There are important lessons to be learnt from the detention and recent release of the leader of the Indigenous Peoples of Biafra (IPOB), a breakaway faction of the Movement for the Actualization of Sovereign State of Biafra. MASSOB was formed in 1999 by Ralph Uwazurike, an Indian-trained lawyer ostensibly to realize the Biafra. In 2005 he was detained for two years and when Peter Obi became Governor of Anambra State, he was so appalled by the group’s activities that he ordered a ‘shoot-at-sight’ of the members. The activities of the group continued in somewhat muted fashion throughout the administrations of both Obasanjo and Goodluck Jonathan. Like any other separatist, secessionist or insurgency groups, it was factionalized and even fractionalized. When Nnamdi Kanu, leader of IPOB and founder of the pirate Radio Biafra was detained and refused bail despite court orders, Kanu suddenly became the rallying point for the various factions and fractions of the agitators. In detention he developed a cult followership beyond the borders of the country such that political leaders and wanna-be political leaders, especially those from the Southeast, were angling for photo-ops with him.
There are several lessons to be learnt from what I believe was the government’s mishandling of the situation:
One, we must make a distinction between separatist agitations and secessionists. Separatists believe that their own part of the country will be better off as an independent entity and will largely use non-violent means to pursue their beliefs. In Nigeria, separatist agitations come in various configurations – Boko Haram and its secessionist battle for a caliphate, various forms of neo-Biafra agitations, some form of the clamour for the restructuring of the country, demand for ‘resource control’ and militancy in the Niger Delta.
While secessionists take to violent means to achieve their goal of independence, separatist demands, to the extent that they are non-violent, could come under political speech which is highly protected speech in many jurisdictions. True, such expressions could be irritating to the State, especially when some of their methods are provocative to certain political power wielders. But this is precisely where the test for a leader’s capacity for political engineering comes into play. It is also an acid test for the maturity of a country’s democracy. In fact, the ability to deal with ideas that ‘shock’ and ‘awe’ is the basis of the marketplace of ideas theory, which argues that with minimal government intervention or lassie laissez faire approach to the regulation of free speech and expressions, movements will succeed or fail on their own merits. This is because of the belief that left to their own rational devices, free individuals have the discerning capacity to sift through competing proposals in an open environment of deliberation and exchange and arrive at their own choices. As Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. aptly articulated this in his dissenting judgment in Abrahams vs. United States (1919):
“When men have realized that time has upset many fighting faiths, they may come to believe even more than they believe the very foundations of their own conduct that the ultimate good desired is better reached by free trade in ideas—that the best test for truth is the power of the thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market; and that truth is the only ground upon which their wishes safely can be carried out.”
It is precisely for this reason that purveyors of hate speech such as the KKK in the USA, the British National Party and several right-wing parties in Europe are not criminalized. It is argued that it is better to allow them to operate openly so that the ideas they espouse will be drawn into the political marketplace of ideas and outcompeted. In the United States for instance, supporters of California divorcing the US to become an independent country began a campaign to put the issue on the ballot in 2018 shortly after Donald Trump won the last presidential election in the USA. In fact, separatist demands are so common in the USA (that most of us admire) that by 2012, as many as residents in 30 of USA’s 50 states had filed secession petitions with the “We the People” program on the White House website. None succeeded because each failed on the strength of its ability to compete with contrarian ideas. The same is also true of separatist demands among the Scots in the United Kingdom and Quebec in Canada.
I strongly believe that the Buhari government could have handled the Nnamdi Kanu case differently. For instance if he was detained and refused bail for being a security risk, is he less of a security threat now? My feeling is that the speed with which he was able to meet the near impossible-to-meet bail conditions he was given by Justice Binta Nyako must be giving the country’s security agencies sleepless nights. It is now up to the government to assess whether it is doing itself any favours by the continued detention of Sambo Dasuki, El-Zakzaky and others.
Two, it is important to understand that every separatist or secessionist agitation feeds on local grievances. Agitators can often position themselves as the articulators of such grievances and will find ‘otherwise’ reasonable people lining behind them. During the heydays of the Odua Peoples’ Congress (OPC), people often wondered why the Yoruba, a largely urbane and educated people, followed the leadership of Gani Adam, a ‘mere carpenter’ when he formed the Odua Peoples’ Congress. People are asking the same question today about Nnamdi Kanu and the Igbos. It is of course difficult to know the level of support separatists have since many of the people such people claim to be agitating the independence for may not share in their vision as we saw in the Scottish referendum in 2014 and the referendum in Quebec in 1975. What is important is an understanding that every part of the country has its own tale of injustice and individuals who believe that separatism will be the antidote to such perceived injustice. This therefore calls, above all, for confidence building measures among the constituent parts of the country. Purely military and strongman tactics rarely work. Soft power will always trump military might in getting different constituents of the country to genuinely feel emotionally attached to the state.
Three, it should also be realized that in a polarized environment like ours, where ethnicity is a potent instrument of mobilization, certain governmental actions could be misconstrued as a slight or challenge to ethnic pride. We saw this when the Yoruba political elite fought assiduously for the revalidation of Abiola’s mandate despite the fact that in his life time, Abiola was hardly the group’s darling, for among other things, not sharing in the group’s idolization of the late icon Chief Obafemi Awolowo. Essentially therefore, some Igbos, including those who have very little regard for Mr Kanu’s agitations, saw the refusal to grant him bail as a challenge to their ethnic pride.
Four, despite the polarizations in this country, several Nigerians are also united by a sense of justice. For instance when Buhari was being accused of lopsidedness in political appointments in favor of the North in the early days of his government, some of his most virulent critics are from the North. During the time of the struggle for the revalidation of Abiola’s mandate, several Nigerians from across the country, joined NADECO, the leading group in the agitation. In the case of Nnamdi Kanu, Ayo Fayose, Fani Kayode and several non-Igbos showed him uncommon solidarity. The question is how can the government tap into Nigerians’ apparent love of justice and fairness and use it to unify the country?
Five, some people over-react once the word ‘Biafra’ is mentioned. What is often forgotten is that the word ‘Biafra’ has several narratives, not just the simplistic narrative of people of former Eastern Nigeria, (dominated by the Igbos), who wanted to secede from Nigeria between 1967 and 1970. Also it is not uncommon for people defeated in wars to continue to nurse memories of that war. For instance, in the USA, the display of flags used by and associated with the Confederate States of America (1861-1865), which lost the American Civil War, has continued into the present day. Such displays are often rationalized on different grounds – as part of Southern culture, States’ Right and historical commemoration among others. Biafra means different things to different Igbos. It is simply unrealistic to believe that a group should expunge from their collective memories a big part of their experience or their parents’ experience.
Six, in newly democratizing societies, it is not uncommon that the structures of conflicts will be aggravated in the short to medium term. There are bottled feelings across the country throughout the period of military dictatorship which are now finding avenues for expression. Biafra agitation is one of several expressions across the country of such bottled up feelings. The good thing is that such expressions across the country also offer us an opportunity to creatively solve the underlying issues at the heart of such expressions so that the country will move to the next level and find its voice in the comity of nations.