BusinessDay

Political solution to separatism in Nigeria must tackle its root causes

The truth is incontrovertible. There is no military solution to separatist agitations in Nigeria. Separatism is, at its core, a political problem, which can only be tackled through a political solution. This is why Abubakar Malami, Minister for Justice and Attorney-General of the Federation, was right when he hinted recently that the Federal Government might consider a “political solution” to the problem of separatism in Nigeria. He did not, however, define what he meant by “political solution”. But it’s undoubtedly clear that any political solution must address the root causes of separatist agitations in Nigeria, not just the symptoms.

Sadly, some people view “political solution” mainly through the effects of separatism; they interpret it to mean merely the release of Nnamdi Kanu, leader of the Indigenous People of Biafra, IPOB, who is currently in detention facing trial, and Sunday “Igboho” Adeyemo, the Yoruba Nation agitator, who is being detained in Benin Republic and who the Nigerian government wants to extradite to the country to face trial. Since Malami’s intervention, there have been calls for the release of the two separatist leaders.

Recently, prominent Igbo leaders under a group called “Highly Respected Igbo Greats”, led by Chief Mbazulike Amaechi, the only surviving First Republic Minister, went to Abuja to beg President Muhammadu Buhari to release Kanu. On the tail of the Igbo leaders’ visit to Aso Rock, Yoruba leaders were under pressure to meet President Buhari and beg him to free Igboho. For instance, one traditional leader urged monarchs, elders and stakeholders in Yorubaland to visit the president and plead for Igboho’s release.

But while these leaders are well intentioned, they are wrong. For by begging President Buhari to free Kanu and Igboho, they condone his abuse of power and allow him to take the moral high ground, which is utterly undeserved!

Read Also: Demands for Nnamdi Kanu’s release difficult, but I will consider – Buhari

The truth is, Kanu and Igboho are political prisoners. Their offence or “crime”, which is advocating self-determination for their people, is protected under international law. The principle of non-extradition of political offenders is universally recognised, so is the right of self-determination. Therefore, the extraordinary rendition of Kanu from Kenya and the fatal brutalisation of Igboho’s household are condemnable acts of state violence. Thus, the government should release Kanu and Igboho without octogenarian and nonagenarian elder statesmen having to kowtow before the president begging for their release.

Perversely, President Buhari said the Igbo leaders “made an extremely difficult demand” on him by asking him to release Kanu. According to Buhari, the demand would make him “interfere in the work of the Judiciary”, which would “run contrary to the doctrine of separation of powers.” But that’s utterly disingenuous. Why? Because the state is the prosecutor in both cases and can always terminate the proceedings.

A few months ago, I was a juror in a criminal case in London. Three days into the trial, the judge told us, the 12 members of the jury, that the prosecutor, that is, the Crown Prosecution Service, a state agency, had decided to terminate the proceedings due to the insufficiency of the evidence. Under the UK’s Code for Crown Prosecutors and, indeed, under the code for prosecutors in any truly democratic and civilised society, prosecutors must terminate proceedings in a case if there is not enough evidence against the defendant and/or if it is not in the public interest to continue the prosecution, the proceedings.

Now, the truth is that both conditions for termination of proceedings exist in the Kanu and Igboho cases. First, the charges levelled against them, such as linking Igboho with Boko Haram, are so frivolous and politically motivated that there can’t be enough evidence against them. Second, it’s not in the public interest to continue the proceedings against them, not least because they are political offenders and their political “crime”, albeit involving isolated incidence of violence, pales into insignificance when compared with the murderous activities of Boko Haram terrorists and the bandits, who have just been declared as terrorists by a court. Yet, while Kanu and Igboho are in detention, leaders of the bandits and Fulani herdsmen militia are seemingly untouchable!

So, on evidential and public interest grounds, the Federal Government have no basis for continuing the proceedings against Kanu and Igbohoand should free them without the ugly spectacle of respected elder statesmen grovelling before the president!

But something really struck me about what Chief Amaechi said during the Igbo leaders’ visit to President Buhari. The elder stateman, First Republic Minister of Aviation and the only surviving minister from that era, said that if Buhari released Kanu to him, “he (Kanu) would no longer say the things he had been saying”, adding that he could control the IPOB leader!

That’s really extraordinary! Was Chief Amaechi saying that if Kanu was released from detention, he would no longer agitate for an independent state of Biafra? It would be utterly strange if Kanu’s release from detention leads to his Damascene conversion, to a sudden and complete change in his beliefs. Surely, the only commitment Kanu could give to Chief Amaechi is that he would not advocate violence. But he won’t promise to repudiate his beliefs and stop calling for a referendum on “Biafran” independence from Nigeria.

Let’s be clear. IPOB is not calling for automatic or unilateral secession. What they are calling for is a referendum to decide the matter. Most civilised countries, such as the UK and Canada, allow for such a referendum. And if a referendum is held in Nigeria, there’s no guarantee that IPOB would win it. Indeed, there’s the likelihood that most Igbo would vote to remain Nigeria, just as most Quebecers voted to remain in Canada during the Quebec referendum in 1995, and most Scots voted to remain the UK during the Scottish independence referendum in 2014. But merely releasing Kanu from detention won’t stop him from calling for an independence referendum to decide the future of the Igbo in Nigeria.

Take the Spanish example. In June this year, the Spanish government pardoned and released from jail nine Catalan separatists, who led a failed independence attempt in 2017. But as they walked through the prison gates, they posed for a photograph alongside a Catalan independence flag and a banner reading “Freedom for Catalan”. In other words, the prison sentences and the pardon did not extinguish their belief in independence for Catalonia. What’s more, the Spanish government did not ask them to abandon their beliefs. Rather, Prime minister Pedro Sanchez said that his government decided to pardon theseparatists to “draw a line under past confrontations” and “open the way for talks”.

That’s precisely what should happen in Nigeria. Any political solution to Nigeria’s separatism problem cannot just be about Kanu and Igboho. Rather, it must open the way for dialogue, negotiation and agreement to tackle the root causes of the separatist impulses. Truth is: separatism in Nigeria is not without a cause; it’s rooted in a deep-seated sense of injustice and fear of ethnic domination, caused by Nigeria’s structural imbalance, as well asPresident Buhari’s mishandling of Nigeria’s diversity.

Recently, in a BBC interview, Governor Seyi Makinde of Oyo State asked: “Why don’t we have a Service Chief from the South-East?”When Arise TV asked President Buhari that question earlier this year, Buhari responded condescendingly: “You can’t just pick people to balance out; the positions have to be earned”, implying that no Igbo in the military deserves the topmost position. Such insensitivity breeds resentment and fuels separatist tendencies.

So, political solution to separatist agitations in Nigeria must not stop at freeing Kanu and Igboho. It must also tackle the underlying causes of separatism. At the core of that solution is the restructuring of Nigeria, underpinned by the principles of equity, fairness and justice!

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