We need to move beyond the anguished complaints, beyond the blame game and flame throwing, and find ways to solve the swirling anarchy and internally-generated rampage (IGR) consuming the South East of Nigeria.
By Chudi Okoye
We have had all manner of reactions to the spate of violence currently sweeping across the South East of Nigeria. There is trepidation in the face of gratuitous terrorism. There is widespread revulsion at the vileness of those perpetrating the violence. And there is consternation as to why Igbos of all people, famed for their common sense and zest for life, should engage in self-destructive behavior bordering on collective harakiri. Even more: there is astonishment about the timidity and incoherence of Igbo leaders who seem to be cowering, or at best stuttering, as the orgy of horrific violence has swept across their homeland. The reign of terror persists in Igboland amid a reign of error on the part of Igbo leadership.
What we have espied the least, in specific Igbo reaction or broader interventions, is rigorous thinking on how to tackle the growing violence and insecurity. There’s an avalanche of blame; pundits are throwing flame hither and thither; but few have come up with game-changing suggestions, beyond calling for action to be taken. This piece aims to help with that, to offer some fragments of ideas which, if fleshed out, could yield practical solutions to the scourge.
First, though, it is necessary for us to properly characterize the current crisis in Igboland, as so many seem befuddled by it or have utterly misconstrued the situation.
Crisis in Igboland
What in God’s name is going on in the ‘land of the rising sun’? Why is Igboland imploding, and how come its so-called leaders have stayed silent or otherwise appear incapable of rising to the unfolding challenge? How is it that Igbo people at large seem to have become frazzled in the face of terror? These Igbos: A brave people who held ground, for longer than anyone expected, against an overwhelming Nigerian force in the Civil War. These Igbos: A plucky people who boldly confronted previous outbreaks of robberies, kidnappings, ritual killings and other forms of terrorizing criminality in their land. This was the case when the vigilante group, known as ‘Bakassi Boys’, took on and successfully liquidated the fearsome ‘Eddy Nawgu’, a sorcerer cum occultist and alleged criminal kingpin who menaced Igboland in the 1990s. How come these same Igbo people now appear stupefied by the latest outbreak of criminality, quavering under its violent gaze, seemingly unable – even within the upper reaches of its leadership hierarchy – to think their way out of the dire situation?
Part of the reason for the apparent paralysis of Igbo people is confusion over the true character of the current crisis. Just as in the ‘Eddy Nawgu’ saga, where a vile criminal enterprise was veiled as an occultist and pseudo-religious vocation, we have at present wanton criminality and terrorism perpetrated under the banner of Biafran self-determination. We need to understand the evolution of the struggle.
The Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) insinuated itself into popular Igbo imagination as a radical group striving in behalf of Igbo nationalism. At first, IPOB fearlessly articulated Igbo discontents, and in so doing easily seduced wide swathes of the Igbo population, though many were uncomfortable with the virulent and cantankerous style of its leader, Nnamdi Kanu. Gradually however, and perhaps inevitably, IPOB has devolved into a tyrannical and increasingly obstreperous enterprise, transmogrified in successive stages into the image of its loquacious leader. The movement has turned into a mania, and it seems to some that Kanu and his coterie have appropriated the deep-rooted discontents of a marginalized people to advance their own quest for power and other gains. Though it has long been proscribed by the Nigerian government, IPOB continues to project itself as a political movement, its critique of Nigeria and its rhetoric of self-determination ever the sharper. However, with Kanu’s apprehension and current confinement, IPOB seems to be suffering a pathological disorder: it has become decidedly unhinged in its messaging and strategy.
IPOB has suffered other setbacks as well. The grassroots of the group seems now to have been hijacked by a rabble of deviant leadership factions pursuing varied interests far removed from IPOB’s ostensible political mission. Among the factions now holding sway we have some dodgy elements using the IPOB banner for nothing but bloody-minded criminal extortion. We have others too, hot heads from a dispossessed and disgruntled underclass, seemingly using IPOB to wage an undisguised class war.
It is important to expand on this class perspective. Igbo culture embodies a strong materialist ethos and has a high achievement orientation, driven by an absolute belief in the possibility of social mobility. The pressure to achieve is high and, in a culture lacking ascriptive norms, status is gained as social reward for personal endeavor. This is part of the reason Igbos are so widely dispersed, as they seek opportunities wherever possible. It used to be the case that most Igbos, whatever their station, believed that they could “make it”, that the world was their oyster and they could get ahead with striving. But we now have a swelling underclass in Igbo society – perhaps not unlike the lumped masses at the bottom of the social strata elsewhere in Nigeria – without such sanguine or optimistic outlook on life. In a materialistic culture such as the Igbos have, this creates a groundswell of despondency and resentment. It also drives an instinct to nihilism and anarchism, a rejection of orthodoxy and the social contract, creating a pernicious desire to ‘burn it all down’. IPOB gave vent to this instinct which was bubbling below the surface before it came along. And it has resulted in a veritable reign of terror and class warfare which threatens to usurp the group’s rhetoric of Igbo nationalism.
