It is now beyond debate, all is not well with Nigeria’s southeast region. Activities of certain, yet suspectedly disparate armed groups have unsettled security arrangements in the formerly peaceful region.
The cracks have always been there. Riotous conclusion of the otherwise peaceful #EndSARS protest was only a marked announcement of a season of harvest.
To be sure, “unknown gunmen,” like many other armed ideological groups before it, initially enjoyed the support of a significant percentage of the masses. Federal government’s precipitably inept reaction to herdsmen terrorism, an often unspoken yet palpable fear of domination, strong feeling of marginalisation, aloofness of southeast’s political elite, and other issues watered the ground for mass acceptance of any group that was supposedly fighting for the people’s “freedom.”
Expectedly, not all southeasterners fell for the eloquent, often acerbic, but decidedly efficient media justification of the pursuit of a desired future. Nigeria’s federal government has to respond, one way or the other, to the uncouth charges of unfair treatment and a pronounced unwillingness to continue with the union.
The federal government had better options. It could genuinely attempt to make sense of the deep-seated feelings which prompted what looks like a brazen demand. Nigeria’s metaphoric sick child, it appears, has asked for the wrong medication. And the mother decides to either strangulate or let him die of sickness because his demand was unwise. If you come to think of it, the child is not any less sick because he asked for the wrong medication. Well, that is the exact way agitations work. Their specific method may be rash, but their pains, hunger, aspirations and resultant demands come from very deep and often irrepressible sources.
The federal government had only one job – “to understand those deeper demands and to find civilized satisfactions for them.” Or better still to reason with the sick child and then provide him the right medication. Led by a retired soldier who has a civil war experience under his belt, Nigeria made almost no attempt to look beyond the rash manifestations of the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) and get to the deeper impulses which inspire them.
The federal government instead deployed the full levers of the state to torture those impulses, shooting at them, disappearing them, enacting laws, making judicial pronouncements and lifting its heavy hand against them — doing everything but sifting carefully to understand them.
No one’s previously recorded insight on matters like this could have offered Nigeria’s policy makers better value than the immutable Walter Lippman’s.
“Yet when government was asked to handle the question it had for wisdom an ancient conception of itself as a policeman. Its only method was to forbid, to prosecute, to jail–in short, to use the taboo. But experience has shown that the taboo will not solve “moral and social questions”–that nine times out of ten it aggravates the disease. Political action becomes a petty, futile, mean little intrusion when its only method is prosecution.”
Nigeria’s federal government did not apply itself to this wisdom. Of all the tools in its governance arsenal, it chose to call up the one which seemed most convenient yet had more damning consequences.
By opting for fire and brimstone, Nigeria’s federal government presented itself as an organisation which speaks mostly in the language of brute force. Current situation in the southeast is nothing but the crude reaction of some citizens attempting to speak to their government in the only language the government is perceived to understand.
As the federal government rounded up separatists and tried to forcefully shut them up, it inadvertently armed them with a practical instead of a rhetorical argument against the government. Any careful analyst can quite easily plot a straight-line graph from the point of federal government’s response to separatist agitations in the southeast to present day occurrences in the region.
Since the federal government proscribed IPOB and designated it a terrorist organisation, certain armed groups have emerged, appearing to be in a haste to justify the new tag and fulfil that troubling prophecy.
Today, Nnamdi Kanu and IPOB/Eastern Security Network (ESN) is squarely in the place the Federal Government wants it to be. This writer is pretty much convinced that the federal government is also in the exact spot IPOB/ESN wants it to be. Both entities suspectedly set traps for each other and interestingly hit their targets.
Nnamdi Kanu mastered his script. He deliberately set out to make social demands so strong and compelling that Nigeria will be literally forced to deal with them. As the government tries to tactfully arrive at their preferred destination, separatist rhetorics and violent field campaigns continue.
IPOB/ESN keeps denying its involvement in the ongoing terror in the southeast. Their arguments, no matter how weak, should be considered, even if they are not going to be accepted. One thing is clear however; the people terrorising the southeast today are acting in the name, and metaphorically speaking the language, of IPOB/ESN. That in itself is both revealing and potentially misleading.
Neither IPOB/ESN nor the federal government is right in their zero sum approach. Both seem eager to ruthlessly show their might while also trying to play the victim card, especially to the international community. I suspect that both entities grossly underestimate each other’s inherent capacity for evil. I also suspect that both, especially the weaker power, overestimate the attention and assumed benevolence of the international community.
Unfolding sword fights will be long-drawn. It will be bloody. There will be no winner.
What will emerge is a country at an avoidable but very costly war with itself. If mediation efforts fail to yield immediate results, the only achievements will be broken bones, mangled bodies and orphaned children.
One doesn’t have to stretch the imagination too far before coming to the conclusion that both the government and the governed will at some point grow weary of armed confrontations. When that time comes, both will stop speaking through the barrels. They will agree to talk to each other in the language of civilised men and women.
War is costly. Power has decayed. We can draw this conclusion from our experiences and perhaps from piles of research papers documenting other people’s experiences. Nigeria and the separatists can painstakingly look for and find that all-important middle ground now. It can also decide to find it after wasting each other. May sound reasoning prevail.
Chima is a good governance advocate and a public policy analyst. He writes from Awka, Anambra State.