Nigeria’s March to the Gallows Nigeria, South Sudan and the False Security of Secession

Growing calls to restructure Nigeria may appear to be more reasonable than calls for secession. However, prolonging the implementation of national restructuring will continue to justify civil disobedience and demands for secession.

Since declaring its independence in 1960, Nigeria’s development trajectory has been retrogressive. Core democratic values such as rule of law, justice, liberty, and equality among people have been whittled down because of the country’s Machiavellian leadership process, its mafia bureaucracy, and its splintered civil society, all of which are hastening the country’s journey to failed state status.

Nigeria’s North-South divide remains a torturous reminder of its colonial past. Beyond the divide, recurring allegations against Nigeria are that the country is a potentials-suffocating machine, as evident in its widespread lack of access to electricity, poor educational system, corruption, kidnappings and killings; its media gagging and assault on the youth, as seen recently during the 2020 #EndSARS protests. These issues continue to drive social unrest and resentment both internally and across the diaspora. Nonetheless, Nigeria marches on, presumably to the gallows, a march that could either end in reconciliation with its nationhood, or in arriving at the feet of the beheader—disintegration.

A similar North-South divide featured in Sudan well before South Sudan’s secession in 2011. The Sudan to the north (now Republic of Sudan) had Islam and Arabism as its religious and cultural identity, but the Sudan to the south (now Republic of South Sudan) had a mixture of mostly animists, secularist Muslims and Christians to a lesser extent. This mirrors Nigeria’s Muslim hegemony in the North and Christian hegemony in the South. Oil politics in Sudan also presents a striking semblance to Nigeria’s reality. Oilfields are situated in the South; Sudan seized control of them through balkanization. Also, in a quest for religious dominance, northern Sudan was determined to impose Sharia on southern Sudan—the final tipping point of the second civil war.

The secession of South Sudan mirrors Nigeria’s current realities and may even serve as a deterrent for Nigerian state actors who equate the growing call for ‘restructuring’ (returning Nigeria to a federalist system) with treason. It can probably inspire in such state actors the urgent will to start building democratic systems to forestall the resurgence of a nationwide movement for secession. Besides, learning from the experience of South Sudan may also motivate rigorous evaluation and preparation for issues that arise from secession. Barely two years after seceding successfully from Sudan in 2011, South Sudan itself descended into civil war—rendering its previous 40-year struggle for self-determination somewhat purposeless. In view of that, strategic organization of restructuring or ‘struggle’ campaigns may play a purposeful role in rescuing Nigeria from the edge of the precipice.


British colonization of Sudan attempted to weave different Sudanic identities into one structure but, across Sudan, colonial governance was not uniform. The North was held in trusteeship in recognition of its Arab-Islam hegemony (because British colonialists believed introducing Christianity would spark a far and wide Jihād). The South, however, was administered indirectly, with Christianity and the English language institutionalized.

As of 1956, northern Sudan accounted for 70 per cent of the Sudanese population, the majority of whom were Muslim. From as early as the ninth century the region had seen a large influx of Muslim Arabs, who arrived from the Arabian Peninsula via Egypt and the Red Sea. Exploring the supposition that northern Sudan was unique from southern Sudan, Amir Idris noted that ‘Neither the people of the North nor those of the South constitute a distinct cultural and racial group with a distinct history that can be taken as an object of inquiry.’ This would mean that northern Sudan, though Arab in some sense, asserted Arabism as a convenience for power and economic ‘monopoly’. Southern Sudan, however, had served as a ‘slave reservoir’ to northern Sudan many centuries before Britain arrived. Moreover, traditional religions continued to exist strongly in southern Sudan even as Christianity was introduced under British colonialism.

