Opinion: East Side Of Sadness – By Chidi Amuta
Engagements by Chidi Amuta
From the Niger Bridge looking East, a canvass of desperate unhappiness spreads out before you. Crossing the ancient creaky Niger bridge into Onitsha and beyond is like a great crossing into a crowded wilderness, another country. At first, it is the specter of neglect and decayed infrastructure. But on every face of every man, woman and child here, there is a certain stoic acceptance of a nameless worry, a reality unchanging and unchanged for the last 50 years. It is a lingering ‘otherness’ by people who fly the Nigerian flag but inhabit this desolate place, this area of sadness they proudly call ‘home’.
Over the last half a century (yes, fifty one years after the Biafran war!), acceptance of collective neglect has taken the form of aggressive but scraggy entrepreneurship as an escape. It hits you from the Niger bridge, in the jostling army of mobile merchants, hawkers of all manner of inconsequential merchandise. Plastic flowers from Hong Kong. Figurines of the Virgin Mary hurriedly carved in Vietnam. Covid-19 quick fix cure -all concoctions labeled ‘Made in Madagascar’. There is bottled water for the thirsty which is convertible into ‘holy water’ for the spiritually tormented. After all, apostasy is the religion of those permanently locked out of the gateway to heaven. The message is simple: here is a human sea of desperate enterprise humbled by a forced habit of unhappiness, a sense of exile in a place of unrelieved sadness.
Of late, the South-east has exploded in a new orgy of violence and blood. The zone has added a new dimension to Nigeria’s expanding industry of insecurity. Insecurity in the zone has entered a viral retail stage. Like most things here, crude imitation and a natural ‘me, too, can do it’ spirit greets everything new. Mr. Nnamdi Kanu and Ralph Uwazurike before him have lost the monopoly of the Biafra franchise. It is now an all comers free for all business App. My brother and friend, Senator Enyinnaya Abaribe, has just revealed that there are well over 30 separatist groups parading the same cause of Biafra! IPOB may have become the hottest merchandise on sale in Ochanja and Ariaria markets, having lost its initial voice in a wilderness of unguided anger and unplanned agitation.
As a worn out franchise in the hands of ambitious thugs and rough entrepreneurs, agitation for Biafra 2.0 has turned into a dangerous nightmare all over the South-east. For Igbos in the diaspora, the obsession with separatism and secession has become a unifying mantra of the lost. In the safety and comfort of their American and European pads and with access to the social media, fanning the embers of Armageddon at home has become a new religion even if some of them have not been to Nigeria for the past decade or more.
For the sensible, there is now a fierce urgency about the descent into anarchy in the zone. On the scale of Nigeria’s worsening insecurity, senseless violence in the South-east now competes with reckless banditry and jihadist terrorism in parts of the North-east and North-west. A militant secessionist movement spearheaded by Mr. Nnamdi Kanu’s IPOB and its allied Eastern Security Network (ESN) has turned the zone into an area of near permanent danger, the battle field of an undeclared but raging war. Multiple groups under the guise of IPOB and its affiliates are roaming the area in waves of violence and criminality.
Something new and more sinister has joined the macabre fray. A strange category of ‘unknown gunmen” has been injected. These are militants on a dubious mission armed with military grade weapons and operating with a professionalism that only the state can account for has entered the field. Innocent people are being killed and their homes torched. Thugs are hiding under the blackmail of separatist anger to render a whole geo political zone dangerous and nearly ungovernable.
A little over a week ago, Dr. Chike Akunyili, husband of the late Director General of the National Agency for Food and Drugs Administration (NAFDAC) was assassinated gangster fashion on the streets in Anambra State. His death has been followed by over half a dozen others of notable and not so notable citizens. In neighbouring Imo State, similar assassinations have taken place of prominent citizens including that of one Reverend Emeka Merenu, an Anglican priest who was killed just outside his parish a fortnight before Dr. Akunyili. Add to these countless arson attacks on both private and public property.
