Alhaji Yerima Shettima, National President of the Arewa Youth Consultative Forum (AYCF), has given an insight into why he has taken sides with northern youths on the Biafra issue and why Igbo should not panic over the matter. He explained that the order for the Igbo to quit the North was given to enable them realise the Biafra of their dream without recourse to violence and bloodshed.
Why did northern youths did make such controversial demands on Igbo?
Well, what I can tell you is that when certain normal situation suddenly becomes abnormal and all efforts to sort it out through normal process become impossible, one is left with no other choice than to adopt abnormal tactics. I was drawn into this latest issue of Biafra and we decided to take the stand that we communicated to Nigerians through our communiqués and press conferences because of the way Nnamdi Kanu and his members of the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) are dragging the matter lately. We are not comfortable with the way Kanu and co are taking this issue, which may snowball into violence. So, basically, our position was just an intervention to save this country from plunging into chaos or another civil war.
Everybody who knows me well, will easily tell you that I had special relationship with the leaders of the MASSOB (Movement for the Actualisation of Sovereign State of Biafra) led by Chief RalphUwazurike. And that’s because of their non-violent approach to the struggle. My relationship with them is such that I even attend their annual memorial events in Owerri and usually deliver speeches in solidarity with their cause.
Now, Nnamdi Kanu’s version of Biafra struggle, which is different from what Uwazurike-led MASSOB was known for; has put everybody on the edge. Kanu’s rude and arrogant approach to the Biafra struggle is what many of us are uncomfortable with. We believe that the conduct of IPOB leaders, if left unchecked could cause trouble for this country. That is why we came out with a clear proposal that would save the country from trouble.
And our position is simple: We want those who want Biafra to be allowed to go and fulfill their wish. Since Nnamdi Kanu-led IPOB is threatening that it is either that they are not allowed to secede from Nigeria or they rain down fire, we don’t want that to happen. We don’t want Biafra struggle to breed violence or civil war. We want peaceful solution to the issue. That’s the simple and summary of our position. But, many took our position on the matter out of context, to mean that we were planning to sack or eject Igbos from the North. That’s not the truth. There is nowhere in that declaration that says we are forcefully going to remove the Igbo from the North. People misinterpreted our position.
Unfortunately, many people will always find ways to misinterpret whatever anybody with genuine intention of this country says or does for the betterment of everybody because of the usual mutual suspicion. Our position is that since the Igbo led by IPOB say they want to secede from Nigeria, let them be allowed to go without any violence. I believe in self-determination and so, see no reason the Igbo should be stopped from pursuing that dream.
Our position is also geared towards sensitising a lot of Igbo on the dangers of what these guys are preaching. We believe that such could serve to bring Kanu and his followers to their senses and influence the opinions of other Igbo leaders because from what we have learnt, they actually enjoy backing of a lot of them. There is urgent need to compel Kanu to apply caution on this Biafra struggle and to educate most Igbo that IPOB’s violent stance on this matter is not even in their best interest. They need to know that we are not the enemy in this issue. We are simply trying to avert crisis.
Why have you refrained from granting media interviews on the issue?
Well, I have refrained from talking to the press indiscriminately because we don’t want people to misinterpret what is going on. The truth is that anybody who has been following the events without sentiments and reading the authentic statements we have made so far will be surprised at the negative connotations that have trailed our position on the matter. From the first communiqué, the follow-up press conference and the second communiqué issued to emphasise our stand, we raised issues for more clarification, especially on the angle of violence and so on. You will recall that in our second press conference, 24 hours after the first one, we made it clear that there was nothing violent about our demand.
Why did you join ‘Igbo Must Go’ group?
I can tell you with sincerity of purpose that I will never be violent and will never ever support anything that will breed violence in this country. I was not even supposed to champion this cause of northern youths’ demand for Nigerian authority to let Igbo go. When some of the groups of youths in the North came together to deliberate on this development, they realised that some of us, who are already well experienced in the struggle at national levels need to be part of the team to give it a sense of purpose. Initially, I thought I was not going to be part of them. But, on a second thought, I realised that if we didn’t come in and guide them, it might compound the problem they were trying to solve. If there is no face of someone like me there, it might take a dangerous turn along the way; and I don’t want such thing that escalated the Boko Haram crisis to happen again. So, my involvement in this is basically to ensure that we stick to the objective, which is ensuring that the Biafra agitation does not cause violence in the North. You will agree with me that if such things occurre and there were no notable figures that can be easily reached, things may get out of hand and nobody will be held responsible.
What is your take on the Nigerian federalism?
