The president of the Arewa Youth Consultative Forum (AYCF), Alhaji Shettima Yerima, who is also a human right activist, has in an interview spoken very tough on the way the people of the South-eastern part of Nigeria have been treated by the government, and why he thinks the agitation for Biafra is justified even though it is not the best option.
How did this agitation come this far?
Well, it’s been a very long journey and for people like us, it is not surprising. The agitation for Biafra is not news to us because it has been there over time especially since 1966 with what gave birth to the overthrow of the Aguiyi Ironsi government after the killing of some top leaders. The agitation has been there and that was what led to civil war in 1967 when Odimegwu Ojukwu came on board against the state and the reconciliation in the 1970s. Ever since, there had always been one agitation of the other. But the truth of the matter is that nobody is happy about the situation and all of us felt that it would not augur and it is not even in the best interest of this country for any part to secede now. This is a critical and very challenging time. And it is high time we began looking at the issue critically. We are only pretending that Nigeria is a nation, it has never been a nation. We just pray that it would become a nation. There are very fundamental issues that need to be addressed by any government in place and, to do that we must apply the principles of equity, justice and fairness to all. The moment we begin to say this group of people must be dealt with decisively because of their mindset or thinking that they are being marginalised, then there is a problem.
The government must be seen to be doing justice and discussing issues the way they are. If we continue to pretend that things are normal and people are saying they are not normal and are agitating, one day it might not be funny. In as much as we pretend that things are well, you can see this call for Biafra is getting more popular internationally. I pray and I pray the leaders begin to see reasons to look at the issues critically. If they feel they are being marginalised and you underestimate and threaten them by arresting them and incarcerating them, just know that the more you do that, the more they get international and local sympathy. At the end of the day, you would be marvelled at what that amounts to. It could metamorphose into something beyond your expectation. Detention and arrests are not the answers to the issue. Issues must be brought forward for discussion. We must disagree to agree so that we can form a nation. We are not yet a nation. Under international laws which Nigeria is signatory to, the right to see for nationhood is guaranteed. Thus, if people decide that they don’t want to be part of your project, there is nothing you can do about it. Whatever you do is just to buy time. So why don’t you look at the issues the way they are and address them once and for all? This is what I think and it is absolutely my opinion.
Those sympathetic to President Muhammadu Buhari believe that the agitation became intense because the average Igbo man does not like a Hausa man being the President. Do you subscribe to this?
I do not subscribe to that because before Buhari, there were leaders who came from the Nort. Umar Yar’Adua was from the North and we could see the support from the East until lately when there was this problem of misgivings just before the recent elections. The perception of those in the camp of President Buhari is that the South-east was against him and that he did not get enough votes from the area and so what they bargained for is what they would get. Again, I do not share that perception. This is because this is a democracy where everyone has the right to decide where he wants to stay and if a government is finally formed at the end of the day, that government must be seen to be all-inclusive and carry everybody along irrespective of whether you got votes or not. You must be seen to be more civilised and behave in very civil ways so that we will all feel we are part of this democracy. But where things went wrong and you want to pay back, I do not think that is nationalistic.
And when the issue of appointments came up and some positions that should be shared nationally went in one direction as far as we were concerned, some of us raised alarm we did not raise alarm because we don’t enjoy Buhari, but because we know he is human and those who work with him are also human. So where something is going wrong, there is no problem in calling the person to correct it. I do not think it is in the best interest of Nigerians to play politics with things like this because the only reason Buhari is elected is because people gave him mandate to be President of Nigeria and so issues of a section of the country not giving him their votes should not arise. The perception became more glaring and visible because certain things happened in recent times, especially just before the election, after the election and in appointments. It is not because they hate Buhari but certain things have gone wrong and it is better to address them. As long as they remain part of the country, what belongs to them must be given. But where we believe that some parts of the country should be treated as second-class citizens, then we are not doing justice to the nation or that we want the country to survive. This is just the truth of it.
There is also this argument that the South-east is not ripe enough to call for secession because there is not particular leader to take them out of the woods. An analyst recently cited the case of South Sudan. What do you think?
That they are not mature enough, how is that our problem, the problem of anybody or a section of the country? By law, how is that a problem? It is either you decide to carry them along or if you feel they are a burden to you, then allow them to go. When a child decides that it is time to come out of her mummy’s womb, you can’t stop the child. Oftentimes, we make the mistake of comparing Nigeria with other countries forgetting that we do not share the same culture. We are people from different backgrounds, religions and environments. So I do not share that sentiment. There are also countries that broke and the seceding countries are living on their own. Have you ever seen where a country breaks up and the parts come back together because it was a mistake? It has never happened. So who is afraid in the case of Nigeria? If we cannot do justice to all, then let everyone go peacefully.
For me, I do not think the entire North should be held responsible for not allowing the East to go. For me, if they choose to go, so be it. The day we fee tired of this project called Nigeria, we too in the North would say we are going. Let nobody hold anybody to ransom. I only just think going our separate ways is not the best answer, but let’s also begin to decide for them as if we should tell what they want or not. If we cannot bring equity and justice to this table and discuss it, then what is the essence of this pretence? We don’t have to pretend; the country is sick and we need a man who truly believes in the nation to govern it rather than heating it up. And this is where I differ because with the problem at hand like insurgency in the northern part of the country, there should not be any reason to create another monster in another part of the country. Leaders must be seen to be low-headed at this time. Let us not be fooled, this is the best time for leaders to put their heads together and see how things would be solved and appreciate the fact that we come from different backgrounds. Let us not abuse this opportunity. If found wanting, let us address the problem and stop behaving like there is no problem. The moment you begin to say some people should be sidelined, then you are not bargaining for peace.
In resolving this problem now, do you suggest that the report of the last National Conference should be looked into?
The report of the National Conference cannot be a reason to start looking at a new Nigeria because even some of us have issues with the Confab and its composition and how it went. This government must be open because if we cannot sit down and discuss it, then there is a problem. This government must be create an atmosphere and engage everyone. I believe a Sovereign National Conference is the answer to this whole thing and there must be no no-go area. People must be allowed to discuss issues. Often, when the issues of national discourse emerge, these mischief makers, these crooks who are 80 percent criminally-minded people at the National Assembly would tell you that they are the ones to discuss them. You cannot be the manager of Nigeria because they voted for you. You cannot just wake up one morning and declare that the sovereignty of the people is now your own. Allow the rightful owners decide how they want to live together and move forward.
The constitution we have today is fraud. We challenge the legality of the preamble of the constitution. You cannot be move a country forward where there is problem. The country is sick! We can only buy time, but the day it would escalate, everyone would start running helter-skelter. And I am afraid that the prediction of America that Nigeria would break would not come to pass. Unfortunately, the government of the day believes so much in America. In fact, they even consult America before introducing some local policies to us. You can see how bad it is that after 55 years, Nigeria has not grown enough to decide how we want to govern ourselves. Must we consult America? Why can’t we do our thing our own way? Who even tells you America is in support of Nigerians uniting together? History has shown that so many wars and insurgency around the world have the imprint of America. Can’t we learn from history? Do we want to go into another civil war? I can tell you that if Nigeria goes into another civil war now, we will not survive it.