Southern Sudan’s ethnic diversity considerably varied too, amounting to around 60 indigenous ethnic groups and at least 25 ethnic subdivisions. The first census in 1956  would identify ‘597 tribes and sub-tribes’ in Sudan. So, as Elfatih A. A Salam explains, ‘The dominance of the Islamic Afro-Arab culture should not force us to overlook the great plurality of customs, sub-communities, and minority group ties that still exist.’ Hence, when Britain arrived, it met an atmosphere of old, mutually ‘exclusive’ group-relations.

The defeat of the Mahdist theocratic government in 1898 marked the beginning of British colonial rule in Sudan while the bombardment of Lagos by the British in 1851 started the colonial process in Nigeria (Lagos later became a British Crown colony in 1861). The south of Sudan would be administered in provinces created by British colonizers under the Native Policy used to maintain peace and order in various locales. Under the Clifford constitution of 1922 as amended, Nigeria’s formerly southern protectorate would also be divided into Western and Eastern provinces, also administered along their various traditional configurations, keeping the North in its gigantic form.

Being the most politically organized and the most populous, northern Arab nationalists in Sudan would champion an independence struggle, inheriting power from Britain thereafter. Similarly, despite a nationwide independence struggle, northern Nigeria formally inherited power from Britain in the midst of the unscrupulous federal elections of 1959. A timely coalition between Northern People’s Congress and the National Convention of Nigerian Citizens would make Sir Tafawa Balewa head of government, and Dr Nnamdi Azikiwe a ceremonial head of state.

Although amalgamation was not proclaimed in Sudan as in Nigeria’s case, the handing over of southern Sudan—a separately administered region—to an Arab-controlled national government in 1956 implied amalgamation in itself. Already, Sudan’s southern leaders held two conferences in Juba in 1947 and 1954, demanding a redress on the one-sided power arrangement. Tensions grew as northern Sudanese officials replaced British officials in the South’s civil service; as a result, southern soldiers mutinied four months to the Independence Day—January 1st, 1956. Nigeria would gain its own independence four years later, only to leap into another round of crises from the mutiny led by its own southern officers in 1966.


Cotran has observed that ‘the imperial agenda […] prevented the Sudanese from knowing each other, feeling with each other, working with each other and learning from each other.’ The Colonial Southern Policy, used to the same end, furthered the imperial agenda because it introduced a new socio-linguistic dimension to Sudan nationalism which in effect made the later two civil wars struggle for identity preservation. So, in an effort to counter northern Sudanese hegemony, British colonialists complicated the already complex chain of identity formations in southern Sudan (i.e. English/indigenous languages/Arabic vernacular-Christianity/Animist versus the North’s Arabic-Islam) rendering the two civil wars struggles for cultural, ethnic, racial, regional and religious preservation. These layers—the result of colonial engineering—halted historical relations and, ultimately, stifled the potential for common national identity.

Colonial engineering was also present in Nigeria. Because of its religious and cultural hegemony, northern Nigeria was estranged from southern Nigeria; Christian missions and European education would flourish mostly in southern Nigeria, enlarging and emboldening the chain of identity formations (i.e. the North’s Arabic/indigenous languages-Muslim versus the South’s English/indigenous languages-Christian/traditionalists). These layers would germinate into the levels of deep distrust, suspicion and fear of domination that characterized the 1953 Kano Riot, just seven years to independence, and the back-and-forth constitutional conferences. Indeed, the aforementioned intricacy foreshadowed post-independence crises (1962-66) that ushered in the civil war in 1967.

Colonial ‘divide and rule’ strategy would feature in independent Sudan. Following the discovery of oil in the late 1970s, the Jaafar Nimeiri government balkanized the southern Sudan into three smaller states, strategically making the southern oilfields more accessible. This act triggered the resumption of war in 1983. Northern Sudan’s unilateral decision to implement Sharia in 1983 was another driver of Sudan’s second civil war.

