Nigeria’s failure at conflict resolution

Tens of thousands of people poured into Afara Ukwu in Umuahia to witness the spectacle that is Nnamdi Kanu. As the massive crowd cheered and hailed the leader of the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB), chanting “All we are saying give us Biafra”, it was undeniable how much the crowd adored the man on the balcony.But how did this man go from the council flats of Peckham to spearheading a movement formed only in 2012 to amass such a huge following. The rise of Nnamdi Kanu to superstar status is an indication of how successive governments have attempted to resolve conflict in the past.

In the past two decades, conflict situations in Nigeria have had two major outcomes.

The first is government intervention, often exalting fringe players to becoming national personalities. The country has seen former Niger Delta militant leaders like Asiri Dokubo and Henry Okah both turn to national personalities. However, the latest manifestation of this, is the rise in popularity of IPOB and its leader Nnamdi Kanu.

Starting in 2009, Nnamdi Kanu preached about his vision for the restoration of a sovereign Biafra Republic on Radio Biafra. He was ignored and dismissed by all but a few core supporters. That all changed when he was thrust into the national limelight following his arrest by the Department of State Security (DSS) on the 14th of October, 2015 on charges of treason. Overnight, the controversial leader went from a relative unknown to a Nelson Mandela of some sort to pro-Biafra supporters.

Tensions continued to rise, along with his popularity, when he was detained without trial for over a year and a half, despite a court order from the Magistrate Court that ruled for his release. This to a large extent generated more supporters for IPOB, as massive protests occurred in nearly every country with an Igbo presence, with even bigger ones in the south eastern region of Nigeria which attracted crowds in the thousands.

IPOB is not the first Biafra separatist group to emerge since the end of the civil war in 1970. Since it was founded in 1999, the Movement for the Actualization of the Sovereign State of Biafra (MASSOB) was the foremost group championing the re-secession of Biafra. MASSOB attempted to go about its aims through peaceful protest and rallies and mainly symbolic activities such as the reintroduction of a Biafran currency and passport. The government’s response to this was mass arrests and alleged extrajudicial killings of its members by government forces.

Nnamdi Kalu | source: @carolMunday

The government’s response to MASSOB may have influenced the views of Kanu, who is reportedly a former MASSOB member, and his many supporters. In an interview with SaharaTV, Kanu criticized the idea of a peaceful approach to achieving Biafran Independence, saying peace does not work in a country that only understands “violence and force”. In interviews and on online forums, IPOB members have repeatedly expressed the view that the structures for negotiating an independent Biafra do not exist in Nigeria, leaving them no choice but to resort to a more violent approach. It is clear that there is a link between the government’s repression of MASSOB and the movement of followers to a group favouring a more radical approach.

But even though IPOB has radical views, with members frequently referring to Nigeria as a “zoo” and Nnamdi Kanu claiming that if Nigeria refuses to allow Biafra to secede, there will be no living thing left in the Nation, the group had committed few violent acts. However, after the Nigerian Army deployed troops to Abia, Nnamdi Kanu’s home state, in a show of force, videos emerged online of IPOB members searching buses in Abia State for Northerners, presumably to harm them. With the recent proscription of the organization by a Federal High Court in Abuja, the Federal Government risks pushing the group towards a more violent direction.

However, this is not an uncommon occurrence in Nigeria; the other major outcome of Federal Government attempts to resolve conflicts in the past is non-violent groups switching towards a more violent course. Perhaps the best recent example of this is the transformation of Boko Haram from a peaceful Islamist movement that advocated for Sharia law to a radical Islamist terrorist group.

A United States Institute of Peace (USIP) report in 2012 revealed that tactics often employed by the security agencies against Boko Haram had consistently been brutal and counterproductive. It criticized the reliance on extrajudicial execution as a tactic of government security agencies when dealing with any problem in Nigeria, which believed not only created Boko Haram as it is known today, but also sustains it and gives it fuel to expand.

The events leading up to Boko Haram emerging as a major terrorist organization seem to support this view. In 2003 it was reported that security forces killed majority of Boko Haram’s members – including their leader, Mohammed Ali – over fishing rights in a local pond. Even then, the group remained peaceful as the survivors regrouped under the leadership of Mohammed Yusuf, a young Islamic cleric.

However, when clashes erupted between the group and the police on traffic regulations in 2009, with thegovernment and police cracking down even more aggressively by arresting hundreds of its members, Boko Haram responded by attacking multiple police stations. As a show of force, the authorities responded with the execution of hundreds of Boko Haram members including its leader Mohammed Yusuf. Yusuf’s death is often regarded as a major turning point for Boko Haram, which regrouped only to return in 2010 more violent than ever.

In the same vein, Niger Delta conflicts which were initially confined to peaceful protest, low-level acts of civil disobedience and minor occasional acts of sabotage metamorphosed into acts of violence directed at oil interests following the execution of Ken Saro-Wiwa, theleader of the Movement for the Survival of Ogoni People (MOSOP) and eight other activist in 1995. Over the next two decades several rebel groups had emerged with the federal government attempting to quell the rebel attacks with a combination of military force and appeasement. While military action for the most part have been ineffective, appeasement efforts have fared somewhat better. An amnesty program announced in 2009 under which monthly payments were made to militants who agreed to lay down their weapons led to a reduction in militant activities in the Niger Delta.

After he took office in May 2015, President Buhari announced that he planned to replace the amnesty programme, which was scheduled to end in December that year, with a comprehensive development program for the Niger Delta including an environmental cleanup of the Ogoni heartland. However, when the amnesty payments stopped and there was no evidence of the promised development programme, a new militant group, the Niger Delta Avengers, emerged in February 2016, causing major damage to Nigeria’s oil infrastructure.

Again, it seems like the pattern could be repeating itself with the pro-Iranian Shia group, Islamic Movement in Nigeria (IMN). Although the IMN maintains it is a law abiding and peaceful organization, the movement’s gatherings have been attacked several times by the Military. The most notable one was in December 2015, were over 300 Shittes were killed in Zaria. While the army claimed it responded to an attempt to assassinate Tukar Buratai, the Chief of Army Staff, the claims were strongly rejected by the group and several human rights organizations who argued the massacre occurred without any provocation.