By Rotimi Fasan
IT’S been two weeks since two Biafran separatist groups issued a stay-at-home order to commemorate 50 years since the declaration of the failed state of Biafra. It is important to make clear that the order to stay at home affected everyone resident in Eastern Nigeria, including Nigerians and foreigners who do not support Biafra or identify as Biafrans. They all to a greater or lesser degree bore the brunt of the order to stay indoors which was largely obeyed according to press reports. But it would be foolish to assume that the success of the order was because everyone it affected agreed with or supported it. In the past when such orders were issued those who flouted it received summary justice, the sort that would not bear legal scrutiny. People who opened shop for business have very unpleasant tales to tell. That is where partisans of these separatist groups do not move beyond mere issuance of orders to block major highways as a way to ensure compliance with their orders. Actions like this often pitched them against law enforcement agents who many times are overbearing in their response, sometimes going beyond the bounds of legality.
But in the latest stay-at-home declaration, there were no reports of such clashes between law enforcement agents and supporters of the separatist groups. Thus, it was a case of self-congratulations all the way as both stalwarts of the Indigenous People of Biafra, IPOB, and the Movement for the Actualization of the Sovereign State of Biafra, MASSOB, basked in the euphoria of what they saw as a major step in the direction of creating an Igbo nation. But the feeling of euphoria was hardly over when a self-styled coalition of northern youth groups issued an October 1, 2017 ultimatum for Igbo people resident in different parts of the north to leave the region or face the consequences. The hitherto unknown coalition promised, rather ominously, in a press statement to commence visible action to implement their order to the Igbo with whom they could no longer live in the same nation. Expectedly, the go-home order has elicited widespread responses, most of them condemnatory initially. Indeed, the Kaduna State government in whose domain the youth coalition met to make their declaration ordered the arrest of members of the coalition.
The Inspector General of Police, Idris Ibrahim, has warned against inciting statements like those of the northern youth groups, promising police intervention in the event of any potential breakdown in public order. A Middle Belt Youth Forum as well as Afenifere, a Yoruba socio-political group, has joined in condemning the order of the northern youth coalition. Other leaders including the Northern Governors Forum, NGF, and the Arewa Consultative Forum, ACF, have joined in expressing outrage at the order. But in the last few days, support has been extended to the order of the youth coalition by some elderly politicians in the north. Most prominent of these is Ango Abdullahi, spokesperson of the Northern Elders Forum, NEF, who has criticised northern governors for what he perceives as their hypocritical conduct. Why should they condemn the coalition of northern youths while turning a blind eye to the repeated provocations from IPOB and MASSOB? That these separatist Biafran groups continue to advocate the dismemberment of Nigeria is a fact Abdullahi, a former Vice Chancellor of Ahmadu Bello University, cannot overlook.
For as long as Nnamdi Kanu and other Igbo separatists enjoy the support of Igbo elders and politicians to such extent, Abdullahi believes, should northern youths be supported by northern elders. Neither the arrest order by Mallam Nasir el Rufai, Governor of Kaduna State, or the threatening words of the IGP has been of any effect. Indeed the IG’s statement is being viewed in some quarters as hypocritical for his response to the northern youth provocation belies his prompt, one-sided arrest and prosecution of Yoruba youths in the Yoruba-Hausa/Fulani clash in Ile-Ife a few months ago. Thus, the back and forth between critics of the northern youth coalition and their supporters has continued in a manner that has only highlighted the fault lines in ethnic and political relations among the different regions in the country. Everything is seen through the prism of politics, ethnic and religious relations.
Otherwise, it should not be difficult to give effect to the orders of a state governor in the face of the inciting remarks of a youth group. Contrary to Ango Abdullahi’s claim, the go-home order is more than an expression of the right to free speech. It is a blatant statement of incitement and issuance of threat. The coalition has promised visible implementation of their order in the event of non-compliance by October 1. Whether this is a mere bluff or statement of intent is not something any of us much less the security agencies should wait to discover. A clear threat has been issued and action has to be taken. That is what a responsible government does. There were enough warnings before the Rwandan genocide if only the world had been alert to their responsibility. Terrible things have happened in the past in Nigeria even where no noticed was served. What then might happen now notice has been given?
No doubt IPOB and MASSOB, as are separatist groups in other parts of Nigeria, have been too provocative and to some extent extra-legal in their conduct but they have not issued blatant vacation orders to Nigerians from other parts of the country. They have taken steps harmful to the Nigerian state to say nothing of ordinary Nigerians but that is a matter for law enforcement agents to deal with. It is not a matter to be responded to by a group, whether of elders or youths.
Every separatist group has the potential to act outside the bounds of order and we must all be alert to this and not be mealy-mouthed in addressing it. What the northern youth coalition has done is not beyond IPOB, MASSOB or any other separatist groups from other parts of Nigeria. It is the Nigerian state and the people that must take steps to protect the fundamental rules by which our society is to be governed, those rules that protect our common morality. And that is what happens when we leave room for free discussion of our differences and grievances including the right to be treated as citizens and not settlers in any part of our choice in a country we all call ours. We should be able to freely express our inner thoughts and deep feelings without fear of attack physical or otherwise from those who do not agree with us. Nor should those who disagree do so violently, abuse or force others to share their opinion as Igbo separatists tend to do.