History teaches us that dictatorship rarely invades the society like a wild beast. It instructs that tyranny is often a homegrown monster. It’s a tame, overindulged animal that evolves into bestiality.
Nigeria is witnessing that ugly metamorphosis in their incumbent president. Muhammadu Buhari is asserting himself, though, as an unreconstructed tyrant; an older version of the military dictator he used to be.
Last week Friday, the day Donald Trump was inaugurated as the 45th President of the United States, Nigerian security officials fired at a group of Nigerians celebrating the event in Washington. The civilians, members of Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB), were rallying on the streets of Port Harcourt, in support of a new American leader they naively presumed would help them win independence. Nigerian agents attacked them, in violation of the citizen’s constitutional right to freedom of assembly.
To be sure, the protesters were excited and exuberant. But they were peaceful and unarmed. They carried harmless symbols of their cause: Flags, banners, placards. Still, their innocent outing earned them state gunfire.
The Nigerian Police said the protesters suffered disproportionate force because their solidarity rally was "illegal." They had neglected to secure a ‘permit’ from the police. Moreover, the protesters were found in possession of "some flags bearing the inscription of IPOB and other incriminating items."
The particulars of the so-called ‘incriminating items’ remain a secret. The police have yet to divulge the name of the ‘exhibits’. Proof that the disingenuous police sought to implicate the people by invoking nonexistent evidence!
This clampdown on Biafra activists is a continuation of Buhari's anti-dissent program. He is determined to stifle any view that doesn’t align with his. He regards the dissenter as a dangerous foe.
Since his return to power, Buhari has made a duty of denouncing the ambition of the Biafran campaigners. Although, he would go to United Nations General Assembly and openly express support for the independence quests of the peoples of Western Sahara and Palestine, he casts the disaffected Nigerians interrogating the British bequest called Nigeria as rebels craving for war: He calls them malcontents worthy of extermination.
His demonization of pro-Biafra activists derives from a mortal fear of the word, 'Biafra.' The veteran of Nigeria/Biafra civil war feels personally threatened by the history it echoes. This phobia makes him view Biafran activists as an existential threat to Nigeria. And this explains why he has transformed his private dread into state policy. Nigerian security agencies work with his characterization of the Biafran renaissance movement as an adversary. This is the reason why they massacre ‘Biafrans’ like a patriotic obligation.
In Buhari's Nigeria, state agents lynch Biafran enthusiasts out of a sense of responsibility. And the most appalling part is that the bullying has happened so frequently it is now normalized. The larger Nigerian populace acquiesces to this resort to jungle justice. Many Nigerians have come to accept that the price of supporting Biafra is instant execution. They even consider ‘Biafra people’ suicidal. The ‘Biafrans’ are cowards provoking Nigeria to assist them kill themselves!
In November 2016, Amnesty International published report that concluded the Nigerian security agencies killed ''at least 150 peaceful pro-Biafra protesters in the Southeast of the country'' between August 2015 and August 2016. The graphic report was a chilling result of a painstaking investigation that involved ''analysis of 87 videos, 122 photographs, and 146 eye witness testimonies.'' The finding established that the Nigerian military ''consistently'' ''fired live ammunition without warning to disperse the crowds.''
A local civil society organization, Campaign for Democracy, estimates that about 2000 pro-Biafra protesters were wasted within the period.
The exact casualty figure of the latest crackdown is still being disputed. The Sun reported that 11 people were shot dead. The Nigerian Police – police you can always trust to lowball the death toll in matters like this – claims that no life was lost. Yet, there is broad agreement that Nigerian security agents, as they are wont to, engaged deadly weapons and caused Nigerian civilians harm.
The Friday incident will not be the last of its kind under Buhari. The killing of Biafra activists by Nigerian security agencies is likely to continue throughout his tenure. Because he believes that Nigeria is ‘non-negotiable’ and that any suggestion to rethink, reimagine or reorganize the colonial patchwork he manages is a capital offense.
In Buhari's Nigeria, Nigerian security agents are authorized to show up and shoot whenever and wherever Biafran activists gather. The apparent goal of the shoot-at-sight policy is to diminish the pro-Biafra groups; to drain the movement of lifeblood. To kill so often and so casually that people are too scared to flirt with the Biafran agenda.
