By Femi Fani Kayode
I am not a Biafran and neither am I Igbo. I do however believe that it is the inalienable right of any human being or ethnic nationality to aspire to be free and to be able to determine its own destiny. The right to self-determination is enshrined in international law and it is guaranteed by every moral stricture known to man.
It is a right that has been exercised successfully over and over again in world history and it has led to the creation of new nations which were carved out of older ones. The denial of that right and the suppression and persecution of those who attempt to exercise it leads to nothing but defiance, dissent and resistance and, if not properly managed, it eventually spills over into war and carnage.
This has been the primary cause of most of history’s most brutal civil wars, including the American, Russian, French, English, Indian, Sri Lankan, Sudanese, Nigerian, Angolan, Congolese, Zimbabwean, Yugoslavian, Ukrainian, Nicaraguan, Cuban, Irish, Syrian, Libyan, Indonesian, Korean, Vietnamese, Spanish, Iraqi, Italian, Lebanese ones and countless others. I do not believe in violent change and neither do I believe in war, revolution, terror or the use of arms in the pursuance of even the most noble causes.
I do however believe in the power of ideas and the right of any man, woman or people to yearn to be free from bondage and to peacefully and freely express that yearning. It is in this context that I situate my belief in and support for those that view the Nigerian federation as an oppressive entity which has effectively enslaved its people in an attempt to create what is essentially an artificial and unworkable state.
Those that believe in Nigeria have every right to continue to do so and to voice their resolve to keep Nigeria one. What they do not have the right to do is to refuse to offer the same degree of freedom of expression to those that do not believe in a united Nigeria and who instead believe in the peaceful dissolution of our nation to speak their minds and voice their views. What is good for the goose is surely good for the gander. You cannot grant one side of the divide freedom of expression whilst you deny it to the other.
This is all the more so because freedom of expression is the lifeblood of any democracy. It must be accorded in equal measure to those that believe in Nigeria and to those that do not. It is in this light that we must consider the plight of Mr. Nnamdi Kanu, the Director of Radio Biafra and the man that has been described by the Igbo World Assembly as ‘’Buhari’s first political prisoner’’.
We may not like his style, we may not like his radio station, we may not share his views or approve of his methods but one thing that we cannot take from Mr. Kanu is his right to hold such views and to express them in a peaceful and lawful manner no matter how distasteful those views may be to some. To deny him this most basic human right is not only an act of intellectual terrorism but it is also the most grave and barbaric manifestation of what is essentially an evolving police state where different or contrary views cannot be accommodated by those in power.
When Mr. Alex Salmon and his Scottish Nationalist Party began the agitation for the dissolution of the United Kingdom and for the establishment of Scottish independence many years ago, they were not charged to court, locked up indefinitely or murdered by the British authorities but instead they were eventually given the opportunity to participate in a referendum and test their ideas. The same thing happened in the Catalan region of Spain where the agitation for the establishment of a new nation is compelling and very popular.
The same thing happened a number of years ago in the Quebec region of Canada. It also happened in a region called East Timor which opted to leave Indonesia and in Singapore which opted to leave Malaysia. The same process was adopted when Georgia, the Ukraine and all the other former Soviet states opted to leave Russia and when the Czech Republic opted to break off from Slovakia. The utility and importance of conducting a referendum on such matters in order to determine the true will of the people and to honor the findings of that referendum cannot be underestimated and it remains the only path for peace.
Sadly, President Buhari who, like most in his generation, are still stuck in the mindset of a civil war general, has refused to learn from this. It is rather absurd to lock up Mr. Kanu indefinitely and to effectively throw the key away simply because he dared to call for the establishment of Biafra.
As far as I am aware Mr. Kanu has not used or advocated the use of violence whilst expressing himself and neither have any his supporters. One therefore wonders what has panicked the Federal Government to such a point that they not only have to lock him up but that they also have to violate the law of the land by not allowing him to see his lawyer and by not presenting him before a court of law and charging him within the constitutionally-prescribed three days.
State-sponsored violence and intimidation, the violation of human rights, illegal incarceration, the murder of innocents and the vicious suppression of legitimate ideas leads to nothing but hardened hearts, greater defiance and the spread of anger and dissent. The principle is simple and clear: the more you fan the flame of tyranny and repression the more the passion and fire of liberty spreads.
It follows that the biggest favor that President Buhari’s security agencies could have done for the Biafran cause was to lock up Mr. Kanu and thereby transform him from being a little-known secessionist into the living symbol of the Biafran struggle, a respected freedom fighter, a champion of the Igbo people and an internationally-acclaimed political prisoner.
It is no wonder that leading politicians from all over the world, including the former Home Secretary and former Leader of the Labor Party in the United Kingdom, Mrs. Harriet Harman QC, have called for his release. The Russian and Israeli governments have also expressed concern and done the same.
Their call was the right and proper thing to do and I add my voice to that call. I have never met or spoken to Mr. Kanu but I am moved by his passion and courage. I am also persuaded by the logic and force of his public assertions.
It is left for those that do not agree with him to make a better case and to stem the Biafran tide. That is the monumental challenge that those that do not agree with Mr. Kanu’s views or his methods have. I have not always been on the same page with our Igbo brothers, yet one thing is clear: only the callous would deny the fact that they have suffered immeasurably in the Nigerian federation over the last 50 years.
Only the uninformed would deny the fact that they have been butchered, murdered, persecuted, broken, humiliated, insulted, cheated and treated with contempt and disdain more than any other ethnic group in the country since July 1966.
What the Nigerian state is confronted with in the new generation of Igbo who refuse to be cowed is a time-bomb. Unlike their fathers they cannot be appeased or intimidated. They are not prepared to settle for crumbs and neither do they fear death, conflict, defeat, incarceration, butchery or persecution.
They are imbued with a spirit that cannot be suppressed and the more they cry ‘’Biafra’’, the more the spirits of the millions that were slaughtered on the Biafran side during the civil war are invoked. The more they cry ‘’Biafra’’, the more the souls of the hundreds of thousands of their people that were butchered during the pogroms in the North in the mid-60s and thereafter are remembered. The more they cry ‘’Biafra’’, the more they remember how their fathers were stripped of everything after the civil war and how they have been denied the opportunity to rise to the highest office in the land. The more they cry ‘’Biafra’’, the more they acknowledge and recognise the bitter fact that the Buhari administration regard their kith and kin as nothing more than third class citizens and pitiable prisoners of war. The worst thing that the Nigerian authorities can do is to treat them with levity or contempt.
They are angry, they are fed up, they refuse to be enslaved, they want a brighter future and they have come to realise that they have nothing to lose. The most inappropriate thing that President Buhari can do is to continue to underestimate the power of their resolve or the clarity of their intent. The worst thing that they can do is to begin to jail them, to shed their blood and to take their lives.
The more you lock up the Biafrans, the more they will rise up. The more you mock them, the more they will shout. The more you treat them like slaves, the more they will aspire to break off and take their destiny into their own hands.
This is a fact that we must all accept and it is with this in mind that I urge President Buhari and the Federal Government to not only release Mr. Nnamdi Kanu but also to tread with the utmost restraint and caution when dealing with those that are agitating for Biafra.
- Fani-Kayode was Minister of Aviation in the Obasanjo administration