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Southeast leaders and echoes of EndSARS protests

By  Lawrence Njoku (Enugu)
09 November 2020   |   4:20 am
It was a hurried meeting. The Southeast governors and many other Igbo leaders were in attendance. The meeting, which held in Enugu last week, had as part of the agenda the fallouts from the #EndSARS protests...

•Challenge of putting words into action

It was a hurried meeting. The Southeast governors and many other Igbo leaders were in attendance. The meeting, which held in Enugu last week, had as part of the agenda the fallouts from the #EndSARS protests that swept across the states. The youth angst seemed to have buttressed the general notion that the only trigger needed to move the leaders to act on the yearnings of their followers was a violent jerk as exemplified by the demonstration.

Defying predictions of pundits who at various times accused them of being lukewarm over issues concerning their own people, as well as the pervading state of insecurity, the leaders gathered in their numbers. And, for two days, they deliberated on the myriad challenges confronting the zone.

A look at the roll call revealed the seriousness the leaders attached to the gathering: There were three governors, including the chairman of Southeast Governors’ Forum, Chief Dave Umahi (Ebonyi); host, Ifeanyi Ugwuanyi (Enugu) and Okezie Ikpeazu (Abia). Imo and Anambra governors sent their deputies to represent them.

Also in attendance were Senators Ike Ekweremadu, Sam Egwu, Rochas Okorocha, Chukwuka Utazi, Uche Ekwunife among other National Assembly members.  Federal cabinet ministers present included, Dr. Ogbonnaya Onu, Dr. Chris Ngige, Emeka Nwajiuba, Godfrey Onyeama and Sharon Ikeazor.

President General of Igbo Socio-cultural organisation, Ohanaeze Ndigbo, Chief Nnia Nwodo, Chairman of southeast council of Traditional rulers, His Majesty, Nnaemeka Achebe, Chief Emmanuel Iwuanyanwu, Prof Uche Azikiwe and several religious leaders and many others showed up.

Inventory of trouble
The #EndSARS protests had taken the zone by storm.  The leaders neither expected it nor envisaged the dimension it took.  For days, youths who wielded dangerous objects ran amok, holding down socio-economic activities in the zone.  From obstructing commercial activities, the mêlée progressed to violation of private and public institutions and mowing down of perceived “enemies”.

Even the curfew imposed by the state governors could not hold back the youths. By the time they were done, many public institutions like police stations, banks and federal government establishments had either been burnt or destroyed.  Several lives were lost just as injuries were sustained.

Worried by the rising tension, particularly the destructions that ensued, and the need to offer solutions, the leaders settled for the two days meeting in Enugu last week. The meeting was divided into two phases. The first involved various leaders of the zone, while the second involved leaders of the pro-Biafra group, Movement for the Actualization of Sovereign State of Biafra (MASSOB) and Igbo youths.

Pathway to healing
Rising after over five hours deliberation of the first meeting, the leaders resolved to pool together funds at the various states to support victims of the #EndSARS protests, even as they vowed to resist further loss of lives and destruction of public and private property in the zone.

In a communiqué read by Governor Umahi, the leaders sympathized with families of the victims of protests, including the police and other security agencies as well as those who lost their properties during the disturbances that trailed the #EndSARS agitations.
Part of the communiqué read: “Each state in the Southeast will set up a fund to assist the victims of the crisis, including the police, the army and other security agencies as well as civilians. That state governors are committed to addressing the concerns of our young people that are peculiar to various states and will engage the federal government and their colleagues in other states to address the other issues that are national.
“We advise all our youths that while our governors are working hard to meet their demands, the destruction of public and private properties and killing of security agents and civilians will never be allowed to continue. We therefore direct all Igbos, both in and outside Nigeria, to go about their businesses and should not participate in all forms of unlawful protest and criminality.”

From the meeting with Igbo leaders, that with MASSOB and youths in Igbo land followed the next day. Leader of MASSOB, Uchenna Madu, in his presentation during the meeting, hinged their grievances on alleged “serious discrimination and marginalization of Southeast in federal civil service,” lamenting that the zone had been denied federal infrastructure projects.
Madu stated: “We note specifically that all major federal roads in Igboland are in terrible state of disrepair. We therefore, demand that the federal government should immediately approve a substantial intervention fund to complete all these major road projects in the southeast.
“We demand disarming of killer herdsmen with AK47 in the southeast, who have occupied our forests and farmlands, destroying our farmlands, kidnapping, killing and raping our women, while we pledge to continue to live and work peacefully with our brothers and sisters of our herdsmen who have been living peacefully with us.” 

