Buhari and the Biafran challenge, by Tunde Rahman

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Buhari
Buhari

Last Tuesday President Muhammadu Buhari met with some South-east leaders, majorly from his party, the All Progressives Congress, at the Aso Rock Presidential Villa in Abuja. The meeting came a day after the country celebrated yet another May 29 Democracy Day. But it was also a day after the bloody Biafran protests in the South-east cities and Asaba in the South-south, which left in its wake death and destruction. Over 50 pro-Biafran protesters were reportedly killed across South-east states and in Asaba, the Delta State capital.

According to newspaper reports, two policemen also lost their lives in the protests. One of the policemen was said to have been thrown into River Niger. The South-east leaders met with Buhari under the aegis of South-east Group for Change and the 18-man delegation was led by former Senate President Ken Nnamani. After the meeting, the delegation declined to speak with State House Correspondents, but asked by the newshounds whether Biafra came up for discussion at the talks, Nnamani reportedly said, “No, no, not now”. If we believe the former Senate President that the issue of Biafra did not come up for discussion at that meeting, then it was just a matter of time for a presidential meeting on Biafra to be arranged because the Biafran issue has become a thorny issue for the South-east and for Nigeria.

The Biafran issue had become knotty again since Indian-trained lawyer, Ralph Uwazuruike, around 1999 or so, established the Movement for the Actualisation of the Sovereign State of Biafra (MASSOB) with the aim, as the name suggests, of securing the resurgence of the defunct State of Biafra. Based on the group’s activities, including hoisting Biafran flags at different locations in the South-east, the government accused MASSOB of violence and Uwazuruike was arrested in 2005 and detained on treason charges. That year, MASSOB had re-introduced the old Biafran currency into circulation. Uwazuruike was later released in 2007 but the secessionist activities of the group, however, did not stop. For instance in 2009, MASSOB launched ‘Biafran International Passport’ in commemoration of the 10th anniversary of the group.

But around May 2014, the Biafran agitation took a new dimension with a new leader for the struggle: the British-Nigerian Nnamdi Kanu who spoke of his readiness to fight all the way. He said Nigeria would seize to exist by December 2015. Speaking at a gathering of members of defunct Biafra, including scores of its aged war veterans on May 30, 2014, Kanu vowed that he would not rest until the Biafran Republic is realised. The event held at Ngwo, Enugu State, was the maiden commemoration of Biafran Day, in remembrance of the events of 1967 when the late Igbo leader, Dim Chukwuemeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu, declared the Republic of Biafra.

Kanu who was also the Director of the outlawed Radio Biafra used the occasion to unveil a multi-million naira cenotaph in memory of Biafra fallen heroes killed during the civil war. He alleged that despite the declaration of the “No Victor, No Vanquished” after the Nigeria/Biafra civil war in 1970, successive governments in the country had continued to deliberately marginalise and make life unbearable for the Igbo nation and its people. He said it was unfortunate and painful that 47 years after the civil war, the reasons for which the war was fought were still evident in Nigeria. Kanu has been slammed with treason charges and remains in detention at present.

So is President Buhari’s meeting with the Igbo leaders at the Presidential Villa a new rapprochement with the South-east? Somehow, the president’s politics with the South-east is perplexing, in my view. The Igbo seem to have been completely marginalised in the present government. They are not there in first five or six topmost positions in the country and even in the pantheon of ministers where they find accommodation, what they are charged with are not what one could call A-list Ministries. Some may say hey but the Igbo are the architects of their own predicament in the Buhari government, and perhaps they may be right. This is why. During the 2015 presidential election, the Igbo turned their backs on Buhari and voted overwhelmingly for former President Goodluck Jonathan, their kinsman from Otuoke, Bayelsa State, in the South-south, who eventually lost the poll. Buhari performed woefully in that election in the five states that make the South-east geopolitical zone.

According to official results declared by INEC, the president polled a paltry 198,248 votes compared to an overwhelming 2,464,906 votes garnered by Jonathan. President Buhari was reported to have said abroad some time after the poll that he would remember only those who voted for him.

Again, in the zoning arrangement of the now governing APC, the position of Senate President was said to have been zoned to the South-east and many said the slot may have been ceded to former Anambra State governor, Dr. Chris Nwabueze Ngige, who is now Minister of Labour. But some Igbo leaders allegedly conspired to ensure Ngige lost or rigged out and that was how the zone allegedly lost that exalted position.

But the challenge facing the country at present seems to be more than what transient political offices can resolve. It’s more deep-seated. The problem seems to be much more intense. And I don’t envy President Buhari at all. He is buffeted by all kinds of agitation, or is it criminality from all fronts? Apart from the Biafran challenge; in the North-east, the Boko Haram insurgents, though de-capacitated and decimated since Buhari took over power, continue to attack soft targets using female suicide bombers. In the Niger Delta, a new militant group, the Niger Delta Avengers, is busy wrecking havoc on oil and gas installations in the country and dealing a blow to the country’s main revenue earner, oil.

Tuesday’s bloody protests across some cities in the South-east, staged by those who dubbed themselves Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB), to celebrate Biafra Day Anniversary, have again shown that the Biafran agitation is still alive and remains a potent challenge. So what should be done by the Buhari government? Some have suggested the government adopt the Carrot and Stick option: apply force to curb the criminal and violent aspects of the agitation and then address the genuine feelings responsibly expressed – For instance, some politicians like the Founder and Chairman of United Progressives Party (UPP), Chief Chekwas Okorie, had urged President Buhari to release detained Director of Radio Biafra Nnamdi Kanu, as a prelude to dialogue with the aggrieved members of MASSOB, IPOB and other affiliate groups demanding Biafra secession.

I’m not here opposed to dialogue. Even where force is employed, the warring groups still come back to the negotiating table to dialogue and to resolve the contending issues in a peaceful atmosphere. But the violence and criminality must first come to an end to pave way for dialogue and negotiation. The country has recorded so much bloodshed in various parts of the country and there has to be a stop to it. How do we do this? Notable leaders in the country have proffered an answer. They canvassed the restructuring of the country, saying it’s the ultimate panacea against all the agitation and violence rocking the country. Only last week at an event in Abuja, former Vice President Atiku Abubakar renewed the call for the restructuring of the country. He said restructuring the Nigerian federation is the answer to the agitation by its component units. Among those who had also earlier called for the restructuring of the country is former Commonwealth Secretary-General, Chief Emeka Anyaoku, who said Nigeria should return to an arrangement where the present six geopolitical zones will form the six federating units.

I wholeheartedly support the suggestion, but saying that is the easier part. How do we bring about the restructuring when the country’s constitution recognises the 36 states, and not the geopolitical zones, as federating units and we have elected President, Governors, National and State Assembly Members among others in place who may not be ready to give up their comfort zones? Luckily enough, the framework for the restructuring was fashioned out at the 2014 National Conference convened by former President Jonathan in Abuja. Some may question the motive for the convening of that conference, but its outcome is something worth examining by the Buhari regime. Methinks it’s time the government took a serious look at the recommendations of that conference on the restructuring of the country.

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