How then does Nigeria solve a problem like Kanu? Obviously, good governance is essential. So is justice. As Wole Soyinka stated at the end of the civil war, “To keep Nigeria one, justice must be done.” Unity is always an outcome of other variables; never a given. Nigeria’s elites are eloquent preachers of unity and inept practitioners of justice.
A democracy is not an end in itself. It must guarantee social justice and social mobility. People must have a sense that they have a clear path to full creative lives and a fair chance of changing the material circumstances of their birth. They must believe that they can transcend the limitations of their pedigree and become what they choose to be. This is the substance of the hope that sustains democracy. Without the hope that our material conditions are not written in stone and can be changed through effort, society is imperiled. Democracy withers away in the presence of hopelessness. What, after all, is the point of voting when those electoral choices have no impact on one’s quality of life?
When democracy fails to underwrite social justice and social mobility, it fuels hopelessness. In these circumstances, faith in formal politics as a tool of socioeconomic betterment diminishes and demagogues emerge from the margins to contest the legitimacy of the state itself. Demagogues typically emerge in times of socioeconomic upheaval retailing narratives that purport to explain the tribulations of the masses. They also supply scapegoats and help focus public rage on a perceived enemy. They are adept at exploiting the grievances and fury of the masses, articulating their discontent in ways that are pungent, jarringly politically incorrect and emotional urgent. They are mob-whisperers. At the peak of their powers, they can win the visceral allegiance of their audiences and marshal them with a certainty that confounds and threatens the custodians of the status quo.
This is the dynamic that explains the rise of Nnamdi Kanu in the national consciousness. This analysis is significant. Understanding the reasons for Kanu’s appeal is more important than attempting to contain him at this point because in the final analysis he is not in and of himself important. He is a consequence rather than a cause; a symptom rather than a syndrome. As long as Nigeria continues to produce suboptimal socioeconomic outcomes there will always be demagogues with the rhetorical power to stir subversive subnational or sectarian enthusiasms.
This leads to another point. A nation is not an end in itself. People congregate in nations chiefly for the purpose of self-actualisation. We prioritise the sociopolitical arrangements that will best enable us to self-actualise. This is why people migrate and seek residency in and citizenship of other countries. It is also why Western nations, through strategically conceived immigration policies, are sucking the most talented people from all over the world with the promise that those climes offer the best environment for these adventurers to fulfill their potential. The need to self-actualise is greater and more urgent than any nativist or patriotic sentiments that a nation can evoke. Indeed, a nation’s ability to elicit patriotic allegiance is predicated on its ability to enable the self-actualisation of its citizens. When a mass of people perceive that their extant sociopolitical context cannot guarantee their self-actualisation, they seek to exercise their right to self-determination. This is how separatist movements are born.
Any intellectually honest appraisal of Nigeria must conclude that it fails on these fronts. Ours is a desperately unjust and unfair country. For the vast majority of our people, Nigeria offers neither social justice nor social mobility. Unable to ensure self-actualisation for the majority, she also seeks to deny them their recourse to self-determination. Such misguided obduracy will only continue to breed radical resentment with the status quo from various quarters. In the South, tribal identity is the cornerstone of populism because ethnicity has traditionally been the organising principle of political society. In the North where religion was the organising principle of society, populists wield religious symbols and metaphors as instruments of political mobilisation hence the persistent appeal of radical Islamic clerics and politicians who calculatedly call for the adoption of Sharia Law.
The most profound thing about Kanu is his ultimate inconsequence in the grand scheme of things. He is merely the messenger of the moment. Even if he is taken down by an uncharacteristic feat of diligent prosecution, as long as the material conditions that enabled his rise remain, they will also inspire other, possibly more militant, provocateurs.
Kanu is a demagogue and a tribal populist who has appropriated a powerful totem of historical memory in the South-East i.e. “Biafra”, demonised other Nigerian ethnic communities, trafficked in hate, and exploited the long term sense of alienation in the South-East to energise a protest movement with an ill-conceived separatist vision. But the pro-Biafra movement is fundamentally a protest movement with secessionist overtones rather than a secessionist movement that is protesting. There is a marked discontinuity between the present pro-Biafra movement and the secessionist republic of the 1960s. This is to be expected as the movement comprises a generation that is too young to have witnessed the civil war and whose grievances are more contemporary than historical. The rage that fuels the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) is discontent and disillusionment with the Nigerian state and the unsated desire of a young population for access to social and economic opportunities.
Buhari and Kanu as Thesis and Antithesis
Yet for all his prowess, Kanu’s appeal was not inevitable. Two years ago, he was virtually unknown to most Nigerians. It has taken the presidency of Muhammadu Buhari to drag Kanu from the margins into the centre of national consciousness. If Kanu’s parlour trick has been to portray the Muslim Hausa-Fulani elite as an oppressive hate figure, Buhari’s undoing has been his willingness to fit the profile. Since 1999, no politician has seemed so committed to proving his traducers right. From Buhari’s expressed intent to discriminate against those that did not vote for him (the ill-fated 97 percent – five percent remark in Washington in 2015) and his professed bewilderment as to what the Igbos want to his deafening silence on clashes involving Fulani herders and his swatting off of questions on Al Jazeera about the extra-judicial killings of pro-Biafra protesters, Buhari has worn the garment of Kanu’s caricature of the Northern ruler like a bespoke suit.
