Francis Anekwe Oborji, a Roman Catholic Priest, writes this piece in the wake of extra-judicial killings by the Nigerian Army in an operation called Python Dance II in the South East of Nigeria, a region in which some youth are advocating for the independence of Biafra.
“When Mrs. Rosa Parks, the quiet and seamstress whose arrest precipitated the nonviolence protest in Montgomery, was asked why she had refused to move to the rear of a bus, she said: “It was a matter of dignity; I could not have faced myself and my people if I had moved.” (Quoted from the book, “Stride Toward Freedom” of Martin Luther King Jr.).
Well-meaning citizens from all sides of the divide in Nigeria have been warning the government to tread with caution the Nnamdi Kanu question. The reasons for the warning are not far-fetched. One of which is that as things are now in the country, Nnamdi Kanu is no longer a private citizen. Love or hate him, Nnamdi Kanu has transformed himself into the most visible public figure, a symbol of Igbo question and collective aspiration as a people in the entity called Nigeria.
Regardless of how one may detest his rhetoric and approach to the Biafran question, the events in the last few days – military invasion of Igboland could not have been the best way to address the Biafran question and Nnamdi Kanu phenomenon. The government failed on this matter.
The late elder statesman Maitama Sule, during the Northern Elders’ Forum congratulatory visit to the then President-elect, General Mohammed Buhari after the elections in 2015, counseled him with these immortal words of wisdom:
“With justice you can rule Nigeria well… Behind every crisis anywhere in the world is injustice. The solution to that injustice is justice… Justice is the key. Do justice to all irrespective of tribe, religion or even political inclinations. Justice must be done to whosoever deserves it. The world itself can never be governed by force, never by fear or by power. In the end, what governs is the mind, what conquers is the spirit. And the weapon of mind and spirit that conquers is justice.” (Maitama Sule, Northern Leaders’ Forum Visit to Buhari after his election in 2015).
I wonder how Malam Maitama Sule (last Cicero from the North), who just passed away few months ago, will be turning now in his grave, seeing that those advice of his served nothing to all those he counseled. The Malam would be asking in his grave today, ‘what type of mindset took hold of all those people who authorized and ordered this latest military invasion and carnage in Igboland – South Eastern Nigeria, fifty years after the Biafran pogrom?’ Where is their sense of humanity?’ Have they lost their conscience and sense of being?
This is because no relatively conscious individual with sense of humanity will remain unmoved after seeing the footage of the video clips of those helpless young people of pro-Biafran youth movement, tortured and humiliated by the Nigerian army of the so-called “Python Dance II.” The renewed militarization of South Eastern Nigeria last week is disaster, a scare that will live with us for many years to come.
In fact, I am yet to recover from the shock I experienced after watching those video clips. I never thought that such man’s inhumanity to his fellow human beings is still possible in this 21st century and in my homeland too. I felt in full measure our collective shame as a people.
Seeing those terrible images and video footages showing Nigerian army, with their armored carriers and other sophisticated weapons torturing, humiliating and killing innocent youth of pro-Biafra movement for no just reason, I wept not just for my country, but for entire humanity. In fact, the world seems to have lost its conscience and sense of humanity in what happened last week in my country home of South Eastern Nigeria.
As one person describes it, ‘what happened to those young people in South Eastern Nigeria is an attack against our collective existence as human beings. Our humanity was reduced to its lowest ebb.’ This reminds me of the immortal words of the founding father of modern state of India, Mahatma Gandhi:
“It has always been a mystery to me how men and women can feel themselves honored by humiliation of their fellow human beings.” (Mahatma Gandhi).
I am sorry for appearing too passionate on this matter. I have no alternative. I have to. I just want to free my conscience, pray for my people and country by honoring these last victims of military brutality in my homeland with this article. Personally, I am very worried. I wonder whether I will be able to finish the article. Again, I am yet to recover from the shock of those images. May God help us! Quo Vadis?
The truth is that after watching what the Nigerian army did in my country home of South Eastern Nigeria last week, I felt wounded in my being as never before. I know that many of my people felt the same way. A good number is still to recover from the shock. We are in really trouble now than before with what the Nigeria army did in Igboland last week.
That ill-advised action of the government and military in South Eastern Nigeria last week is now making most people of Igbo extraction, who never took Nnamdi Kanu and his group serious to begin to think otherwise. Many of my foreign friends from Europe, America and Asia who sent messages of sympathy because of that incident used the word “new martyrs of Biafra” in reference to those young victims of military brutality in South Eastern Nigeria last week. This is where we are now with this case!
