The encroachment of the Nigerian army into the political landscape of Nigeria through its recent encounter with IPOB is a disaster waiting to happen if not checked.
Events of the past two years since Muhammadu Buhari became President have made it clear irrespective of our pretences that Nigeria is a bad contraption that should not have happened.
I have followed events meticulously (especially on social media) and observed with sadness the hatred existing between the three main ethnic groups (Igbo, Hausa and Yoruba) in the country. Events have become even more complicated with separatist advocates in the south-east region who are bent on having their own country called Biafra. It seems like memories of 1967 is reverberating once again in the most populous country in Africa as the world watches silently.
The Nigerian army has embarked on what it called operation ‘Python Dance II’ on the orders of President Buhari to eradicate agitators who are members of the Indigenous people of Biafra for daring to demand for their own country. The same mistake of 1967 – which brought about great hatred and distrust after Gowon mobilised the army and waged a war that lasted for 3 years which created deep animosity between the ethnic groups. Instead of using a peaceful means of dialogue to settle a matter which is obviously political, the government of President Buhari has decided to use total force even after witnessing sad events of the past and how we are now battling the sad history. History has taught us that when you try to silent the voice of the masses using force, it has a catastrophic way of boomeranging ingloriously. There have been pockets of clashes in the south-east and the north as a result of the agitation. Threats and counter threats have come from different parts of the country against the agitators. It is not a rumour to say that things have gotten out of hand and the government is not handling matters the right way.
Since his arrest by men of the Department of State Security Services in 2015, later released on bail by a court in 2017, leader of the indigenous people of Biafra, Nnamdi Kanu has metamorphosed to a cult hero with thousands of followers in the south-east with a voice even louder than the governors of the region. Kanu has been a serious headache to the government since he began agitating for the creation of Biafra from Nigeria which was among the reasons he was arrested by the DSS in 2015. Many have conceded that his agitation for self-determination is a fundamental right, denying him such through threats and force will be a most regrettable mistake. And without mincing words, it will take more than labeling Kanu’s IPOB a terrorist organisation for the government to silent him and the group.
Since his agitation became more intense, Kanu and his followers have faced serious opposition from the government who termed his activity an act of rebellion against the state. The government feels threatened by Kanu who believes the association with Nigeria has made his people from the south suffer retarded growth, marginalisation and left politically disadvantaged.
This has resulted in people calling for a restructuring of the political landscape and a return to regionalism which politicians and leaders from the north have vehemently refused. The originators of the call have heaped blame on the 1999 constitution forced on the citizens by the military which over concentrated power and resources at the centre. Many have called for a revamp of the system to grant more economic and political autonomy to the states to make them viable for growth. The states in the South are angry that resources -mainly oil revenue- accrued to them are all handed over to the Federal government who in turn share the revenue among the 36 states and the capital, leaving the states where the revenue come from with little or nothing to develop their states. This parasitic situation has left the country with unspoken bitterness and rancour as people from the south have asked for a restructuring of the system whereby each state in the country will have total control of the resources in their states, then can contribute a certain percent to the federal government. This will pave way for rapid development of states and bring development to the region. Many people are wondering what the government of Buhari is up to as his party, the All Progressives Congress in 2015 had promised to restructure the system if voted into power. Two years down the line, the government is yet to take a decisive step on the matter.
Instead of addressing the call for restructuring and the agitation in the south-east in a holistic manner, the government has deployed soldiers and armoured vehicles to the region in what the military termed a ‘show of force’ over the activities of the agitators.
While the government of President Buhari has shown through his actions his disgust for the group, he has failed to address the grievances of the group and the people of the south-east who have been shouting that the government through its appointments and policies have marginalised the region. The situation has become more disturbing with the lop-sided political appointments by Buhari favouring northerners. The army, police and most top government positions are controlled by northerners. Recently, there was an uproar after it was discovered that top positions at the country-owned Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation are being occupied mainly by northerners (who do not contribute a dime in oil revenue) without a single south-easterner in top management position according to a list of its top management positions released by the NNPC. Buhari by that gesture has put himself up as a tribal leader who is only after the affairs of his tribesmen instead of that of the country.
Nigeria is not the only country where people have legitimately called for self-determination. Recently, the British government gave its consent when Scotland demanded for a referendum to opt out of the the UK. Kosovo, Singapore, South Sudan and many other countries have successfully been granted independence after taking the bold step to call for self-determination. Catalonia is on the verge of separating from Spain. It makes no sense to forcefully detain a group of people who are over 40 million in number to continue living in a country where they are utterly marginalised and hated.
Instead of addressing the issues raised by the agitators, the government on numerous occasions have sent security operatives to clamp down on the activities of the group. There have been accusations against soldiers and the police of killing innocent IPOB members in some states of the federation according to Amnesty International. Just some days ago, men of the Nigerian army were caught on camera dehumanising, assaulting and battering unarmed IPOB members in Aba while forcing them to lie in dirty germ-infested mud water. Not done, soldiers also reportedly killed an IPOB member, a sad incident that was also caught on tape.
At a time like this when the polity is overheated, it is imprudent of the government to have deployed soldiers to confront IPOB members at the home of Kanu. Such an act is bereft of common sense as a confrontation was totally unnecessary. The impunity at which government and its agencies flout law and order have given credence to secessionist calls as no normal person would love to live in such a flawed society where people act like animals.