This dynamic – of revolution morphing into terrorism – is not unknown in history. For instance, the French Revolution of 1789 successfully overthrew a corrupt monarchy and its aristo-clerical base. But it soon ran out of control, resulting in Maximilien Robespierre’s Reign of Terror. This eventually brought in Napoleon Bonaparte as a corrective who then tamped down the revolutionary fervor.
There is something of that, a criminal appropriation of political struggle, going on with IPOB. The group seems to have lost its way with its increasingly fiery revolutionary rhetoric and destructive tactics. But, worse, this has given way to a surge of criminality in its flanks as diverse factions have begun to use the platform of the group to prosecute all manner of private, sub-group agenda, including a terrorization of the very people in whose behalf IPOB is supposedly striving.
The criminal upsurge is happening, to some extent, due to the failure of leadership among the Igbos. This is a point others have made as well. It is often argued that contemporary Igbo leadership lacks a centre of gravity; that current Igbo leaders do not have the stature and vision of first-generation Igbo political leaders like Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe; and that it is the failure of mainstream political leadership that created the opportunity for a grassroots entrenchment of IPOB and its factions.
I totally agree with the critique of Igbo leadership. I suspect, though, that Igbo leadership is stymied by the ambivalence in the Igbo mind. At some base level, we Igbos feel aggrieved about our experience in Nigeria – the persistent specter of Igbophobia; the continuing political marginalization; the indubitable fact that we have to work harder to achieve similar outcomes as other, ascendant, tribes; our continuing stigmatization by other tribes, etc. This creates a cloud of anxiety and resentment in the Igbo mind. But we are also apprehensive about leaving Nigeria, especially since we are so widely dispersed even where despised, and have binding affinities and assets (some immovable) strewn across the country. We need the canvass of Nigeria to paint Igbo genius, some seem to think.
Given the above, one imagines that it is difficult for Igbo leaders to articulate a common agenda for all Igbos. Igbo leadership is hampered by the republican nature of the Igbos, as it can’t fully represent the kaleidoscope of preferences and orientations among the Igbo people at large. Igbos are not like other major tribes with institutionalized hierarchies of leadership, wherein leaders can claim to speak for the generality of their people. Igbo polity is cephalous (it has recognized leaders), but not in the authoritative and historically institutionalized manner of other major tribes in Nigeria. Igbo traditional rulers, for the most part, lack pedigree and do not have the same ‘traditional’ or ‘charismatic’ authority, in Weberian construction, as their counterparts. The politicians and governing elites who exercise ‘legal-rational’ authority come from all social classes and all walks of life, and are typically nouveau riche types and buccaneering arrivistes without leadership pedigree.
To summarize, Igbos seem to be trapped in a contradiction of social dynamics: Politics says we should leave Nigeria because we are denied sway; Economics compels us to stay; and Sociology limits our leaders, as they are unable to articulate a coherent and persistent set of pan-Igbo preferences.
So, then, what is the solution to the ongoing anarchy and terrorism in Igboland? How do we forge order from the swirling instability?
Resolving the Crisis in Igboland
The reason for the foregoing discussion was to lay the groundwork for holistic suggestions to tackle the ongoing security challenge in Igboland. I present below sketches of some specific ideas, in the hope that they could be developed further by relevant stakeholders:
1. Agree on a theory of the situation: There are many, conflicting, explanations for what is going on in Igboland. Some blame Fulani infiltrators and bandits, while others choose to blame some ‘Unknown Gun Men’. The Fulani attribution is not unfounded: Fulani menace in the forests of Igboland has added the milieu of insecurity. As for the theory of Unknown Gun Men, this is in the main a grand obfuscation. My own perception, as I have laid out here, is that the culprits behind the current menacing of Igboland are chiefly renegade IPOB and ESN (Eastern Security Network) factions with their own deviant agenda. It is important to identify of the culprits, the better able to engage them. And engaging them should include a combination of carrot and stick: a muscular confrontation, coupled with constructive dialogue. You cannot fight or parley with people you purposefully refuse to identify.
2. Set up a Pan-Igbo Security Conference: We have seen isolated efforts to tackle the current crisis by individual Igbo leaders, such as the Anambra State governor, Prof Chukwuma Soludo’s recent visit of Nnamdi Kanu, the putative leader of IPOB, at the facility of Nigeria’s secret police, SSS, where he is being detained. We may applaud the new governor who presides over a state currently the epicenter of IPOB/ESN insurgency, especially with his visit couched as part of wider consultations with critical stakeholders to ensure lasting peace and security in the South East. Still, we saw an immediate rebuke of the governor by the insurgents who threatened reprisals, which they carried out. This was followed by the gruesome murder and decapitation of a state lawmaker, Mr. Okechukwu Okoye, representing Soludo’s constituency. The message couldn’t be starker.
