This is one issue that has divided the nation like never before. Was the Federal Government right or wrong to have sent soldiers with deadly weapons to suppress members of the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) and their leader in the Southeast? Were soldiers right or wrong to have killed, tortured and humiliated harmless youths in the way we saw on videos that circulated on social media? Was there no alternative to the use of live bullets in restraining restive youths? These questions beget more questions but they will continue to attract robust discussions in mainstream and online media for a long time to come.
I have heard people argue that IPOB deserved what they got, that the government had been patient and restrained for so long before its patience snapped, and that the group was warned sufficiently before soldiers descended on them. While all this might appear sound logic, the argument suffers from a major blemish. Regardless of the degree to which the government may have been provoked by IPOB, the government ought to have shown more maturity, more understanding and more tolerance. You do not squash a fly with an armoured tank.
If you think I am being silly, consider this wise saying. The hallmark of maturity is the ability to remain calm in the face of all provocations. We live in a democracy. In a democracy, all opinions must be ventilated openly regardless of how unsound and specious some of them might appear. In a marketplace of ideas, you will find ideas whose quality will not meet your benchmark for soundness.
We have been informed that soldiers, who descended on Aba and Umuahia targeted those chanting provocative songs, those pelting stones at soldiers and those explicitly advocating the disintegration of Nigeria. What should be placed in context is the disproportionate use of force by soldiers. Are there no ways of arresting agitated youth other than by using live bullets, torture and subjecting them to rough treatment?
I am aware that in civilised societies, governments apply patience, dialogue and face-to-face contact before they use force to break up a siege or violent situation. With regard to the use of brutal force in the Southeast more than a week ago, there was no siege in Aba or Umuahia prior to the arrival of soldiers. There was no deprivation of liberty of ordinary citizens by members of the IPOB, and there was no assassination of citizens by IPOB.
Peter Tosh, the legendary and talented reggae artiste, sang years ago about his preference for equal rights and justice and fair play rather than peace. In that everlasting song, entitled: “Equal rights”, Peter Tosh sang as follows (the words are abbreviated below):
“Everyone is crying out for peace, yes!
None is crying out for justice.”
I don’t want no peace
I need equal rights and justice
Got to get it, equal rights and justice
Everybody wants to go to heaven
But nobody wants to die
I really need it, equal rights and justice
Just give me my share
Equal rights and justice
What is due to Caesar
You better give it all to Caesar
And what belongs to I and I
You better give it up, give it up to I
Everyone is talking about crime
Tell me who are the criminals
I said everybody is talking about crime
Tell me who are the criminals
I really don’t see them
How Peter Tosh’s words mock the argument justifying the use of force in Aba and Umuahia.
No one is saying the government does not have the right to maintain law and order in the country or to install peace in the face of anarchy. Governments all over the world claim the right to maintain peace. However, how the government goes about doing that is the big question. It is the big difference between how we do things in Nigeria and how civilised societies confront challenges that test their unity.
Force and oppression have never served as valuable tools for keeping different ethnic groups together. Unity is never achieved by force, just as coercion has never been used to successfully keep irreconcilable couples together in marriage.
Everyone expected the government to tread carefully to tone down the restlessness and anger among youth, who have thrown their hats in support of a republic of Biafra, as conceived by those who engineered the idea. Unfortunately, no senior official of government sat down to engage in dialogue with IPOB and the leader. No members of the National Assembly, particularly those from the Southeast, bothered to intervene in the one-sided confrontation between armed soldiers and IPOB members.
Rather than apply unnecessary force, the government ought to find ways to engage the restive ones meaningfully. The government should aim to understand the causes of the underlying anger that catapulted into open agitations for an independent Biafra. These youths feel they have been marginalised and have no voice in their fatherland.
Some people have argued that the tension in the Southeast and the restlessness in the region must be attributed to the lopsidedness in government appointments, the unevenness in the allocation of federal resources for national development and the asymmetry in employment of youths. Perhaps, they are right.
Government must find ways to give angry youth meaningful lives through jobs, through skilling and training programmes, and through interest-free agricultural loans. These will give them a sense of belonging. There is value in diplomacy through face-to-face dialogue with youths to find out what they want and how their needs could be met.
Force is no solution to every unrest, uprising, or rebellion. Deploying fully armed soldiers with heavy tanks to communities with no known history of violence is the easiest way to engender insurrection, and to sow the seeds of guerrilla warfare in any part of the country.
Can a government impaled and exhausted by Boko Haram insurgency successfully fight wars in numerous fronts? I do not think so. Can a government that has been quiet about the destruction of farmlands and killings of innocent villagers by armed herdsmen justify the use of force against innocent people in the Southeast? I do not think any argument can justify the shedding of blood in Aba and Umuahia.
To paraphrase Peter Tosh, the government is crying out for peace but the government is apathetic and insensitive to the need for equal treatment of citizens, the need to grant equal rights to all citizens, and the need for justice across the country.
Surely, a government that declared openly that it should not be expected to accord equal treatment to citizens on the basis of the voting pattern in the 2015 general elections cannot be said to be fair in the way it has been governing, in the way it has been making appointments, and in the way it has been allocating federal resources to various states and regions.