In Nigeria, to counter a looming Biafran secession, the Gowon-led military government followed the same colonial divide and rule strategy and balkanized Nigeria into 12 states. The Eastern Region was in effect divided into three states, deliberately land-locking the Igbos (Easterners) to make the oilfields fall in the ‘minority states’ of the Niger Delta region. Oil was becoming the mainstay of Nigeria’s economy. Now secure with the creation of new states, the oilfields made ‘keeping Nigeria one’ expedient for the government.

Already in the first Sudanese civil war, southern Sudan had agitated for autonomy within a federal structure. This, combined with another round of northern Sudan’s colonial tendencies, radicalized the agitation, not for autonomy within the union anymore, but for independence. Perhaps as a pre-condition for remaining in Nigeria, in January 1967, the Eastern Region, through Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu, also demanded that Nigeria be restructured to a confederation in the Aburi Accords in January 1967. Unwilling to implement the accords, secession became the consequent move for the Eastern Region, and the resultant civil war would happen over three years while Sudan’s first civil war lasted 17 years.

From the foregoing, the coming of British colonizers charged the already complex atmosphere, rendering conflicts inevitable in both Nigeria and Sudan. Northern Sudan’s mishandling of a delicate Sudan would stiffen the united front of southern Sudan, which passionately fought for its liberation for 40 years.


As early as 1804, in northern Nigeria, an Arabic/Hausa-Islam hegemony had been established by the Fulani Jihād. Colonial Nigeria emerged through Britain’s amalgamation of the northern and southern protectorates on January 1st, 1914. In line with Frederick Lugard’s indirect rule policy, Britain preserved the North’s hegemony by simply replacing the head of the Sokoto Caliphate with a British duplicate. In the South, where British influence was stronger, councils of traditional rulers were instituted, and the locals balanced tradition with European education, Christianity and Western-style development. Alhassan P. Ibrahim explains that the legacy of Nigeria’s unique colonial experience is such that ‘the northern half still represents the first wave of colonization (the Arab Islamic colonization), and the southern half of Nigeria still represents the European wave of colonization.’ These distinct colonial experiences transformed into a religious and socio-cultural divide exacerbated by the country’s ethnic diversity.

Following independence, British colonialists handed over Nigeria to the nationalists. However, the nationalists would ‘fumble’ at forging a national identity. By 1966, nationwide tensions reached crisis point when on January 15 a group of southern soldiers gunned down a host of mostly northern, high ranking civilian and military officials. In-fighting among Nigeria’s political elites between 1964 and 1965 culminated in two military coups of 1966, and ultimately, the Biafran War in 1967. The war occurred along the lines of Christian East versus Muslim North and such divisions are returning to just as heightened levels across Nigeria under the Buhari-led administration. While British colonialists may be more responsible for Nigeria’s complicated origins, the ‘caretakers’ who succeeded them have equally failed to.


The second Sudanese civil war alone led to over 1.9 million deaths and displaced four million Sudanese before the secession of South Sudan. An estimated 500,000 lives were lost in the first Sudanese civil war, amounting to nearly 2.5 million in total casualties over the 40-year-long civil wars. Comparing this to the estimated 1.5 million deaths in the Biafran War which lasted for just three years spells doom if violence breaks out in Nigeria today. Nigeria must realize that escaping a three-year civil war should have been and still is a great opportunity to reconcile Nigerians with their nationhood.

Regarding reconciliation, Chukwudi Ukonne posits that ‘requests for the renegotiation of the terms of Nigeria’s unity need not be automatically equated to calls for secession,’ and ‘anyone calling for the restructuring of the federation is not necessarily working towards the dissolution of Nigeria.’ Calls to restructure Nigeria may appear to be more reasonable than calls for secession. However, prolonging the implementation of national restructuring will continue to justify civil disobedience and demands for secession. A call for restructuring is undoubtedly a call for equity in the union.

