I just want to say something briefly about this supposed Biafran wave sweeping the South-East, some other parts of the nation and certain places in the diaspora. I hear people saying all sorts with regard to freedom of speech, self-determination, including some calling for referendum, etc.
It’s sad that it’s come to this, but here is the problem: It’s President Muhammadu Buhari’s political instinct. His political instinct is provincial, retrogressive, assumptive and dictatorial. Buhari is a Nigerian with a provincial outlook of the nation. He is by default always filtering the nation through his Fulani and sectionalist eyes. This is not a crime and is not necessarily bad; but it is a problem when it filters out experience, accommodation, social intelligence and equality.
His political instinct is retrogressive, because he refuses to appreciate that a nation is an organically developing entity that must always work towards a more perfect union. Buhari is still locked in the national leadership worldview of the ’70s and ’80s where certain distorted martial values were considered the national standard. I mean, does anyone remember what Buhari said in India when he was asked what he would like to be remembered for? He said: “I want to be remembered by Nigerians as a genuine patriot who not only fought the civil war but fought corruption to a standstill”. Now, as a Nigerian living today, step back and just think about that for a moment…. Just think about the worldview that shaped that comment….
We are talking a war that was totally unnecessary, a war that he and his overambitious and inexperienced military colleagues railroaded us into, making us lose millions of men, women and children and billions of dollars in resources; a war that has put a wedge in our nation till this day! Fine, he was a soldier during the war, but where was he when General Yakubu Gowon declared “No Victor, No Vanquished”? Where was he when Chukwuemeka Ojukwu was recalled from exile and pardoned by Nigeria? Was he not there when Ojukwu joined a political party and immediately extended his hand for that symbolic handshake across the Niger? Hasn’t he been there all this while that everyone in the nation, including Ndigbo, have been trying to bring the Igbo into the mainstream of Nigerian politics and national life?
More crucially, Buhari had been a post-war military leader of the whole country, including the area where the civil war was fought and most crucially, he sits today in Aso Rock as the democratically elected President of the whole of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. How can such a man tell us he wants to be remembered for fighting a war against his own brothers and sisters, except of course if he does not recognise them as such?
Again, the problem here is that Buhari will not appreciate the interpretation I have put to his view here, because he’s very assumptive. He, like a lot of his colleagues who fought the war on the federal side, thinks the greatest barge of honour any Nigerian can get is to say they fought in the civil war on the side of the federal forces. To them, it is the height of patriotism, the singular most important evidence of their love for the nation. They cannot understand that a nation that you have to fight to hold together does not deserve such uncompromising worship, even if you love the idea of its togetherness.
What do I mean? Countries or nation-states are what they are – a jumble of peoples and nations coming together to form a sovereign political entity they call nation. Their collective motive and ambition as a people must therefore be to continue to do things to enhance the unity and national character of that entity. Their leaderships must continue to drive the nation towards a national purpose, a national vision and a life that is more meaningful in the sum of its parts, rather than in separate parts, be it politically, economically or socially. A nation cannot afford the “we” and “them” mentality in the minds of its leaders. Yet, what happened when Buhari was questioned in faraway United States about how he intends to deal with the Niger-Delta and issues of amnesty, bunkering and inclusive development? The man unabashedly said he would be concentrating on looking after those that supported him electorally! Yes, we have a president that is actually telling us and the whole world that the whole of Nigeria is not his constituency, because some Nigerians from certain parts dared to vote for a political opponent in an election he won!
Honestly, I have been the first and would always be the first to berate Buhari’s handlers for not preparing him well before he makes some of these public comments, home or abroad; but it does not change the fact that he’s said enough already for us to paint a good and honest picture of his mental cognition of Nigeria. This is how Buhari sees Nigeria and there’s nothing spin-doctors can do to change that. It’s our reality.
Now, it is this unflattering reality that is birthing the Biafra ferment of today and this Biafra ferment is only representative of other sectionalist ferments, because evidently it is not only Ndigbo elements that are angry over the National Question. Buhari and some big elements of his party campaigned against the National Conference organised by President Goodluck Jonathan. They did, not because they had any alternative, but because as members of majoritarian ethnic groups they simply were not and still are not interested in addressing the National Question. Yet, we know that since our flag Independence in 1960, the National Question has been the hottest issue on the national agenda, even as our predatory elite consistently ignore it! We’ve fought a war over it, we’ve had people executed and imprisoned over it, we’ve had a free and fair election annulled over it and we’ve had Sani Abacha and Olusegun Obasanjo swindle us with promises of it until Jonathan managed to deliver it to us, warts and all, in the form of the National Conference he organised. Every discerning person who has had the opportunity to read the Conference report agrees that if we can translate what is agreed there into reality, Nigeria would be a fairer and more perfect union. Yet, what do we have now, but dead silence on the matter as though it does not matter?
It’s instructive that during the election campaign, Buhari thought that he could just go on hammering on about corruption, unemployment and insecurity without saying how he intends to address the National Question. He thought that was enough to get him into Aso Rock and truly, it was enough. But what he failed to realise is that people’s concern for existentialist issues at that time isn’t a case of them forgetting the fundamental problem of our national relationships. Nigerians are good at packing things in a corner with a view to dealing with them later just because they’re dealing with something else at that moment. True, nations suffer from national amnesia sometimes, but a national memory cannot be lost.
