NNAMDI KANU: Time For Freedom -By Ebun-Olu Adegboruwa, SAN

Last week, governors of the South-East States suddenly woke up from their prolonged slumber, opting to pursue a political solution towards securing the freedom of Mazi Nnamdi Kanu, the leader of the Indigenous People of Biafra, IPOB. And as if jolted by some inexplicable circumstances, South-East Senators also scampered around Abuja to meet with the Honourable Attorney-General of the Federation. This should have been done many years ago, but it is still not too late. Kanu was born some 56 years ago and is best known as a British political activist advocating for the secession and independence of Biafra from Nigeria. He is the leader of IPOB, which he founded in 2012. The main aim of IPOB is to restore the defunct separatist state of Biafra which existed in Nigeria’s Eastern Region during the civil war of 1967-1970. The case of Kanu appears complicated presently but I will try to summarize it in the best way I can. Radio Biafra is a registered communication outfit based in the United Kingdom and was managed by Kanu, through which he propagated Biafran separatism. He became very popular amongst the Igbos, especially those within the middle class. He was at all times an associate of Ralph Uwazurike, the leader of the Movement for the Actualization of Sovereign State of Biafra (MASSOB). Through his constant broadcast from London, Kanu became very popular with the Igbos, who saw him as a kind of saviour. In his domain in Nigeria, Kanu was more of a tin god who commanded the respect and loyalty of the populace and his words became law. He had a large following and he was very effective in organizing the people for the actualization of the Biafra agenda. In the course of time, Kanu established the armed wing of Biafra, the Eastern Security Network, through which he was recruiting and training youths for the Biafra mandate. There were reported excesses within the fold of ESN, resulting in avoidable deaths, economic losses and indeed a total deviation from the lofty ideals behind the formation of IPOB.

Sometime in or about October 18, 2015, it was reported that Kanu had been arrested in Lagos State by Nigeria’s secret police, the Department of State Services, DSS. He was eventually transferred to Abuja, leading to protests across many States of the South East. He was initially arraigned before the Abuja Magistrate’s Court, which released him on ‘bail’. Kanu was later arraigned before the Federal High Court, Abuja, where he was granted bail on health grounds. What followed thereafter became as controversial as the IPOB leader himself. Kanu disappeared from public view after his home was raided by the Nigerian military in September 2017, an event which led to the death of many IPOB members. In December 2020, Kanu announced that IPOB had organized the ESN which was supposed to defend southeastern Nigerians from bandits and armed Fulani herders. Kanu later gave all the governors of South-East 14 days to ban open-grazing, threatening to deploy ESN to enforce the ban if the authorities did not do so. This led to open confrontation with the Nigerian military, which commenced indiscriminate but illegal manhunt for IPOB and ESN activists. Despite this, Kanu maintained that IPOB was interested in a non-violent solution of the conflict and that ESN was supposed to fight bandits, not the Nigerian security forces. Regardless, Nigerian authorities designated IPOB as a terrorist organization and claimed that Kanu was inciting violence. I joined other Nigerians to denounce the tag on IPOB given that other ethnic nationalities had their respective organizations such as Miyetti Allah, the Yoruba Nation, Ijaw National Congress, etc. In June 2016, I filed a case at the Federal High Court, Lagos, in Suit No. FHC/L/CS/775/2016, against President Muhammadu Buhari, the Attorney-General of the Federation, the Inspector-General of Police, the Chief of Army Staff, the Chief of Naval Staff and the Chief of Air Staff, seeking amongst others, the release of IPOB members and for a declaration that pro-Biafran protesters are entitled to assemble together in any part of the country, for the purpose of demanding for self-determination. I also prayed the court to hold that the police, the army and other security agencies are not entitled to invade the gathering of pro-Biafran protesters, or to shoot at them or to arrest and detain them. The reason for the suit and the point for the support for IPOB then was that in so far as the agitation for Biafra meant an end to the marginalization of the South-East, in so far as IPOB stood for a demand for inclusive governance and equity in the creation of States in Nigeria, they had my support and I dare say that of many Nigerians. However, when such activism graduates to seccession, killing of persons and the general paralysis of the economy, it will only receive condemnation.

