Pro-Biafra-protesters

As things stand, the federal government by reason of its unintelligent management of dissent, its heedless opening of new frontiers of radical discontent at a time that law enforcement and military assets are stretched thin, is our pre-eminent security risk.


It is in the nature of governments to have enemies. Successive administrations, by reason of their agenda and the circumstances of their ascendancy, generate their own antitheses. Sometimes, the dynamics of a state’s existence may inspire contradictory micronationalisms and micro-exceptionalisms. What is unheard of in the annals of statecraft is that an administration actively mass-produces adversaries and converts even neutral bystanders into hostile actors. This is the sorry record that President Muhammadu Buhari’s administration is now setting.

When during his inaugural address President Muhammadu Buhari pledged to investigate allegations of human rights abuses against the military, it suggested an imminent radical departure from the excesses of the past. Instead, a year on, his administration is scripting its own bloody chapter of state terror.

In December 2015, the army massacred hundreds of men, women and children in an assault on the Shia compound in Zaria and abducted the cleric Sheikh Ibrahim El Zakzaky while destroying his home and the movement’s mosque. El Zakzaky’s whereabouts remain unknown after six months in government’s custody. According to the Secretary to the Kaduna State Government who testified before a judicial commission of inquiry into the killings, 347 Shiites were buried in mass graves. A few days later in Onitsha, troops killed twelve people who were celebrating the court-ordered release of Nnamdi Kanu, the director of Radio Biafra. The killings had been preceded by threats by the army against the peaceful pro-Biafra protests in the Southeast which it described as treasonable.

PREMIUM TIMES has produced excellent reports detailing a pattern of extrajudicial mass murder by the army and security forces since last December in the South-East that has claimed scores of lives. The report is a ghastly mosaic of summary executions, detentions, abductions and torture perpetrated by the state agents, mass graves, young men and women callously cut down while exercising their constitutional rights, and families plunged into grief while performing the grisly task of identifying their children’s remains. Amnesty International recently issued a report accusing the army of killing 17 members of the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) in May. Expectedly, the army denounced the allegations as unfounded. However, an in-depth report by PREMIUM TIMES corroborated by a whistle-blowing agent of the Department of State Services portrays an even larger scale of wrongdoing.

Is this Fifth Column Intrigue or the Rebirth of Tyranny?

In the early 1980s, Buhari’s military regime was infamous for its human rights abuses and its repression of civil society. But these violations were largely limited to the proscription of groups like the medical association, the jailing of journalists under draconian decrees and the Gestapo-like tactics of the Nigeria Security Organisation (NSO). There were no massacres of civilians. However, in Buhari’s second coming, there has been a throwback to the darkest manifestations of official violence. Bizarrely, more civilians have been killed by the state during Buhari’s democratic incarnation than under his previous dictatorial stint.

Do these killings represent a pervasive collapse of professionalism and discipline in the armed services or an even more sinister pathology? Senior officers and armed services veterans often lament the decline in the quality of training available to recruits. The widespread degeneracy of our national institutions has not left the military and other strategic establishments unscathed.

Early in this administration, presidential spokesman, Garba Shehu averred that Buhari’s mere body language was exerting a transformative impact on governance. In his media parley on December 30, 2015, Buhari poured scorn on the idea of the police investigating the military’s excesses and defended his administration’s disregard of court orders for the release of Nnamdi Kanu and the detained former national security adviser, Sambo Dasuki. In a subsequent interview on Al Jazeera, the president seemed unmoved and even irritated when questioned about human rights violations by security forces in the South-East.

The persistent domestic deployment of the army for civilian policing tasks on domestic soil in violation of the constitutional requirement of Senatorial approval, as stated in Section 217, is a clear example of official lawlessness and impunity. Such illegally and unconstitutionally deployed troops are responsible for the massacres in Zaria and in the South-East.


These acts of criminal impunity could well be the result of security chiefs interpreting and simulating their Commander-in-Chief’s body language. Quite possibly, they have divined from Buhari’s ramrod posture a license to treat Shiites and pro-Biafra activists as undesirable elements, to abbreviate their civil liberties, and to terminate them with extreme prejudice.

