Prelude to the recent bitter exchanges between the Nigerian government and groups agitating for the establishment of a “Sovereign State of Biafra”, this column joined other close security watchers in counseling the authorities against adopting any forceful stance that could end up escalating the brewing conflict. The compound advice was that rather than resorting to the traditional confrontational conflict handling style preferred by the government, a non-adversarial (Joint-Problem-Solving) approach should be adopted in transforming the conflict at its embryonic stage; a strategy of engagement that should be geared towards addressing, not just the Biafra question, but all other significant national questions successive administrations have ignored.
However, as has become the tradition in its handling of internal crisis, the all-knowing Federal Government of Nigeria had its own set ideas on how to tackle the Biafra challenge. The purported jamming of the frequencies of Radio Biafra off the airwaves, in tandem with the subsequent arrest of some pro-Biafra elements in the Eastern part of the country, were some of the measures taken by the Federal Government – through the instrumentality of its security agencies – to supposedly checkmate the activities of pro-Biafra groups. But rather than abate, the calls for Biafra’s secession from the Nigerian federation has continued to accelerate, exposing the porosity and weak underbelly of the Federal Government’s confrontational conflict handling style.
The recent arrest and continued detention of the founder of Radio Biafra, Mr. Nnamdi Kanu, one of the lynchpins of the struggle for an autonomous Republic of Biafra, is a move that constitutes a major strategic blunder in the Nigerian government’s approach towards checking the activities of dissident groups in the country; a brash, ill-timed and ill-informed move that could come back to haunt the country in future. Arresting NK has inadvertently turned him into a cult hero of sorts; a move that has ricocheted negatively by winning more sympathizers to the cause. Until now, the struggle was proceeding without a distinguishable arrowhead; it lacked a recognizable focal point around which the nuances of the struggle coalesced; the movement had no national figurehead in the mold of the late Ikemba of Nnewi, Udimegwu Chukwuemeka Ojukwu, who led the Igbos through the most checkered period of their history – the Civil War era – when they engaged Nigerian loyalist forces in a bloody confrontation that spanned three years – 1967-1970. Now, not only does the contemporary struggle have a face, it now has a champion; a concentric force pulling the wheel of the struggle.
Nigerian authorities have brashly played into the hands of the pro-Biafra agitators by arresting and detaining NK without trial. His arrival in Nigeria and subsequent arrest by the authorities appears to be a grand strategy by a group of individuals who know what they are doing; a well orchestrated plot geared towards giving the struggle the credibility it had lacked since its inception. Until now, most people paid very scant attention to calls for an autonomous Republic of Biafra; now, the struggle is beginning to get sympathetic ears. The plethora of angry reactions from across the globe that have trailed the clampdown on pro-Biafra groups by Nigerian security operatives of late, which have been unprecedented since the onset of the struggle, are pointers to the changing dynamics in public opinion. The former Home Secretary and former Leader of the Labour Party in the United Kingdom, Mrs. Harriet Harman QC, including the Russian and Israeli governments have all asked for his release from detention. These days, the Biafra Question is beginning to attract favourable reviews from a once skeptical – local and international, regular and social – media community; an indication of a broadening paradigm shift in global perception of the struggle.
History has consistently shown that separatist agitations burgeon when superintending authorities start clamping down on the leadership of such break-away groups. Nigeria is a classic case in point. The Niger Delta crisis escalated to violent proportions when the state’s confrontational approach (which resulted in the arrest, detention and extra-judicial murder of some notable arrowheads of the struggle for self-determination) subsequently pitted it against the once peaceful inhabitants of the region who had been non-violently agitating for fairer deals from the Nigerian State and the giant oil multi-nationals whose exploitative oil exploration and production activities had turned the region into a scorched land. The later rise in cases of militancy in that region was an inevitable consequence of government’s confrontational approach. The ongoing Boko Haram insurgency in the North-Eastern part of the country could be said to also be a direct consequence of the excessive use of force by the authorities. The arrest, incarceration and consequent extrajudicial killing of the group’s founding leader, Mohammed Yusuf while in police custody, marked a turning point in the conflict. Several other historical examples from across the globe attest to the negative outcomes of the use of force as a conflict handling style.
Denying a people their collective right to self-determination, using the instrument of force, results in defiance, and ultimately civil war, if pushed to the extreme. Some of the most disastrous wars in recorded history – including the American, Russian, French, English, Indian, Sri Lankan, Sudanese, Nigerian, Angolan, Congolese, Zimbabwean, Yugoslavian, Ukrainian, Nicaraguan, Cuban, Irish, Syrian, Libyan, Indonesian, Korean, Vietnamese, Spanish, Iraqi, Italian, Lebanese et al – were stimulated by the avoidance of the main issues and the excessive use of force by the superintending authorities in suppressing the voices of dissent. It is funny to note that history keeps repeating itself.
