Speaker of the House of Representatives Femi Gbajabiamila will do his best to walk back his controversial statement on southern secessionists, but he will be only partially successful. The media had quoted him last Wednesday as suggesting equivalence between southern secessionists, including Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) and Yoruba Nation agitators, and Boko Haram/ISWAP insurgents, prompting critics to excoriate him as a government lickspittle. The following day, however, he explained that his speech was misinterpreted, insisting that he never referred specifically to either IPOB or Yoruba Nation. His message, he argued, was directed at criminal elements in all secessionist groups. It is hard to determine whether he was misinterpreted or not, but for nearly all commentators and media analysts, Hon. Gbajabiamila was guilty.
Here is his original statement last Wednesday: “In the South of Nigeria, East and West, miscreants, and criminals masquerading as separationist activists have emerged to wreak havoc, take lives and commit economic sabotage against fellow Nigerians and against the state. These people, in their inclination for devastating violence against fellow citizens, their appetite for the destruction of private property, their disruption of academic activities, commerce, and industry, their propensity for defiling institutions of the state, society, and community, their refusal to engage in debate, or to consider the possibility of dissenting opinions and alternative viewpoints are no different from Boko Haram and ISWAP. Given space and time, they will take our nation down the same path of destruction. We know from experience that neither appeasement nor overwhelming violence alone will work.”
Hon Gbajabiamila is right to insist that his statement referred only to criminal elements masquerading as secessionist agitators, but few people will accept that he was not in the same breath referring to, for instance, IPOB whose members were recently accused of doing some of the things the Speaker mentioned in his speech. Hon Gbajabiamila is peculiarly disadvantaged by the fact that, on the same day, presidential spokesman Garba Shehu issued a vituperative statement condemning the Yoruba Nation group for participating in a protest involving IPOB. The protest was organized by the Nigerian Indigenous Nationalities Alliance for Self-Determination (NINAS) which stormed the UN headquarters in New York early last week. Mr Shehu was mindlessly scathing, and he came across as obsessed only with southern self-determination campaigners in strict disregard of the factors that prompted their agitations. Hon Gbajabiamila had the misfortune of speaking candidly the same day Mr Shehu hysterically and dismissively characterized the Yoruba Nation group.
The popular interpretation of Hon Gbajabiamila’s statement that saw him equate self-determination groups with Boko Haram will grab attention for a long time. The public will not give him the benefit of the doubt. He was careful to refer to and denounce criminal elements masquerading as secessionists, but by appearing to equate self-determination groups as a whole with insurgents, he was in fact sailing near the wind. The equivalence was unnecessary. That was where he came to grief. Had he limited himself to denouncing violence and every threat to public peace by any group he would have sounded like a statesman and, more importantly, like a lawmaker and principal officer of parliament.
Last Monday, the Vanguard newspaper also reported that some Yoruba obas denounced secession and suggested that the Yoruba stood to gain nothing from separation. The obas should have declined to offer half-baked opinions on self-determination, particularly the difficult and controversial subject of secession. They have not updated their knowledge on the subject. In 1957, the Federation of Malaya became independent, and together with the then British crown colonies of North Borneo, Sarawak, and Singapore became Malaysia on September 16, 1963. But in August 1965, Singapore was from the federation and became a separate independent country. No one today would say Singapore has not done very well as a separate country. Students of history know that as far as federations, unions and empires are concerned, nothing is cast in granite, especially countries destitute of justice, inclusion and equity. Yugoslavia broke up, and the world has not spun out of orbit. The former Soviet Union, which like Nigeria was a nominally federal union of multiple national republics, also broke up in 1991. Its former constituents are also doing well. Czechoslovakia, created in October 1918, when it declared its independence from Austria-Hungary, also separated into two parts, Czech and Slovakia in 1993. Neither has regretted the dissolution of the union.
There are more examples. The Yoruba obas misspoke by suggesting that secession would not augur well for their race. Their conclusion is neither backed by history nor logic. Instead, the obas should have emphasized the factors that promote Nigeria’s unity and greatness, but add that those factors are absent and the country was spiraling out of control because of bad and unenlightened leadership. Were they afraid to speak the truth? It is hogwash to keep harping on unity in the absence of inclusion and justice, and especially in light of the poor leadership it has been the lot of the country to endure in the past few decades. Instead of denouncing secession, the obas should have expressed their worry that the fate of Nigeria, given the centrifugal tendencies overwhelming the country, seemed to have been sealed.