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Between separatist agitations and democracy in Anambra guber poll

By Leo Sobechi
31 July 2017   |   4:34 am
Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB), led by Mazi Nnamdi Kanu, is no longer an irritating footnote in the socio-political situation of Nigeria’s Southeast geo-political zone.

Nnamdi Kanu

Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB), led by Mazi Nnamdi Kanu, is no longer an irritating footnote in the socio-political situation of Nigeria’s Southeast geo-political zone. The group has, with its vociferous agitation for a separate state of Biafra, walked itself to the centre stage of national discourse.

Prior to his arrest and detention in 2015, Kanu’s voice was what Nigerians got accustomed to as he, through Radio Biafra, repudiated in strong words the alleged lopsidedness of Nigeria’s socio-political structures, double standards and lawlessness.

Instead of stifling his voice of agitation for Biafra, the extra-legal incarceration of the IPOB leader won him and his group sympathy from prominent citizens that decried his forceful imprisonment outside the law. Sequel to the growing calls for his release, a Federal High Court in Abuja granted Kanu a reprieve on health grounds under stringent bail conditions.

Breathing the air of freedom, Kanu went back to his search for a greater freedom for IPOB and on May 30, 2017; he succeeded in persuading members of the Igbo ethnic nationality to comply with a stay-at-home order in honour of departed heroes during the Biafra civil war.

Perhaps emboldened by that successful proclamation, Kanu went further to decree a boycott of the forthcoming November 18, 2017 governorship poll in Anambra State. And expectedly, the idea has snowballed into a subject of regional debate and discontent.

Opinions are sharply divided as to the import and strategic worth of Anambra poll boycott to the secessionist craving of IPOB and its leader. Presently, the issue has thrown up old social segregations in the Southeast. While attempts are being made by some extremists to renew the ancient dichotomy between old Anambra and Imo States, support and antagonism to the call for boycott have continued to dominate discourse in the region.

In the light of the clash between the protagonists and antagonists of poll boycott to drive home the seriousness of IPOB’s separatist campaign for the creation of a sovereign state of Biafra, could it be that in Anambra, Kanu would be forced to see the lament ascribed to Napoleon Bonaparte that “able was I until I saw Elba?” Or, is there a possibility that Kanu’s verbal exploits would experience waterloo in the ill intentioned plea for poll boycott in Anambra State?

Pros and cons
When a coalition of civil society groups visited the IPOB leader in Afaraukwu, Umuahia, Abia State recently, he was said to have distilled the following as possible benefits to accrue from poll boycott to his agitation for Biafra.

Describing the boycott as a potent weapon of civil disobedience to activate demand for referendum, Kanu pointed out that boycotting the Anambra poll would “prove to the world that sovereignty and power belongs to the masses (and that as Biafrans) we have decided to take back our sovereignty.”

He further contended that boycott would convince Abuja that if there is no referendum before 2019, there will not be any election in the Southeast.” He said no political process in Nigeria can give produce Biafra, because lawmakers from the Southeast will remain a minority in the National Assembly.

While rationalizing that even if Biafrans support a candidate, the person will still swear the oath of allegiance to Nigeria and thereby “begins to sabotage our struggle,” he noted that “our candidates might even be rigged out by Abuja controlled INEC and therefore portray IPOB as weak and toothless bulldogs.”

The IPOB leader declared “we can’t claim to be Biafrans and yet keep sending senators and representatives to the National Assembly to represent us. It gives the impression that we are still part of the system.”

He added: “When we vote we give politicians the power to continue looting our commonwealth without doing anything for the masses that gave them power. Our roads are bad, no water, no light and no social welfare packages among other benefits. Election boycott is the only non-violent way we can use to hold the Nigerian government down to give us referendum. If you don’t like election boycott because you think it is not wise, please tell us another way.”

