Igbo political emissaries met with President Buhari in Abuja to plead for the release of Nnamdi Kanu, the incarcerated leader of the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB). It is an unfortunate intervention that could undermine IPOB’s long-term revolutionary project and near-term Igbo political interest.
By Chudi Okoye
There was news reporting today that a group of Igbo grandees, billed as “Highly Respected Igbo Greats”, trundled themselves out to Abuja to meet with President Muhammadu Buhari to ask for an unconditional release of Mr Nnamdi Kanu, the incarcerated leader of the proscribed Igbo agitation group, Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB).
The delegation included Chief Mbazulike Amaechi, a First Republic parliamentarian and Minister of Aviation, Dr Chukwuemeka Ezeife, former Governor of Anambra State, Bishop Sunday Onuoha of the Methodist Church, and Chief Barrister Goddy Uwazurike, former President of Igbo socio-cultural group, Aka Ikenga. Buhari received them well and promised to consider their request.
The opinion that follows below will probably sound insensitive coming from an Igbo man, but I think the Igbo grandees who went to plead with Buhari to release Kanu made a grievous mistake.
No doubt the Igbo grandees meant well. They probably felt compelled to act, likely for patriotic reasons but also on behalf of a scandalized Igbo political elite facing increasing pressure from a radicalized Igbo rank and file. But, in my opinion, their plea to President Buhari is constitutionally illiterate; it is politically inastute; and it is an ill-considered move that will likely hobble IPOB’s long-term revolutionary strategy.
Buhari was right to have stated – as reported, in response to the Igbo delegation – that its plea offends a fundamental tenet of the Nigerian constitution, which is the separation of powers. This constitutional principle was first fully articulated by Baron de Montesquieu, one of the great political philosophers of the Enlightenment, in his seminal work, The Spirit of the Laws, published in 1748. The principle was invoked by Montesquieu as a major critique of feudal absolutism in France and elsewhere in Europe, and it greatly influenced the constitutional ideals of both the American and the French revolutions. It has since become a cornerstone of modern constitutional government around the world.
In Nigeria, we have adopted and are deepening this constitutional principle as a revolutionary departure from the tripartite absolutisms of our history – first the feudal absolutism that flourished in several proto-Nigerian territories; then British imperialist absolutism; and finally, military absolutism.
The case against Nnamdi Kanu is now sub judice and is yet to be dispositioned; therefore, it is unclear if Buhari actually has proper legal power to intervene in the matter. Of course, the president has significant latitude under Section 175 of the 1999 Constitution which deals with the exercise of prerogative of mercy. The provision imbues a Nigerian president with the power to pardon “any person concerned with or convicted of any offence created by an Act of the National Assembly…, either free or subject to lawful conditions.” I doubt if this power can be exercised prior to the dispositioning of a case, but maybe our constitutional lawyers can weigh in with an interpretation.
Aside from the constitutional issue, there is also the political implication, for the Igbos, of its leaders, or purported leaders, going to Abuja to plead on behalf of Kanu. What is the object of their plea: are they asking for “forgiveness” – which would sound like a suggestion or an admission that Kanu and his IPOB are doing something wrong?
If so, the question arises as to what they think IPOB is getting wrong: is it the charge of Igbo marginalization and persecution which IPOB levies against the Nigerian state? Or is it the particular revolutionary tactics adopted by the group? What are the Igbo grandees pleading that Buhari should forgive – if indeed that is the thesis of their plea?
Even if the Igbo leaders did not mean to ask for “forgiveness”, it will certainly be construed as such by Buhari and his regime. They will read the intervention as an apology; they will construe it as Igbo leaders begging for forgiveness, which will be rather unfortunate.
There are at least two grievous implications from such an imputation by the Buhari regime. One pertains to near-term Igbo political interests, and the other to IPOB’s long-term revolutionary project.
If the Buhari regime reads the intercession of the Igbo grandees as a plea for forgiveness, Buhari could (over)leverage his powers under section 175 of the Constitution and “pardon” Kanu, but he will exact a heavy political price from the Igbos for the concession. For one thing, we can forget the idea of an Igbo president in 2023. The Nigerian state, or the dominant elite therein, already feels that conceding the presidency to the Igbos is a major concern, even a major risk. Buhari may be advised by his political strategists – and the wily president may accept the advice – to “free” Nnamdi Kanu as a substitute for conceding the presidency to the Igbos in the near term.
More than the presidency, Buhari and his anti-Igbo coterie could also leverage the “forgiveness” of Nnamdi Kanu to continue and even intensify federal disinvestment of Igboland.
Igboland has suffered from a systematic policy asphyxiation since the end of the Civil War, despite the ‘No Victor, No Vanquished’ nostrum enunciated after the war. We went from a hot, shooting war in 1967-70 to a cold war of policy neglect thereafter. This has resulted in de-industrialization and infrastructure disinvestment in Igbo territories, leading to a relentless economic decay.
The plea to pardon Nnamdi Kanu could become another chip to be used by the anti-Igbo forces in the Nigerian regime to further reduce federal investment in Igboland. It will be a heavy price to pay.
But it is not just the geopolitical implication for the Igbos that matters here. What would become of IPOB’s revolutionary strategy if its virulent leader were “pardoned”, with conditions, by the Nigerian state?
We know now, from the constant complaints of Nnamdi Kanu and his lawyers, that the guy is no Nelson Mandela who refused P. W. Botha’s offer in 1985 to release him from prison, subject to certain conditions. Rejecting the terms offered by the apartheid government for his release, Mandela had said to Botha:
I cannot sell my birthright, nor am I prepared to sell the birthright of the people to be free… I cannot and will not give any undertaking at a time when I and you, the people, are not free. Your freedom and mine cannot be separated.
This was 1985. Mandela was 66 years old at the time and had been in prison for about 23 years. Yet, he refused an offer to be freed from prison if it would hobble the revolutionary objectives of his party, the African National Congress (ANC), which was to overthrow the apartheid system under which South African Blacks had been suffering.
But we are seeing now that Nnamdi Kanu is no Mandela. Since his incarceration, his lawyers and associates have been howling about his suffering; he has used his IPOB to terrorize his own people, undermining Igbo economy, preventing school children from attending school, and generally imposing a reign of terror in Igboland.
Buhari and his gang will no doubt perceive that Kanu has little tolerance for the austerities of life under incarceration, this being the evident reason why he is sabotaging and terrorizing his own people and pressuring Igbo elites to plead for his release. So, it would stand to reason that Buhari will impose severe conditions against IPOB’s revolutionary quest in order to pardon Kanu.
Does anyone think that Buhari will pardon Kanu and yet give him free rein to continue his radical attack on the Nigerian state, or even to continue to press the Igbo case?
So, whichever way one looks at it, this outing by the Igbo grandees, though well-meaning, is a major strategic error. It undermines not only IPOB’s revolutionary agenda but also the larger geopolitical interest of Igbo people.
It would be better for Kanu to go through the crucible of judicial trial and hopefully come out triumphant. That way, he and his IPOB will retain the moral and possibly legal right to continue their agitation, even if they have to amend their tactics.
And Igbo people will not have conceded anything in their demand for equal citizenship and equal opportunity in the firmament of Nigerian politics.