While President Muhammadu Buhari’s return from the UK after a lengthy absence due to ill health has allayed fears of a coup, Nigeria is panicking that ethnic tensions could lead to civil war.
Die-hard members of the majority Hausa tribe have issued an ultimatum for the Igbo tribe to leave the northern parts of the country at the end of this month.
Audio and video footage urging the north to attack the Igbos in the region have been circulated on the internet and social media, sparking fears that this could lead to a Rwanda-like genocide.
Over four months in 1994, members of the Hutu majority in that country murdered hundreds of thousands of members of the ethnic Tutsi minority.
Now, in addition to Islamic fundamentalist group Boko Haram’s escalating acts of terror in the country, Nigeria has to contend with unstable interethnic relations.
More than 20 000 civilians have been killed – unofficial figures suggest the toll is closer to 100 000 – and about 2 million have been displaced due to the terrorism.
At the centre of the brewing conflict are the Hausa (largely Muslim) and the Igbo (predominantly Christian) ethnic groups.
The Hausa is the largest, making up 29% of Nigeria’s 190 million population. The Igbo is the third-largest, with 18%. The Yoruba is the second-largest tribe (21%).
Nigeria, which is Africa’s biggest country by population, has more than 500 tribal groups.
The Hausa-language audio messages urge northern Nigerians to destroy the property of Igbo people and kill anyone who refuses to leave by October 1.
The date given in the ultimatum has been attributed to the Igbos’ persistent demands for secession. It was issued by a coalition including the Arewa Citizens Action for Change and the Northern Emancipation Network.
The ethnic tension has put Buhari in a dilemma because he is a member of the Hausa ethnic group. It has openly threatened dire consequences for those ignoring the campaign.
The tribes have a brutal history. Their tensions have been playing out in bloody clashes between the predominantly Hausa nomadic herdsman and mostly Christian farmers.
The Arewa coalition’s ultimatum, issued in Kaduna, is believed to be a reaction to the resurgence of secessionist demands orchestrated by two groups: the Indigenous People of Biafra and Movement of the Actualisation of the Sovereign State of Biafra.
The two groups have recently been engrossed with the idea of realising a sovereign state of Biafra, which was deemed unacceptable to most Nigerians.
Biafra, an Igbo stronghold, was independent from Nigeria until it was annexed after a civil war that lasted from 1967 to 1970.
Another group, the Niger Delta Watchdogs, told all northerners to leave the region although no deadline was given.
Other threats have come from the Nnamdi Kanu-led Radio Biafra, which is advocating the independence of the region. Kanu is the leading proponent of autonomy for Biafra.
The radio station is accused of circulating hate speech and propagating Igbo (southern) supremacy.
“The government must be vigilant”
The Igbo Ekunie Initiative, a coalition of professionals in Nigeria and the diaspora, has not taken the threats lightly and has urged southerners and Christians to leave the northern parts of the country for their own safety as the deadline approaches.
“Since the northern-led federal government is unwilling to protect lives and property, the responsibility for such protection therefore falls on every individual,” the body said.
The statement was signed by its president, Maazi Tochukwu Ezeoke, and secretary Lawrence Nwobu.
“We urge the federal government to organise a referendum, where all component units will choose if they want to remain in Nigeria or not, and where they will collectively decide on how they want to be governed,” the body said.
Rifts between the Hausa and Igbo are long and deep, but have been dormant until recently.
In modern history, they are traceable to the 1966 coup and assassination of the northern elite, including then prime minister Abubakar Balewa on January 15 that year.
The British were blamed for sowing the seeds of conflict between the two groups.
In 1914, the British Empire joined the Southern and Northern Nigeria Protectorate to form the single colony of Nigeria. The unification was done for economic rather than political reasons.
The north had a huge budget deficit and the colonial administration sought to use the budget surpluses in the south to offset this shortfall.
Three UN human rights experts have expressed concerns that the history of violence could repeat itself.
They expressed “grave concern” about the ultimatum ordering the Igbo to flee their homes by the beginning of next month.
The three are Mutuma Ruteere (special rapporteur on contemporary racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance), Fernand de Varennes (special rapporteur on minority issues) and Anastasia Crickley (chairperson of the committee on the elimination of racial discrimination).
They said some prominent local leaders and elders had not condemned the ultimatum and the hate speech.
They were concerned that there had been no prosecution or punishment of those who issued the ultimatum, and who published and circulated hate songs and audio messages.
“The government must be vigilant, as hate speech and incitement can endanger social cohesion and threaten peace by deepening the existing tensions between Nigeria’s ethnic communities,” they said.
Since it came to power, Buhari’s All Progressives Congress (APC) government has been overwhelmed by the Boko Haram crisis.
It is seen as having taken its foot off the pedal in efforts to address factionalism that threatens its prospects in the 2019 general elections.
There was alarm during the more than 100 days Buhari was out of the country for treatment of an undisclosed illness.
There were rumours that some APC members had sought the military’s aid in toppling Buhari’s government.
The alleged machinations were supposedly a nefarious bid by the northern hardliners in the party to block the ascension of Buhari’s deputy, Vice-President Yemi Osinbajo, a southerner, to the presidency in the event of Buhari’s death or retirement.
Nigerians warmed up to Osinbajo, an affable law professor, while he acted as president in Buhari’s absence.
Meanwhile, speaking in his home town of Daura in Katsina State, Buhari dismissed the ultimatum.
“Every Nigerian has a right to live, work and thrive in any part of the country, irrespective of their backgrounds,” he insisted. – CAJ News