Years after his ouster in August 1985, Buhari claimed that many of the outrages attributed to the NSO under his watch had, in fact, been perpetrated by rogue elements of the military intelligence establishment in a campaign to smear his regime from within. These outrages were then cited in the case for ousting him made by his successor, Major General Ibrahim Babangida. Could there be a fifth column embedded within this government directing these atrocities, ordaining the certain alienation of vast swathes of the population, with perhaps the ultimate goal of destabilising the nation and ensuring that Buhari’s is a one-term presidency?

This may seem like conspiracy-theorising but it is also rooted in the assumption that states are supremely rational actors, coldly computing their national interests and acting accordingly with clinical precision. In this instance, the Buhari administration is acting profoundly irrationally and essaying an approach that actually amplifies national security threats.

The persistent domestic deployment of the army for civilian policing tasks on domestic soil in violation of the constitutional requirement of Senatorial approval, as stated in Section 217, is a clear example of official lawlessness and impunity. Such illegally and unconstitutionally deployed troops are responsible for the massacres in Zaria and in the South-East.

Carrots and Sticks

The fact that groups like IPOB and the Movement for the Actualisation of the Sovereign State of Biafra (MASSOB) are fundamentally pacifist groups has not spared them iron-fisted treatment by the state dating back to the early 2000s. In the South-East, a process of radicalisation has been ongoing for the last decade. Despite MASSOB founder Raph Uwazurike’s avowed non-violence, his fellow activists were harassed and extra-judicially killed for little more than displaying Biafran flags and currency. Younger activists, shorn of their founder’s pacific temper have adopted a more assertive approach. It is worth pointing out that the recent killings in the South-East were preceded by the DSS’s mendacious attempt to demonise and criminalise IPOB, by accusing the group of murdering “Hausa-Fulanis” without offering proof or presenting individuals for prosecution.

The final nail in the coffin of pacific dissent appears to have been hammered in by this administration’s mindless slaughters in the South-East. We are probably witnessing the transfiguration of a peaceful protest movement into a popular insurrection. When a few years hence, another insurgency arises to confront the state, amnesiac elites will profess bafflement at why anti-state violence has become so chronic.

Given the state’s record of applying maximum lethal force to peaceful protesters and offering amnesties to violent groups that match its murderous brutality, how can the reasonable person not come to believe that violence is the only language the Nigerian government understands and the only currency in which it will trade? Should it really surprise anyone that we have sired a generation for whom terrorism is at once a means of protest, politics, and self-assertion, as well as a means of extracting concessions from the authorities?

Buhari’s May 29 address pointedly ignored the killings by militant pastoralists – the group which apart from Boko Haram has accounted for more deaths of Nigerians – and instead made belligerent threats against those attacking the nation’s energy infrastructure in the Niger Delta. That single paragraph projected the moral bankruptcy of a state that values oil more than human lives, and prioritises resource extraction over the protection of citizens.


“Carrots and sticks” are a cliché in Nigerian crisis management. But the state bizarrely reserves the carrots for violent actors and uses the sticks for pacifist groups. This means bombing dissenters with military ordnance and bombing dissidents with raw cash. Consequently, after attacks by militant herdsmen, the government does not express its resolve to hunt down the perpetrators and secure justice for the victims but instead makes concessionary offers of grazing reserves. Militancy in the Niger Delta brought forth a federal ministry, a federal agency, and an amnesty programme that morphed into a welfare scheme for brigands along with lucrative pipeline surveillance and maritime security contracts with no benefit to the ordinary people of the region but with enormous dividends to the retailers of violence.

Even now as another criminal group lays waste to energy infrastructure in the Niger Delta, there are those who will dress up appeasement in the robes of pragmatism urging bigger cash payments and more contracts to the new warlords. The Nigerian approach to dissent – bribe ‘em or bomb ‘em – is grossly inadequate.

