Nigeria's President Surprises With a Speech Not About His Health, but About Ethnic Tensions

Screenshot of President Buhari's national broadcast to Nigerians on August 21, 2017.

President Muhammadu Buhari is back in Nigeria after a three-month-long unexplained “medical vacation” in the UK. In his first national broadcast since his return, 48 hours later, he didn't talk about his personal health or healthcare in the country. Instead, he addressed divisive ethnic-politics.

He remarked that while he was away, he was “distressed” to see comments in social media discussions about current affairs that “crossed our national red lines by daring to question our collective existence as a nation.”

“Nigeria's unity is settled and not negotiable,” he said:

We shall not allow irresponsible elements to start trouble and when things get bad they run away and saddle others with the responsibility of bringing back order, if necessary with their blood. Every Nigerian has the right to live and pursue his business anywhere in Nigeria without let or hindrance. I believe the very vast majority of Nigerians share this view. This is not to deny that there are legitimate concerns. Every group has a grievance. But the beauty and attraction of a federation is that it allows different groups to air their grievances and work out a mode of co-existence.

Ethnic hate speech online has been on the rise in Nigeria since the 2015 presidential elections in the country. The reasons were explored in an August 2016 Global Voices post, “Nigeria: Curbing the Tide of Ethnic Hate — Online and Off.” Recently, from the south-east of the country, the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) led by Nnamdi Kanu has been clamoring for secession from Nigeria. This has precipitated a series of events, chief among which was the “Kaduna Declaration,” a notice published by a group of northern youths giving any people of the Igbo ethnicity three months to quit northern Nigeria.

In his speech, the president gave no official pronouncement on the state of his health, and even though many Nigerians are glad to have the commander-in-chief of their armed forces back home, that fact didn't go unnoticed. The lack of clarity over what ails Buhari moved public affairs analyst Chido Onumah to suggest a different speech that Buhari ought to have delivered:

I have never been this sick in my entire life but being sick is a human condition and while I pray that sickness does not befall our worst enemies, I want to say that it is a shame that I had to travel abroad for medical treatment when we have the resources to improve ours in Nigeria but due to bad governance of the past, we have not done so. I want to assure all Nigerians that my government will do better to improve our health care system and make sure that no other President after me will travel abroad for medical treatment; instead other world leaders will visit us for such.

‘That would be bondage and not based on freewill’

Nonetheless, the actual speech that Buhari delivered about ethnic tensions drew mixed reactions from Nigerians. Dr Oby Ezekwesili, a former minister and leader of the Bring Back Our Girls campaign, tweeted:

Patrick Okigbo III, in a Facebook post, was also not happy with the tone of the presidential broadcast:

I am a Nigerian, pure and simple, but I do not agree that “Nigeria's unity has been settled and not negotiable”. That would be bondage and not based on freewill. […] I believe that we are better and stronger together. However, I believe that every group must be strong to come to a common table to negotiate their space. The role of the Federal Government is to make it possible for this dialogue to happen within safe spaces. We must engage the various ethnic nationalities and figure out how best to create a nation that works for all. Banging on the table and proclaiming a non-negotiable union can work for a time and then the seams will give way. The sound you hear in the South East today is the ripping apart of the weakened thread. Nnamdi Kanu's movement is not a joke. It is not a bad hangover that will go away. Rather, it is an opportunity for Nigeria to put a number of issues on the table and rigorously engage them. As the say, the best time to plant that tree was twenty years ago; the next best time is now. Taa ka bu gbo. Today is still a good enough time to start.

Kanu was arrested in 2015 on an 11-count charge of terrorism and treasonable felony, and was granted a bail this year. Some think the government's decision to prosecute him might have actually empowered him and worsened an already dangerous situation. Media commentator Dr Reuben Abati wrote:

Fifty years after the outbreak of the civil war, we now have a man called Nnamdi Kanu. He may well end up as Nigeria’s nemesis. He is the most frightening product of our many years and acts of denial and he may well throw the country into a nightmare worse than Boko Haram, if care is not taken. He started out as the leader of a group called the Indigenous People of Biafra and as director of Radio Biafra.  He and those who bought into his rhetoric of secession and the renewal of the Biafra dream organized protests across the world, and they looked, from afar, like a group of disgruntled Nigerians in diaspora. […] Whoever ordered Nnamdi Kanu’s arrest and prosecution did this country a bad turn. Kanu is a character that could have been better ignored. His trial and travails have turned him into a hero and a living martyr among Igbos. And the young man so far, understands the game. Since he was released on bail, he has been taunting the Nigerian state and government.

‘We are here again, clinging to the same lines drawn in the sand by yesterday’

However, there were Nigerians who supported President Buhari's speech. Nigerian poet Ikeogwu Oke shared this on his Facebook wall:

I have read – and reread – the latest speech by President Buhari. I agree that it could be improved, like any other speech. But I'm surprised that one of the strictures against it is that it says Nigeria's unity is not negotiable. Did anyone in their right senses expect Buhari or the leader of any other country to openly declare in a national broadcast that the country's unity is negotiable, thereby sanctioning agitations for its breakup? Can anyone point to a precedent where any leader formally pronounced the unity of their country negotiable, even in the so-called civilised world? Even if such a precedent were to exist, are the underlying circumstances the same as ours? […] As for me, I agree that the unity of any nation ought to be negotiable. But to expect any leader to proclaim that in a national broadcast is to take an unreasonable expectation too far.

The hostile ethnic politics in Nigeria was summarized by Nigerian writer Mazi Nwaonwu thus:

Did any of you read ‘Divided We Stand’ by the gifted Ekwensi? It is a forerunner of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's cerebral ‘Half of a Yellow Sun’. Both books share many things in common, but the most striking is showing that even in the midst of the turmoil before the war and the war proper, many northerners and easterners and westerners navigated their relationships and found a way to be together.

But…this is not about the books or the brilliant writers behind them. This is about how we seem to stand divided and how this division is examplified by how we view issues. So someone writes something beautiful against our sitting president you would most likely find names like Obi, Chima, Ngozi, etc hailing the writer and his craft and superb brains. Another writes something pro Buhari that's considered equally beautiful and you'd find the Adamus and Sanis hailing. In the midst of all this is the Yinkas and Salawus who remains majorly in the middle, echoes of their fathers before them.

It's funny, but both books captured this mode from that time our fathers though they won't revisit. More than 4 decades later, we are here again, clinging to the same lines drawn in the sand by yesterday.

Nigeria has been bedeviled with ethnic politics since independence in 1960. In the words of these two scholars, Felicia H. Ayatse and Isaac Iorhen Akuva: “Nigeria has carried forward the spirit of ethnicity into the post-colonial Nigeria, this vice has been discovered to have been responsible for most of the political, administrative, economic, social and cultural maladies in Nigeria.” Sadly, these sentiments have been exploited by most Nigerian politicians till date.

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