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IPOB, The Nigerian Government And The Lessons Not Learned By ‘Tope Oriola

September 16, 2017

On 21 May 2012, 21 US scholars whose research focused on sub-Saharan Africa and Nigeria in particular, wrote a letter to then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. They urged the U.S. government not to designate Boko Haram a “Foreign Terrorist Organization” (FTO). Their argument was that labeling Boko Haram a Foreign Terrorist Organization would “increase the risk that the US becomes linked—whether in reality or perception—to abuses by the security services. … (It) would effectively endorse excessive use of force at a time when the rule of law in Nigeria hangs in the balance. There is already evidence that abuses by Nigeria’s security services have facilitated radical recruitment.” One of the authors of the letter, Darren Kew, was my colleague at the University of Massachusetts, Boston. I wanted to know more about their motivation for writing the letter. He told me that they were concerned that the “FTO designation would strengthen the hand of the hardliners” within Boko Haram. He argued that some elements within Boko Haram “leadership were reaching out to the government, the Sultan, NGOs, and others (like Buhari) to ask them to mediate a solution. We felt that it was important for those talks to go ahead so that the government could pull away from the ‘doves’ in the movement, and isolate the hardliners, and that the FTO designation would just give the hardliners an additional tool to consolidate their hold”. The advice was unheeded and Boko Haram received the FTO designation in 2013. The rest is history.

Of course, the real damage was done prior to 2012. The link between the extrajudicial murder in July 2009 of Mohammed Yusuf and several of his followers and the emergence of the “new” Boko Haram in 2010 under Abubakar Shekau is incontrovertible. It was the watershed moment in the ascendance of the monstrosity plaguing Nigeria. Boko Haram continues to use asymmetrical tactics, particularly suicide bombings, to devastating effect despite the claims that they have been “technically defeated”.

I sent a copy of my book Criminal Resistance? The Politics of Kidnapping of Oil Workers to President Muhammadu Buhari in summer 2015. It was the product of extended, multi-year fieldwork in five of the nine Niger Delta states. The Permanent Secretary of the State House, Nebolisa Emodi, sent a letter dated 21 July 2015 to acknowledge the receipt of the book by the presidency. By the time the Niger Delta Avengers began blowing up oil infrastructure in early 2016, I expected a reasonable response from the government. However, a report by “Premium Times” on 19 January 2016 quoted the president as stating that the “oil thieves and abductors are a less problematic target (than Boko Haram). We will re-organise and deal with them”. The military declared war on Niger Delta militants in May 2016. No lesson had been learned from the repercussions of the militarization of the Niger Delta in the 1990s, the extrajudicial murder of the Ogoni Nine and the turmoil that followed.

I realized that neither the president nor any of the staff with real authority had read the book or any other research-based publication on the Niger Delta. The anti-intellectualist approach was in full operation once again. It was both sad and laughable given the interest was shown by a Canadian government agency that funded the research despite not having existential stakes on the issue. Such was the level of violence that the embassies of several allies made unprecedented statements about the futility of using the military as the solution to the Niger Delta crisis.

Fast forward to September 2017. I have just read on Sahara Reporters the statement by General John Enenche that the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) has been designated a “militant terrorist organization”. Besides the entertaining grammatically challenged idea of “militant terrorist”, I am shocked and alarmed that once again the Nigerian government has learned no lessons from both the past and the present. What is a “militant terrorist organization”? When was the designation established? What are the parameters for the designation? How many organizations are on the list? Does this designation apply to the Fulani herdsmen who have been killing our fellow citizens from Kaduna to Benue and Enugu to Ondo?

I presume that Enenche as a professional officer was delivering the government’s perspective. It is yet another clear indication that officials in President Buhari’s innermost circle do not read. It underscores why they seem to understand little about 21st-century governance, and armed conflict and therefore, keep making blunders on virtually all issues.

Nnamdi Kanu and his followers have also learned nothing from the Nigerian Civil War. They are exacerbating the suffering of the masses in Igboland in particular. I wrote about the “Drumbeats of war” in June 2017. It is worth reiterating that the government made a fundamental blunder by arresting and incarcerating Nnamdi Kanu. That provided incredible legitimacy to Kanu. It has transmuted IPOB from a relatively obscure group to the world stage. Kanu is media savvy. He has been effectively using his new fame in the global media.


While the state has the authority to maintain order, the Army’s launch of “Operation Python Dance II” was an ill-conceived action. It has played directly into the hands of Nnamdi Kanu. The government has just handed Kanu what he was seeking. The manner in which the human rights of our fellow citizens are being trampled in a self-indulgent “show of force” is disgraceful and will further tarnish the image of the administration. The government has just unnecessarily complicated its own life. This bottom-of-the-barrel approach to governance will take us nowhere.

I strongly urge the Nigerian government not to make the mistake of killing Nnamdi Kanu. Do not create a martyr. Nnamdi Kanu in death is more dangerous to the corporate existence of Nigeria than while alive. It is in your best interest to ensure that his life is secure so you can enter into discussions with him. That is the sensible thing to do; it is how such social movements generally end.

We are all diminished when the lives and rights of our fellow humans and citizens are extinguished by state violence. Human life is cheapened. There is no justification for the violence being unleashed by the military in the southeast in the same manner that violence against Shiites was unjustifiable and cruel. The only “success” it will achieve is to increase the recruitment scale of IPOB. Agitations by IPOB and the likes of the Niger Delta Avengers remind us that Nigeria is unsustainable in its current configuration. I urge President Buhari to meet with IPOB and listen to the agitation for restructuring Nigeria. Do not supervise Nigeria’s violent balkanization.

Follow Oriola on Twitter: @topeoriola