The Senate Chief Whip, Orji Uzor Kalu, recently visited leader of the Indigenous People of Biafra, Nnamdi Kanu, at the headquarters of the Department of State Services in Abuja and had a brotherly chat with him. His advice brings to mind a similar one given at the onset of Nigeria’s first military coup in January 1966.
The coup leader, Chukwuma Nzeogwu, was warned of the cost, in human lives, of what he was undertaking. And Nzeogwu responded that Nigeria was a country of about 50 million people, it could afford to lose one million of those.
Fast-forward to November 2021 and Kalu is advising Kanu in much the same way. “I understand that Nnamdi has an insane amount of people rooting for him back home and I encouraged him to consider the consequences of certain actions and utterances for the sake of the same people,” Kalu recounted in a press release following his visit.
There was no indication of whether Kanu responded and if so, what he said. But for the sake of Nigerians, IPOB activists included, one hopes that Kanu’s response isn’t like Nzeogwu’s. In all likelihood, the Major was speaking in hyperbolic terms. But had he lived to the end of the war that the coup led to, he might have realised that his glib response turned into reality. Alas, he was killed early in the war.
The most credible sources have put the casualty figure of the war at 500,000. On the other end are estimates of up to two million people. That is double Nzeogwu’s expendable figure.
And that’s just deaths. Horrendous as that is, the worst aspect of war is actually the acute suffering that leaves long-term debilitating effects. The most evident are the physical injuries in the forms of loss of limbs, sights and hearing. Beyond those are the physiological and psychological harms.
Wars also result in damage to internal organs because of acute stress and deprivation. And there are the lasting psychological consequences: the loss of innocence, the depression, the paranoia and distrust. In the US, soldiers returning from wars are often treated for what they call post-traumatic stress disorders or PSD. It manifests in form of behavioral anomalies, including inability to relate with spouses and children.
So, deaths aside, there are casualties among the living. The experience continues to exact a toll on individuals and society long after the war is over. In all likelihood, these are the thoughts running through Kalu’s minds when he urged Kanu to think about the consequences of his actions and utterances on his teeming followers.
Though we are all quite familiar with the realities of war, leaders often behave as though they are unaware. It may well be because memories fade fast. Or more likely, it is a variant of what social-psychologists call the third-person effect. It is encapsulated by the statement, “It happens to them, but not to me” or “It happens there, but not here.” In the quest for their heart’s desires, people have an insane capacity to rationalise away all dissuading thoughts.
Even then it might help if leaders are capable of seeing ahead into the future, so to say. Imagine that Nzeogwu, Ojukwu, General Yakubu Gowon and the rest of the principals were shown the casualties and miseries of the war in advance. Might they have made different choices, might they have tried harder to avert the war? My bet is yes.
Alas, there is no such mechanism. Going ahead to the future occurs only in movies. But if there were, it won’t guarantee the end of wars. In the things that matter the most, people are driven more by emotions than reason. And the most popular leaders tend to be those who are gifted in — and inclined to deploy — the art of stirring passions.
As has often been said, politicians declare wars and their people suffer and die. So, some critics have suggested that the best way to stop wars is to have leaders, the privileged and their children do the fighting. If that would deter wars, perhaps we have recently got some previews.
In April, Chadian President, Idriss Déby, ventured into his country’s warfront with rebels and was killed there. More recently, Ethiopian Prime Minister, Abiy Ahmed, decided to abandon his office in Addis Ababa and head to the battlefield to personally lead the war against the Tigray rebels. Ahmed was a lieutenant colonel in the Ethiopian army before transitioning into politics. So, he is by no means a neophyte on the battlefield. Even then one can only wish him well and hope that he doesn’t suffer the same fate as Déby.
On Tuesday, Ahmed released a statement saying that his forces had turned the tide against the Tigray fighters. They were being killed in droves and should surrender, he said. But his government said quite early in the conflict that the Tigray rebels had been vanquished. Yet his decision to put his army uniform back on and head to the warfront was borne out of desperation. The Tigray rebels were advancing toward Addis Ababa.
Regardless of who is advancing on whom, what is important is the plight of the people. Ethiopia has not been a prosperous country since its biblical days. So, the war is adding to the people’s daily hardship. As for the Tigray region, the misery is tenfold. People are starving, running and dying. It doesn’t help that neighboring Eritrea is hostile to the Tigray forces.
Such misery is not what the rebel leaders had in mind when they began to defy federal authorities in an apparent quest for secession. And the Ethiopian government probably didn’t anticipate that Tigray fighters could possibly threaten his government in Addis Ababa. That is the reality of conflicts: leaders rarely ever reckon with the totality of what they are getting into.
Back to Nigeria, the President, Major General Muhammadu Buhari’s (retd.), dismissive comments about IPOB are much like that of Ethiopia’s Ahmed early in the Tigray conflict. And Kanu’s vision of the Biafra that he would preside over is unrealistically rosy. For one thing, he has mapped out a Biafra territory that is even more expansive than the original. It includes parts of the former Midwestern Region, which never belonged in the 1960s Biafra.
Kanu thus seems oblivious of the fact that the minority regions were Biafra’s Achilles heel during the 1967 secession. Despite pronouncements by Niger Delta activists such as Asari Dokubo, that has not fundamentally changed. The prevailing sentiment is very much as expressed by Governor Nyesom Wike of Rivers State and Senator Ovie Omo-Agege, an Uhrobo representing Delta Central.
While conceding the right of the Igbo to agitate for themselves, Omo-Agege has objected to his people being included in the projected map of Biafra. “We were never part of the Republic of Biafra, we are not now, and we do not plan to be part of that,” he has said.
It all means that if IPOB somehow succeeds in its quest to split from Nigeria, Kanu will immediately have his hands full with secessionist agitations. For one, there has been a movement for the Republic of the Niger Delta. It happens to be one of Nigeria’s most ethnically diverse regions. So, if it succeeds in splitting from the hypothetical new Biafra, it’ll almost certainly face secessionist agitations from the onset. That spells unending strife, misery and deaths.So, Kalu’s advice to Kanu is actually a good advice to all leaders: think of the consequences of your words and actions on the people who follow you.