In light of this, we need collective action coordinated across the spectrum of Igbo leadership. A starting point should be a pan-Igbo security conference involving all governors of the South East, all presidential and gubernatorial aspirants, all traditional rulers and town union presidents, Ohaneze, business leaders, etc. They can’t obviously discuss intricate security strategy at such a large and open forum. But this will communicate an Igbo-wide determination to tackle the security deterioration. The conference will then set up a close-knit committee (something the Anambra State governor has initiated but it needs to be regionalized) to come up with a comprehensive plan. As part of the arsenal of mitigation, the conference should seek avenues for a constructive engagement and rehabilitation of the brigands, whilst also seeking a firm legal recourse for the more egregious atrocities. This effort needs to be led by politically authoritative figures, as Soludo is doing: their goal of driving development and boosting internally-generated revenue will surely be undermined by the internally-generated rampage raging across the region.
3. Set up a Regional Security Apparatus: The Pan-Igbo Security Conference should consider setting up a regional security outfit for the entire South East. We have equivocated on this for too long. Compare the flabby indetermination of South East governors to the snappy resolution of their counterparts in the South West. There, the governors got together in early 2020 and set up the Western Nigeria Security Network (WNSN), otherwise known as Operation Amotekun, after wide consultations with varied wings of Yoruba leadership. Amotekun is a remarkable achievement, created through perspicacity and sheer force of will. It is the first formal regional security outfit initiated by a geopolitical zone in Nigeria. The South-western governors provided funding, equipment and other enabling resources to facilitate the operational take-off of Amotekun. Even when the Nigerian federal government appeared to question the constitutionality of a regional security force, the South-western governors galvanized their state houses of assembly and promptly created legislation giving legal force to Amotekun. Where is the South-eastern regional force?
4. Co-opt the Federal Government: Whatever regional solutions the South East may conceive, it has to enlist the resources of the federal government (FG) as the protector-of-last resort. The FG has the ultimate monopoly of legal violence under our constitutional order, so it can’t be ignored in this case. It is possible that the FG, which has so far refrained from direct intervention, may be being hesitant to intervene in Igboland having been criticized for its Operation Python Dance. There are indeed some who believe that the current horror of terror in the South East came about as a result of misguided and heavy-handed actions by the Nigerian government. Regardless of the antecedents, the South East needs to establish its own independent security outfit which will nevertheless work with the police and other security services, much like Amotekun.
5. Drive Media and Mass Re-Orientation: The suggestions for a security conference and a South East regional security apparatus may be seen as ‘hard’ options in the spectrum of available choices. There is need too to consider a ‘soft’ but likely no less effective option in the form of a mass re-orientation campaign. Igbo masses seem perplexed and confused by the ongoing events, torn between their instinctual support for regional self-determination and fearful resignation to the dictatorship of terror. Igbo governors and other political leaders, traditional rulers, religious leaders etc. need to speak to their people’s confusion and fears. We Igbos need to disambiguate the issues of political autonomy, which can be pursued through constitutional engineering, and the current mayhem purveyed as political agitation. Criminality has been smuggled into our legitimate struggle, thus muddling the issues in the imagination of Igbo rank and file. We need to confront that confusion. We need to mobilize the Igbo media; get our opinion leaders to write with greater clarity repudiating the menacing of Igboland by our very own. The state governments too need to launch an elaborate campaign to educate the masses, perhaps enlisting the support of the traditional rulers, as well as other structures of Igbo communal life.
6. Get IPOB to Speak More Clearly: Nnamdi Kanu and his IPOB lieutenants need to speak with greater clarity. They created this mess by unleashing a philosophy of struggle that targeted the Igbos themselves, instead of their presumed ‘oppressors’, including enforcing a senseless sit-at-home which then morphed into a morbid terrorization of Igbo populations. Even now, IPOB leadership is still gargling as if it has water in its mouth. It has not totally repudiated the sit-at-home idea, as it still insists it will hold whenever Kanu appears in court. IPOB leadership has also not condemned the perpetrators of terrorism against Igbos in any clear terms: we hear instead nonsensical statements from them threatening the brigands that they “will be judged by Biafra if [they] don’t stop.” What the hell does that mean? And how will such an effete statement stop the drug-dazed, heavily-armed and venom-envigored figures marauding the ramparts of Igboland? It is a joke. IPOB needs to flush out the water in its mouth. Although Nnamdi Kanu seems now to be only a symbolic figure and may have lost operational control of IPOB (an unintended consequence of his incarceration, perhaps), he can help in this regard, even from his detention lair.
I hope these suggestions, or other better ones, will be considered by key stakeholders in Igboland. We need radical thinking to resolve the situation, and not the flim-flam we are accustomed to hearing.