Only last weekend, the Nnewi country home of Mr. Joe Igbokwe, Lagos State spokesman of the APC and Special Adviser to the Lagos State Governor, was set ablaze by arsonists said to be IPOB operatives. On the same day, the offices of the Federal Road Safety Corps (FRSC) and Department of State Services (DSS) in parts of Anambra State were similarly torched. These attacks have followed in the wake of so many others in parts of Anambra, Imo, Abia, Enugu and Ebonyi states.
Jolted at last by the spiraling anarchy, governors of the states in the zone met last week in Enugu to acknowledge the threat. That is some progress from their previous lethargy and irresponsible indifference. In a communiqué that reads more like the wake up cry of drunken eunuchs from a long stupor, they seem bent on finally addressing the situation. They will now activate the regional security outfit, Ebube Agu, long conceived and left in abeyance while their more serious South-west counterparts went ahead to activate the very effective Amotekun. Now the enemy is no longer just the criminal Fulani herdsmen. The enemy is now a mix of official insiders and homeboys. A combination of misguided criminal separatists and suspected state enabled rogue spooks are suspected to be the authors of the encircling anarchy.
Perhaps it is the political threat to their thrones that has woken up the governors. The territory over which they preside has slipped into a lawlessness they can neither understand nor control. The people who voted them into power are obeying a different master. Those of them angling for a shot at the 2023 Nigerian presidency now realise that they cannot take that shot when their backyards are on fire. On the eve of governorship elections in Anambra State, the landscape in the state is riddled with bullets of uncertainty. Candidates cannot campaign freely as aspirants and their supporters live under fear of being abducted or even murdered.
Mr. Abubakar Malami, political gadfly and Buhari’s commissar for legalisms has threatened Anambra with a state of emergency if the killings do not stop before the elections in November. Buhari is reported to have disowned Malami on this one! We hope Katsina, Zamfara, Kaduna, Borno and even Niger states are receiving Malami’s consideration as well if we use the statistics of killings to measure the qualification of states for regimental overthrow.
It was the frequency of this series of attacks on private and public assets including police and prison facilities in Imo State that prompted a federal security crackdown on the entire zone some months back. People cried out over the excesses of the security operatives in their flagrant violations of basic human rights. Yet in spite of massive police and military presence and the ever changing nomenclatures of the security operations, the violence and insecurity in the South-east keeps worsening.
The recent abduction and forceful rendition of Mr. Nnamdi Kanu from Nairobi seems to have aggravated the restless protests and violence. The self -inflicted attacks and disruptions have raised questions as to the real intentions and targets of these disruptive and criminal conducts. It is not just the wave of violent attacks on assets and individuals that are of concern.
A series of foolish social, work and business disruptions under the guise of a so-called ‘sit at home’ protest has been frequently declared by IPOB and its multiple voices in the zone. These declarations have been enforced by rough vigilantes leading to massive closures of businesses and offices. Huge economic losses in the form of man hours and direct revenue have been recorded as the zone continues to bleed.
The time has come to sensibly interrogate the basic rationality and political wisdom of the dislocations, violence and disruptions that have recently shattered the peace and progress of the zone. Orderly protests against injustice by any group of citizens remain legitimate and inalienable rights in any democracy. But the jury is out on whether secession is a solution to the problematic relationship between the peoples of the South East and the federal government under Mr. Buhari. Secession remains the most ill advised option for either the South-east or any other part of the federation just on the basis of transient diversity management problems of one presidential dispensation.
Among the presumably wise populace of the South-east, the rationality of self inflicted criminality and business disruptions as tools of political protest remains questionable. Worse still, to convert the general atmosphere of political anger against ethnic injustices and marginalisation into to an umbrella for murder and other criminal infractions is inexcusable. Targeting police and law enforcement installations and personnel for vicious attacks can only be a strategy in the hands of organised criminal gangs and committed anarchists. The state and its institutions must exist to furnish seekers of justice with an adversary to engage. A wipe-out of the presence of the state will strategically destabilise the zone permanently.