Kanu’s position has the acquiescence of public intellectuals like Chief Olisa Agbakoba, a Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN). Agbakoba reasons that it was an account of the neglect of the masses by political representatives that Kanu’s ideas find acceptability. He said Nigeria has for long remained in fraudulent denial of injustices and denigration against some sections of the country.

The right activist noted that both Nigeria’s constitution and electoral system have not guaranteed the citizens equal opportunities, stressing that at no time did ethnic nationalities come together to negotiate the basis and manner of their coexistence in a country.

Also, a two-term member of House of Representatives, Mr. Chudi Offodile sided with Kanu’s boycott flag, saying that plots by the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) to capture Anambra through electoral manipulation gives cause for apprehension. Offodile disclosed that recent surreptitious movement of senior electoral personnel into and out of Anambra State makes Kanu’s call apt.

But in an interactive session with members of Anambra 2017 Group on the pros and cons of poll boycott, a former national commissioner and acting chairman of Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), Philip Umeadi Jnr., noted that the unity of Nigeria is negotiable contrary to the country’s domestic laws. Consequently, Umeadi argued that the right to self-determination is determinable in Africa Charter of Peoples Rights (ACPR) and several other continental and regional legislations that Nigeria is signatory to.

Situating the IPOB agitation as a cry for national reform and balance, Umeadi said: “One can therefore find legal basis for the agitations and I have said so severally that the key benefit of the agitation is that it will ensure that adequate attention is given to the need to address certain obvious issues in the southeast. Whether Biafra will survive on its own is another matter entirely and will not be addressed now for I know that if the issues of ‘neglect and marginalization’ are addressed I doubt if the agitations will survive another day.”

He underscored the fact that “Biafra” is still within the federation of Nigeria and derives its legitimacy and continued existence from the federation, even as he asked rhetorically, whether a baby still in the womb can sever the biblical cord and if it does so successfully how would it survive?

Umeadi, who is also a lawyer, said Anambra governorship election presents a very good example of how not to cut ones nose to spite ones face. His words: “The electoral laws, both substantive and adjectival, do not contemplate a situation where a people collectively and intentionally decide not to vote, but the laws address the implications of such an action as in where in general terms there is no election.

“In summary, the Federal Government will exercise its right to appoint an administrator for six months pending when INEC will conduct an election. The position is that the tenure of the current government will come to an end on a certain date as prescribed by law. When it happens and there are no elected personnel to take over the reins of governance, it creates a state of emergency that will lead to the appointment of an administrator.

“Since the agitation and the agitators cannot stop the interim arrangement of the appointment of an administrator, it raises the question – why did we then boycott the elections? Actions and reactions should be equal and opposite. We would simply have denied ourselves the opportunity of electing our officials into government. We would have jettisoned our right to decide that we must be governed well. All of these, especially our inability to stop the interim arrangement, make the boycott unnecessary. And I am being very kind as I can go down the lowest sewer for the most deprecating expletive to denounce the decision.”

The former INEC official remarked that the argument that boycott will draw the Federal Government into a negotiation is neither tenable nor permissive, contending that “if I were the Federal Government I will insist you go back to the polls before negotiation or whatever.”

He lamented that intellectual argument in persuasive prose is what is yet lacking in the agitation, insisting that that is what will drive negotiation. According to him, until the people that will provide the intellectual argument are allowed to lead the agitation, which he doubted, “it will remain a successful agitation in attention-seeking. The issues will be addressed as stated above so, we can stop making “noise”, but the idea of an independent state of Biafra will remain a mirage.”

From the foregoing enlightened and logical summations by Umeadi, could it be that Kanu unwittingly shot himself on the foot by failing to use momentum generated by IPOB agitation to implant a Biafra-centric governor in Anambra to provide the masses the missing good governance?

Umeadi added: “If you recall about a month ago a wonderful piece of legislation on the setting up of a South East Development Commission was shot down because there was no intellectual content to the concept. The political move would have been to elect a governor that believes in the agitation and is ready to drive it rather than a boycott. The first option is easier as his supporters will vote massively for any person he identifies with.”

