A new political current that portends anarchy and violent division is brewing in the South East. It is an imminent tussle between elected politicians and sundry non-state organizations for control of hearts, minds and political support. Disciples of IPOB and other separatist cults in the zone have since assumed informal dominance of the streets and countryside, leaving the federal and state governments in charge of formal authority structures. As things stand today, street people and ordinary folks in the villages of the South East recognize and seem to obey mostly the orders of IPOB and other separatist groups. People ignore the police and the army when they reassure people of their safety. Government and its presiding politicians now desperately want to regain control of the political space. But IPOB, ESN and their army of thugs are holding strong. Elders, the socio cultural elite and hapless ordinary citizens are thus in danger of being caught in a crossfire they hardly bargained for.
The immediate ignition point is the new politics of weekly ‘sit at home’ orders being deployed by IPOB to deepen its support base and push its grievances around the detention of IPOB leader, Mr. Nnamdi Kanu. In the run up to the election season, the ‘sit at home’ strategy is likely to be followed by boycotts of elections and other civic obligations all in an effort to send a message to Nigeria that all is not well with a significant section of the national community.
But the message of the ‘sit at home’ strategy is not getting to the powers in Abuja. It seems to be achieving the direct opposite of its intended goals. I cannot see how it is going to advance the separatist cause of IPOB and its misguided sympathizers. Instead, it is hurting the economy of the zone. It is alienating the people from the national common market and creating an enclave siege mentality that will ultimately deepen the poverty and marginalization that prompted the agitations in the first place. The ‘sit at home’ method is a political strategy designed by thugs and motor park touts and enforced by street urchins and jobless common criminals. The mentality, if not halted quickly, is bound to reduce the South East into a theatre of perpetual conflict and instability as rival vigilantes are poised to clash with aggrieved traders and honest economic operators. Eventually, the strategy will impoverish the very people whose anger and grievances IPOB and related devotees claim to be championing.
In the aftermath of the arrest and detention of Mr. Kanu, on successive Mondays, the streets of urban areas in the south east have remained deserted. Markets and shops have been closed by atheir owners who would rather stay safely home than risk life and limbs in the hands of enforcement thugs. Although IPOB has belatedly issued a statement shelving the weekly ‘sit at home’ order, the message does not seem to have reached its vigilantes and the hordes of random criminal elements who have hidden under the IPOB umbrella to commit murder, looting and arson under the guise of enforcing the ‘sit at home’ order.
With the benefit of hindsight, what began as an annual one-day ritual observance to remember the dead of the Biafran war has given birth to the present mayhem. In the early days, a cross section of people of the South East in different parts of the country would shut down their businesses on Biafra Day, usually 30th May every year. It was usually a solemn observance with the occasional prayers, peaceful processions and recollections by those who knew what the memorial day was all about. In spirit, it resembled the Jewsih observance of Holocaust Day around the world. The emergence of militant nationalism tainted with hate rhetoric mostly since the Buhari presidency has altered all that.
The Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) has since emerged to replace more sedate movements like MASSOB as the key Biafra oriented secessionist movement with greater mass appeal and sympathy. Its initial message of marginalization of the peoples of the zone has since degenerated into a theology of hate and intolerance of Nigeria and an illogical insistence on secession predicated on a relapse to the defunct Republic of Biafra. Its arrowhead, Mr. Nnamdi Kanu, has since emerged as some kind of folk hero, a self appointed merchant carrier of a communal sense of persecution mostly by the Igbo nationality.
The recent kidnapping, rendition and detention of Mr. Kanu by federal government agents has further weaponized IPOB and its militant formations and outgrowths. The organization has since declared a weekly ‘sit at home’ in the south east as a form of protest to pressure more attention on Mr. Kanu’s plight. Every Monday, Banks do not open all over the zone. Markets are shut down. Shops remain shuttered and jobless urban youth and miscreants either play soccer on deserted streets or appoint themselves enforcement vigilantes to ensure compliance with the ‘sit at home’ order.
