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HomeOpinionThe Yoruba Nation “secessionists” of Ibadan by Reuben Abati

The Yoruba Nation “secessionists” of Ibadan by Reuben Abati

Tinubu must wake up. He must not allow a situation whereby his own people are the ones calling for the dissolution of Nigeria while he is President. Whatever all the textbook arguments may be, Mrs Modupe Onitiri-Abiola must be given the Nnamdi Kanu treatment!

Arrested Yoruba Nation agitators
On Saturday, 13 April, a group of 18 masked persons dressed in army camouflage, armed with rifles, charms and Oodua Nation flags attempted to take over the Oyo State House of Assembly and Government Secretariat to proclaim the emergence of a Yoruba Nation.

They caused some commotion as they insisted on hoisting a flag, but the rag-tag team of insurrectionists were soon overpowered and arrested by officers of the Nigerian Police Command. Well, not quite. They resisted the police but when soldiers from the Second Division of the Nigerian Army arrived on the scene, the Oodua boys took to their heels. Cowards!

They should have waited and argued with the soldiers over the integrity and sovereignty of Nigeria. But the twist in the tale turned out to be the appearance of a woman – Modupe Onitiri Abiola – on several platforms, who endorsed the action of the Oodua 18 and proclaimed that a Democratic Republic of Yoruba had emerged with effect from 13 April.

The additional twist in the tale was that the woman introduced herself as a widow of Chief MKO Abiola, the undeclared winner of the 12 June, 1993 presidential election, pillar of sports in Africa, entrepreneur, philanthropist and a martyr of democracy.

Nigerians are probably used to persons, groups – ethnic and socio-cultural – threatening to leave Nigeria and declare their own separate country, to – as they argue – correct the mistake of 1914, so-called, or to seek meaning in a new association. After all, in February 1966, Isaac Adaka Boro, an Ijaw ethnic minority rights activist, formed a group known as the Niger Delta Volunteer Force and declared the formation of a Niger Delta Republic. He and his group fought the Nigerian Forces for 12 days before they were overwhelmed, arrested, tried for treason and thrown into jail. This was the first major rebellion against the Nigerian state.

The same year, following the Unification Decree No 34 of the Aguiyi Ironsi military government, the people of Northern Nigeria were so dissatisfied with the turn of events in Nigeria that they openly talked about “Araba” – meaning “let us separate.” In January 1966, there had been a military coup which resulted in the death of Northern leaders and others, notably Prime Minister Tafawa Balewa; Sir Ahmadu Bello, Northern Region premier; Chief Ladoke Akintola, premier of the Western Region; and Festus Okotie-Eboh, minister of Finance.

The coup was led by Kaduna Nzeogwu, an Igbo man, and with that collapse of Nigeria’s First Republic, the new leader was also an Igbo man, General Thomas Umunnakwe Aguiyi-Ironsi, the first military head of state of Nigeria. The North had wanted to separate but eventually there was a countercoup in July 1966, which ousted the Ironsi regime, further widening the centrifugal ethnic fissures in Nigeria.

In July 1967, the Igbos fought back. Led by Lt. Col. Chukwuemeka Odimegwu Ojukwu, they declared the Republic of Biafra, meaning they were determined to secede from Nigeria. The war that ensued lasted three years – 6 July 1967 – 15 January 1970. That was 54 years ago, but there are signs that the civil war in Nigeria has not really ended. Nigeria took a turn for the worse. The rain began to beat us.

The separatist spirit would again show up on 22 April, 1990, in the coup speech by Major Gideon Orkar, whose plan, as announced, included the excision of five Northern states of Bauchi, Borno, Katsina, Kano and Sokoto from Nigeria. The Orkar group was convinced that the people from these five states were the problem with Nigeria and they should just get out and form their own country. Thus, Orkar and 41 of his colleagues wanted to seize government and re-draw the map of Nigeria. They were captured by government troops, charged for treason, convicted, and executed by firing squad. However, the fact that treason attracts the punishment of death has not deterred those who think that Nigeria must be dismembered, or that the map must be re-drawn.

The year 2012 witnessed the emergence of a separatist, nativist, Igbo nationalist, anti-Fulani, neo-Biafra group called the Indigenous People Of Biafra (IPOB), which aims to restore and actualise the dream of Biafra. IPOB is led by Mazi Nnamdi Kanu, who has been facing trial for treasonable felony since 2016. Before IPOB, there was also Radio Biafra established by Mazi Kanu in 2009, there was Movement for the Actualisation of the Sovereign State of Biafra led by Ralph Uwazurike (1999,) and there was the Biafra Zionist Movement (BZM) led by Benjamin Igwe Onwuka (2012). There have also been talks about the possibility of an Arewa Reepublic.