As to whether boycott of election is not the right of the people to demonstrate against federal authorities’ alleged continuing to foist unelected leaders on them, the former INEC chief recalled that from the inception of elections, the agitations have been on the right to vote not on the right not to vote.

“The Anambra election is our opportunity to elect our leaders and as I had argued earlier, the politics would have been to get a Biafra compliant governor in Anambra. (And) along with his colleagues, he can drive the project. What the constitution recognizes is the right to vote, but as is with every right, one can refrain from exercising it.”

Kanu contemplates that once election is boycotted and Governor Willie Obiano’s tenure expires by time, the Speaker of the State House of Assembly steps in, but the question is what is the position of the law?

Umeadi explained that that situation contemplated by the IPOB leader “is with respects myopic, as it does not take into consideration the larger picture of the purport and intent of the agitation.”

“The essence of the agitation,” Umeadi argued, “is to draw attention to the neglect in the southeast. When put against the prism of intellectual analysis, it would appear that the reason for the boycott is to make the speaker governor. This on its own will further exacerbate the already dysfunctional acts of major and important actors in the struggle. The touted lack of adequate consultation by Kanu is yet to be well managed. You do not need to add selfish and pseudo political motives to it.”

Further he said: “Legally speaking returns at election are made on the basis of the people who came out to vote. Therefore if only 10 people come out to vote, a return will be made on the basis of 10. Is that the kind of election our people need? Surely more than 10 people will come out to vote because some voting points are located in people’s domain.

If IPOB engages INEC officials with a view to stopping them from going to duty posts, then IPOB is engaging the federal might. They won’t enjoy anybody’s sympathy. Thus, the question of the Speaker becoming the governor does not arise. This view I must indicate contemplates only the state election and not federal elections.”

A chieftain of APC, Prof. Pat Utomi maintained that Biafra is a consciousness thing, stressing that separating a country from a sovereign is not as simple as contemplated by the agitators. Utomi noted that if inequities in the system are addressed, Nigerians stand better chance to reap better benefits from a big country.

It appears IPOB and its leaders have come to a critical junction by this call for boycott. Kanu is not from Anambra and most people are asking why use the state as a guinea pig when other states are enjoying democratic government albeit from flawed election and constitution?

How to make Kanu see the reasonableness of joining the political route becomes an issue. Umeadi sees the need for an intellectual content in the agitation, noting that “Kanu has assumed or at least, fate has thrust on him a very influential role. This needs to be appreciated and applauded. But I need to share an advice: He needs to consult more. Share the burden and articulate a proper direction.”

It seems that Kanu may fall into the dilemma of definition of citizenship, which Professor Chidi Odinkalu identified as the bane of Nigeria political structure. But Kanu and IPOB may have succeeded in setting a national agenda to address the structural imbalance that makes Nigeria unfair and unworkable.

He has succeeded in questioning the unity of Nigeria as a ruse, because a situation where the accruals from petroleum export were invested in developing Lagos and Abuja without a commensurate infrastructure provision in Enugu, Calabar or particularly Port Harcourt feed the fire of secessionist agitation.

Had Nigeria emulated South Africa by sitting the seat of Federal Government in Abuja, while moving the headquarters of the Judiciary to Ibadan or Lagos and the National Assembly to Enugu or Calabar, the unity of the country would have rested on a stale tripod. But without knowing it, the Federal Government had through the obvious lopsidedness of structures of governance given the impression that Biafra is a possibility thereby proving Kanu and IPOB a fertile ground to rally opinion.

However, in its present agitation for poll boycott in a strategic southeast state of Anambra, Kanu may discover, albeit too late that choice of battle ground is as good as the weapons of warfare. If only the young man should have the presence of mind to leave the people to decide their fate, the November 18 governorship election may produce IPOB and Kanu as either losers or spoilers and nothing more.