In any event, the problems of political marginalisation and neglect have become a nationwide idiom. At the bottom of it all is an embarrassing inequality in the horizontal distribution of infrastructure, privileges and patronage among competing interests in a multinational polity. This cannot be righted by a recourse to violence, brigandage and arson. Nor can violence against the very people who are victims of marginalization and neglect right the original wrong of national political and economic injustice. On the contrary, as the victims hurt and bleed, their traducers in Abuja may in fact be having a champagne party!
A people crying out against injustice cannot wisely embark on large scale self- inflicted destruction of whatever infrastructure or personal assets they have managed to attract or accumulate in the last half a century. Moreover, we are dealing with an area in which it is communal peace and a competitive spirit that governs the creation of wealth among peers. Here, the process of wealth creation is a rigorous gradual one. Every market that is open, every shop that remains open year in year out is a wheel in the engine of wealth and progress. The sense of homeland is shown by illustrious sons and daughters who return home to help the community by investing in homes, hotels, clinics and factories.
The real victims of the wave of violence and criminality now ravaging the South East are not the bureaucrats in Abuja or the home based political collaborators in the regimes of injustice against which the activists are protesting. The victims are the masses, the very victims of injustice themselves. It is their livelihood that is being disrupted. It is their wealth that is being destroyed. It is their capacity to work that is being eroded.
Worst of all, for the Igbos, pride in a place called ‘home’ is being defiled and devastated by the criminality keeping the elite away from the homeland. As the end of year season approaches, the annual ritual of ‘homecoming’ is threatened by the fear of violence. The budget year of the average Igbo village is calibrated by the quantum of resource inflows from returning sons and daughters. That augmentation to the homeland economies is now seriously threatened by the raging epidemic of violent insecurity.
The restoration of sanity and peace in the South-east requires more than pious and sanctimonious preachments. It is now the hour of concerted urgent action. First, the political leadership of the zone, some of whom have themselves invested in thugs and armaments to advance their political interests, must now disarm. Power is nothing if wielded in an anarchy. In a bloody wasteland, there are no powerful men. We are all miserable weaklings, victims of uncertainty and brutishness: those waiting to kill or be killed.
The zone’s state governors have been over -hyped disasters; an insincere and miserable bunch of bloated power intoxicants. Contentment with the secluded splendor of the governor’s mansion when the adjoining streets are on fire is foolhardy. The merchants of secession and separatism at home and abroad need to think again. It has taken the South East over half a century to scrape together the appearance of recovery that we now see. Inviting the violence of war mongering hegemons from Abuja to come and make Igbo backyards battlefields once again is no sign of wisdom.
What role for the various traditional institutions, elders and socio -cultural groupings? Perhaps their relevance is over rated in a society where their effectiveness has been overtaken by a modernity that has failed to modernize the minds of the many thugs and hoodlums. This is the time for the socio cultural group Ohanaeze to prove its continuing relevance or simply disappear.
The federal authorities now need to revise their longstanding security doctrine and strategies which have not yet worked in the zone. The succession of special military and police operations in the zone over the years have yielded nothing beyond seasonal multiple checkpoints and ‘toll gates’ for extorting returning citizens. That business model is now threatened as potential returnees are frightened from going home. These operations have failed because they were never rooted in the republican ethos of the Igbo village authority system. Every criminal or troublesome youth out in the streets of the urban South East hails from a village where their primary loyalty lies. It is in that place that they are someone’s son or daughter. Out in the urban streets or on the highways, they are anonymous miscreants, hard to identify or contain. Security in the South East must therefore now enlist the support and cooperation of elders and community leaders.
Above all, at no other time has the sincerity and transparency of the federal government been called into greater question than now. First, let Abuja find or recall the “Unknown Gunmen” since only they are equipped to know where they came from. Above all, the body and spoken language of President Buhari must reassure the people of the South East that he has overcome the wartime psychology of a conqueror of the Igbo. Citizens of the Federal Republic of Nigeria must now replace ‘Dots’ in a ‘Circle’. A spreading perception that the South-east is deliberately being escorted or assisted to self -destroy will not help the goal of peace, security and unity in this troubled land.