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Supreme Court Ensnares the South East

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With the recent Supreme Court ruling reinstating the terrorism and treasonable felony charges leveled against Nnamdi Kanu, danger looms for the South East. The region must lobby harder to have the case terminated, failing which it should brace up for the risks of a protracted trial, and prepare for the grim fallouts of a possible conviction.

By Chudi Okoye

It is a fascinating study in contrasts, the fates of these two frenzied flanks of the federation. Political agitation erupts in the two sections of the country, the South West and the South East. Over time, it accrues political capital for the one section but culminates in utter calamity for the other; it produces a political boon for one but accumulates doom for the other.

It is a dichotomy with a long historical arc.

In the 1960s during Nigeria’s First Republic, the cadence of political life varied across the regions. At first, in the immediate aftermath of independence, the East was at ease while unrest burgeoned in the West. But before long it was the East that became embroiled in civil war, while the West wended its way into federal power which in the long run would bring it great prosperity.

This switch was manifested most starkly in the political fortunes of the statesmen who led each region. At independence, Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe, the nationalist giant from the East, became Governor-General and later, from 1963, President of the country. Chief Obafemi Awolowo, the preeminent doyen of the West, was Leader of the Opposition in the House of Representatives. Amid the conflagrations in Western Nigeria politics at the time, Awolowo found himself convicted of treason and sent to prison. But in the roiling aftermath of the coups of 1966, some three years into his term Awo was plucked from prison, eventually to become a powerful finance commissioner and vice chairman of the Federal Executive Council in Yakubu Gowon’s military regime.

Awo’s bête noire from the East, Nnamdi Azikiwe, did not go to prison. He escaped the embroilment of the First Republic, but from afar advised Odumegwu Ojukwu and helped the Igbo war effort. But after the war his stature waned compared to Awo’s. This was evinced in the two presidential elections held in 1979 and 1983, in both of which Awo outperformed Zik. In the 1979 election where Zik, under the Nigerian People’s Party, managed a mere 16.75% of the votes, Awo, with his Unity Party of Nigeria, secured 29.18% – only about 4.5 points behind the victorious National Party of Nigeria. The gap widened in the 1983 presidential election in which both statesmen again contested. Awo increased his vote haul to 31.09%, while Zik’s shrank to 13.99%.

The fates of these two great statesmen mirror the political vicissitudes of the regions from whence they hailed. The South West has waxed, but the South East has waned.

Following the military’s annulment of the 12 June 1993 election won by Bashorun Moshood Abiola, South West agitation through Oodua Peoples Congress (OPC) and the National Democratic Coalition (NADECO) compelled a concession of the very first presidency of the 4th Republic to the region.

Even so, separatist agitation has rippled through the region just as it has in the South East. But it is a tale of two separatist agitations in terms of the fates of their famous protagonists.

Sunday Adeyemo (a.k.a. “Sunday Igboho”) and Nnamdi Kanu (incidentally separated in age by five years – the former being younger, just as Awo and Zik had been separated in age by about five years, the former being younger), are both political activists ostensibly protesting the injustices of the Nigerian state. Both have been driven, apparently frustrated with an inveterate state, to agitate for self-determination for their region. One, Igboho, is known to have amassed weaponry as part of his agitationist enterprise, which invited a state security raid, although he’s not known to be affiliated with any particular organization except the occasional suggestion that he should lead the South-West Security Network Agency, a.k.a. Amotekun. The other, Kanu, a more voluble and bombastic figure, founded the now-proscribed separatist movement, the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB), which has an armed wing, the Eastern Security Network (ESN). Both have gotten into trouble with the law, and both had to skip the country at some point.

Today, however, Sunday Igboho is a free man, and from all accounts leads a flourishing life. By contrast, Nnamdi Kanu has been in detention since 2021, having been renditioned from Kenya after jumping bail in 2017 following his 2015 arrest. A legal tussle had ensued, with an Appeal Court ruling in October 2022 to quash the treason and terrorism charges against him on grounds of his extraordinary rendition. But, in a ruling last week, on 15 December, the Supreme Court reversed the Appeal Court’s decision and reinstated the charges against Kanu.

