The past three weeks provided yet another occasion to test the general will of Nigerians towards Nigeria as a united entity. On Tuesday, 30th May, 2017 the pro-Biafra separatist groups called on all its members to stay indoors as a mark of reverence for those who died during the Biafra-Nigeria war which started 50 years ago. Nigerians were alarmed at the total lockdown of the five states of the South East and some parts of the South-South. The call was observed in other parts of the country where Biafra-believing Igbo people live. It was also marked with public rallies in many cities across the world.
A week later, a group that called itself a Coalition of Arewa Youths went to Arewa House in Kaduna on 6th June 2017 to issue what they called Kaduna Declaration, giving Igbo resident in the North an ultimatum to leave by 1st October 2017. They said they were no longer prepared to live with Igbo in one country, and offered to pull out of Nigeria on the same date. They even went as far as threatening to seize the property of the Igbo in their region.
Many Northern leaders came out in total condemnation of this asinine ultimatum, though a few stragglers like Professor Ango Abdullahi, who appears determined to carry the flame of hatred in his heart to his grave, came out in defiant support of the Declaration. However, the generality of Nigerians, the real owners of the Federal Republic, descended on the Arewa hate-mongers, reaffirming their faith in a united country where justice, equity and fair play must be brought back from the trash bin where the President Muhammadu Buhari regime had dumped it in pursuit of his narrow ethno-religious agenda since he was voted into power two years ago.
People have been asking: why is it that up till today, the directive by the Governor of Kaduna State, Nasir el-Rufai, and even the Inspector General of Police, Alhaji Ibrahim Kpotun Idris, for those behind the brainless “quit notice” to be arrested has not been carried out? Some have also been wondering why the leader of the Indigenous Peoples of Biafra IPOB, Nnamdi Kanu, has not been re-arrested, having allegedly addressed a rally contrary to his bail conditions. Some wondered why it took the Presidency a whole week to respond to the threat which took the nation back to the brink of ethnic confrontation and possible bloodshed.
Before explain my understanding of this issue, let me observe that the Buhari administration is a coin whose front and back sides do not resemble in any way. The front side has the face of President Muhammadu Buhari on it. It is the face of a leader with an axe to grind with some sections of the country; a man on a vengeance mission, and a leader who belongs to some people but not the others. The back side has the face of Vice President (or Acting President) Yemi Osinbajo on it. It is the face of a diplomat, democrat and fence-mender. When we say this, regime spin doctors accuse us of trying to split the Presidency and put a wedge between the ailing President and his Deputy who is now acting in his place. They are not interested in checking whether what we are saying is the truth.
Perhaps, if Buhari were fit and fully in charge, a different picture – that of an escalation of the tension – could have been the order of the day. We saw how he reacted to the vituperative antics of hitherto-inconsequential Nnamdi Kanu and his IPOB, a non-violent group. Getting him arrested and held in detention in total violation of court orders brought out thousands of pro-Biafra youths to the streets, and the army, police and security agencies were unleashed on them with firepower. Mass graves sprang up in many parts of the South East. Only in February this year, Amnesty International accused the Nigerian Army of being responsible for the massacre of 1,967 IPOB members, though the Army denied the accusation. Similar treatments were directed at the Islamic Movement in Nigeria, or the Shiites led by Sheikh Ibrahim El Zakzaky, who remains in detention in flagrant violation of court orders for him to be released on bail.
During the period when the President was fully in the picture, the Army, Police and security agencies tended to be deployed in a manner suggesting that the system was for some groups and against the others. But the period when Acting President Osinbajo has been in charge (no matter how tenuously) his approach to our socio-political challenges has been that of tension-dousing. We saw how he went to the Niger Delta (though at the behest of the President), and succeeded in persuading the Avengers and other angry armed groups to lay down their arms and allow the flow of oil to ensure the recovery of our economy from recession. He went to the East and North, and even the spate of armed Fulani herdsmen attacks considerably reduced.
He has brought the same approach to calm the storms consequent upon the pro-Biafra activities and the obnoxious quit notice. Those who were expecting him to plunge head-long into the issue by ordering the arrest of Nnamdi Kanu and the errant Arewa Youths behind the Kaduna Declaration were looking at the issue through a Buharist confrontational mindset. It does not work quite that way.
Any wise leader knows that you do not fight fire with fire. You fight fire with water and other chemical dousers. If Nnamdi Kanu or any of the pro-Biafra leaders had been arrested, millions of their supporters would have poured into the streets, both within the country and all over the world. That would have been yet another headache for the authorities. In the same vein, if any of the “Arewa youths” had been arrested, they would have turned into overnight heroes of those who believe in their poisonous message. You never can tell which extremist group would capitalise on it and start actions that could spell the end of the Federal Republic. It is obvious they were acting out the script of some enemies of Nigeria, of whom only Ango Abdullahi had the bravura to come out openly and speak, perhaps because he feels too old to be dealt with.
Osinbajo’s elaborate diplomatic engagements with the various leaders and interest groups across the country, his words of assurance and hope as well as confidence building are the only wise steps to take in a situation like this. It is a big lesson for President Buhari if, and when, he returns to his office. Democracy is a game of people engagement. It is a game of inclusive governance which was fully explained to him when he asked what it meant on his visit to Washington in July 2015, though he insisted he would rule through his unconstitutional “97%/5%” formula.
Osinbajo’s conciliatory approach even encouraged the Senate to reach a resolution asking the Presidency to forward the 2014 National Conference Report to it. President Buhari showed open hostility towards this document in a Presidential media chat when he quipped angrily: “I have not read it”.
The truth is that, after the diplomatic shuttles by the Presidency, if nothing is done to address the issues that stoked the Biafra agitation, it will never stop. Rather, it will continue to escalate, quit notice or no quit notice. The Igbo and the vast majority of Nigerian groups have pitched their tent behind the restructuring of Nigeria as the minimum demand for its salvation. The 2014 Conference Report contains the seeds of amelioration of the unjust system that favours a tiny minority to the detriment of other groups.
Acting President Osinbajo should continue his deft walk through the Nigerian minefield until full confidence in the country is restored.