The deployment of troops in the South East over the past week has raised political tension to a tipping point and our leadership at all levels should rise to the occasion and calm dawn the situation. There has been concerted action by certain forces to escalate hate speech and circulate videos directed at provoking mass killings around the country and Nigeria as a country should avoid falling into the trap of being pushed to kill their neighbours. At moments like this, we should always remind ourselves that it is easy to start killings but solving the underlying problems simply becomes more difficult and the society as a whole ends up paying a very high price.
At the source of the crisis has been agitation for restructuring and secession, twin political demands that have always characterised Nigeria’s political history. The current agitations however appear to have crossed a threshold. First, the Boko Haram insurgency created a situation in which a group was not simply agitating for secession but simply took up arms to carve out a Republic as happened with Biafra in 1967. The Boko Haram insurgency however is based on a religious ideology of carving out an Islamic Republic and did not even bother to debate with other Nigerians. Along side the emergence the activities of Boko Haram, there has been intensive activities by two secessionist Igbo groups – the older Movement for the Actualisation of the Sovereign State of Biafra (MASSOB) led by Ralph Uwazuruike and subsequently the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) led by Nnamdi Kanu. They raised the tempo of the debate by going beyond the traditional demand for restructuring and insisting that the time for secession has arrived. In essence, they had given up on demanding for restructuring and were now demanding for full independence from Nigeria on the basis that they had lost hope of ever escaping the marginalisation they believe Nigeria has subjected them too. According to IPOB: “We Biafrans in pursuit our inalienable, irreducible and God given right to restore our stolen sovereignty do hereby state that we do not require the permission of the Nigerian State or her government officials to grant us our natural freedoms.”
IPOB had raised the bar when it started campaigning for armed insurrection against the Nigerian State from its base in the United Kingdom from 2012. In addition, it established Radio Biafra and was illegally broadcasting its message of violent secession. After extensive radical rhetoric among the Igbo diaspora in Europe and the United States, its leader returned to Nigeria on the pedestal of a radical route to secession thereby raising the level of confrontation between the Igbo marginalised youth and security agencies. Nnamdi Kanu came into Nigeria for direct mobilization and was arrested in October 2015. His arrest only increased his popularity with his base and by the time he was released on bail on 28th April 2017, he had attained cult status with the capacity to close down many parts of Igboland. This was the context that provided the fillip to the age long demands for restructuring and provided reality check to the old slogan that Nigeria must restructure or disintegrate. It did so in a new context in which some Northern Youth came out to say that they would not even allow the Igbo time to leave, they would push them out.
On June 6th 2017, a Coalition of Northern Youth Groups – Arewa Citizens Action for Change, Arewa Youth Consultative Forum, Arewa Youth Development Foundation, Arewa Students Forum, Northern Emancipation Network, Northern Youth Vanguard, Northern Youths Stakeholders Forum and the North-East Assembly came out with what came to be called the Kaduna Declaration for the Igbos to quit Northern Nigeria. They contended that: “We are hereby placing the Nigerian authorities and the entire nation on notice, that as from the 1st October, 2017, we shall commence the implementation of visible actions to prove to the whole world that we are no longer part of any federal union that should do with the Igbos.”
This caused major political panic in the country. The most important reason for the panic is that the Igbos are the most entrepreneurial class in the country and engage in business and own property in virtually every village in the country. The threat to drive them out of the North, which had occurred in practice previously was both an existential threat but also evoked strong emotive memories. Initially, it created the conditions to start to tamper the debate, return it to its “normalcy” and elevate the status of political restructuring as a political imperative rather that just bargaining points in political struggles for power sharing. It is this return to “political normalcy” that is being deliberately torpedoed currently.
It is clear that since his release, Nnamdi Kanu has treated his conditions for bail with disdain and violated them holding political meetings and making provocative statements. He had gained enormous popularity in his base through his arrest and his strategy appeared to be to provoke the State to re-arrest him. It has been a difficult situation because allowing him to continue his disregard for the law compromises State authority and re-arresting him would increase the level of political tension. The approach taken by the State was to send in troops to occupy his base in Abia State and other parts of the South East. No one can question the responsibility of the Federal Government to maintain law and order but actions taken must be in conformity with the rule of law. In addition to harassing people in the streets, the troops were reported to have taken over the family house of Mr. Kanu and put him under house arrest.
My good friend Femi Falana has questioned this action of deploying armed troops in Abia state and the house arrest of Mr. Kanu as illegal and unconstitutional and his arguments are worth noting:
(1) By virtue of section 215 (3) of the Constitution the Nigeria Police Force has been conferred with the exclusive power to maintain law and order and secure public safety and public order in the country.
(2) Having filed an application in the Federal High Court for the re-arrest and detention of Mr. Kanu for allegedly breaching the conditions attached to his bail the federal government ought not to have presented the trial judge with a fait accompli by resorting to self help in the circumstance.
(3) Although the President is empowered by virtue of section 217(2) of the Constitution to deploy the armed forces for the “suppression of insurrection and acting in aid of civil authorities to restore law order” he cannot exercise the power until there is an insurrection or civil disturbance, which cannot be contained by the police.
(4) Since there was no insurrection in Aba State, which the Nigeria Police Force could not contain the deployment of armed troops by the President and Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces cannot be justified in law.
(5) However, if the federal government has evidence of other criminal offences recently committed by Mr. Kanu the Police should have been directed to arrest him and charge him to court without any delay.
The current political situation is very explosive especially as many videos, the authenticity of which had not been established, have been circulating. On the one hand, there are images circulating pointing fingers at security agencies for allegedly killing and torturing Igbo youth. On the other hand, other images about IPOB members seeking for and killing Northern Muslims in the zone are circulating. Clearly, these images are directed at provoking hate crimes and reprisal hate crimes that aim to cause conflagration and mayhem in the country. It appears that there is a strategy to push the country towards generalised civil disturbance or even civil war. We all have a responsibility to resist this urge, calm tensions and return to the more familiar terrain of political agitations and not mass killings.
It is unfortunate that since the transition to civil rule, no conscious efforts have been made by the civilian governments to demilitarize the country and deepen civil rule. It is important to reverse the trend of sending armed soldiers for law and order maintenance missions in virtually all the states of the Federation. The President should direct the armed troops who have been deployed to Abia State to withdraw and the police should take over the case of Mr. Kanu in line with the provisions of the Constitution and the Police Act. Even more important, it is time for political and community leaders to calm down tensions and urge people to resist provocation and keep the peace.