Former chairman of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), Prof. Maurice Iwu, recently expressed his disappointment over the state of security in the southeast of Nigeria. That a region, which had hitherto enjoyed relative peace, has descended to a situation where arson, wanton killings, brigandage and pernicious military action reign supreme broke his heart. It is, therefore, understandable that he could speak against what he considered a conspiracy of silence by the elite and indigenes of Imo State, in particular.
“We’re guilty. All of us in Imo State are guilty for allowing such things to happen. For not shouting early enough, we are all guilty,” Iwu declared.
The former INEC chairman was particularly furious that police and INEC facilities were attacked in the South East and that Igbo youths are now at the mercy of the military, following government’s deployment of a large number of soldiers and policemen to restore peace. He said: “A situation where we are killing people who have come to protect us is stupid. We can’t be killing policemen who are here to protect us. We can’t have our young people being molested because of our own excesses. We Imolites are part of the cause. We can’t exonerate ourselves completely, but yet we’re also part of Nigeria.”
Iwu has every cause to be angry. There is no justification whatsoever for the killing of policemen and other security personnel in the South East or any part of Nigeria. There is no good reason for destroying police facilities. There is no justification for setting INEC facilities ablaze. There is no good reason for the military and policemen to indiscriminately arrest just any Igbo, in the guise of hunting down a few who are responsible for the attacks on policemen, police formations, prison and INEC facilities. These are condemnable acts.
However you look at it, Iwu was right in, by extension, blaming the Igbo generally for not speaking out against the attacks on the police and other government facilities when it mattered most, although he particularised his comments on Imo State. The situation in the South East is sad and annoying. People should not be killed, no matter what is amiss. Anarchy should not be condoned, no matter what. However, it is apparent that the situation degenerated because of the failure of the agitating youths, the elite and government, both state and federal, to rise to their callings. The youths failed as they thought that unnecessary bravado could change everything. South East governors failed woefully in their duty to nip in the bud the crisis that has enveloped the region. The Federal Government also failed to take measures that would have assuaged the feelings of those from the South East, who have some reservations about what is happening in the country.
Instead of engaging members of the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) and other agitators, to let them understand that their quest for a better society could be achieved without dividing Nigeria, South East governors stood aloof. They employed belligerence, like the Federal Government, in a failed attempt to whip agitators into line, but instead, ended up driving them underground. It is on record that South East governors could only give IPOB’s leader, Nnamdi Kanu, or the pro-Biafra tendencies audience once during one of their meetings in Enugu. Kanu was ignored when it was obvious that his activities could not be ignored. Perhaps, the governors felt that engaging Kanu would have amounted to glorifying him. However, the truth is that there are some things one does even if it is for the nuisance value.
The Federal Government proscribed IPOB in a most contentious way. The South East governors, behaving like the proverbial mourner who cries more than the bereaved, took it upon themselves to implement this. The governors issued threats, declaring that they would not tolerate IPOB ever again. Since then, whenever pro-Biafra groups unveiled their stay-at-home programmes, the governors always came out to counter them, threatening those who may want to observe it. Obeying or disobeying stay-at-home orders is at the discretion of people. Some observe it not because they really support the agitation of the pro-Biafra groups. They do so simply to avoid collateral damage that may arise if they do otherwise. Nobody wants to lose his or her life or means of livelihood. Taking precaution is a mark of wisdom, not cowardice. Even when the Federal Government declares public holiday, there are still people who go to work or go about their daily endeavours. The actions of the South East governors in isolating the agitators and making them more or less pariahs, therefore, contributed to the group’s unwillingness to see reason.
It was a big blunder for Governor Hope Uzodimma of Imo State, for example, to have openly boasted that he invited soldiers to deal with IPOB in Orlu, Imo State. Even when he sought the help of the military, through the Federal Government to restore order in Orlu, which any governor could have done, it was not good that he had to thump his chest for this. Boasting about it was like “I dealt with them” behaviour, which was absolutely unnecessary. That act of indiscretion by Uzodimma contributed in no small measure in increasing the tension in Imo and the audacity of agitators in his state.
The agitation for Biafra did not start now. Right from the advent of the current democratic rule, Biafra agitators have always operated, without the kind of crisis the nation has seen in recent time. The Movement for the Actualisation of the Sovereign State of Biafra (MASSOB), led by Chief Ralph Uwazurike, was around even before the birth of IPOB. It took pragmatism and engagement by those who managed the affairs of South East states and the Federal Government earlier to ensure the Biafra agitators maintained their professed non-violent position. The MASSOB leader was arrested severally. He stood trial also. The group’s members never deviated from their non-violent stance. The monumental crisis that has engulfed the South East is happening now because something went wrong.
I am persuaded that, apart from the mismanagement of the situation by South East governors, part of what went wrong was the posture of the Federal Government. The current government has shown intolerance to criticism and agitation, be it for wage raise, justice, fairness and equity. In the last six years, engagements and dialogue have always been the last option of the Federal Government. Threats and arm-twisting are employed before dialogue. This is why the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) could be on strike for one year and the Federal Government was not persuaded that it was an embarrassment.
South East youths have complained about marginalisation of their zone in the scheme of things at the federal level. They talked about exclusion of their zone in appointments in the security sector. They were ignored. Even when there was an opportunity to correct the imbalance, President Muhammadu Buhari did nothing. There are complaints that federal appointments are skewed in favour of the North and that the South East does not get its fair share. Nobody listens. Igbo youths plead for the creation of an addition state in the South East to ensure parity in the number of states in each of the six geopolitical zones in the country. The authorities see this as asking for too much. The people complain that herdsmen are invading South East communities and taking over farmlands. Nobody comes to the people’s aid. They cry out and seek protection when armed herdsmen plan attacks against communities. No help comes from security agencies. They are left vulnerable and, therefore, massacred.
Nationwide, there is agitation for restructuring of the country to address some inherent flaws. People have canvassed the need for state police, fiscal federalism, review of the revenue-sharing formula, devolution of power, which will see to the reduction of items in the Exclusive List and the increase of those in the Concurrent List. Nigerians have called for national conference or dialogue to discuss the best way forward or the implementation of recommendations of previous national conferences. The Federal Government refuses to give heed to these.
In the midst of all these, things are getting worse. The Federal Government claims that it has done very well and that Nigeria is better placed now than before it came to power. However, the reality remains that when the current government came to power in 2015, the United States dollar-naira exchange rate was N165 to $1. Today, the exchange rate is N500 plus to $1. When the current government came to power, petrol price was N87 per litre. Today, it is N165 per litre. When the government came to power, only the North East was plagued by Boko Haram insurgency. Today, in addition to Boko Haram insurgency, Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP) has joined the fray and also there is high-level banditry and kidnapping in the entire North. Before the government came to power, Nigerians felt safe travelling by road. Today, travelling by road is an act of suicide. Before the government came to power, Nigeria had only about $10.72 billion external debt. Now, the loan burden the country bears is in excess of $32.2 billion. The difference is very clear.
The Buhari government may use force to suppress IPOB agitation and others in line with the “we will deal with them in the language they understand” tweet by President Buhari. However, the question remain: If you win the war, will you equally win the peace? When things that propel agitation have not been addressed, one thing that is clear is that coming generations will ask the same question being asked today. Only equity, fairness and justice will solve Nigeria’s problems.