Buhari’s total refusal to propose anything in terms of addressing the National Question during the election campaigns and questions over his sectionalist and ethnically-lopsided appointments (while letting the Conference report gather dust) have left several people feeling that he is not committed to a fair, equal and truly united country. They are recalling his past divisive comments and reading his body language now and concluding that what he wants is to directly or surreptitiously subjugate others and force them to accept his own idea of Nigeria by using the instruments and power of state to effect this by hook or by crook. I talk to a lot of people and can say categorically that there are many who believe that because of his investment in ethnic jingoism and his irrational fear that true federalism could lead to the North losing power and access to resources from other regions, Buhari will not and will never discuss the National Question or propose anything that will address it as far as he’s President of Nigeria. This is the equivalence of taking us back 30 years, because if we look back to the moment of the beginning of active activism over the Sovereign National Conference (SNC), which was after he was overthrown as military Head of State in 1985, that’s exactly what it comes to.
President Buhari and those who have his ears must understand that the ferment in Igboland today is based on the perceived and actual alienation they suffer presently from his administration. True, majority part of Igboland supported President Jonathan and the PDP in the election, but that is neither here nor there. It should not be a reason to punish them this blatantly in national affairs. Buhari has made it clear through his actions that they are going to have a much reduced role in his administration and most of the roles they are having are clearly tokenistic. What this does is that it gives ethnic demagogues and rabble-rousers like Nnamdi Kanu a platform and his unlawful arrest and continued detention against all principles of democracy, due process and decency simply becomes the best recruitment message for already disenchanted young people in the South-East, especially when they are being beaten or shot by the police or soldiers when they demonstrate peacefully. The reason for this of course is because Buhari’s instinct is still militaristic and dictatorial. He does not understand that locking Nnamdi Kanu up is the best thing that can happen to Nnamdi Kanu and his cause. He does not understand how this action undermines his claim to being a democrat and how it’s making him lose face nationally and internationally. Buhari failed to cash in his national goodwill in Igboland by showing he’s a uniter. He might want to argue that he does not hate anybody or group, but in politics perception is reality.
Make no mistake about it, Nnamdi Kano is no patriot. He’s spoken enough publicly for us to know this as a fact. I have no problem with him calling himself a Biafran, but as we speak today, there is no sovereign entity called Biafra, so I do not recognise him as such. This is not because I have anything against the cause of Biafra, but only because it is not a real state I can identify at the moment. But I recognise him and identify him as an Igbo man and a Nigerian, even if he rejects the latter. It is my right to identify him as I choose and that is how I have chosen to identify him. I identify him as such, because those identities are factual, socially and historically sustainable and sustaining realities. Kanu did not commit any offence by setting up Radio Biafra, because he’s entitled under Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights to do that. But what he is not entitled to do is to go around inciting people and soliciting for arms to fight for a sovereign state to be carved out of a sovereign Nigeria. When any Nigerian or purported Biafran does that, it is attempting to wage war against Nigeria and that is treasonable.
The point I’m making is that no matter the emotional hoopla attending this matter, the fact remains that Nnamdi Kanu has no authority from a critical and identifiable collective of the majority of Igbo people to speak for them on the cause he claims to champion. He is not a known political leader elected by the people of Igboland, he is not a natural ruler and he is not in a position to pursue the cause of self-determination for millions of peace-loving Igbo people who do not want another civil war, who want to remain and be part of Nigeria as Nigerian citizens and who, even if they want to leave, want to do so through peaceful means. A referendum cannot just be manufactured from thin air. It is the product of painstaking negotiation that will determine the terms and conditions of the acceptance of its result as binding on all parties. Its starting point must always be that there is enough peaceful ferment on the ground to demand for it. This is how all nations that have seceded peacefully did it. That is how those legitimately seeking independence today are doing it. So, really, the Nnamdi Kanu road is a road to hell, but Buhari is making it look like the right road to a lot of misguided people. And we better not believe that everyone out there agitating or supporting the agitation is a miscreant. There are genuine, well-to-do, law-abiding citizens amongst the hordes we see marching around. We can politely and respectfully disagree with their view, but we must accept that our social experience meets us at different places and leaves us with different perceptions of an issue, especially one as emotional as self-determination.
So, what do I suggest? Simple. Buhari should order the immediate release of Nnamdi Kanu into the hands of certain well known Igbo national leaders that he, Kanu must present as referees - people he is comfortable with. Buhari must not victimise these people because they are guarantors of Nnamdi Kanu, rather he must always liaise with them over this issue, including empowering them to deal with the aftermath of the ferment today on the ground amongst disaffected young people. Nnamdi Kanu must give an undertaking that he will not again solicit arms to fight the Nigerian state in the name of self-defence and Buhari, on behalf of the Nigerian state, must guarantee that Nnamdi Kanu’s rights to free speech, freedom of association and freedom to share and impart ideas are protected. Of course, if he says or does anything against our laws, he can be arrested, charged promptly and prosecuted, like any other Nigerian the state feels has broken the law. Buhari should do this and douse this whole unnecessary tension created by this Biafra ferment.
But while the above is the short-term or immediate solution to the problem as openly expressed now, Buhari has to understand that it is a suggestion based primarily on the idea that the nation can do without this Biafra-instigated distraction in the light of the huge existential challenges facing Nigeria at the moment and to which all material and intellectual resources of the nation must be deployed. However, in the medium and long-term, I will urge Buhari to begin to implement the report and recommendations of the National Conference once he and his advisers have considered how this should proceed. He should start with the view that before the end of his first term, we would have substantially implemented these recommendations towards a better union. If he wants to put the report before an official committee or the National Assembly before proceeding or acting on it, he may do so. But what he cannot do is keep silent and hope the national impetus to create a better, fairer, just and more equal Nigeria for all will just go away. With Boko Haram still the menace it is, he has to act now on this issue before things totally get out of hand.