As the state belches increasingly empty threats and engages in futilely theatrical deployments of hardware, the embarrassing vulnerability of our national security architecture has been laid bare by non-state actors that can casually destroy our critical infrastructure and hit offshore oil facilities within our coastal waters – and tweet about it. Not a single chieftain of our clearly compromised military, intelligence, security and law enforcement institutions has lost his job and none is in danger of doing so. Not one has been summoned by the Senate to explain how these attacks are possible. But this is the same Senate that barely recognises its own constitutional role of approving domestic military deployments. Like a deranged schoolyard bully, the Nigerian state overcompensates for its instability to tackle actual security threats by visiting mayhem upon protest movements.

Buhari’s May 29 address pointedly ignored the killings by militant pastoralists – the group which apart from Boko Haram has accounted for more deaths of Nigerians – and instead made belligerent threats against those attacking the nation’s energy infrastructure in the Niger Delta. That single paragraph projected the moral bankruptcy of a state that values oil more than human lives, and prioritises resource extraction over the protection of citizens.

Conclusion

The biggest threat to Nigeria’s national security are not terror groups or dissident factions, but the culture of violence and the corresponding cheapening of human life of which the Nigerian state itself has historically been the biggest purveyor. The proliferation of armed non-state actors and the privatisation of violence are equal and opposite reactions to an illiberal state whose dysfunction as a vector of development is matched only by its unhinged viciousness. We have created a feral society.

Any administration truly committed to reversing our negative national security indices must confront this culture of violence in all its ramifications, by rigorously affirming the value and sanctity of human life, humanising and domesticating the state, and fully subjecting the armed services not just to civilian control but to civilising constraints. Nothing has eroded faith in the republic like the wanton wastage of life either by state forces or by non-state actors exploiting the negligence or complicity of the state. As things stand, the federal government by reason of its unintelligent management of dissent, its heedless opening of new frontiers of radical discontent at a time that law enforcement and military assets are stretched thin, is our pre-eminent security risk.

The administration must consider that given the depth of discontent in the land, the potential pool of recruitment for our undermanned armed services has been tainted by disaffection. The possibility of recruiting potential malcontents and subversives is high. It must also consider that continued atrocities like those in the South-East and in Zaria will engender sectarian polarities inside the armed forces and allied agencies.

The relative silence of the mainstream traditional media over these atrocities may indicate a politically-inspired compliance with the party line, a general desensitisation to such horrors or, worse, the acceptance that pro-Biafra protesters and Shiites are “undesirables” that deserve casual and cynical liquidation. The scale of bloodshed under review is enough to end careers and up-end governments.


In the absence of any coherent national security doctrine, the armed services appear to have taken on the prejudices and bigotries of their leading actors, notably rabid anti-Shia sentiment and Igbophobia. By pandering to these base impulses and indulging those that harbour them, the administration is effectively delegitimising itself. If these killings are not addressed, they will suffocate Buhari’s presidency and irreparably taint his legacy. However lofty its goals, this government cannot prosecute development in a climate of strife. Those behind these atrocities, wherever they are in the chain of command, must be fished out and punished to the fullest extent of the law.

In a democracy, protest is not merely a right; it is a critical valve for discontent that keeps it pure. When it is brutally forced underground by state repression, it is sure to erupt again with primal fury. The state must overcome its reflexively savage response to the idea of Biafra and must make peace with the past. The civil war and all its attendant horrors are historical facts. Denying them or attempting to expunge them from history only ensures that the bitter lessons of that epoch are lost and that those tragedies will be re-enacted to our grief.

The relative silence of the mainstream traditional media over these atrocities may indicate a politically-inspired compliance with the party line, a general desensitisation to such horrors or, worse, the acceptance that pro-Biafra protesters and Shiites are “undesirables” that deserve casual and cynical liquidation. The scale of bloodshed under review is enough to end careers and up-end governments. The administration’s saving grace so far is less the fanatical devotion of its support base than an opposition that is proving even more useless at opposing than it was at governing. It is left for citizens to pick up the slack, at least, until an intelligent opposition emerges.

Chris Ngwodo is a writer, consultant and analyst.