A common thread in the foregoing is that every attempt at separation in Nigeria has been driven by frustration with the country’s arrangement, protests against bad governance, cries of marginalisation or victimisation, with ethnic identity and questions of federalism, religion and resource control thrown into the mix.

For example, in 1993, following the annulment of the 12 June, 1993 presidential election, which denied MKO Abiola, a Yoruba man, victory, the Oodua Peoples Congress (OPC) was formed to defend Yoruba rights and remind the Babangida military junta that Yoruba people would not be cheated. OPC was founded and led by Dr.Frederick Fasheun. It was also known as the Oodua Liberation Movement, or the Revolutionary Council of Nigeria.

There would later be a more militant, breakaway, faction of the group led by Gani Adams, who is now the Aaare Ona Kakanfo of Yorubaland, that is the Yoruba Generalissimo, and defender of the Yoruba realm. The OPC never really pushed the idea of leaving Nigeria: the group, Fasheun or Gani Adams faction, has consistently focused on defending Yorubaland against any form of attack or aggression from other groups and to protect Yorubaland, covering both the South Western states and Itsekiriland in the Delta. The Itsekiri are cousins of the Yoruba. They share a cultural, linguistic and political heritage.

What we must note is that the Yoruba, who had been maintaining a pacifist, federalist position in the matter, soon began to talk about secession too, with the emergence under the Buhari administration (2015 – 2023) of the likes of Professor Banji Akintoye, and the militant Sunday Igboho, who announced an Oodua Republic with a group known as Ilana Omo Yoruba, in response to what they considered as the Fulanisation of Nigeria by the Buhari government and the assault on Yoruba territories by Hausa-Fulani herders.

Ideologically, their objective was to protect Yoruba territory against Fulani invasion, to avoid a repeat of the seizure of Ilorin, a Yoruba town, in the 19th century. The group petitioned the United Nations. The mainstream Yoruba position, however, had always been restructuring and federalism, as canvassed by the Awoist group, the OPC and the Afenifere. The idea of an Oodua Republic looked like a fall-back position.

Sunday Igboho’s activism and militancy telegraphed what happened in Ibadan on Saturday. He is a self-determination activist who went beyond Professor Akintoye’s theoretical disposition to ask for an immediate declaration of an Oodua Republic. Of course, the Nigerian state went after him. He had to spend three years in exile and only recently returned for his mother’s burial. But that is another story. It would be recalled, however, that in April 2021, more than 100 self-determination groups stormed Ibadan to declare an Oduduwa Republic, and a Yoruba nation. They included the Nigerian Indigenous Nationalities Alliance for Self-Determination (NINAS), the Youth Initiative, Itsekiri National Youth Council, Ilana Omo Oodua and the Homeland Group.

They were dispersed by the police. Now in 2024, we have a Mrs Modupe Onitiri-Abiola, leading a relatively unknown Ominira Yoruba group, trying to take over power in Oyo State. Special attention should be paid to the fact that the group has been disowned by both Professor Banji Akintoye and Sunday Igboho, whose real name is actually Chief Sunday Adeyemo. Professor Akintoye says the group must be an agent of the Fulanis still desperate to destabilise Yorubaland. Igboho says he does not know the group, and that they are so “low-brained”.

Akintoye and Igboho seem convinced that the Ibadan secessionists must be insane. No Yoruba leader has come out to identify with Mrs Abiola’s group.

My take, however, is that the Yoruba elite cannot distance themselves from what has happened. Each and every one of them, who has been calling for this or that or else, is guilty. I refer them to Ebrahim Hussein’s Kinjekitile, a 1979 play written by the Tanzanian playwright on the Maji Maji war. The lesson of that play is that a word when spoken develops a life of its own, beyond the author of the word. You can break a community, nation, and even the world, by the power of spoken words. Those who ask that the mistake of 1914 must be revisited and that Nigeria must be renegotiated have their point, but let them also think about the effect of their pronouncements.

MASSOB created IPOB. Nnamdi Kanu gave birth to Simon Ekpa. Self-determination, the right of a people to decide their own destiny, is a fundamental right under the UN Charter (Article 1 sub. 2), and we have seen that in the case of Kosovo, and Abhkazia, and the unresolved, ongoing cases of Kurdistan, Northern Cyprus, Quebec, Scotland, Western Sahara, Tibet and Taiwan. Nonetheless, the April secessionists of Ibadan, led by Mrs Onitiri -Abiola and others of their ilk, must be reminded that whereas Nigeria is a signatory to international laws and conventions, it remains a country governed by specific domestic laws, and this is where I think Mrs Abiola and her band of 18 soldiers are in troubled waters.

