Simon Kolawole: Python Dance and the bite of Biafra

by Simon Kolawole


Lt. Gen. Tukur Buratai, the army chief, is a famous snake farmer. Naturally, he had no hesitation in unleashing pythons on south-eastern Nigeria to enforce the peace. The pythons have been dancing dangerously. Our polity, sharply divided along ethno-religious lines, is writhing in snake poison. The aim of Python Dance II, as the military operation is code-named, is to tackle “mindless assassinations (even in religious places), attacks on security personnel and theft of weapons, kidnappings, armed banditry and violent agitations by secessionist groups, amongst other crimes that have recently bedevilled the region”, according to the army chief of operations.

There are military operations in the north-west (Operation Harbin Kunama — “scorpion sting”) and the north-east (Operation Lafiya Dole – “peace by all means”), but Operation Egwu Eke (“python dance”) in the south-east is the one dividing opinion. On one side are those who think the clampdown is necessary to send signals to secessionists (and bandits) that the government still has the capacity to enforce law and order. If Nnamdi Kanu, the “Supreme Leader” of Biafra, and his boys are not contained, more groups may embark on balkanization campaigns. Crush them and let them know there is still a government in power and in control. That is one argument.

On the other side of the divide are those who are wondering, as the Yoruba would say, “Kilagbe, kileju?” (“Why kill an ant with a sledgehammer?”) After all, there have been agitations in different parts of the country over the decades and the Nigerian state has not been this ruthless in dealing with what is, in the main, a largely peaceful campaign by the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB). Unlike the Niger Delta militants and Boko Haram jihadists, IPOB has not launched an armed campaign yet. And unlike the Oodua People’s Congress (OPC) in the late 1990s and early 2000s, IPOB did not attack police stations before the Python Dance. Well, that is the other argument.

There are several narratives out there. There is a strong belief that Kanu has the tacit backing of Igbo leaders, both political and traditional. Kanu was just a UK-based internet warrior campaigning for the re-election of President Goodluck “Azikiwe” Jonathan in 2015, using all known foul language to oppose the “Awusa people” (pejorative name for northern Muslims, whether or not they are Hausa). He revved up his poor language and hate speech when Jonathan lost the election. He soon came to town to pursue the secession of Biafra from the Nigerian “zoo”. His message resonated with so many young Igbo people who promptly signed up for his cause. Hate sells, if I may add.

The emergence of IPOB was viewed in Aso Rock as blackmail. Initial security reports fingered a former senator from Ebonyi state and a governor from the south-south as the financiers. With the APC/PDP poison still fresh and deadly, the natural instinct of the Buhari administration was to deploy a strong-arm response to the “blackmail”. If the arrest of Kanu in 2015 turned him from a mere internet noisemaker to a freedom fighter, the refusal of the government to release him on bail after several court orders turned him into a carbon copy of Nelson Mandela among his fans. He won many sympathisers and his crowd ballooned.

But what made Kanu possible? This is where the issues, most unfortunately, get muddled up. In an underdeveloped, multi-ethnic country still struggling to build a strong union, mutual suspicion cannot be ignored. There is always this fear of domination. We can theorise and pontificate all we want, but we cannot wish it away. There is a fear among the Igbo that there is an agenda to punish them for not voting for Buhari. Kanu seized the opportunity and preyed on the fear. Things were not helped by Buhari’s Freudian slip on the way he would treat those who gave him 97% of their votes compared to those who gave him a paltry 5%.

Some people have tried to justify the 97% vs 5% formula by saying the Igbo should live with the political choices they made in 2015. If you did not vote for Buhari, then don’t expect anything significant from him. I disagree. It is said that you draw your friends “close” and your enemies “closer”. Since the Igbo did not vote for Buhari, the ultimate political strategy should be to win them over, not to alienate them. President Olusegun Obasanjo did not score up to 25% in the south-west in the 1999 election. He courted them by any means. In 2003, he got over 90%. Politics works better this way. If I were Buhari, I would court my opponents. Who needs enemies?

Interestingly, the principle of federal character was conceived to foster integration, “to promote unity and command national loyalty”, according to the 1999 constitution. Ironically, this principle is always heavily criticised by my Igbo friends who think merit and federal character are incompatible. Many southerners still operate under the colonial-era mindset that northerners are illiterates and can only benefit from appointments under federal character, not on merit. Yet, the biggest complaint from the south-east today is lack of federal character in Buhari’s appointments! For those who think balancing doesn’t matter in a diverse society, they should wear the shoe first.

Having said this, I now need to emphasise my points. One, I do not support Kanu. For sure, I do not like the kind of tongue in Kanu’s mouth. I once watched a video clip of him calling any Igbo who attends a church led by a Yoruba an “imbecile”. God forbid that I support such hate for the Yoruba and Hausa, and obscene verbal attacks on Buhari. Nevertheless, Kanu did not invent hate speech in Nigeria. We must condemn every form of hate speech. I once made this point on a forum and only escaped lynching by the skin of my teeth. Bizarrely, you have people who condemn the hate speech of IPOB and condone that of Arewa youth, and vice-versa. Hypocrisy is human nature.