The adoption of the confrontational conflict handling style by successive administrations in dealing with dissident groups in Nigeria obviously stems from poor assessment and understanding of the real issues at stake – the lack of proper analysis’ of the histories, dynamics and dimensions of these agitations. Questions such as: What are the geneses of these agitations? Who are the agitators? What are the real concerns raised by these agitators? What are the true positions, interests and needs of these agitators? The inability of the authorities to understand the core nuances of conflicts, before deciding on the intervention strategies to be adopted in addressing them, are responsible for the worst case scenarios Nigerians have been forced to become spectators to over the years.
Far from being an exaggeration, the quest for Biafra stands out as one – out of a plethora – of the contemporary questions surrounding the sanctity of the Nigerian State system as currently constituted and operated; a question about the authenticity of Nigeria by some Nigerians who feel estranged from the system consequent to the subsisting political arrangement; an attempt by some angry Nigerians to gain recognition in the present political configuration. They are the same questions millions of Nigerians ask every day: What is the Nigerian State system all about? What is our stake in this system? How well are our interests being represented in the scheme of things? How can these interests be improved? What is our future in this system? That is why any approach to finding solutions to the challenge posed by dissident groups to the continued existence of the Nigerian State in its current form must be located within the realities of its politics. No solution can be found outside the purview of the practical realities of the country’s politics.
Holding a Referendum in the areas constituting the former South-Eastern Region of Nigeria (in line with the pre-civil war geo-political map) will suffice as the most iron-cast solution to address the grievances of pro-Biafra agitations. When the Scottish Nationalist Party started pressing for the balkanization of the United Kingdom and the granting of Scottish independence, the people of that region where given room to participate in a “yes” or “no” election. The Catalan region of Spain, Quebec region of Canada, region of East Timor which was formally part of Indonesia, region of Singapore which was part of Malaysia, the states of Georgia and Ukraine together with other former Soviet states that chose to leave Russia, and the Czech Republic that opted to break off from Slovakia, have all at one time or the other gone though referendums. There is no reason why Nigeria cannot follow suit.
On a macro scale, a Sovereign National Conference where all the country’s constituent groups can have opportunities to jaw-jaw on the way forward – whether to remain together in a union whose form is acceptable to all, or to peacefully go their separate ways – is another possible option for solving the problems of dissent in the country. Calls for a national palaver have been consistently and vociferously made at several fora in the past by concerned stakeholders, without anybody heeding them. A forum for every group in the country to freely state the terms for them to remain in the Nigerian federation must be created; a level playing field where all the heterogeneous groups can have their say on the trajectories they wish to travel on in a new Nigeria. The agreements reached at this general assembly should form the fulcrum of a new social contract that will define the future relationship between the citizens and the state.
President Mohammadu Buhari’s administration is advised to work assiduously towards uniting a disunited country in critical ferment, rather than further alienating any of its constituent groups. The historical animosities amongst the country’s several ethnic groups should be a stop sign discouraging any action that could be tantamount to adding salt to an already festering sore. The pro-Biafra elements are Nigerian citizens legitimately asking for improvements in certain aspects of their intercourse with the Nigerian State. They are asking for a better deal; asking for more recognition of their constitutionally granted rights as bonafide citizens of the republic. That is not too much to ask. Whether they will continue as part of the union will be determined by how exhaustively and expeditiously their demands are addressed by the state.
This column is calling on the Nigerian government to immediately and unconditionally release Mr. Nnamdi kanu and other pro-Biafra agitators in detention and commence a genuine process of dialogue that will lead to a peaceful resolution of the conflict. This is supposed to be a democratic era where the rights of citizens to freely express their grievances are supposed to be respected; unlike the era of the Khaki boys when dissent was viewed as treason and any individual or group bold enough to question the legitimacy of the state was labeled a rebel and incarcerated indefinitely without trial. More decorum should be exercised by those in authority in the handling of this conflict, to avoid a worst-case scenario of apocalyptic consequences.
Dialogue remains the most constructive, cost-effective and long-lasting strategy for seeking long-lasting solutions to the several challenges posed to the continued existence of the Nigerian State as currently constituted and operated by groups demanding for self-determination or more inclusion in the operation of the state. Other disenchanted groups in the country are watching developments with keen interest, ready to pounce on any opportunity that presents itself to launch their brand of mayhem on the country. The early warning signs of a country at the brink of total war are there for all perceptive minds to see. It behooves those in authority to put political expediencies aside and dispassionately face up to the issues at hand. “A stitch in time saves everything” – emphasis added.
Using force to quell dissent ultimately fails, as ancient and modern history has consistently shown. Force is only but a short-term solution to the legitimacy crisis the Nigerian State has had to grapple with over the years. If things are done right, fresh wars on other fronts can be avoided, and Nigerians can continue the nation-building processes that have been stalled by the state’s vacillating attitude towards its constituent units. As the saying in peace parlance goes “the costliest peace is cheaper than the cheapest war”.
God save Nigeria!