War is costly. South Sudan, the young country, still wallows in misery and stark underdevelopment. In Nigeria’s case, after Biafra’s surrender, Gowon’s re-integration policy failed to promote a sense of belonging in the East—a root cause for the re-emergence of secessionist sentiments in the East today. Nigerians today must realize that we risk another outburst of secessionist calls or even future civil wars if we do not develop a more inclusive political landscape and economy. This is now the case in South Sudan where, following their independence, several rival factions have developed, resulting into ethnic conflicts spreading into Darfur.

South Sudan’s post-secession crisis shares similar underlying features that had characterized Sudan before secession. The consequence of South Sudan’s independence was a civil war that caused demographic re-engineering. Ethnic displacements, widespread killings, bad living conditions, and discrimination against South Sudanese Muslims led to two million internally displaced people, and 2.5 million refugees living in neighbouring countries. The primary cause of these issues was the tensions within Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/A), particularly between President Salva Kiir and Vice President Riek Machar who belong to the two largest ethnic groups, Dinka and Nuer, respectively.

A split of Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army-In Opposition (SPLM/A-IO) from the SPLM/A—supported Machar’s political ambitions. Within such an ethnically charged atmosphere, statelessness ensued. Nigerians may face similar crises wing to deep-seated suspicion and distrust around and within ethnic nationality boundaries. Recognizing these tendencies, Chris Ngwodo, has argued, that ‘the republic risks collapse not through one epic separatist cataclysm but rather through death by a thousand cuts in various locales where it is now haemorrhaging sovereignty and legitimacy.’

Although already implicit since its formation in 1914, Nigeria’s disintegration is becoming much bolder. In several parts of the country brazen ‘bandits’ demand hefty ransoms; gunmen have invaded the Nigerian Defence Academy; Boko Haram refuses to be ‘technically defeated’; ethnic clashes in Jos and Benue persist; ethnic and religious violence in Kadunacontinue; farmers clash with herders as secessionist tendencies rise not only in the East but also in the South West, with Oduduwa Nation (also called Oduduwa Republic).

Putting Nigeria into Sudan’s perspective, a southern solidarity has been long due, but, as exemplified in South Sudan’s post-secession crises, solidarity alone will not resolve critical issues that may arise from a second civil war or successful secession. The call for a national conference by southern state governors is not even close enough to resolving an iota of Nigeria’s pressing issues. Recall that the 2014 national conference (CONFAB) towed the same path, only for its resolutions to be ignored. A serious look into the CONFAB report and its recommendations may still save Nigeria from the precipice.

Most importantly, in all of this, the youth have a critical role to play. The revolution generation must play an active role in organized ‘struggle’ campaigns. Though, they should keep in mind that the Nigerian army’s intervention in the #EndSARS peaceful protest foreshadows future government response to any strong citizen-led movement. International support, however, may neutralize the state’s aggression, as it did for South Sudan. For instance, the Council of Foreign Relations reports that in 2009, the United States, ‘was a lead facilitator of South Sudanese independence, which was decided in 2011 referendum and provided diplomatic support and humanitarian aid.’ It is understandable that international actors are culprits in proxy wars that have ravaged some countries; diplomatic sagacity could nevertheless get one onboard to lessen the impact of state aggression.

If not wanting war is likened to timidity, who then can stand the view of mountains of dead bodies dotting streets and rivers? That the French Revolution of 1789, among the earliest of such revolutions, witnessed swarms of corpses before the French summoned the courage to build a viable nation tells of the great dilemma that lies before deep thinkers and freedom fighters from the Sọrọ Sókè generation and older generations. As evident in Sudan’s case, it is urgent that Nigeria attains clarity whereby its dialectics are not left to nature or providence but are deliberately engaged to be resolved. As Nigeria marches to the gallows, the country must shift focus to its people’s urgent demand for restructuring. Doing so quickly enough will give Nigeria a better chance at saving itself from the horrors of war

The views, thoughts, and opinions published in The Republic belong solely to the author and are not necessarily the views of The Republic or its editors. We want to hear what you think about this article. Submit a letter to the editors by writing to [email protected].