Our present article is in honor of the victims of that infamous “Python Dance II” of the Nigerian Army that invaded South Eastern Nigeria for almost two weeks now. The article is not about portioning blame to any party in this crime against humanity committed in my homeland of South Eastern Nigeria these last days. Because the whole system that allowed this thing to happen is rotten inside-out.
Our article is not also about the activities of the pro-Biafran movement of Nnamdi Kanu – IPOB. I am not a fan of that group and don’t intend to be one tomorrow. I never met Nnamdi Kanu. I do not even know who he is. I do not also share his ideology neither do I approve of his rhetoric approach. More importantly, I do not also pray for Nigeria to breakup.
I write as a concerned citizen. I have every right to weep for my country and people when things are not going well and to rejoice with them in moment of joy. With this article, I want to encourage and give hope to ourselves, people of South Eastern Nigeria whose humanity have been wounded gravely by the infamous “Python Dance II” of the Nigerian army.
The militarization of South Eastern Nigeria last week and inhuman crackdown on Nnamdi Kanu and his IPOB pro-Biafra youth movement have worsen our situation. The incident has even blossom Nnamdi Knau’s visibility and significance of his movement globally. Proscribing and rebranding them terrorists have made the matter worse. We forgot we are repeating here the experience of African National Congress (ANC) and Nelson Mandela in South Africa under Apartheid regime. At the early stages of their struggle, ANC was outlawed and Mandela rebranded terrorist-communist by the Racist Apartheid regime. Today, many years after that incident, history is on the side of once outlawed ANC and “terrorist-communist” Mandela.
We have made the mistake of throwing away the baby with the water. “Biafra” is a philosophy, an idea in the collective experience of Igbo people in Nigeria’s recent history. The philosophy or idea of Biafra is greater than Nnamdi Kanu. It lives on in the heart and soul of every Igbo. An idea never dies as long as those who hold it live on – generations after generations. This is the truth.
Nnamdi Kanu is Not the Problem
In this all-important issue, what has become clear to any discerning mind is that Nnamdi Kanu is not the problem. Because whatever happens, Nnamdi Kanu is entitled to his style of speech and request to achieve his Biafran self-determination through the legal means of referendum. Nigeria as a democratic society is supposed to be a free state where people have freedom of expression, personal opinions, association and right to practice their political activism in accordance with the known laws as done in civilized countries.
IPOB groups in various countries of the globe hold their rallies without any harassment. The Police in those countries provide them with protection. The group is legally, registered as peaceful youth movement in foreign counties where Igbos reside today.
The question is, ‘why can’t Nigerian state accord Nnamdi Kanu and his group the same recognition, respect and protection as they have in foreign countries during their rallies and activities?’ Why not allow the use of rule of law and order in this matter. Why should differences in political discussion and vision for the country be the condition for torture, humiliation and extra-judicial killing of innocent citizens in South Eastern Nigeria? Why can’t Nigerian government choose dialogue instead of violence in dealing with Nnamdi Kanu and his IPOB youth movement? Must we settle everything with force and intimidation?
Again, why term political activism of referendum for self-determination as terrorism? Why kill our young people who want to engage the leadership of the state with political dialogue of referendum for self-determination? Furthermore, why proscribe their movement and activities? Why declare them as terrorists and dangerous to the country?
In other words, why is the Nigerian government and military after Nnmadi Kanu but did not see anything wrong with the utterances and activities of Arewa youth coalition which issued pre-genocidal quit notice to the Igbos residing in Northern Nigeria? Why go after Nnamdi Kanu and his group while those who are circulating hate song and genocidal music in Hausa language against the Igbos in the North are left free? Why go after Nnamdi Kanu while the government is granting general amnesty to all captured members of the dreaded Boko Haram Islamic extremist terrorist militants?
Again, why is the government and its’ military security agencies going after these Igbo youths’ non-violent movement but left untouched the marauding Fulani herdsmen militants who roam around every nook and corner of the South East and elsewhere with their AK47, killing people and raping women in our farms and villages? Why is the government and security agents after Nnamdi Kanu and his group but left to move freely in the streets of Kano in Northern Nigeria, those young people who murdered Bridget Agbahime, an elderly Igbo trader and Christian in Kano last year?
