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The militarisation of the eastern states of Nigeria over the activities of separatist organisations is an inappropriate response to matters of this nature. You do not hunt a fly down with a sledge hammer. To do so will amount to an over reaction. When you over react on an issue, you miss the point. And when you miss the point, you end up chasing shadows. That is what the concerned Nigerian authorities are doing, particularly in the case of the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB).
The other day, some young men filed out somewhere in Rivers State. They were not exactly agitated about the Nigerian condition. But they were excited about the dawn of a new era in the United States of America. The Donald Trump presidency had just begun and they wanted to be part of the new day. They could not go to the United States to share in the Trump inauguration. But since Nigeria, their homeland, was a part of the global village, they decided to carve out a little corner in Rivers State to, symbolically, demonstrate that they were in a convivial mood over the coming into office of a man whom they believe, rightly or wrongly, that they connect with, one way or another.
But that was as far as their ideal could carry them. The happy hours that they looked forward to were soon to be taken over by gall. What was at issue? The young men (and women), who are ardent believers in freedom and egalitarianism, had massed up under the umbrella of IPOB. But because the sound and bite of Biafra have a way of invoking negative feelings and responses in official quarters in Nigeria, the peaceful procession got baptised with fire. Overzealous state officials, armed with instruments of coercion and suppression, moved in. They swooped on the peaceful procession. The occasion turned bloody. Some were shot dead and some others critically injured. Scores of others were rounded up and clamped into detention. A day or two later, they were charged to court by the authorities for acts bordering on treason. They will be standing trial, according to the charges slammed on them, for disturbing public peace and attempting to carve out a new republic in an existing republic.
The naked show of force displayed by the police and the army against IPOB on that day is not new. It has been happening in Anambra State in particular and the rest of eastern Nigeria in general. The organisation, as harmless as it is, is dreaded and loathed in official circles. The mere mention of its name invokes hate and resentment in those who see Biafra as an aberration. Even those who have no reason to disown IPOB sometimes do so in the erroneous belief that it will make them look acceptable in the eyes of those who rule and reign in Nigeria. That is why Governor Willie Obiano of Anambra State has never raised a finger over the many mindless massacres of IPOB members in his domain. For him, the organisation spells rebellion and that is one anathema he does not want to be associated with. The Obiano disposition has caught on and that was why Rivers State government borrowed a leaf from what has been happening in Anambra State. The government in Port Harcourt did nothing to protect the IPOB members. If anything, it aided and abetted in their massacre.
But then, why is IPOB being hunted? The answer is simple enough. Nigeria is afraid of its own shadow. At the end of the war of attrition that was fought over Biafra, those who felt that Nigeria must remain united tried their hands on peremptory declarations, ranging from draconian decrees to improbable and unrealizable constitutional orders. The Constitutions of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, 1979 and 1999, are products of this conquest mentality. Nigerians, since the end of the Civil War in 1970, have been living in fear of a particular constitutional order- that Nigeria is an indivisible and indissoluble sovereign entity. Those who have been presiding over the affairs of Nigeria have been taking refuge under this sweeping order. They see it as an immutable law of nature. Under the military, those who tried their hands on its violation were visited with capital punishment. That, over time, instilled fear in the people. They began to see that constitutional provision as an article of faith.
But the passage of time has won thin the halo and hallucinations of that constitutional provision. As nations the world over continue to free themselves from the stranglehold of dictatorship, people have become more aware and appreciative of basic and fundamental freedoms. That is why objectionable, unrealistic and unrealizable constitutional provisions such as the one in the Nigerian constitution are being questioned and repudiated. That repudiation and rejection are the engine and impetus that drive the activities of IPOB and other organisations that place premium on fundamental freedoms and human rights. That is why freedom fighters are seizing the political stage, not only in Nigeria but also in other parts of the world where people are oppressed and misgoverned.
But the worry here is the inappropriate response that is oozing forth from the Nigerian authorities. Whereas the authorities believe that IPOB and other separatist organisations in Nigeria are unlawful, the separatists do not think so. That is their main point of departure. Today, an Nnamdi Kanu, leader of IPOB, is being held by the state. He is standing trial for treason. Each side of the divide has its own story to tell in this matter. But the regrettable thing is that government’s approach is anything but civil. Rather than allow the law to take its course, government has decided to keep Kanu in detention, contrary to the orders of the courts. By so doing, the authorities give the impression that we do not live in a civil society where civil liberties are guaranteed and protected. The continued detention of Nnamdi Kanu, despite court orders to free him, is draconian through and through. The unceasing clampdown on IPOB members despite the fact that they are unarmed is uncivil. Such strong arm tactic is an aberration in a democracy. Such a curtailment of the people’s fundamental freedom is fueling tension and breeding civil unrest.
The point must be made that the curtailment of the people’s fundamental freedoms in the name of preserving the integrity of Nigeria is a misplaced act of aggression. The agitators of IPOB are unarmed. They are not involved in insurrection. They are not at war with Nigeria. Visiting them with shootings and killings is, therefore, cowardly. It is indicative of the inability of government and its agencies to engage the issue, which the separatists are agitated about.
In civilised climes where we claim to be learning from, separatist agitations are not visited with shootings and killings. You engage the issues and their purveyors instead in debate and dialogue. That is the civilised way to go. Shootings and killings do not solve problems. If anything, they exacerbate an already bad situation. Government does not need to be reminded of the fact that force of arms has never been known to foster or sustain unity anywhere in the world.