On June 27, 2021, Kanu was arrested in Kenya by Interpol and extradited to Nigeria to face his trial for alleged terrorism, treason, involvement with banned separatist movement, inciting public violence through radio broadcasts and defamation of Nigerian authorities. Kanu challenged his trial but it was eventually upheld by the Supreme Court. I see Kanu’s trial as purely political, given the initial lofty goals that birthed IPOB as a movement. Perhaps due to inexperience and lack of proper coordination, Kanu could not sustain the momentum of that struggle. IPOB became a threat to the political gladiators in the South-East and if he had continued in the way he was rallying the youths, he would have taken over the government of the South-East States. I generally believe that leaders of the region should take responsibility for the fate of Kanu. Initially when Sunday Igboho and others started the Yoruba Nation agenda, people thought it was a noble initiative, so long as it remained peaceful and law-abiding. But once it became apparent that it was translating into a separatist movement, prominent leaders within the South-West rose in condemnation of such an agenda and when it became necessary to tame the monster, the relevant authorities moved swiftly to nip it in the bud. The other side of the Kanu agenda is failure of governance. Until the reign of Engr Dave Umahi in Ebonyi State and lately Dr Alex Otti in Abia State, South-East Nigeria has not witnessed commensurate development from the governors. And apart from the trumpeted second Niger-Bridge, the federal government itself has not stamped its presence in the region, in the area of infrastructure and general development. So IPOB grew to fill up the vacuum created by non-performance by the South-East governors and the deliberate marginalization of the Igbos by the federal government.
That said, every political agitation requires a political solution. The people of the South-West enjoyed the support of Nigerians against the annulment of the June 12 election, leading to mass protests and peaceful agitations for many years. This would lead to some kind of concession within the political class in 1998 when Nigerians unanimously zoned the presidency to the South-West, leading to the emergence of General Olusegun Obasanjo. The people of the South-South region took their own agitation to the creeks. They disrupted oil production and rendered the region generally unsafe for foreign investors, leading to the relocation of major oil companies from that region. I believe that their agitation led to the choice of Dr. Goodluck Jonathan as the Vice-President and eventually as President of Nigeria. As stated earlier, I only support the peaceful agitations of pro-Biafra activists against marginalization and will continue to distance myself from any transformation into a separatist and armed group. Take it or leave it, the Kanu phenomenon will continue to haunt the Nigerian state, if only as a reminder of the wanton neglect of and injustices against the South-East, all of which must be addressed holistically. Part of the issues will result in questions such as: why can’t we have an Igbo President? Why can’t we have an Igbo IGP or Chief of Army Staff? Why should the South-East not enjoy an additional State as the other geo-political zones which all have six States? Notwithstanding the excesses of Kanu and IPOB, these to me represent the pro-Biafra struggles. Are the Igbos part of Nigeria? Is the civil war truly over or is Nigeria still punishing the Igbos for the war? Or what on earth is the reason for the exclusion of the Igbos from mainstream governance? What exactly is the fear of the other regions for dreading the Igbo President? This is why Kanu’s case becomes political, because even if you jail Kanu today, the marginalization of the Igbos will keep staring Nigeria in its face, every day. When Gani Adams was arrested, Chief Gani Fawehinmi, SAN stood firm for him all through his trial. When Sunday Igboho faced his ordeal, Professor Wole Soyinka, Chief Yomi Aliyu, SAN and others rose in defence of his fundamental rights, while condemning his criminal tendencies. My concern is why there is no single member of the Inner Bar from the South-East in the defence team of Kanu. Anambra State alone boasts of about forty Senior Advocates of Nigeria. Do they know something else that we do not know?

The federal government has nothing to profit from a prolonged trial of Kanu beyond isolating itself from the Igbos. If the criminal charge against the leader of Miyetti Allah could be withdrawn, if Sunday Igboho is today a free man, then there is nothing so special about Kanu’s trial, beyond a carryover of the civil war. I advocate for a discontinuance of his trial and his eventual release. But the matter does not end there. Since their release, I have not heard of Miyetti Allah or Yoruba Nation in the same aggression and militancy that heralded their misadventures. The choice belongs to Kanu, to decide on the fate of IPOB. If it is to continue with armed resistance, killing of security agencies and the total paralysis of the economy of that region, we cannot close our eyes to the existing laws against these acts. The South-East governors, legislators and leaders of thought should first meet with Kanu and secure his co-operation for his freedom. It is time to release Kanu.

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