These are my worries. They all point to the fact that the problem is not Nnamdi Kanu. We are faced with the problem of lost of sense of humanity in many individuals today. I mean the lost of our sense of humanity and dignity as human beings created in the image and likeness of God. But we should not forget that any offense against human dignity anywhere in the world is not only an offense against God the Creator, but also an offense against all human beings everywhere. In other words, what happened in South Eastern Nigeria last week is no longer a local problem. It should concern the world community as a whole. Our humanity was attacked in South Eastern Nigeria. The world as a whole should rise and condemn it.
Our humanity was wounded in South Eastern Nigeria last week by the military and all of us have the right to reclaim it, reaffirm our dignity as human beings created in the image and likeness of God. This is what I am doing in this article, to reaffirm our wounded humanity in South Eastern Nigeria last week and cheer up our people whom I know, like myself, felt have very bad because of that incident. We need not be downcast. Rather let us reaffirm our humanity and continue the struggle for better tomorrow. The battle is won not through violence but through love and forgiveness. Let nobody be violent again on this matter.
History tells us that the path to freedom and justice is always a long one and hazardous. It requires faith and determination, not violence. It is spirit of love and forgiveness that wins the battle. Nobody or people had ever achieved these noble ideals harboring rancor, bitterness or animosity against their perceived oppressors. You win your oppressor through love and large heart. This is what everyone needs at this time of trial. After all, all of us have fallen and in need of grace!
However, this does not mean that the offense against human dignity committed in South Eastern Nigeria by the military of the infamous “Python Dance II”, should be swept under carpet. Otherwise, such violence and military brutality against innocent civilians will continue to befall us in our beloved land. Because this is not the first we are witnessing such military brutality and extra-judicial killings in Nigeria in recent times. Yet it has continued to occur unabated.
No matter where any individual comes from, his or her life is sacred before God and human beings. No one has right to kill or take away life of innocent persons, no matter the circumstance. All religions and cultures of the world affirm this golden truth.
My Worries and Hope for my Country, Nigeria
The great Sheik Uthman dan Fodio, was accredited to have said that, “conscience is an open wound. Only truth can heal it.” In fact, any person of conscience will find it difficult not to speak out and condemn in clear terms the inhuman treatment meted out to those young people last week in South Eastern Nigeria by the military.
After seeing those terrible images – footage video clips of the military maltreatment of those young people, I began to wonder about the fate of those other victims of army brutality of this magnitude against the civilian population, secretly going on at the same time in various parts of South Eastern Nigeria. No matter how one may like to interpret it, nothing justifies what the Nigerian army did and are still doing to those young fellows in South Eastern Nigeria today.
We are talking of human life, reckless killings and waste of human blood of our young people by our own security agents. How have our army metamorphosed into their present state – killers of their fellow Nigerian citizens from South Eastern region? This is my worry! Have our military men and women and their commanders lost the sense of the sacredness and meaning of human life? Have they lost the sense of respect to human dignity?
Many today in Nigeria, especially, in the old Eastern region are experiencing a kind of alienation from Nigerian state as presently structured, in a way never experienced before since the end of Civil War in 1970. It is very disheartening that despite the ongoing agitations and the call for restructuring or devolution of power from the center, those at the corridors of power seemed not to be ready to listen and dialogue with the people.
Nigerian government chose violence against their own citizens through military might instead of dialogue. This was what caused the confrontation last week in South Eastern Nigeria between the military and the civilian population. It is therefore not just the case of Nnamdi Kanu and his IPOB pro-Biafran youth movement.
Moreover, apart from the way Nigerian government is handling this matter, one should be worried also by the near silence of world powers. As Wampeters and Granfalloons noted in their book, “Biafra: A People Betrayed: “The Biafrans kept telling the outside world that Nigeria wanted to kill them all, but the outside world was unimpressed.” (From Wampeters & Granfalloons, “Biafra: A People Betrayed” (1979).
The event of last week confirmed the above observations of these two aid workers who visited Biafra during the Civil War. So far, Jean Claude Junker, President of European Union, is the only world leader who had expressed concern over the recent incident in South Eastern Nigeria, especially, the rebranding of IPOB as terrorist organization by the military.
Till date no world leader or body has reacted or condemned the inhuman treatment of those young people by the military in South Eastern Nigeria. Not even African Union or ECOWAS has uttered any word. One is sure nothing is going to be said about it either in the ongoing United Nations’ General Assembly in New York. Where is the conscience of the world?
