By Obi Nwakanma
The new Minister of Defence, Mr. Muhammed Dan Ali, has made what might be the first official statement by this administration on the new agitation by Biafrans for a separate country. Nigeria, he noted on his initial statement on assuming office as Defence Minister, is buffeted by “many indices of destabilisation.”
The new minister called, in what may in fact be a very conciliatory tone for a meeting between the federal government and “stakeholders” to “brainstorm and come up with roadmap in order to abort any processes that may destabilise the nation.”
Until the new Minister’s statement, and following the arrest of Nnamdi Kanu of the so-called Indigenous Peoples of Biafra (IPOB) and what is now clearly an unlawful and needless detention, which has also been followed by widespread demonstrations in the Eastern parts of Nigeria, the Buhari administration had maintained what seemed to be a calculated, and stolid silence.
It was the kind of initial silence which the Jonathan administration kept over Boko Haram, hoping that by ignoring it, Boko Haram would somehow go away, and disappear or fizzle out. It turned out to be a mistake. It is a mistake that the current president whose public policies seems to have increasingly alienated the Eastern part of Nigeria has refused to make a categorical statement about the Biafran agitation, or the factors that are currently stoking it .
Only recently, the president made but a tepid and general statement about “Nigerian unity.” President said at the ceremonies of the Armed Forces Remembrance Day: “since independence Nigeria has witnessed a lot of internal strife, survived a civil war and has remained united.
This feat achieved by the country is an eloquent testimony of the determination of our citizens to remain as one people.”
It is the president hiding his head like the ostrich’s in the sand. The president is unrealistic because the Biafra agitation is clearly challenging his assumptions at different levels.
These new Biafrans feel that they do not wish to live together as one people with Nigerians, and this is simply because as Ojukwu never failed to remind us, patriotism is not like cocaine; it is not addictive. It is the product of conditions of shared wellbeing, and the current Biafran agitation for self-determination once more challenges that question of the “shared wellbeing” of being Nigerian.
Jonathan’s initial response to Boko Haram was to adopt the policy of appeasement of the North through appointments, and the bribery of its elite.
It failed because the root causes of the movement were generally ignored. The term “stakeholders” often confines itself to the appeasement of elite interests when grassroots forces rise in response to certain historical contradictions in the polity. Yet if it were just that kind of appeasement that were needed, perhaps the escalation would have been contained earlier.
However, the Biafrans also see that one of those arrested and questioned, and detained for sponsoring Boko Haram, Senator Ali Ndume, is now the Majority Leader of the Senate under the APC. Another, who had been jailed for his involvement with Boko Haram, was released from jail by President Buhari, and given a position in the Nigerian intelligence services.
The Biafrans have seen that long meditative, conciliatory silence does not earn anyone power in Nigeria; that the use of blackmail by certain forces in the North very nearly crippled Jonathan, obscured his achievements, and earned the current president the ride to the presidency.
President Buhari has not been shy either in the use of his power to define the geopolitics that has exacerbated the sense of alienation of the Eastern part of Nigeria.
The president has almost inexorably opened a flank, as a result, in the battle for Nigeria to those who are discontented with Nigeria. Last week, in response to the new Biafran agitation, the General Officer Commanding the 81 Div in Enugu issued what is clearly a threat to use of military force against an unarmed civilian population which has so far staged its protests as non-violent street campaigns.
Two things feel arbitrary in this sense: first, it is not the constitutional role of the Army to deploy and suppress the internal or domestic agitation of citizens. It is the function of the police. The constitutional role of the military is to defend Nigeria from external military aggression.
Secondly, the president cannot deploy the military for an internal security operation until he has been expressly given authority to do so by the National Assembly under the emergency provision, otherwise, the unconstitutional use of the armed forces against an unarmed civilian population would constitute an impeachable offence.
This might also be grounds for prosecution at the International Criminals court. The federal government should know that the supporters of this Biafran movement have the resources currently to campaign internationally and drag Nigeria to the International Criminals Court if undue violence is used to quell the legitimate, non-violent agitation for self-determination. A Nigerian president should not be on the disgraceful list of “wanted criminals” to be arrested for the violation of the rights to life of its citizens.
Meanwhile, as I am writing, there are new Biafra Support Committees springing up quietly in private homes in various US cities, prepping to raise funds and other logistical support for this movement. It is complex. The threat and use of violence will only make this agitation even more complex.
Street campaigns will definitely grow in intensity. The Nigerian security services are far too thinly deployed to contain what might become a growing movement in the East. Soon, the elected state governments will lose their legitimacy as the Biafran activists begin to fill the gaps in the provision of the local social services that have been long absent in the East at the municipal levels, and this will transfer legitimacy and loyalty to the movement.
I think Dan Ali is therefore quite correct: it is futile to ignore or threaten the Biafrans. It is time to meet and brainstorm with the stakeholders, and these are to be clear, the young, disaffected organizers of this movement. These young people, many with quality education, but suffering the indignity and the humiliation of long and sustained unemployment and immobility, have actually nothing to lose.
Those among them trained in the humanities and the social sciences would have encountered, or taken classes in the theories and practice of insurgency and counter-insurgency; those trained in the hard sciences and Engineering would have dangerous skills that can be very easily appropriated and deployed.
And Nigeria has no index of where these skills are currently deployed. That should be the first rule of engagement. I personally think that it is fair to give this president a chance in the first year of his presidency to fulfil his promise, and not foreclose on him yet.
I wish that the young Biafrans could channel their agitation in seeking change starting with their own elected leaders in the East who must account for the resources allotted to the East.
I wish also that the Biafrans would rise above the agitation for a separate state of Biafra and work with their peers nationally, who are equally aggrieved and suffering from the consequences of over forty years of misrule, to create a common ground for a new nationalist movement, and fulfil the aborted Zikist mission of a great nation founded on individual liberty, equal citizenship, and the rights of all irrespective of ethnicity, gender, or creed, because at its very core, this is what the agitation by the new Biafra is all about: justice for an alienated people.
A new state of Biafra, with its inherited contradictions may not guarantee that justice either.