But the killings have failed to daunt the Biafran nationalists. Rather, the witchhunt has only served to embolden the heart of the defiance. The victimization solidifies the motivating grievances. It validates and buttresses the putative case for separation.
Another blowback of the persecution is that it mobilizes recruits for pro-Biafra groups. The regime of cruelty stirs interest and passion in the demographic most likely to join the protest. The element of danger in being part of ‘the resistance’ appeals to the youths and offers the self-doubting among them an opportunity to discover themselves inside a bold cause.
Now, I am not a fan of the utopian Promised Land Nnamdi Kanu and Ralph Uwazuruike espouse. I hold that the most feasible interpretation of 'Biafra' lies in envisioning it as a subject of cultural homing. Again, I believe that the single strategy of name-calling has no prospect of success. A viable and stable country cannot be sculpted from a lump of grudges. It has to be formed from a set of coherent ideals. Or else, the fragile nation fashioned from the dross of bitterness will be liable to disintegrate into the pieces of its component animosities.
Still, my being a nonsubscriber does not negate the right of the protesters to canvass. The pro-Biafra activists are entitled to promote their conviction. Democracy guarantees the freedom to retail ideas. Its very atmosphere both inspires and encourages debate. It does not admit of the persecution of citizens on the basis of their persuasions. A democracy is the antithesis of a police state, not its mirror image.
In a democracy, you do not waste human beings because they happen not to share your outlook. You don’t kill them because you detest the tone of their logic. You contest their premises. You don’t oppress them because they think differently.
Nigeria is trying Kanu, the leader of IPOB, for "terrorism." He is no terrorist by any stretch of the imagination. At most, the indecorous broadcaster can be said to be a purveyor of hate. But because Buhari, who likes to infantilize Biafra activists, has nothing but contempt for "that boy." The president had the accusation of "terrorism" hung around his neck: a grave charge that is more befitting of Buhari's tribesmen, the murderous Fulani herdsmen, than the intemperate radio voice!
This same ‘Biafran treatment’ is what Buhari is serving the leader of the Islamic Movement of Nigeria (IMN), Ibrahim El-Zakzaky.
El-Zakzaky has been in captivity since Buhari’s chief of army staff, Buratai, and Nigerian troops massacred and buried 300 Shiites in mass graves, blinded the cleric in one eye and paraded him – half-naked and bleeding -in a wheel barrow. The president sanctioned the slaughter and humiliation on national television!
Buhari still has the Sheikh in detention two months after a competent Nigerian court ordered his immediate release. On Wednesday, the police broke up a protest against his continued imprisonment and arrested 9 people. The indefinite confinement is obviously the Shiite leader’s punishment for heading a religious sect Buhari, a Sunni Muslim, deems guilty of acting like "a state within a state"!
In the run-up to the 2015 elections, a critical mass of Nigerians concerned about civil liberties started to grow nervous as Muhammadu Buhari began to wax increasingly competitive against President Jonathan. They worried that the three times failed presidential candidate, now looking pretty electable on his fourth try, was possessed of a sordid, dictatorial mindset that may orient him towards an expansionary exercise of the powers of the president of the republic. They feared that his religious hubris could make him comport himself as defender of the faith.
Candidate Buhari allayed those fears by pitching himself as a ''converted democrat'' and a moderate Muslim. His media savvy campaign airbrushed his strongman portrait, and marketed him as a regenerated believer in the rule of law. His friends stepped forward as character witnesses, and vouched for his positive transformation. Some victims of his draconian decrees and brutish rule, like Wole Soyinka, 'cautiously endorsed' him; arguing that the lack of a better alternative made Buhari a Hobson's choice.
Hours after he assumed the presidency, the former despot asked to be addressed as Muhammadu Buhari, not General Muhammadu Buhari. The name change was a move to distance himself from his autocratic past and rebrand himself as a pure civilian. But, the christening did not represent a corresponding change in nature. He retains a vital, totalitarian vestige from his earlier incarnation.
Dissent is a feature of a democratic state. A leader who can’t abide nonconformity does not belong in that milieu. What one sees in Buhari is a shady dictator who obtained power under false pretext!