IPOBs are terrorists, so what next? – By Abimbola Adelakun

By Abimbola Adelakun

After the hue and cry that followed the declaration of the Indigenous People of Biafra as a terrorist organisation, the military backtracked on its decision. The Chief of Army Staff, Lt. Gen. Tukur Buratai, found himself at great pains to clarify the indistinct difference between the army making a “declaration” about IPOB being a terrorist group and a mere “pronouncement.” The difference between the two, he should know, is not a matter of mere semantics. Such a speech, whether miscommunicated or not, is performative and will signal the actions that would be tolerated by the military top brass and summarily executed by foot soldiers. The army should not make either a “declaration” or a “pronouncement” without thinking far about the political, legal, moral, and economic implications of such rhetoric.

Once one gets over the army’s lack of coordination, the messiness of Operation Python Dance (and even manage to ignore the Information Minister, Alhaji Lai Muhammed, who insists the army’s pronouncement was warranted), one wonders the point of such a weighty decision. Declaring an organisation “terrorist” is a decision that can affect many factors that range from public policies to budgetary decisions. Why should a government that is still battling an actual terrorist organisation, Boko Haram, and has still not found lasting respite from the Niger Delta restiveness, declare another group a terrorist organisation? How many enemies within one’s household can one efficiently and judiciously fight at the same time? What was it about the listed sins of IPOB – formation of a so-called “secret service” which is comprised of some worn old men and unemployed youths; blocking of public access roads and extortion of money from people; confrontation of state officials with weapons such as stones, broken bottles and even Molotov cocktails — that warranted such a huge leap in agenda? If Biafrans who “fight” with stones, machetes, and broken bottles are qualified to be called terrorists, then how do we characterise Boko Haram group who carry out suicide bombing? If the Biafran protesters are terrorists, then, what do we call the Fulani herdsmen who were declared the fourth deadliest group in the world, coming after Boko Haram, ISIS, and Al-Shabab by the Global Terrorism Index?

Some days ago, Vice President Yemi Osinbajo was at the passing out parade of cadets at the Nigerian Defence Academy in Kaduna. In his speech on the occasion, he spoke of the necessity of the army to evolve more sophisticated tactics of confronting ideological battles in a fast-changing world where the old answers do not respond to emerging questions. Indeed, both the officers of the army and Nigerian political office holders need to evolve subtle and less forceful means of combating issues like Biafra, rather than work from the same old script that has, over the years, only brought sorrow, tears, and blood to everyone.

That aside, it is important to state that I have neither love nor sympathy for Kanu. I consider him an opportunist taking advantage of the resentment of the people Nigeria has left behind. His followers probably take him more seriously than he deserves and he is not about to tell them he is a purveyor of false hopes or is looking to enrich himself through the struggle. There is little about Kanu’s actions or conduct that suggests that he has any plan or strategy of action for the disenchanted and poor people of the South-East who have now turned him into a messiah. Amidst all Kanu’s opportunism, however, one should be clear-eyed enough to separate the man’s exploitation of people’s emotions from the seriousness of the issues. In fact, I believe that most of those who have supported the military action in Igboland have done so because they have failed to sieve their dislike for Kanu from the undercurrents of resentment that have given his dubious mission some traction. If the issue at stake began and ended with Kanu alone, one could just shrug it off and wait for the man to have his day in court. However, there is much more to the IPOB movement that is bigger than Kanu himself. One should not be so unduly focused on the Biafrans’ style (or lack of it) and therefore miss the substance of the people’s anger against the Nigerian government.

Rather than consider Kanu the alpha and the omega of things, we should raise the question of what in Nigeria’s present political and economic arrangement has led to resentment in the South-East? What are the constituents of the Biafran anger and how has Kanu capitalised on them to build a mass movement? If there is no underlay to the issues, one man could not have magically captured the imagination of the public and be treated like a messiah. It should be easier to understand the problem rather than resort to brute force and violence. Using brute force to crush civilian dissatisfaction can be counterproductive. Force, for the ends of repressing others, can only confirm what the dissenters already believe — that the government does not care about them and wants them all dead already. If the government insists on using force to bend the will of the southeasterners, they will at best end up with mass casualties and a cultivated sense of fatalism among the people. There is a better way out of the conundrum, and it is dialogue.

No, I do not support the Federal Government meeting Kanu to resolve any issues. Kanu, truth be said, is no freedom fighter and I will be genuinely surprised if he has an agenda beyond having them kiss his feet and bow down to worship his non-majesty . Instead, the government needs to go into dialogue with the people — and not just their peace brokers — to understand, and redress their anger and their angst. Militarising the region or using pronouncement and or declaration, as the case may be, of terrorism to criminalise the people who are disillusioned with the state of the nation, and have resorted to exhibiting civil dissent will not solve a thing. I must admit that I am not in the least surprised by the actions of the Biafrans. I am in fact more surprised by the fact that more Nigerians are not on the streets doing similar things despite the hardship and repression they have been through in the past two years under Buhari’s government.

Finally, it is imperative for all of us to rise and speak against the use of force by the military or otherwise to repress a people who are armed with stones and broken bottles. The Nigerian Army, with its undistinguished military record of brutality against civilians that has been variously documented by organisations such as Amnesty International, and through various civilian presidencies of Olusegun Obasanjo, Goodluck Jonathan, and now Muhammadu Buhari, is unevenly matched against the IPOB protesters who are armed, as admitted by the army authorities themselves, with a pitiful armoury of sticks, broken bottles and machetes. Might is not always right, and people do not need to die because they are fighting for what they believe is their dignity.

Right before our eyes, we saw how the Shiites were mass-buried in a hastily dug grave to cover up the sins of those who carried out their massacre. It is on record that the army racked up a record of abuses against civilians while fighting Boko Haram, and those issues have remained unaddressed till now. A needless militarisation of any region, therefore, needs to be opposed on principle. The violence and unprofessionalism which would be applied in the South-East will only breed more violence, not placate people. Making out the IPOB to be a terrorist organisation may just be a start to another round of profitable wars, like Boko Haram. So successful was the military enterprise in the northeastern region that some Ogas at the top who quelled Boko Haram could afford to buy themselves a house in Dubai on their relatively meagre salaries.punch

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