Of new wise men from the East
February 28, 2017 joined the list of important dates in the socio-political development of Nigeria. Before that date, February 13, 1976 was the only entry, for it was the day the revolutionary military leader, General Murtala Ramat Mohammed, was assassinated in a bloody coup d’état.
Unlike its forebear, February 28 had nothing to do with violence or attempt at forceful change of power. Rather it was the day some Nigerians came together to interrogate the creeping militancy in social discourse in the country.
It was on February 28, representatives of Nzuko Umunna visited the leader of Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB), Mazi Nnamdi Kanu, in the Kuje Minimum Security prison at the Federal Capital Territory (FCT).
Prior to that visit by the seven to 14 members of Nzuko Umunna, Kanu had been incarcerated sans judicial approval, since October 15, 2015 when he was apprehended in a Lagos hotel by men of Nigeria’s secret police on the accusation of leading an illegal organisation, planning to levy war and inciting violence against the country.
It is on record that Kanu was taken to several courts, but while the courts made their pronouncements, ranging from granting of bail order for outright release from confinement, the authorities refused to obey the dictates of the courts of law.
It is against the backcloth of the refusal of the Federal Government to abide by the tenets of democracy, especially observance of the rule of law, that the events of February 28, 2017 captured national attention.
Quite unlike the events of February 13, 1976, therefore, February 28, 2017 happened to challenge the violation of national ethos, but also stoke a national discussion on the incipient contradictions attempting to smear Nigeria’s practice of democracy.
Again, placed side by side with the fact that the country’s socio-political evolution has been defined by competition between the military dicta and civil procedure, the visitors to Nnamdi Kanu, could be dressed in the metaphoric garb of new Wisemen from the East. This is so because nearly 50 years ago attempt to ensure that debate and discussion, instead of force and fait; moderates social transactions in the country, was initiated at Aburi, Ghana.
It is therefore instructive that a similar attempt is being made to interrogate perceived injustices in the Nigeria project under the Biafra sub-theme. The visit and subsequent press conference addressed by the new wise men from the East, particularly the issues they raised, should be seen as a contest between Nigerians against Nigeria’s structural and systemic contradictions.
What is more, the composition of the representatives of the Nzuko Umunna, brought new perspectives to the emergent leadership revision in Igbo land. The list of those who visited Kanu, whom they described as prisoner of conscience and signed the text of the press statement, revealed an admixture of professionals from different walks of life.
They included: Professors Chukwuma Soludo and Pat Utomi, Tony Nnadi, Secretary General Lower Niger Congress; Dr. Udenta Udenta, (National Secretary, Alliance for Democracy); Emeka Ugwuoju, (South East/South South Professionals); Collins Ugwu; Dr. Law Mefor, (Vice President, Igbo Ekunie Initiative); Dr. Ferdinand Agu.
Others were Prof. Chidi Odinkalu; Rev. Fr. Jude C; Ebere Onwudiwe; Dr. Sam Amadi; Chief Innocent Chukwuma and Chief Andy Wabali.
Coming days after some political leaders from the Southeast caused national stir by defecting to the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC), the coming together and public communication engineered by the array of public intellectuals, academics, politicians and businessmen, also let off a new thinking about the Igbo.
Some commentators had tried to describe the intervention of Nzuko Umunna, as a belated exercise aimed at achieving political mileage, saying the public attention would have made greater impact had they spoken while President Muhammadu Buhari was in the country.
But however the absence of President Buhari, who returned to the country last Friday after about 50 days in medical vacation, may have influenced the salient points raised by the delegation. It could also be argued that Mr. President’s sojourn outside the country afforded Nigerians the opportunity to pass a vote of no confidence on the governance style and social development strategies of the former military head of state.
However, the point remains that rule of law, respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms, which formed the major talking points in the intervention by the leaders of Nzuko Umunna, serves as a throwback to the recurring issues of finding the appropriate social structures for the Nigerian federation.
As the leader of the delegation, Prof. Soludo, former Governor of Nigeria’s Central Bank; pointed out, “every country that has endured and prospered, has devised a dynamic system for dealing with its internal contradictions.”
Against the premise of lack of such dynamic system for dealing with Nigeria’s internal contradictions, particularly accentuated by developments after May 29, 2015, the group captured the national consensus that “Nigeria has never been more divided than now.”
It could therefore be deduced that the agitations for self-determination, which defines the IPOB and Kanu’s modus operandi, was “becoming more strident and desperate” due to the attempt to preserve the old wine of suppression of opinion in new wineskin of democracy.
The new wise men from the east, by pointing to the diminishing stars of freedom and inclusion, believe that Nigeria was heading to the status of a failed state due to the insistent on the command and control approach to protect the status quo. Urging the ruling APC to reinvent itself, Soludo and co. noted that the party seemed to have abandoned its cardinal duty to Nigeria, stressing that “we are in a state of emergency at all levels.”
While noting that Kanu is not above the law, Nzuko Umunna, in demanding for the urgent release of the IPOB leader, maintains that would be the way to go in starting the process of “engineering a new Nigeria.”
They argued that if no Nigerian citizen deserves the treatment that is being meted to Nnamdi Kanu and his colleagues, Nigerians should rise up in unison to ensure that nobody, not even Kanu is put below the law.
In what sounded as a clarion call for citizen vigilance, Soludo stated: “We want all Nigerians to get a fair share under the law. We are looking at the genuine reform of Nigeria. We will keep engaging all stakeholders at a global level. It is time we keep talking about these things. When you incarcerate Nnamdi Kanu, it is not he that is incarcerated, but the people of conscience.”
It is possible that a new consciousness has arisen among the elite that silence means consent. That is what the condemnation and objection to the proposed secret trail of citizen Kanu by the professionals on the delegation of Nzuko Umunna portends.
