The Ghost of Biafra

When Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo made his surprise announcement on 13 January to begin a nationwide dialogue to discuss constitutional reform, he was bowing to the inevitable. The clamor by disaffected politicians and human rights activists for such a conference had reached a crescendo.

Obasanjo and the ruling Peoples Democratic Party were re-elected in May 2003 in controversial circumstances. Opposition forces, led by Muhammadu Buhari, the candidate of the All Nigeria People’s Party, accused Obasanjo of using the police to intimidate voters and falsify the election results.

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Initially, it looked like Obasanjo would weather the storm and serve out his last term without making concessions to his opponents. However, in late December 2004, the national election tribunal, sitting in Abuja, the capital, ruled that while the election had been free and fair in most parts of the country, the number of votes was larger than the population in Ogun, the President’s home state. The opposition seized on the ruling and called on Obasanjo to resign.

Simultaneously, the eastern part of the country descended into anarchy. Political thugs linked to the president resorted to strong-arm tactics in an attempt to remove one of the governors, angry that he had not given them lucrative public contracts. Obasanjo refused to call them to order, even after they invaded and razed government offices. In the Niger delta, where oil production and official neglect have devastated the environment and wrecked livelihoods, enraged youths took to the swamps and led an insurgency against Federal troops.

But the most powerful push for the conference came from politicians in the largely Christian south, apprehensive that power would return to the Muslim north in 2007 after Obasanjo, himself a southern Christian, completed his second term. Since political independence in 1960, politics has revolved round Nigeria’s major ethnic groups – the Igbo and Yoruba in the south, and the Hausa and Fulani in the north.

Southerners’ apprehension is well founded. The north dominated the armed forces following the Biafra civil war in the late 1960’s. As military rule became the norm in Africa in the 1970’s, northern army officers imposed an authoritarian and predatory mode of governance on the country, a vicious grip that was loosened only when a resurgent civil society forced them to return to the barracks in 1999. Obasanjo’s election marked the return of civilian rule.

The demand for a new constitution emulating Nigeria’s First Republic of the early 1960’s, when the country was a federation of powerful regions enjoying a large measure of fiscal autonomy, grew over the years as Nigeria’s economy plummeted. But Obasanjo is a passionate advocate of unitary government and counts many influential northerners as personal friends. The northern business and political elite see him as a bulwark against their increasingly restive southern rivals who openly threaten a repeat of the Igbo attempt to secede in 1967 that caused the Biafra conflict, taking the rich oil fields of the Niger delta with them.

Obasanjo’s latest move, his proposed “National Political Reform Conference” in March, is an attempt to steal the opposition’s thunder. There will be 400 delegates, but the bulk of them nominated by the president and his party, and the government-controlled National Assembly will vet their proposals.

The opposition has responded by calling on Nigerians to boycott the conference, arguing that it lacks legitimacy. The opposition, grouped in the Pro-National Conference Organization (PRONACO), a new umbrella coalition of political parties and human rights groups, has said it would convene an alternative national conference in June.

PRONACO has formidable leaders in Wole Soyinka, the Nobel literature laureate, and Anthony Enahoro, an elderly politician who made his name as a fiery young nationalist in the 1940’s. The group’s demands include dividing the country into six or eight new regions along broad ethnic lines with powers to generate and spend revenue.

Opposition leaders also intend to debate such issues as the rights of women and minority groups, and the place of Shari’a, the Islamic legal code, which has replaced civil courts in several northern states. Reformers also have the Obasanjo government’s neo-liberal economic policies, which they describe as “punitive and intellectually bankrupt,” in their sights.

But it is PRONACO’s demand that at least 50% of the oil revenue derived from the Niger delta and other states in the south be retained in the area of production that most threatens the survival of the country’s survival as a united entity. The Biafra war was largely an oil war, prosecuted by northern officers and politicians to win back the delta oil fields from the Igbo. It is not likely that northern elites will stand by idly as a fresh attempt is made to take away what they consider a glittering prize.

For now, the north appears divided. But a hardening of the mood there, and a brokered armistice between its disenchanted youth and older but vastly more experienced political war horses, will not only present PRONACO with a formidable opponent, but could throw West Africa into turmoil if matters degenerate into a frontal clash.