Sensible people stay safely at home and out of trouble, more out of fear of violence in the hands of street hoodlums and careless policemen than out of solidarity with Nnamdi Kanu’s IPOB and their travails in the hands of the Buhari government. Even on these deserted ‘sit at home’ days, the stray bullets of official security personnel sometimes manage to find innocent casualties among observers of the order or its hapless enforcers. The general atmosphere in the south east on these ‘sit at home ‘ days is one of eerie unease and palpable abnormality. Something dies on each of those days as roops in combat gear patrol the streets and highways, sometimes roughing up innocent people who venture out to obey government’s reassurance that people should go about their normal businesses.
In the process of pursuing whatever agenda IPOB may have set for itself, it has infused political confusion into the consciousness of the people of the south east. Mr. Nnamdi Kanu and his crude propagandists have a confusing narrative that seems to be equating IPOB with Biafra. The limited objectives of IPOB are not synonymous with the essence and meaning of Biafra in the hearts and minds of the people of this zone. In its ownership and methods, IPOB is looking more like a private enterprise and commercial franchise. At best, it is a disruptive political personality cult rather than a rallying force of a collective aspiration. The aspiration of the peoples of the South East is not to break away from Nigeria or to enact a Biafra 2.0 at all costs.
To my mind, the aspiration of the people of the zone is to be treated as co-equal citizens of a more equitable Nigerian federation in which the rights of all citizens are respected. That is a political objective which is best pursued and realized in the context of constructive engagements with other groups in the context of the Nigerian federation. The marginalization of the Igbo nationality is a typical challenge of identity politics in a diverse polity. To live peacefully with others in this diverse polity, we need to engage by pushing our advantages while respecting the sensitivities of others in the national community. The memory of Biafra can come in handy as a historical pivot in this process of continuous engagement.
In and of itself, the memory of Biafra is a much higher historical imperative and reality. It is something more sacrosanct, more noble and eternally etched in the collective memory and consciousness of all the peoples who call today’s South East zone their ancestral home. Biafra died over half a century ago. It is now quartered in the treasury of collective memory and therefore remains ‘alive’ as an enabling spirit of eternal possibility for a significant segment of our national populace. It also shows the road not taken, the lessons and the routes never again to be travelled. The sad branch of that road is strewn with unmarked graves of heroes, the faces of the hungry, landscapes of avoidable devastation, victims of malnutrition and ugly refugee camps. But it also shows a will to survive, to defy odds and emerge from the crucibles of war to thrive again in strength after half a century of sweat and tears. Biafra was never a ‘sit at home’ place.
Biafra was a place of unrelenting creativity and innovation. The driving spirit of Biafra was work, tenacity and the will to survive. The driving spirit was education and enlightenment and a belief in the redeeming power of science and technology. Therefore, the thugs of today who chase away children from examination halls or shut down banks, businesses and markets are a betrayal of the spirit of Biafra. These miscreants and thugs are actually enemies of the Biafra spirit and could actually be closer cousins of the jihadists and bandits now terrorizing other sections of the nation.
In the immediate present, a nasty political confrontation could be looming in the zone. The governors and other elected politicians are worried about too many political implications of the increasing influence of IPOB and its affiliate organizations. On a good day, a rally organized by IPOB would overwhelm the best efforts of the most popular politicians in the zone. There is a message in this scenario: the performance of the politicians and their messaging runs contrary perhaps to the real aspirations of the grassroots in the region. The challenge of the moment is for politicians to reconnect their rhetoric and message to the real aspirations of the people in the zone.
Now the political leaders of the zone are worried and seem poised to end the ineffective and unproductive ‘sit at home’ regime. Governors of states in the zone seem poised to counter the negative effects of the sit at home campaign. Governor Obiano undertook to lead a protest against the sit at home campaign in order to embolden his citizens to begin defying the order. His other colleagues in Ebonyi, Abia an Imo states have similarly appealed to their citizens to resume their normal daily activities. Mr. Umahi of Ebonyi has gone the route of threatening sanctions against banks and other organized private sector businesses that obey IPOB ‘sit at home’ orders. The South East caucus of the National Assembly has recently added its voice to the anti ‘sit at home’ campaign with a stiff resolution against the order. But so far, the South East public has tended to heed the orders of IPOB rather than trust the reassurances of the governors and the police.