The real condemnations so far are coming from common masses through social media outlet. The mainline Televisions, Radio stations and Newspapers in Western countries and Asian giants don’t care either. It appears as if the world media are all in agreement with those at the corridors of power to play down the incident. Those who report it seemed to have been instructed and intimidated that they follow the government one-sided narrative of the incident. This is also what most of the mainline media houses and Newspapers in Nigeria are doing.
For international community and media, however, since it did not happen in North Eastern Nigeria, where the Boko Haram is operating and there is no immediate Western interest at risk, it is not newsworthy. The people in South Eastern Nigeria even if their government is killing them there like fouls, are not important in the eye of the international community or those who control the world centers of power. Who is interested in what is happening in South Eastern Nigeria?
Moreover, people in South Eastern Nigeria are indigenous Africans, ‘who cares about their lives.’ This is the mindset of those at the corridors of world centers of power today. In South Eastern Nigeria, we are caught-up in the web of modern day geopolitics of world ‘metropolitan powers.’ In other words, only ‘God is the hope of the poor and afflicted.’
The so-called international community still follow the Cold War ‘metropolitan’ policy and geopolitics in its relation with Africa, most of the time. This is one clear case in question. Attention is given to the raging wars in North Korea, Myanmar, Syria, Iraq and what have you. But this poor Africans in South Eastern Nigeria, who are they? So, our problem is deeper than eye can see.
Moreover, with the domineering British national interests in Nigeria – their traditional alliance and support to Northern Nigeria as against South Eastern region, nobody should expect much from international community in this matter. Britain is a permanent member of United Nations Security Council and has a veto power. Anything they perceive as being against their interest in Nigeria as presently structured is dead on arrival at the United Nations’ table. Where Britain stands is where USA and European Union and their allies stand. Britain and Northern Nigeria are in perpetual alliance to keep Nigeria firm as it is presently structured. The Civil War was fought because of this and we all know the result.
This is the problem: Nigeria’s petroleum and gas in the Niger Delta and South Eastern Nigeria. Britain believes that it is only through the North’s firm hold and control of the political power of the country will their economic and national interests be protected in Nigeria. Thus, any talk today about Biafra and plight of its people in international bodies, especially, in the West, is dead on arrival.
In other words, what happened in South Eastern Nigeria last week is beyond the Nnamdi Kanu phenomenon. What we are facing is the problem of inability and unwillingness of our leaders to listen and dialogue with their citizens – various ethnic nationalities that make-up the Nigerian state today. The government should begin to initiate dialogue with the people in order to correct the mistakes of the past. Instead of our living in denial as a nation-state, killing ourselves and destroying our land and property every day, we could fashion a better political system and arrangement that could respond creatively to the present challenges facing the nation.
Nigeria Between Justice and ‘Narrative of Lie’
It is very unfortunate that the government and military resorted to ‘narrative of lie’ instead of ‘truth and justice’ in handling the military and IPOB confrontations in South Eastern Nigeria last week. Immediately those terrible images and footage video clips of army brutality and humiliation of IPOB members last week started to flood social media, the army came up with an insensitive story of Igbos attacking Mosque and Hausa community in Port Harcourt.
This resulted immediately in reprisal attacks against Igbos living in some cities of the North. Up till now, there are no credible evidence and independent report other than that of the military and police to collaborate the veracity of what transpired at Port Harcourt between Igbo and Hausa communities there. But in the North, lives and property have already been lost because of what the security personnel have dished out to the public.
Nnamdi Kanu and his IPOB Biafra self-determination group have never killed anybody. Theirs is a non-violent movement as they claim. The government have been trying all means to link them with all imaginary reports and counter-reports of violent acts but all to no avail. Till date there have been no credible evidence of reports of violence or acts of terrorism associated with them.
One would have thought that the government instead of resorting to military might and violence against the group could have instructed them to obtain permissions from Police for protection during rallies. This is the norm in civilized world. Why have Nigerian government refused to follow this norm in dealing with the IPOB?
Furthermore, why did Nigerian government choose to interrupt with military might the ongoing court case on the matter of Nnamdi Kanu instead of allowing it to reach its final conclusion? Why did the Presidency decide on its own to ignore and bypass the National Assembly before embarking on the renewed militarization of a peaceful region of South Eastern Nigeria?