My position on the need to restructure this country remains unchanged. Even before the likes of Atiku Abubakar and the rest began to speak up in favour of the restructuring of the Nigerian federation, I have always been on the forefront of the struggle. I believe that we cannot make progress if we continue to govern the country with the present unitary federal structure. It’s part of what we are preaching. In fact, if there is anything else we want, it’s a united Nigeria where every tribe, region or state will prosper and everybody is free to eke out livelihood and enjoy citizenship benefits without any form of discrimination. We believe that the solution to this country’s structural quagmire does not lie in violent struggle. That’s exactly the message northern youths were trying to pass across to our Igbo brothers and the entire Nigerians. We don’t want anybody to panic or live in fear. Let those who feel strongly that seceding from Nigeria is the ultimate solutions to their problems do so peacefully without causing mayhem or bloodshed. We don’t want anything that would escalate further the already alarming state of the country.
With your quit notice to the Igbo, don’t think you are committing a treasonable offence?
Well, I don’t understand what some people mean when they claimed that we had committed treasonable offence based on our stand. How did they come about that? Look, the issue is simple. IPOB leaders have intensified their campaign of secession from Nigeria and we said, ‘ok, my brother, we will help you realise your agenda. Don’t even waste further time and energy, demanding it. In fact, we will help you put pressure on the international community and the Nigerian government to respect your wish for self-determination, as enshrined in the UN Charter’. Why are we doing all these? Simple! We don’t want it to create chaos in the country. We want peaceful resolution of it. So, how does this become a treasonable offence? Our statements are still in public domain and contain nothing suggesting intent of unleashing violence on our Igbo brothers and sisters.
It’s strange how some mischief makers, who may have not even bothered to read our statements have tried albeit unsuccessfully to turn this matter into Arewa vs Biafra. It’s not true. And those suggesting that we committed treason are simply trying to cause unnecessary friction. I am glad that some Igbo leaders are beginning to realise that Kanu is the architect of the latest problem for Igbo and that if left to continue this way, it may drag Igbo into a needless chaos. We are equally optimistic that Kanu and his group would take a second look at what they are driving the Igbo into and quickly retrace their faltering steps. If IPOB leaders tomorrow reverse their position and declare that they are now ready to remain in Nigeria and join the struggle for restructuring of the country, we will embrace them.
But the youth groups talked about appropriating Igbo properties in the North. What is your take on that?
We have no intention of confiscating properties owned by Igbo in the North. Nobody is taking over anybody’s property. All we are trying to do is to assist them achieve their quest without dragging the country into violence.
Let me also restate here that our demand for Nigerian government to let Biafran agitators go and fulfill their self-determination does not apply to all Igbo. Those who opted to remain in the Nigerian federation will not be forcefully evicted from the North. There is nowhere it is mentioned in our statements that all Igbo would be expelled from the North. What we were saying is that ‘those who believe in IPOB campaign for an independent country called Biafra should feel free to peacefully leave the North and go form Biafra’. That’s all.
What about the issue of Referendum?
We also believe in the call for a referendum to decide this issue. That will determine those who are truly in support of an independent State of Biafra and those who are not. If that happens, it’s the votes that will determine whether majority of Igbo truly want to quit Nigeria or not. Most of the Igbo, especially those living in the North, are solidarising with IPOB not because they believe in what they are preaching but because they are scared of what would be their fate in the long run. They are safety conscious. But, here we are assuring them and everybody that we don’t want this matter to result in violence.
I have been vocal on issues, affecting the Igbo in this country and my position has not changed. I was the first to speak out when the government of President Muhammadu Buhari was formed and Igbo were not well represented in the cabinet as many expected. It was in the news and I was attacked by some people in the North for speaking against the government at that time. And taking a detribalised stand on national issues has been my forte since I started this struggle over 18 years ago and I cannot change now. This is still me. What do I stand to gain from changing my position on national issues at this time? I can’t, because I look forward to being a leader in the new Nigeria we are all struggling to set up. And it’s not a selfish cause or personal ambition. It’s based on my conviction and understanding of what it will take to rescue this country from this constant political skirmishes and stalled development.
That’s why I felt so betrayed that some people have not tried to reach me for clarification on this issue of Biafra secession issue before saying all sorts of things in the media. Some of them did not give me the opportunity to tell them what has changed about my position on Igbo and Biafra – which is all about the dangerous attitude of Nnamdi Kanu and his followers. But, I have received quite a significant number of calls from high profile individuals from the South-East, across the country and even globally on this matter. And I have tried as much as I can to explain our position to some of them; and make them understand that we are not the bad guys in this issue, rather the good guys, who don’t want bad things to happen. We are equally reaching out, consulting and talking to other people to also have the same mindset so that at the end of the day, we can all speak with one mind and resolve the problems of this country without any form of violence.