Nigeria's northern Christians worried over quit notice

2017-06-23 20:29
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Nigeria protests fuel hikes

Ethnic and religious violence in Nigeria has claimed 16 more victims as a fuel strike adds to the countries deadly tension.

Kano - Okechukwu Ugo has been left in a predicament after an ultimatum was issued for all southern Christians of Igbo heritage to leave Nigeria's Muslim-majority north.

"I was born in Kano," the building materials salesman told AFP in Sabon Gari, a Christian enclave on the edge of the country's biggest northern city.

"My father relocated to Kano from the east more than 60 years ago. I don't have any other place to call home apart from Kano."

Since the call was made by a Muslim group, the Arewa Youth Consultative Forum (AYCF), on June 8, the federal government in Abuja has repeatedly called for calm.

But the notice to Igbos to leave the north by October 1 has brought to the fore barely-concealed ethnic and religious tensions across Africa's most-populous nation.

In the Igbo-dominated southeast, the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) movement, led by the charismatic Nnamdi Kanu, has been increasingly saying it wants to go its own way.

Ugo, however, wants nothing to do with any of it.

"The government should end all these calls for secession in the east and quit notice to Igbos in the north for national cohesion," he said.

 Biafra blamed 

Rising communalism and anti-Igbo sentiment has been blamed on IPOB, stoked by memories of 1967 when their predecessors declared an independent republic of Biafra in the southeast.

The declaration led to a brutal 30-month civil war and more than one million deaths, most of them Igbos, from starvation and disease.

Stanley Obiora, a 40-year-old Igbo trader in Kano, has like Ugo lived all his life in Sabon Gari and said Kanu and his ilk don't speak for him.

"The northern youth said they issued the ultimatum in reaction to the Biafra agitation which we, the Igbos in the north, are not party to," he added.

"We call on our elders on the east to caution our youth from making reckless utterances that put their kinsmen in the north at the receiving end.

"The Igbos have so much investment in the north. You don't expect us to leave and abandon all that we worked to build overnight."

North-south divide 

Nigeria is roughly evenly split between the Muslim-majority north and the largely Christian south, but the country is made up of more than 250 ethnic groups.

The biggest is the Hausa-speaking Fulani in the north, the Yoruba in the southwest and the Igbo in the southeast. Many have relocated for economic reasons over the years.

The veteran Nigeria specialist Dmitri-Georges Lavroff has described the north as "quasi-feudal and under-developed".

Northerners feel "alien to the urbanised, commercial and industrial south, inhabited by a willingly expansionary people.".

They "have the impression they were economically 'colonised' by the Igbo traders from the south", he wrote in a research paper "On the path of national unity".

Fifty years ago, there was a massacre of Igbos in the north in retaliation for a January 1966 military coup d'etat seen as orchestrated predominantly by Igbo army officers.

That led to the Igbo declaration of secession.

Obiora pointed out there had been previous quit notices in the north, adding: "I hope it all comes to pass, as previous quit notices."

With memories long and the history of what happened next not forgotten, the authorities are also keen to avoid a repetition at all costs.

 Unity at stake 

This week, Nigeria's Vice-President Yemi Osinbajo met state governors and appealed to them to calm tensions, warning that "careless expressions... may degenerate into crisis".

Osinbajo, deputising for President Muhammadu Buhari who has been on sick leave since early May, said there was a need to "speak up... and ensure that we protect our democracy".

He added: "From all of the consultations... we agreed that Nigeria's unity should not be taken for granted, no-one wants to see us go down the path of bloodshed or war."

The AYCF made its statement in Kaduna, a powder keg of simmering ethnic and religious tensions that has previously erupted in deadly violence.

The state's governor, Nasir El-Rufai, was not at the meeting.

For Nigerian security specialist Don Ekereke the issue demonstrated an increasing disconnect between politicians and the people.

"They (the politicians) seem to only care about winning elections and their personal aggrandisements," he told AFP.

"Now that the president is sick and not running the show, his northern constituency is agitated and not happy.

"I think this somehow contributes to the rising tensions and explains the political brinkmanship by untouchable Arewa youths."

Read more on:    biafra  |  muhammadu buhari  |  nigeria  |  west africa

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