Section 2 of the Nigerian 1999 Constitution states clearly that Nigeria is “one indivisible and indissoluble sovereign state to be known by the name of the Federal Republic of Nigeria.” Section 37 of the Criminal Code prescribes the death penalty for anyone who tries to tamper with Nigeria’s sovereignty. The offence is defined as treason. In Sections 40 – 43 of the same Code, the law refers to treasonable felony, which attracts the punishment of life imprisonment. Mrs Abiola and her gang have definitely ran foul of the law. They must be arrested, investigated, and prosecuted. Mrs Onitiri-Abiola is said to be abroad; proceedings should be initiated post-haste for her extradition and interception wherever she may be in the world, and made to answer for her sin.

She reportedly disclosed with her own mouth that she is a widow of Chief MKO Abiola, a man who struggled and died in the process, to rescue this country from sheer hopelessness. In 1993, every section of Nigeria, including the North, voted massively for Abiola in what was acknowledged as the freest and fairest election ever conducted in Nigeria. He was both a hero and a martyr of democracy. And just like that, here comes Mrs Modupe Onitiri-Abiola, one of Chief’s many wives, suddenly showing up from Alhaji’s harem, many years after, spitting on his grave and legacy.

Is she truly of the MKO stock? I think the Abiola family owes us a duty of issuing a statement to clarify at least one point: that Mrs Onitiri-Abiola does not speak for the family. MKO Abiola is one of Yorubaland’s major icons of the 20th and 21st centuries, and a Nigerian hero. It is sad that anyone at all would dare associate his name with less noble causes.

President Bola Ahmed Tinubu must feel personally embarrassed. He is president of Nigeria from the Yoruba stock, and his own people, whoever they are, are trying to take over government? It is either he is terribly disconnected from his own people or he is not paying enough attention to certain details. The other month, he came to Lagos and on his way to the mosque, his own people trooped out to complain about hunger. When he came back home for the Eid-el-Fitri festival, a week ago, he conveniently restricted himself to Ikoyi and worshipped at a place not farther than the Dolphin Estate. Wait a moment. Are Yorubas in a position to even claim that they are marginalised, now that they have their own kinsman and half of the tribe of Lagos in government?

President Tinubu must address “the peculiar mess” that occurred in Ibadan on 13 April. He should find out if there are certain fifth columnists seeking to embarrass his government, using Yorubaland as their play field. He took an oath to defend the Nigerian Constitution. Every Nigerian leader that I have worked or interacted with insists that he was sworn to an oath to protect the indivisibility of Nigeria under their watch.

Tinubu must wake up. He must not allow a situation whereby his own people are the ones calling for the dissolution of Nigeria while he is President. Whatever all the textbook arguments may be, Mrs Modupe Onitiri-Abiola must be given the Nnamdi Kanu treatment!

We had Chief Olabode George on The Morning Show (TMS) of Arise News yesterday and he drew attention to the failure of intelligence in the Ibadan matter. The old man was right. I share his view. How on earth did the Yoruba secessionists plan, organize and move to the Oyo State Government Secretariat without anybody catching a whiff of their intentions. Their spokesperson lives abroad. They must have been in touch with her through phone calls, messages and all that. And nobody picked that up? They even bought and wore military camouflage. And all the spokespersons of the Service Chiefs will come and tell us that they are committed to the defence of the sovereignty of Nigeria?

Please how do you and your troops defend this country when you sleep on duty? And where was the station manager of the Department of State Security (DSS) in Oyo State and all the other agencies? They must all be called in for questioning. Sleeping on duty is not allowed. And one more point, where was the Nigerian Security and Civil Defence Corps? It is the duty of that agency to protect and defend public infrastructure.

Section 3 of the Civil Defence Act as amended (2007) gives the agency broad powers “to assist in the maintenance of peace and order and in the protection and rescuing of the civil population during the period of emergency.” The agency also has powers under section 3 (f) “to arrest with or without warrant, detain, investigate and institute legal proceedings by or in the name of the Attorney General of the Federation in accordance with the provisions of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria…” Where was Civil Defence even if the other agencies failed?

The bigger issue that we have to deal with perhaps is the increasing, creeping failure of the Nigerian state. Much fewer people today believe in the idea of Nigeria. This is why we have people challenging the state either through secessionist or separatist moves or complete abandonment of the country, the Japa phenomenon, with many believing or thinking that they would be better off in foreign lands. When Nigeria becomes attractive to its own people, we would have managed to create a nation.

Reuben Abati, a former presidential spokesperson, writes from Lagos.

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