As it is, Kanu faces a potentially prolonged treason and terrorism trial. If the federal government does not withdraw the case, it will resume at the federal high court as ordered by the Supreme Court and, whatever the ruling there, will again go through an appellate process to berth once more at the apex court. If convicted, Kanu faces a life in prison, along with other concurrent penalties. Apart from the grim personal consequence for Kanu, this portends great danger for Igboland.

Time, then, to think harder about what to do to avert the looming danger.

Risk Management
There are, the way I see it, three strategic steps to take in the Kanu affair, all mutually inclusive: intensify lobby to quash the case; change legal strategy; and prepare to defuse the fallouts.

Find a way to persuade FG to terminate the trial. So far in Nigeria’s history, no-one has been convicted on a treason or treasonable felony charge under a civilian government, except for the 1963 case of Awo and Tony Enahoro. Only during military rule were there such convictions. This might lull us into thinking that the case against Nnamdi Kanu will eventually be dropped on extrajudicial grounds. However, some political analysts believe there’s no lack of political will, even in this civilian dispensation, to convict Kanu. Commenting on the case last year before the Appeal Court dismissal of the charges, Ikemesit Effiong, head of research at SBM Intelligence, a Lagos-based political risk analysis firm, said:

“There is a strong likelihood that Kanu might be convicted because the political will exists to make an example of a separatist leader who has caused the central government more than its fair share of headaches, [especially because he’s from] a part of the country where skepticism of constituted authority runs high.”

If this is the case, it might be quite a challenge to persuade the federal government to drop the charges. It follows too that the affects and sporadic efforts emanating from the region are inadequate and may be of no consequence. If indeed there’s a strong desire to gain freedom for Kanu, there has to be a greater engagement and more concerted effort by the regional leadership. Granted that this will be hard for a leadership that was often the target of Kanu’s bombast and derision. But, given the larger geopolitical risks portended by a potential conviction of Kanu, there has to be a greater effort.

It is not entirely clear to me what efforts are being made by the Igbo political leadership – the South-East governors, federal legislators, traditional rulers, business elites, clergy – to secure Kanu’s release and have his case terminated. I note the occasional public pleas by Ohaneze, the Igbo socio-cultural group, and by assorted Igbo eminences. But I’m not sure if there’s more going on behind the scene, or if the efforts are in fact coordinated. I’m unclear too who’s being targeted by Igbo lobby.

We ought to coordinate and intensify the lobby, targeting not just national political figures like the president but also prominent figures in the security establishment who might be more invested in the punishment of treasonable or terrorist offences against Nigeria. It’s possible that resistance within the security establishment is forcing political intransigence in this matter. As such, Igbo leaders – particularly the federal legislators – ought to consult more widely, act more wisely, and move more aggressively on this issue. There is not just a political dividend but also huge peace dividend in securing freedom for Nnamdi Kanu, however irksome and threatening some might have found him in the past.

Change the legal strategy. As a corollary step, there ought to be a review of the legal strategy adopted by Kanu’s team. The Supreme Court seems to have now settled the disagreement between the trial and the appellate courts over the effect of Kanu’s extraordinary rendition, upon which the defense strategy had been partly anchored. Nigeria is a signatory to the United Nations Convention Against Torture (UN CAT), having signed the Convention on 28 July 1988 and ratified it on 28 June 2001. Article 3 of UN CAT prohibits extraordinary rendition where there are substantial grounds to believe that a person would be subjected to torture if renditioned.

Kanu with part of his legal team

Kanu’s legal team had at trial raised the issue of his forceful extradition from Kenya in 2021 by the Nigerian government, and had sought to have the case dismissed, in part for that reason. However, the trial judge, Hon. Justice Binta Nyako, had overruled the objection. She argued that there was a surviving bench warrant for Kanu’s arrest issued by her in 2018 which predated the 2021 rendition, and that the rendition was lawful because Kanu had jumped bail.

