By Umar Abubakar
This are interesting but difficult times in Nigeria. Interesting because, even with the agitations, tension and threat of breakdown of law and order, the economy is officially said to be picking up as the nation is now out of recession.
However, in the present week, the major issue dominating public discourse is the issue of the clash between the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) and the military. The clash came on the eve of the departure of President Muhammadu Buhari to the United Nations General Assembly in New York. The activities and utterances of IPOB have been considered treasonable and confrontational to the state, thereby creating tension in the land.
While the IPOB men were making claims and issuing abuses in their bases in the South East, there was the fear that the problem in the South East would create a backlash and fallouts in other parts of the country, where ethnic/religious attacks may ensue. Thank God, the issue has been managed.
However, the crackdown on IPOB by the military, which held an exercise code-named “Operation Python Dance,” has also created some human rights crises. There are some videos containing gory scenes in circulation. All these are capable of creating another public relations crisis for the country, at a time our President was to address the world.
This was the background for a press statement issued by Senate President Abubakar Bukola Saraki, on the situation in the South East. While the focus of the media has been on one sentence in the 10-paragraph statement, perhaps we should first do a contextual review of the entire statement so that we have a holistic view of its real import.
The opening paragraph vigorously canvassed the need for calm and restraint across the country. It was an appeal for all and sundry to refrain from actions, utterances and insinuations that could aggravate the crisis. The statement then moved on to address the people in the South East states to ensure they maintain peace in their areas and not foment any chaos as “crisis will not benefit anybody but would only expose innocent people to unwarranted danger.”
The third paragraph commended and encouraged other Nigerians for not allowing the crisis to escalate and lead to widespread violence across the country. Therefore, it was a statement aimed at promoting peace, calming frayed nerves, recommending good conduct, dousing tension and urging restraint. The same statement also appealed to the media and users of various media platforms not to use the media to promote hatred, division and conflagration. Saraki used the statement to call for responsible and patriotic use of information on various media platforms. This was to caution people against the danger of replicating the Rwanda situation, where some irresponsible elements used the radio to promote the Hutu versus Tutsi crisis.
A fifth paragraph then commented on the need to follow due process at all times and in all circumstances, even when we are challenged by irritable situations like the IPOB confrontation against the military. Saraki said there was need for the government to follow due process in outlawing the group so that bad precedents are not set.
The next paragraph commended the military for their efforts in restoring peace to different parts of the country. He also advised the military to always rise above any provocation while addressing internal conflagration. He went on to canvass the need to strengthen the police and put it in a position to always handle civil situations or effectively support the military during any civil crisis so as not to overstretch the latter.
The Senate President further promised that the National Assembly would institute an investigation into the crisis, with a view to sifting the facts from fiction. The statement promised a fair, bare-it-all conscientious investigation while also promising that the federal legislature would be ready to address all issues bothering the people. It also urged Nigerians to always direct their grievances to the right channel.
In the end, Saraki urged all leaders of thought at different levels to continue to engage with their followers “on the need to maintain peace and be our brothers’ keepers”.
While this speech on the whole is commendable, bold and useful, the media and several commentators have put a spin on a sentence in paragraph five, where the Senate President advised against arbitrary proscription of IPOB and recommended following due process in taking the decision.
However, viewed from all angles, Saraki’s statement has saved the nation. The statement in which he positively affirmed that he knows the President would do the right thing to ensure that the due process is followed in proscribing IPOB is now being given different interpretations. Some mistook it for a support for IPOB. Some said it would encourage IPOB. Others said it weakens the hands of the military.
Yet, the fact remains that President Buhari and the government have given a right interpretation to the statement by immediately reversing the earlier decision that was not in line with due process while commencing measures aimed at complying with the provisions of Section 2 of the Terrorism (Prevention) Act 2011, by the Attorney-General of the Federation making recommendation to the President to proscribe IPOB. The President had reportedly signed the recommendation and the AGF is set to take it to the Federal High Court so that a judge can make the declaration, which would then be gazetted.
It took Saraki’s reminder for government to quickly initiate the process. The initiation of the formal process and the fact that a senior member of government, in fact, the number three man, suggested it helps to save the nation the embarrassment that it would have been confronted with at the UN. A group of protesters had wanted to latch on to the unilateral categorisation of IPOB as a terrorist organisation as an indication that government was clamping down on the opposition. There were some online commentators around the UN who had planned some form of protests on the issue.
What calmed down the protesters and took the wind out of their sail was the publications that government had initiated the formal process of proscribing the South East-based group. Also, the military quickly latched on to the Saraki statement to make a clarification that it had not proscribed IPOB, as only government could take such a decision following the laid down procedure by the law.
This is a demonstration of the political sagacity and acumen of Saraki, which this administration needs to use, exploit and explore at every point in time. The Senate President has demonstrated the ability to take risk of being misunderstood, the need to dare to be different in the face of difficult situationsw and the need to speak like a leader in steadying the ship of state. His statement, like many others he had issued in the past, has helped to address a major problem, and it takes wisdom to think through such an issue and proffer a solution.
• Abubakar writes from Kafanchan, Kaduna State