The fact that the president personally insisted on national TV that Kanu would remain incarcerated despite court orders for his release, and in the light of an apparently bungled prosecution, and appeared to implicitly justify the murder of scores of pro-Biafra protesters by security forces, as well as the ill-conceived militarisation of the South-East under Operation Python Dance last year only hastened Kanu’s transformation from public nuisance to prophet and prisoner of conscience. It also raised the profile of IPOB. Buhari has been the biggest boon to Kanu’s career as a provocateur and a gift from the gods to the pro-Biafra movement. Even now, Buhari’s medical incapacitation and Acting President Yemi Osinbajo’s political incapacitation due to the intrigues in the presidency, despite the latter’s best efforts at personal troubleshooting and internal diplomacy, have deepened the leadership vacuum that allows people like Kanu to flourish. In many respects, Kanu owes his rise to the Buhari administration’s spectacularly unintelligent management of dissent.
The Messenger Is Not Important
The most profound thing about Kanu is his ultimate inconsequence in the grand scheme of things. He is merely the messenger of the moment. Even if he is taken down by an uncharacteristic feat of diligent prosecution, as long as the material conditions that enabled his rise remain, they will also inspire other, possibly more militant, provocateurs. Kanu is the third figure in a tradition of agitation that dates back to the emergence of Raph Uwazurike and the Movement for the Actualisation of the Sovereign State of Biafra (MASSOB) in 1999 and subsequently, Benjamin Onwuka and the Biafran Zionist Front (BZF). Kanu’s ascendancy has coincided with the ouster of Uwazurike by younger, more radical and uncompromising elements. This coup was inevitable given the radicalisation of younger protesters by state violence and their disillusionment with Uwazuruike’s avowal of pacifism in the face of savage repression by the Nigerian state. Thus, the crowning irony of the present circumstances is that Kanu, despite his claims of Biafran personhood, is very much a creature of Nigeria.
Nigeria also continues to provide circumstantial evidence that bolster Kanu’s case against her. When recently, a group of northern youth groups met in Kaduna and issued a quit notice to Igbos in the North, with its implicit threat of ethnic cleansing, it was met with a flurry of condemnation from most quarters as hate speech. Federal and state authorities, as well as the police, have taken pains to reassure Igbos that they face no imminent threat. Governor Nasir El Rufai ordered the arrest of the provocateurs. For whatever reason, that arrest has not been carried out. Naturally, critics have not been slow to compare the haste with which Audu Maikori was arrested for “incitement” in Lagos and flown to Kaduna with the sudden incapacity of the police to arrest the inciters that comfortably committed their own crime in Kaduna itself. These kinds of inconsistencies fortify the sense that the Nigerian state is inherently unjust, that even in the application of her own laws, she is far from impartial, and that the state’s might is merely a weapon of a particular sectional interest. Nigeria daily makes Kanu’s case easy and his argument difficult to rebut.
…we should embrace the idea that Kanu’s impact is not entirely malign. Figures like him, in their own way, project feedback to the government. They highlight the pressure points of society. His combative and frequently offensive candour is also forcing us to have frank conversations that we typically shy away from.
Kanu may be a charlatan but his charlatanry is an equal and opposite reaction to that of the politicians who run Nigeria. Were he to parlay his grassroots appeal into electoral capital and seek a career in formal politics, he would find himself in the company of kindred souls.
How then does Nigeria solve a problem like Kanu? Obviously, good governance is essential. So is justice. As Wole Soyinka stated at the end of the civil war, “To keep Nigeria one, justice must be done.” Unity is always an outcome of other variables; never a given. Nigeria’s elites are eloquent preachers of unity and inept practitioners of justice. It will take competent governance and justice to drain the oceans of discontent from which demagogues fish for disciples.
Concurrently, we should embrace the idea that Kanu’s impact is not entirely malign. Figures like him, in their own way, project feedback to the government. They highlight the pressure points of society. His combative and frequently offensive candour is also forcing us to have frank conversations that we typically shy away from.
Kanu’s rhetorical threat to Nigeria’s existence might also force us to take full ownership of a country that we often take for granted. The work of building Nigeria is not just a job for politicians. It is ours. Kanu’s historical purpose may be to create an irreconcilable polarity between the custodians of an unsustainable status quo and those who believe Nigeria to be so unworkable that it is time to dismantle her. This polarity of extremist forces tugging in diametrically opposed directions creates space and opportunity in the centre for reformers who argue that while Nigeria as presently configured does not work for the vast majority of her population, the solution lies not in her dissolution but a deepening of her democratisation – the proper term for what is popularly referred to as “restructuring.”
Chris Ngwodo is a writer, consultant and analyst.