Ruling on the case in October 2022, however, an Appeal Court panel led by Hon. Justice Jummai Hannatu Sankey had accepted the defense argument. The court held that Kanu’s extraordinary rendition was an illegal act which made the charges against him incompetent and unlawful. “With [its] appalling disregard for local and international laws,” the Appeal Court ruled, “the federal government has lost the right to put the appellant on trial for any offence.” The court accordingly dismissed the case and ordered that Kanu be released.

But in its own ruling last week, a five-member panel of the Supreme Court led by Kudirat Kekere-Ekun disagreed with the Appeal Court. The apex court conceded that the rendition was illegal and infringed Kanu’s rights, but it said there is a “civil remedy” for the infringement and insisted that the rendition does not invalidate the charges against Kanu. In the lead judgment prepared by Hon. Justice Tijjani Abubakarit but read by Hon. Justice Emmanuel Agim, the court said there is no Nigerian law that prohibits the use of “illegally obtained evidence for the trial of a defendant.” The Supreme Court held that the “Court of Appeal was wrong to say that the Federal High Court can no longer try Mr. Kanu,” and in a unanimous decision ordered that the case be remitted to the trial court for continuation. The judgment also implies a reversal of the earlier Appeal Court order for Kanu to be released from detention.

This is, without doubt, a serious setback for Kanu’s defense. The legal team must now think harder how to confront the surviving charges against the IPOB leader. It won’t be easy.

Preparing for the unthinkable. While we must hope that Kanu’s legal team will eventually secure him an acquittal, we should ponder the possibility that he might be convicted. As such, we should begin to prepare for the fallouts which could involve a further assailment of Igboland by pro-Kanu agitators.

It is ironic that in the South West, which had been the hotbed of political violence at other times in Nigeria’s history, none of the great political provocations the Yorubas have faced – the overturning of M.K.O. Abiola’s victory in the 1993 presidential election, the assassination of his wife Kudirat in 1996, his own suspicious death in 1998, and more recently Sunday Igboho’s travails – has impelled them to despoil their homeland. However, the incarceration of Nnamdi Kanu has served as pretext for some so-called Biafra agitators to descend on their homeland, unleashing a reign of terror that traumatizes the populace and enforcing a sit-at-home campaign that chokes the regional economy.

Part of the reason secessionist agitation has morphed into criminality in the South East has to do with the very nature of Igbo secessionism. The Igbo mind is bifurcated about Nigeria. While there is a strong sense of ethnic identity which lends instinctive support to the secessionist enterprise, the Igbo adventurous spirit also craves the larger canvass of Nigeria and thus recoils from the idea of being constrained to the homeland enclave. A part of the Igbo mind craves self-determination; and yet, a part also craves deeper integration into the Nigerian political economy. This is why, beyond rhetoric, there’s little practical commitment to the idea of secession in important sections of Igbo society, even though it remains an animating ideology.

We thus end up with a paradox in Igbo polity: although there’s a strong sense of ethnic nationalism, there isn’t an equally strong sense of homeland. Igbos by and large consider anywhere they reside to be home and feel they can effectuate their ethno-nationalist sentiment wherever they reside. Little surprising therefore that the crème of Igbo society – from leading politicians to the business elites, the intelligentsia, even some traditional rulers and ironically some of those fighting for Igbo self-determination – are based, to a sizeable number, outside the homeland.

This wobbliness of homeland sensibility is perhaps also the reason that the so-called Biafra agitators, unlike their counterparts in the South West, feel no qualms despoiling their homeland and sabotaging its economy. They claim that through their security outfit they are protecting the Igbo homeland from Fulani incursion, but they in fact inflict as much or far greater harm on the homeland than any damage by Fulani marauders.

The truth is that whatever may be its ideological or political impulse, Igbo self-determination has been hijacked by rogue elements profiteering from it, and by others using it as camouflage for class warfare, as I argued in a previous article. These types will use a protracted trial of Nnamdi Kanu, and his conviction if that eventuates, to unleash mayhem in Igboland.

The Igbo leadership should work harder to have the case against Kanu quashed even as his lawyers get smarter in their defense strategy. But there must also be a forward plan to avert disaster in the homeland if perchance Nnamdi Kanu is convicted.


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