On the pro-Biafra protests

Written by the Editorial board of The Guardian Newspaper

With 40 lives lost the other day, the activities of youths in Southeastern Nigeria in commemoration of the 49th anniversary of the declaration of the Republic of Biafra, is an ominous signal that must not be taken lightly. It requires deft political attention. The bloody clashes between security forces and protesting pro-Biafran youngsters raise questions about the imminence of political freedom and self-determination, the constitutional and practical role of the military and the disposition of President Muhammadu Buhari to all this.

What ordinarily was meant to be a celebration of Igbo Day, with an array of cultural activities, rallies and peaceful demonstration, ended up becoming a harvest of death for members of Movement for the Actualisation of the Sovereign State of Biafra (MASSOB), the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB), and Biafra Independence Movement (BIM).

According to reports, a greater part of south eastern Nigeria, extending to its western flanks in Asaba, Delta State, had a taste of this orgy of violence. In the Delta State capital, a clash between police and irate youths led to the death of two policemen and two other persons. In Anambra State, where the event was allegedly like a celebration of freedom, security forces were said to have entered churches in Nkpor area to disrupt religious exercises, while at Onitsha Market, soldiers clashed with protesting youths. This same drama, characterised by heavy militarisation of crisis points, was played in Enugu, Abia, Imo and Ebonyi states. By the time the protests and clashes were over, no fewer than 40 people had died, scores injured and over 80 arrested from the various pro-Biafra groups.

The security agencies, comprising the Nigeria Police and the Nigerian Army said they acted in self-defence to protect the Niger bridge and other priorities of state. In a display of professional pride and self-eulogy, the police attributed the supposed containment of the violence to efficient surveillance and intelligence gathering. In fact, the Delta State Police Public Relations Officer, Mr. Charles Muka alleged that, besides attacks on policemen, the protesting youths at Asaba destroyed police patrol vans and military patrol vans. He further justified police action against the protesters on the ground that they violated the sovereignty of the nation by hoisting the Biafran flag.
Whilst the efforts of the police and the military to quell what they termed a violent rally are understandable, these security forces could have been more adept at crisis management to avoid needless loss of lives. The political leadership could have demonstrated more commitment to democratic ideals by finding ways, directly or indirectly, to own the carnival. The idea of criminalising any rally expressing a people’s right to peaceful assembly is inimical to the very social ethic that gives legitimacy to a democratic government.

However, this does not in any way support the lawlessness, assault of persons, vandalisation and other criminal activities carried out by hoodlums exploiting otherwise peaceful rallies. Though the present global social order is one that harps on the rights to freedom of expression as well as the freedom from abuse and discrimination, Nigerians should not commute this freedom into a licence for lawlessness. Nigerians should respect their institutions, for these organs of social organisation were established in the first place to safeguard the freedom and rights of citizens. In this regard, given the propensity for widespread violence, some level of legitimate force is necessary to contain the increasing spate of violence in the country.

Yet, the often quick deployment of soldiers to quell a disorderly crowd does not suggest an ingenious way to exercise control over protesting civilians. Soldiers fight and occupy in order to protect; they are trained and renowned for the dissipation of terror, sometimes, unnecessary fury, and irascibility in civilian settings. Their duty to douse tension, however, does not mean they should turn civilian zones into battlefields as recent experiences have shown.

The social and political consequences of ongoing militarisation of law enforcement activities in many civilian settings underscore the fact that the management of the military is crucial in this democratic order. If the situation in the country has made the presence of the military a necessity in quelling civil unrest, then it means that the national Police Force is incapacitated and not trustworthy. This, therefore, strengthens the quest for the establishment of state police, especially as it means, at least in part, that the country is not working.

Even though historical and political events leading to pro-Biafran protests predate this administration, everyone directs his ire at the president in office. But in addressing this issue, the language of the presidency leaves little to be desired. The vocabulary of bullying, palpable insularity as well as actions portraying a hangover of military autarchy are evidently pronounced in this administration. This should change.

In times like this, there is need to call to mind the inevitability of the virtue of freedom in the democratic process. If the democratic system of government has any value, and if the democratic institution is as sacrosanct as it is being portrayed the world over, that value stems from the dignity and respect accorded to people’s free exercise of their reasoned decision. Thus, freedom is inexorably and intrinsically tied to democracy. In other words, it would be anomalous for one to profess commitment to a democratic leadership and act in ways and manners that tend to jeopardise people’s genuine freedom. And how can you demand patriotism from the same people you seem to be hurting?

Responding to this question demands a word about the Report of the National Conference. Irrespective of the disposition of this administration on the implementation of the report, no Nigerian leader can foreclose the inevitability of the principle of self determination. As this newspaper has often stated, being a principle and practice of social existence recognised by a United Nations General Assembly resolution, self-determination empowers a nation, or an ethnic group to be in control of its own people, its own land, its own resources, and its own governance, independent of any other subtending political structure. This provision verily applies in the United Kingdom, where the Welsh, the Northern Irish and the Scots tested their capacity for self-determination and got a referendum for separate parliaments.

As it stands today, the president may gradually begin to lose the popularity he coveted at election. His silence and seeming disregard to matters requiring urgent paternal remonstration is becoming vexing to many including his most ardent supporters. Yet, many Nigerians believe that this president, with his reputed integrity, possesses the capacity to unite Nigerians. Therefore, his personal attitude to matters of public interest needs rethinking. The president should be able to own this presidency by giving a national outlook to his personality. His administration should not carry on in a manner that suggests a promotion of animosity and disunity.

The president and his team should understand that they are obligated by law and conscience to serve the people. They were elected by all the people, and they should be cautious in their utterances so as not to, God forbid, ‘nationalise’ such protests. Whatever the problem or gaffe, it has to be resolved within a democratic context – by genuinely dialoguing with all stakeholders – youth leaders, religious leaders and

Whether or not he believes them, the president should cultivate simple symbolic gestures, in words and actions that imbue confidence, nationalism, and patriotism in all Nigerian people. Their potency is far greater than any damage-control through official image-laundering. Either by proxy or directly, the president should not encourage any form of patronage to clannish prejudices and old rivalry, even if he believes otherwise. That is the sacrifice his position as president demands.

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