“Tell your colleagues who want Biafra to forget about it.” This is what President Buhari told corps members from the Southeast as they visited the former military ruler in his home state of Daura, Katsina. Such dismissive rhetoric has characterised Buhari’s response to the agitation of some people in the Southeastern region of the country.
Buhari, re-lived his experience of the 1960’s Biafran war to the numerous corpers that came to visit him. Recounting his role as military commander, he said, “ I walked on my feet for most of the 30 months that we fought the Nigeria-Biafra civil war, in which at least 2 million Nigerians were killed”. According to a statement released by the President’s Senior Special Assistant on Media, Mallam Shehu Garba, Buhari said separation was not the answer to their (Biafran agitators) grievances, telling them that the nation had passed that route before with dire consequences. “I have seen this country, I fought for this country and I will continue to work for the unity of this country”, the president added.
The president’s words, when taken together, begin to paint the picture that the country is better together because a separation would end in (necessary) causalities. Before the message delivered to the Corp members, he had asserted that the country’s unity is non negotiable. Subsequently he quoted General Yakubu Gowon, who presided over the 1967 Civil War in saying that “to keep Nigeria one is a task that must be done”.
Buhari’s response to the grievances that has stretched for nearly 50 years has been to threaten the agitators with the use of brute force, even alluding to genocide. The message here is that remaining in the Nigerian Union is better for the citizens of Biafra because they would be spared from the heartache of mourning their loved ones when an inevitable battle ensues. This line of communication does not only add fuel to the fire, but goes against the democratic principles that the former military leader purports to uphold.
In a democratic nation, grievances are resolved through negotiation and, if necessary, compromise. A threat of force is the appropriate response to issues of national security but the government has so far deployed the military to thwart peaceful protests. In several cases, this has resulted in the loss of lives of peaceful protesters.
Biafran agitators claim that they have been disenfranchised for decades, that the federal government has neglected its numerous projects in the southeast and that they are under-represented in the administration of the national affairs and national resources. An independent report coined the ‘Confab Report 2014’ addressed the concerns of citizens in the Southeast and proposed solutions which are yet to be implemented. Among them is a move towards decentralisation from the federal government, giving more autonomy to the state. Others include a more inclusive power sharing formula and the creation of new states to allow for greater representation of their interests. However these suggestions have been side-lined and in their place the implicit threat of violence.
Buhari’s focus should be making a compelling case as to why Biafra is better off within than out of the Nigerian Union. He could point out that in African nations that have successfully seceded haven’t found much success (e.g.South Sudan), and ultimately end up trading one form of oppressive rule for another, making the case that Biafra will ultimately be better in a more representative and unified Nigeria than out, making credible commitments towards true federalism and a decentralised state that allows individual states to dictate their own trajectories within the union, a commitment to improving the completion rate of federal projects in the area, and commitments to providing equal opportunities to hold strategic positions.
The United Kingdom took this approach in the 2014 Scottish referendum in which the Scottish opted to stay of their own accord through the election. In a democratic system, the threat of military force over peaceful calls of a recession hardly highlights Buhari’s commitment to democratic rule. While a defacto threat of genocide may be persuasive in preventing members of the oil rich region from seceding in the short term, it fails to address the core problems and only succeeds at kicking the can down the road.