Constitution that Attahiru and the 11 heroes died. We have to work with what we have to get what we want. As Archimedes said, give me a place to stand and I will move the world. The current Constitution gives us a place to stand. We thank Aisha, our First Lady, for visiting the Attahirus at home and consoling the widow and her family at this period of grief. She did it for all of us.