President Buhari’s recent visit to Imo state was an object lesson on the new gap between government and people in the South East. Predictably, the airport reception ceremony was full of politicians, the socio cultural elite, government officials and the usual rented crowd. But on the drive from the airport into Owerri city centre, Mr. Buhari may have been embarrassingly struck by the empty streets and eerie quiet of the usually boisterous Owerri metropolis. The people sat at home in compliance with an IPOB order. The ugly message: government controls government people and politicians; IPOB and opposition forces control the streets and the grassroots people who inhabit the streets. That is the political reality in the South East today. To carry that equation into an election season in which the politicians of the zone are pressuring Nigerians to agree that a president of Igbo extraction will not be a bad idea is rather unfortunate.
A permanent sense of self -imposed siege cannot help any group in a diverse polity. Unfortunately, that is what the current strategy of IPOB has unconsciously created in the South East. In an effort to enforce compliance with its regime of civil disobedience through fear, the unschooled operatives of IPOB and blind separatism are now competing with the security forces for a dominion of fear throughout the South East. Fear has created a new psychology of insecurity which can only prolong the siege by federal occupation forces. The fear of fear itself seems to be the new narrative in the South East.
The new culture of ‘sit at home’ is hurting the South East in its areas of natural strength. Work, learning and commerce define the lives of these people. The images of deserted streets and highways, of closed schools, shuttered shops, deserted markets are images of literal death. They indicate the slow death of the life blood of the people. If the Igbo cannot travel to distant places in search of trade and livelihood, if they cannot trade in shops and markets, if their children cannot go to school to learn or they cannot go to church to worship and commune, they will die slowly.
Beyond disruptions of commerce and trade, the rough enforcers of the ‘sit at home’ order are committing sacrilege. They recently disrupted ongoing school certificate examinations in some school in Imo state. I doubt that the people in Abuja are being affected or even interested in how many days people in the south east decide to stay away from markets, shops and schools. The captors of Mr. Kanu in Abuja may in fact be pleased that IPOB and its vigilantes are fast descending into terrorist territory. In their reckless enforcement of the ‘sit at home’ order, IPOB, ESN and their kindred agents are beginning to look more like Boko Haram and jihadist terrorists. Targeting educational institutions, commercial enterprises and government installations that indicate the pursuit of civilized and orderly progress is barbaric and must be condemned. It becomes difficult to see how a relapse to backwardness can be used as a tool to redress the marginalization inflicted by an insensitive federal authority in Abuja.
There is a curious irony in the adoption of the ‘sit at home’ metaphor to convey the strategy of civil disobedience in today’s Nigeria. In the era of the Corona pandemic, the strategy of ‘working from home’ has been adopted by countries and companies as a tool of saving the many from the ravages of a virus that endangered all. Working from home presupposes an advanced digital economic ecosystem. On the other hand, ‘sit at home’ in an analogue and largely commercial and agrarian economic environment is a recipe for collective economic suicide. That lesson should quickly embolden the political leadership of the South East to seize control of the very survival of their peoples from the menace of miscreants and thugs parading as separatist messiahs.
The current reality in Nigeria resembles a war front. Daily life is a war of survival in which only the aggressive and hardy stand a chance of survival. Physical and economic danger lurks everywhere. To abandon work and ‘sit at home’ in the hope that other strugglers will hear your cry and heal your wound is foolhardy. In the fierce competitiveness of our current national environment, it is even an act of despicable laziness to ‘sit at home’ while other contestants for national pre- eminence are wide awake, working tirelessly. Among the Igbo of the South East, such laziness and cowardice is an abomination.