Two, I do not believe Kanu speaks on behalf of Ndi Igbo, even though many of them might have been enjoying his antics. But there are two issues that we should not muddle up. One is the feeling of marginalisation, the other is the approach in voicing out the feeling. Kanu may be expressing the grievances of the average Igbo, but his rhetoric, methods and tactics should not be regarded as the official communiqué from the south-east. Kanu’s poor manners should not offer a red herring to sweep the complaints of the Igbo under the carpet. No attempt should be made to silence or intimidate the Igbo because of Kanu’s adult delinquency.

Three, we need an honest conversation around the complaints of marginalisation by the Igbo, variously expressed by IPOB and Ohanaeze Ndigbo. Are they saying the truth or not? Can we have a complete list of all the appointments made by Buhari since he assumed office on May 29, 2015 and do a zone-by-zone analysis to determine if indeed he has been fair to them? We can look at these issues dispassionately and honestly without throwing stones at each other. There is a scientific way of looking at things, devoid of biases and prejudices but based purely on facts and figures. I will welcome a fact-based analysis on this. Let’s be very sure of what we are dealing with.

On the surface, though, I do not agree with IPOB that the Igbo are so marginalised that the only option left for them is secession. Kilagbe, kileju? There are always other options. Under Jonathan, just a little over two years ago, Igbo certainly got a good bargain even if the masses in the south-east did not feel the impact. This does not justify anything going on under Buhari, but it should put things in perspective. Even then, the show of brute force by the pythons is totally unnecessary. Kilagbe, kileju? Government is already in court to get Kanu’s bail revoked. Why not wait for the court? Why pour so much venom on Aba? You can never enforce unity with guns. Never ever

At this point, I want to plead with those extremists stoking ethnoreligious tension across Nigeria to calm down. I would also advise Kanu to calm down. Is he battle-ready for the Nigerian military as things stand? It needs reminding that our military has a record of massacring defenceless civilians in Odi, Zaki Biam, Baga, Bama, Gbaramatu and Zaria. Up till today, there is no chance of justice. Kanu should stop inviting pythons to bite the people he says he is fighting for. As the Great Zik once said, only a fool will argue with a man who has a gun. Snake bites are deadly. If you don’t have the antidote, you will dance with death. Wisdom is the principal thing. My two cents.

Those who don’t know how linked we are in Nigeria after 100 years of amalgamation should have gained some knowledge from our present circumstances. The report that some Hausa residents in Port Harcourt were attacked led to a reprisal in Jos. And suddenly the whole of the north was tensed up, with millions of Igbo lives in danger. If, God forbid, killing and counter-killing of innocent people are not prevented, the whole of Nigeria, north and south, will soon be swimming in human blood. Nobody is safe, even in the relatively peaceful south-west. Nigeria is delicately poised. I hope those who specialise in promoting ethnic and religious hate understand this fact. Boomerang.

Maybe I missed the news — what has become of the Arewa youth who gathered somewhere in Kaduna and issued a quit notice to all Igbo in the north because of Nnamdi Kanu’s reckless utterances? In a society where there is anything called fairness and justice, they should be facing different charges in court right now. Nobody has any right to issue quit notice to anyone on the basis of ethnicity and religion, and I hope we are not setting a bad precedent by treating these lawless guys like national heroes. The October 1 ultimatum might have been withdrawn (as if it were legal in the first place) but the seed has been sown. Nobody knows what will happen next. Danger.

In my opinion, the tension in the country today is a direct consequence of the bitterness that surrounded the 2015 elections. It was the most bitterly fought election in recent times and some people cannot just seem to be able to get over it. I often dream of a country where as soon as elections are over, we are back together on the same train. Regrettably, we are permanently in election mode. Winners gloat and losers try to make the country ungovernable. Yet what we need badly is more integration, not recrimination. My position remains: politics does not have to be a zero-sum game. It can be a win-win in the spirit of nation-building. Pragmatism.

I recently made reference to the statement by Chief Bisi Akande, former governor of Osun state, that the 1999 constitution is Nigeria’s greatest misadventure since 1914. In fairness to him, he also highlighted several ills with Nigeria, particularly leadership, in the speech he made in Osogbo, Osun state, in July. He said: “Some of the new breed elected leaders do not even appreciate that the 60,000km of roads claimed to have been paved out of Nigeria’s present 193,000km… have already been taken over by pot-holes. Such leaders are crowded in state capitals and Abuja, bluffing the rest of us at our roadless villages with fleets of exotic cars under their control.” Word!

Op–ed pieces and contributions are the opinions of the writers only and do not represent the opinions of Y!/YNaija

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