IPOB and the national question -By Ayo Olukotun

Filed under: National Issues |

Ayo Olukotun


Nigeria at this moment does not need such deliberate and proactive escalation of tensions and crisis

—John Nnia Nwodo, President General, Ohanaeze Ndigbo, September 13, 2017.

Our politics follows much of our journalism; occasionally brilliant, it is often turgid, drab, serious, lacking the relaxation of nerves that comedy or satire provokes. To bring the point home, this columnist has repeatedly argued that the best approach to the leader of the Indigenous People of Biafra, Nnamdi Kanu, phenomenon is to treat it as little more than colourful eccentricity, which will fizzle out, when state officials are adroit enough to respond to the underlying context of Igbo marginalisation. For example, in “Neo-Biafrans and the Nigerian state” (The PUNCH, November 27, 2015), I pleaded that “the authorities should display more sense of humour and tolerance in handling dissent in a democratic setting. Imagine how easily pressure can go down if Buhari were to invite Kanu for a chat in the Presidential Villa as opposed to the current official belligerence”. The exact opposite occurred. Kanu, who keeps vaccilating between multiple agendas, was built up, by persecution into a folk hero, a nationalist without a follower nation, beyond groups of idealistic and fanatical youths.

Interestingly, just before the recent show of force by the military in Kanu’s home state of Abia, presumably as a warm-up for Operation Python Dance as the army called it, the governors of the South-East had secured Kanu’s consent for a dialogue to discuss issues connected with Biafran agitation. In the wake of Tuesday’s clash between the military and Kanu’s supporters, with the office of the Nigeria Union of Journalists reduced to collateral damage, Kanu called off the negotiations. In other words, the show of force and the consequent invasion of Kanu’s house, which was allegedly provoked by the comportment of some IPOB members, have aborted, at least for now, the process of mediation.

This recession in peace initiatives possibly accounts for the outrage expressed by Dr. John Nwodo, quoted at the outset of this write-up, other Igbo leaders as well as human rights lawyers such as Femi Falana, who argued in a recent statement, that the Presidency and the military authorities acted illegally. In the interest of fair comment, it should be pointed out that Kanu’s behaviour and utterances have hardly been a model of respectability and in fact contravene the terms, admittedly harsh, under which he was granted bail. I do not minimise the need for political order or the imperative of not allowing society to drift to anarchy. What I am not sure about, however, is whether a softer approach centred on the police rather than the military could not have been employed in bringing the situation under control.

Our constitution envisages that military action should be limited to the preservation of our territorial integrity and to combating external aggression, save in instances where there is insurrection and police could no longer contain it .Unless the military is in possession of privileged information, not made available to the public, it is extremely difficult to justify Tuesday’s military operation and the cognate python dance, scheduled to begin today. Before pursuing the narrative further, this writer asks the reader’s permission to, characteristically, digress for a short take.

The state of Florida in the United States, as everyone knows, is very much in a recuperative status, following the ravages of Hurricane Irma. A violent tropical storm of biblical proportions, the hurricane laid siege to several cities and towns, leaving in its wake reverberating tales of horror and of woe. One of the things which this columnist finds riveting is the magnificent, proactive preparation of the municipal and state authorities in Florida. Obviously, but for the scale and thoroughness of these anticipatory logistics, damage, death and destruction would have been far more comprehensive across the state. The preparations included the opening up of mandatory and designated shelters for citizens, topped up by contingency plans for overflow shelters, if the hurricane got worse than anticipated.

That is not all. There were long playing advance warnings, command centres and scenario building calculated to juggle response mechanisms. Interestingly, for example, the Tampa Bay Regional Planning Council, which governs the major city of Tampa, claims to have authored and rehearsed a few years ago, what it called emergency responses to an imaginary catastrophic storm of Category 5, named Hurricane Phoenix. It is difficult not to contrast the vivacity and institutional strength of governance at the grassroots with its proactive orientation to what we have here in Nigeria.

All too often, our government swings into action only after disasters have struck and many lives lost. In those instances, the governors rousing themselves from slumber would pay condolence visits, make cases for federal relief and console the bereaved. We can learn from the local and state authorities in Florida, who understand that preparation for disasters makes the impact less horrific, and that a bottom-up approach to governance, which respects the integrity of local authorities is infinitely better than centralised but ineffective governance, which reacts to disasters rather than anticipate them. I do not suggest that the American system is flawless, but we lose nothing by learning from international best practices. Besides, did you notice that, as pictures published in the media indicated, while Vice President Mike Pence almost immediately rushed to assist some of the devastated victims of the Hurricane Harvey, with his sleeves rolled up to the task, our own Vice President Yemi Osinbajo only found time to visit the similarly devastated victims of the Makurdi flooding almost a week after, and had the presence of mind to even walk on a red carpet rolled out for him?

To return to the discourse on IPOB, this columnist maintains that the resurgence of Biafran agitation cannot be divorced from the ongoing discussion about the national question, the alleged second class status of the Igbo, and a northernisation policy in key political appointments. As The Nation’s columnist, Segun Ayobolu, recently articulated it, “Does the Buhari administration have the authority to call Kanu’s bluff? Does he have the ethical integrity to assert its stateness against such lawlessness? I doubt it. If today, President Buhari calls a meeting of his security chiefs, the majority of those in attendance will be all northerners”. Ayobolu’s point about the de-federalisation of Nigeria can be illustrated by the recent ethnically skewed pattern of appointments in the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation.

That is a way of saying that contextually, the agitation for Biafra must be understood not in isolation, but as part of a tense conversation about the National Question. This does not justify Kanu’s scant regard for the law, but it does make terrifying a high-handed military approach to issues of national cohesion that can only be settled by dialogue, consensus building and restructuring. Many lovers of democracy must be concerned about the growing involvement of the military in internal conflicts, a factor believed by Prof. Larry Diamond, in his seminal work on Nigeria’s First Republic, to be one of the reasons for the short lifespan of that Republic. Falana makes the same point when he argues, referring to a Court of Appeal judgment of 2005, that “it is up to the police to protect our nascent democracy and not the military, otherwise the democracy may be wittingly or unwittingly militarised”. All mature democracies ensure that the military institution is fully subordinated to the civilian and democratic authorities. Ours should not be an exception.

President Buhari should henceforth de-militarise the South-East while the Kanu challenge should be treated within the ambit of legal processes, while officials steal his thunder by the well-canvassed instrumentality of restructuring.