Prof. Utomi told journalists that Kanu’s case is an opportunity to hold government to account by committing it to the rule of law. He said: “To start with, two courts of competent jurisdiction have tried him. One gave him a bail because he did not find the matter to be of high treason, obviously. If it was high treason, he (the judge) wouldn’t give him a bail. The second completely discharged and acquitted him, calling for his immediate release. Surely, not doing so is to do damage to the concept of the rule of law. And where the rule of law is assaulted, then impunity reigns.”
He explained that he is involved because, “it is just my place as a citizen to exercise citizenship behaviour and point to the fact that abuse of the rule of law jeopardises my freedom, because I could be the next victim.”
One of the signatories to the statement, Prof. Odinkalu, former chairman of Nigeria Human Rights Commission (NHRC), noted that aside from the fact that Kanu was at the centre of the visit to the prison, “the issues we addressed are human and Nigerian issues too. We all must learn to care about things that affect our country and our common humanity. We cannot look away for fear that people will sectionalise the issues in order to sensationalise them.”
While situating the visit to Kanu on the religious obligation to visit those in prison, Odinkalu noted that the visit “was also an expression of faith in the redemptive value of our shared humanity,” adding that since Nigeria is a democracy; one does not have to agree with an idea before defending the right of anyone to propagate it.
“I may have disagreements with Sheikh El-Zakzaky, but I cannot see how anyone can justify holding him incommunicado for 15 months in a democracy. I may have disagreements with Sambo Dasuki, but holding him in defiance of serial court orders is unlawful. Whatever disagreements I may have with Nnamdi Kanu cannot be the way to go.”
A lawyer by profession, Odinkalu insists that parties in court should not wait to appropriate only the decisions that please them or that they agree with, noting that the charge of treasonable felony has historically been used for political purposes. “The constitutional rights of free expression, association and assembly apply to people who propagate ideas that I don’t have to like,” he stated.
The professor of Law noted that ‘incitement’ is one of the most colonial of crimes in the books, pointing out that only occupiers use it. He advocated for a culture of holistic observance of democratic ideals saying: “Nigeria must be confident enough to accommodate anyone as long as the person or group commits to peaceful advocacy.”
“No idea,” he added, “is so dangerous that the peaceful propagation of it can or should frighten me or anyone. If you persuade the country as to the virtue of your idea, then you prevail. If you can’t, then please keep advocating.”
Picking holes on the Federal Government approach to the IPOB issue, Odinkalu contended that since IPOB is not gazetted as an unlawful organization, belonging to it is not a crime. He condemned the use of “disproportionate, lethal force against peaceful people,” saying it amounts to extra-judicial killing. “(If) our laws are clear on how to deal with that, what is wrong with applying those laws?”
Leadership review in the east
Perhaps what appears to be a sub text of the public intervention by Nzuko Umunna, is the possibility of leadership review in the Southeast. The IPOB protests and the outcome of the 2015 presidential election may have instigated critical thinking in the minds of the elite.
Utomi disclosed how his group had taken to leadership mentoring, adding that that effort produced “a group of Igbo professionals who are scattered around the world, many in the United States, some in Nigeria, some in Europe.”
He noted that it was their belief that a new generation of leaders was needed; stressing that there has been a failure of leadership across the country, especially in Igboland. “We needed a new vision and new kinds of leadership vistas,” he stated, pointing out that: “we are essentially ceding leadership to a group of people in their late 20s and 30s, some of whom are in the US coordinating activities nationwide and around the world.”
Noting the place of values in the efforts to redeeming the Igbo nation, the former Presidential aspirant disclosed that “people of strong values” were brought together to form Nzuko Umunna. The benefit, according to him, is that “it helped give us an insight into the consciousness” raised by the IPOB leader.
“Because really, the group is a consciousness movement; if you remember Steve Biko and the Black Consciousness Movement in South Africa, IPOB is an Igbo renaissance consciousness movement,” he declared. Based on the policies of exclusion (in the present dispensation) Utomi said the group discovered that the most appropriate solution is to challenge the democratization of discontent in the country.
On his part, Prof. Odinkalu said that the self determination protests and agitation for Biafra should be seen as an attempt by the excluded youth to fill their imaginations. “In May (27, 2017) it will be fifty years since the onset of the Biafran War. I believe the leadership of Nigeria has a positive duty to promote shared memories of the lessons of the tragic episode in our national history.
“So far, what has happened is that we have lanced thirty months from our national memory and pretend it will go away? Biafra did not just affect the Igbo, let’s not forget. It affected all parts of this country in different ways. Is it not in our collective interest to know how?”
The voices of dissent are building up in the country, especially based on the climate of exclusion engineered against the Southeast and South-South geopolitical zones of the country. But it does appear that the citizens from the region have been challenged to engineer a national conversation that could lead to a better Nigeria.
It is interesting to note that while rebuffing overtures to douse the self determination cum secessionist agitation with the carrot of 2019 Presidency, Igbo elites are taking up the refrain for a restructured Nigeria founded on true federalism.
Former Minister of Education, Dr. Oby Ezekwesili, blew the beagle when she noted in a public lecture that command and control economic policies would not augur well for prosperity other than a free market situation. Her call was followed by Prof. Soludo’s observation that a resurgence of Buharinomics would imperil the nation’s political economy.
Fourth Republic Vice President, Alhaji Atiku Abubakar, had brought a new dimension to the national discourse when he noted during the launch of ‘We Are All Biafrans’, by Chido Nwakamma, that the country was crying for restructuring.
However the authorities may decide to view the gathering wind of opposition to oppression and resort to emergency powers, not given to political doublespeak, the new wise men from the east seem to have provided Nigerians with sumptuous food for thought to take back their nation.
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