The Igbo youths had further demanded that Southeast should be allowed to produce President Mohammadu Buhari’s successor in 2023, adding that the zone required additional state to bring it to par with others in the country.

Dust of uncertainties
Although there was another demand from the youths for Ohanaeze leader, Nnia Nwodo, to lead a delegation of Igbo to present their grievances to president Buhari; some commentators differed with the youth on holding succeeding administrations of the country solely responsible for the challenges confronting the zone.
Analysts believe that failure of state governors of the zone in the past 21 years to keep to promises of development and empowerment seriously disadvantaged southeast and robbed its people of benefits of democracy. They stressed that such denials contributed to the destructive shape taken by the protest. They also doubted if any improvement could be made in the current situation of things in the zone after the protests and meetings that followed.

Words without work
A lecturer in the department of Mass Communications, Nnamdi Azikiwe University, Awka, Dr. Abel Obi, told The Guardian that holding meetings and arriving at resolutions were not unknown to governors and any other Igbo group. He explained that the challenge was in the area of implementation.

His words: “I have read some of the issues agreed to in the meetings and I dare say that, it was nice they decided to meet to intervene in the raging disturbances. I want to add however, that holding meetings has never been an issue for our leaders. What has really been the challenge is the implementation of decisions.

“When you count from 1999, you will agree that our governors have been meeting. I do not think that since these meetings that anything tangible has happened in the zone to signpost their presence. They have all the time ended in promises.

“One key thing that should be taken away from the meeting is the resolution to set up funds in each state in the zone to assist victims of the crisis, including the police, army and other security agencies, as well as civilians. We have to wait to see when and how it will be implemented.”

Speaking in similar vein, a Public Affairs analyst, Ndidi Chukwube, said there was nothing to cheer from the two days meeting, stressing: “Nothing has happened in the past to give the hope that whatever they agreed on will be implemented for the betterment of the zone and the youths, who are still struggling.

“When you go into history, you will notice that meetings of the governors often ended with written statements on how they intend to pursue the economic development of the zone.

“Promises such as reinventing agriculture as was the case during the Michael Okpara era, providing the required tools and implements and fast-tracking loans to farmers, and joint security for protecting the people are among resolutions reached in the past, but have they been implemented?”

Indeed, a year ago, after a well-attended meeting of the forum in Enugu, Governor Umahi had announced their intention to construct a ring road linking states in the zone. The road is to cover 430 kilometers and would, apart from boosting the economy, ease of transportation.

The decision was in realization that the generality of the people are into commercial activities and that the many arable lands used for agricultural purposes would be better utilized should there be motorable roads cutting into the hinterlands.

Aside the ring road, there was the pledge to build an ultra modern specialist hospital in Enugu to take care of the health needs of the people, while they would intervene on the gas pipelines project and the Aba Independent Power Project to boost the energy needs of the zone.

When insecurity was almost at its crescendo last year, the governors had openly announced that they had resolved to set up a regional security outfit and had raised a committee headed by Gen Obi Umahi (rtd) to fine-tune strategies and operations of the outfit.

Many who had awaited the birth of the regional security outfit were disappointed as it took an entirely single meeting with the Inspector General of Police, Mohammed Adamu, to perpetually bury the idea and adopt the police model of Community Policing.

According to Obi: “If it can take street protests to get our leaders to take up responsibilities their little way, then let the people engage them by that means. The mass unemployment of our youths in the zone is because there is low investment here and there.

“The leaders have not made any deliberate effort to either encourage those who want to invest or revive our common heritages that have gone moribund. The zone can only survive with borrowings and allocation from the centre even with the multitude of arable farmlands and teeming population of its youths. That is the tragedy of our time.”

He noted that apart from exposing the weak governance system, the #EndSARS protests was also a wake-up call on any leadership that has made the people its epicenter. He added: “If there is a zone that deserves special attention and which should benefit from the protest, it is the southeast because, we have not been treated fairly.

“When you talk about federal government presence, it is lacking in quantum in this area, when you talk about marginalization in the power and sharing formula, we are the most disadvantaged. Our youths are the ones doing all manner of jobs to earn a living; our people are the ones using their hard-earned resources to develop the zone among many others.

“So, these are the things I expect that should form the fulcrum for any administration that still want’s to keep the unity of the country. We shall expect that the governors and leaders should keep faith with whatever resolutions that will make Southeast people proud.”