Moreover, since the matter between Kanu and the government is already in court, it was totally unnecessary to have sent the military out of their constitutionally-guaranteed assignment to confront a man who was exercising his rights. Instead of undertaking such a childish show of force, the government could have employed the services of the elders and leaders of thought in the area to resolve the differences without bad blood.
By sending the military against unarmed civilians, Buhari and the APC have set a bad precedent that would cost it a lot in the coming years. It showed the deep hatred of the President against the Igbos knowing fully well that such confrontation would result in serious bloodshed and loss of lives of those inexperienced youths. As we have seen in the viral video of soldiers dehumanising IPOB members even before the python dance started, many people are already wondering how many of such ignoble acts would’ve been committed without people knowing by the time the dance is over? This unprofessional conduct for which the army is notoriously known has exposed the psyche of an ordinary Nigerian soldier as pure garbage. Interestingly, many people have wondered how the army would use soldiers from the north whose hatred for the igbos stink to the high heavens in this mission without recording acts of atrocity or even genocide.
For the records, Kanu’s agitation for self-determination is not a crime. He is exercising a right backed by the United Nation charter: under Art 1, [ICCPR/ICESCR, Art 1(2), UN Charter; Art 20(1), ACHPR; Art 2, AL], it is provided that:
– “All peoples have the right to self-determination…”
– “All peoples may, for their own ends, freely dispose of their natural wealth and resources without prejudice to any obligations arising out of international economic co-operation, based on the principle of mutual benefit, and international law. In no case may a people be deprived of its own means of subsistence.”
– “The State Parties to the present Covenant, shall promote the realization of self-determination, and shall respect that right, in conformity with the provisions of the Charter of the United Nations.”
Although, the method Kanu adopted for his agitation has been questioned, it is common knowledge that the group has been largely non-violent and does not bear arms. The decision by the Nigerian army to label IPOB a terrorist group is not just laughable but also very ridiculous because the army has no legal right to issue such proclamation. Except for the clash which took place this week in Umuahia when the army confronted IPOB members at Kanu’s home resulting in a clash with some soldiers, the army has had minimal contact with the group. The list provided by the army as reasons for declaring IPOB a terrorist organisation is itself, quite pathetic.
The words of human rights lawyer, Mike Ozekhome sums it well when he said: “I do not believe the instances cited by the Defence Headquarters justify declaring IPOB a terrorist organization. The last time I checked, I can’t remember any of such organizations operating in the country being declared terrorist organizations.
The herdsmen who go on rampage daily, maiming, raping, killing; those responsible for the Agatu massacre, Shiites massacre, Southern Kaduna progrom, indiscriminate killings, brazen quit notices givers, across Nigeria, etc, have never been arrested, prosecuted, let alone being proscribed and stigmatized as terrorist organizations. We must surely have and operate two sets of laws for two sets of peoples in Nigeria. Nigeria, we hail thee”.
There is need for the army to stay out of this. The massacre of Shiite Muslims in the north by some soldiers is still fresh in our minds. We do not want such senseless bloodshed.
A government that decides to force a certain group of people to live in the same federation by unleashing the army against them is indirectly planning a catastrophic tsunami that would eventually eat up the whole country. Instead of addressing the grievances of the aggrieved group, the government through the army labeled the group a terrorist organisation forgetting that the more injustice a people suffers, the more persuaded they would be to fight for what they believe is their right. The decision of the army to rush and label IPOB a terrorist group as justification to commit wanton and mass murder in the name of subduing them will not augor well for this country. It will only result in serious animosity and hatred as the people believe the government is persecuting them and trying to gag them from attaining what they believe is their right. It is absolute cowardice to use armoured tanks against an unarmed group of agitators whose only weapon are bottles and sticks.
At this juncture, the time has come for Kanu and his followers to change style as they will not achieve their aim using any violent means. Let them explore all peaceful avenues towards their goal to avoid loss of innocent lives. He should mandate elected representatives and leaders from the south-east to carry their grievances to the National Assembly and demand for a referendum.
Kanu should also know that change should start from home. He must as a matter of urgency task his members to compel governors and all political office holders from the region to deliver and change the lives of his people first as a preamble of what is to come in Biafra. Many have contested that even when Biafra is achieved, it is still the same set of selfish leaders who have woefully managed the affairs of the region for years that would still take lofty political positions when Biafra is achieved.
The call for change should start from home; political leaders from the south have disappointed the people by refusing to develop the region and instead use resources from the region to develop their personal pockets. From Abia, Imo, Enugu, Ebonyi, and Anambra state – it is still the same story of underdevelopment, greed and individualistic pursuits. What have prevented the governors, Senators and all political office holders from using the resources in their states to develop their lands? Charity should begin from home. People of the region must start demanding good governance and leadership from their leaders, that way, we might even have ‘another country’ where things work without even knowing it.
The government must exercise restraint and not allow situations escalate. Labeling IPOB a terrorist organisation is a premature and expensive joke the military must not take too far. The police should be allowed to do its constitutionally mandated work of restoring peace and order. Violence doesn’t pay. Dialogue! Dialogue!! Dialogue!!! That is the only way to settle a difference that brings about the much needed unity.
-Alexander Thandi Ubani writes from Lagos.