In other words, why did the federal government decide to create war situation in a relatively peaceful region of South Eastern Nigeria and to crush anybody who mentions the name “Biafra” or uses its flag? All these show that the problem is not Nnamdi Kanu but the inability and unwillingness of our leaders for tolerance and dialogue with the Igbo question or any other group that may question the present political structure of Nigeria.
In this regard, one could understand the magnitude of challenges South East governors faced in trying to contain the problem. The governors were faced with the choice of agreeing to proscribe the IPOB pro-Biafra youth movement or have their whole region and people decimated by the military. Left with no other alternative, they chose the lesser evil.
But we all know what Biafra means in the spirit and soul of every Igbo person. We know that millions of people have died for Biafra and its flag since 1967 to date. To ask any relatively conscious Igbo person, whether governor or not to renounce “Biafra” in whatever guise is like asking the person to renounce his or her identity. It is like asking one to choose between life and death.
I believe that last week was the toughest for those governors of South Eastern Nigeria. However, history will tell whether they made the best choice and showed leadership in this regard or not. Because in the final analysis, all of us are victims of the wound of that army brutality and assault.
My take on all these is that those at the corridors of power in Nigeria today should know that as independent state, we as a people are responsible for deciding how we want our country to be structured and governed. With regard to the fears of our international partners, we should assure them that nothing will happen to their interests no matter the political system or structure we adopt. We should also employ all available means of negotiations and dialogue with them on this matter.
I say this because I believe that we can employ dialogue to address these issues in amicable way. I think that this is what President Buhari meant when he said in 1983 that ‘the present generation of Nigerians have no other country to call theirs except Nigeria.’ The onus on us all today is to help to build-up Nigeria as a nation-state where every citizen feels at home, secure and free. Dialogue can help us in that direction. We need to come out of this atmosphere of regime of fear and violence.
On this note, I want to appeal that the government should look into the cases of those victims of last week army brutality in South Eastern Nigeria. ‘Narrative of lie’ is not a viable strategy in handling matters of this kind. We should initiate dialogue with the group and begin immediately to treat the wounded. Up till now, nobody knows the fate of those IPOB young men and women we saw in the social media, being tortured and humiliated in mud pool by the army at their roadblock at Isialangwa along Aba-Owerri-Port Harcourt high way last week. Did any of them survive the torture and humiliation? Nobody has told the public their where-about.
The public is yet to know whether those who survived that inhuman military treatment last week in South Eastern Nigeria are being treated in hospitals or no. How many of them survived and how many are receiving treatment in hospitals? These are questions seeking for answer from the military and government. The government should come clean on this matter. “Conscience is an open wound and only truth can heal it.”
In any case, our prayer is that the victims of that torture and inhuman treatment are still alive, receiving the appropriate medical treatment in hospitals. And that the dead among them are returned to their families for appropriate burial. This time around, every effort should be made to avoid mass burial of these our youth. The dead need decent treatment and burial.
The same should extend to those dead bodies of IPOB members that littered around the home of Nnamdi Kanu as result of the army and DSS shootings and invasion of the place. Government should intervene and make sure that those individuals are identified and restored to their families. The wounded among them should be given adequate medical attention. The state should foot the bills.
All other victims of that military brutality carried out secretly last week in Igboland, not captured by the social media or journalists, the army and police should make sure they are identified and their bodies restored to their families. The wounded among them should be sent to hospitals for adequate medical attention.
Again, one should like to appeal to South East governors: please choose a common date within this month or next for public ‘state-burial and mourning’ of all those individuals killed during the infamous Python Dance II in the region last week. The people and our land need this spiritual exercise for healing and cleansing. Igbo nation in the last fifty years has lost lives of many of its innocent children. This time around, we need to appease the dead and seek the face of God so that this type of tragedy will not happen again in our land.
At least let us learn some lessons from this incident so that it won’t happen again. Let us also begin to treat our wounded and the dead – victims of military brutality and violence with some degree of respect and decency. It is an aspect of our African culture and tradition that we need also today for true nation-building after an incident of this kind.
Finally, it is my take, that the federal government, instead of maligning Nnamdi Kanu and his IPOB group should initiate a sincere dialogue with them and their Igbo people as well as other segments of Nigeria that express similar alienation from the center as Igbos. With dialogue, we all stand to gain. With violence, our humanity is denied. Let us therefore choose dialogue and not violence in rebuilding our shattered nation.
Francis Anekwe Oborji is a Roman Catholic Priest. He lives in Rome where he is a Professor of missiology (mission theology) in a Pontifical University. He can be reached by email HERE.
The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author.