In his first national address since returning from medical leave, President Buhari issued a subtle warning to Nnamdi Kanu.
After three months away in London on medical leave, Nigeria's President Muhammad Buhari has addressed the nation for the first time since a badly received audio recording released to the Nigerian public during June’s Eid celebrations.
In his absence, the president had faced harsh criticism for what many Nigerians deemed a puppet-show, an insistence on remaining the substantive president while many questions about his health and ability to carry on remained unanswered.
These sentiments inspired hashtags such as #ResumeOrResign and #OurMumuDonDo, a campaign led by showbiz icon, Charly Boy and 'activists' like former PDP spokesman, Adeyanju Deji.
Buhari's surprisingly short speech is still drawing diverse reactions from Nigeria.
Critics have pointed out the president’s silence on major national issues, such as the indefinite strike announced last week by the country's Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU), the nature of his illness, the cabinet reshuffle and the fate of Ibrahim Magu, his pick to head the country's anti-corruption agency.
Instead, he chose to address the reactions to his absence on social media somewhat evasively, while reemphasizing the goals and ideals that have been portrayed as a defining element of his administration.
For most, however, the highlight was a thinly veiled 'warning' to secessionist movements in the east and the radio personality who has grown to become the face of Biafra, Nnamdi Kanu.
“I was distressed to notice that some of the comments, especially in the social media have crossed our national red lines by daring to question our collective existence as a nation. This is a step too far.”, the 74-year old said.
“In 2003 after I joined partisan politics, the late Chief Emeka Ojukwu came and stayed as my guest in my hometown Daura. Over two days we discussed in great depth till late into the night and analyzed the problems of Nigeria. We both came to the conclusion that the country must remain one and united.”
“Nigeria’s unity is settled and not negotiable.”, he emphasized.
In Buhari’s absence, Kanu’s reach and influence have grown exponentially. This has been the result of massive rallies, charged speeches and what seems like an effort at expanding his secessionist agenda beyond mere rhetoric.
During a rally organized by his supporters in Owerri, Imo state on Friday, July 28, 2017, Kanu told a large crowd that no elections would hold in the nation’s South-East in 2019.
“I want to say it again. There will be no election in Anambra and there will be no election in 2019, in Igboland. And there will be no election in Imo state.”, the IPOB leader announced.
This came after he had declared that elections to the office of Governor would not hold as scheduled in Anambra.
Perhaps the most symbolic of these events was the inauguration of the Biafra Secret Service.
In a widely circulated video, a “commander” introduced a platoon of the para-military force, a band of between 200–300 men who were charged with “protecting the nation of Biafra”. According to him, there are more of such groups across the South-East.
Many have blamed Vice-President Yemi Osinbajo, who was Acting President in Buhari’s absence, for letting the situation fester without addressing it.
Since he came to power, Buhari has been decisive in dealing with Kanu both as a political entity and a perceived threat to the nation’s unity. Upon his return to Nigeria in October 2015, Kanu was arrested by officers of the Department of State Security and held for months on trial.
His detention only ended after he was released in April 2017, with stringent bail conditions that were clearly designed to prevent him from spreading his message. The most notable of them include a ban from holding rallies, granting interviews and speaking to a crowd of over 10 people.
Kanu has since flouted these conditions, granting a series of press interviews, hosting meetings at his Abia home and embarking on a South-East tour with rallies and meetings in major cities.
The last few months have given him a free hand to actualize his plans but with the President’s return, it appears Kanu will need to pick his battles with some care.
If nothing else, this address shows that the President is aware of the threat that Kanu poses. The most obvious solution would be to re-arrest and hold the IPOB leader for breaking his bail conditions.
However, this may prove more difficult than first thought. Nnamdi Kanu has said that he is willing to die for Biafra, and with a para-military force and thousands of supporters in a hometown that has now become his stronghold, that could easily descend into civil unrest and a situation that Buhari will be hoping to avoid.
While the president’s address may seem like his biggest problem, Kanu faces serious opposition from within.
Akwa-Ibom, Cross River, Rivers, Bayelsa, and Delta have stated their lack of interest in the Biafra project, continuing a conversation that started with the creation of Biafra in 1967.
In July 2017, youth from the South-South under the aegis of the Niger Delta Youth Congress issued a statement through its National Coordinator, Comrade Israel Uwejeyan, calling on Kanu to remove the South-South states from his map.
“The South-South people are not Biafrans.”, the statement read, “So, we, therefore, demand the immediate removal of the six South-South states from the so-called map of Biafra as it is an act of gross disrespect and provocation”.
There are also many among the Igbo, perceived by secessionists to be the chosen people of Biafra, who do not subscribe to Kanu’s demands, his methods or both.
“There is a lack of consultation in how IPOB is trying to navigate. You don’t just suppose everyone is part of the struggle. Some are new federalists, they want a restructured union. They don’t want separation for various reasons. This category of Igbo people have never had to sit down in a consultative way to know how this struggle is going to happen” says Mitterand Okorie, a social commentator, and lecturer at the Michael Okpara University of Agriculture, Umuahia.
Some also point to the memory of the Nigerian Civil War and the events that occurred in its immediate aftermath, with particular reference to the face of Biafra at the time, General Emeka Ojukwu.
After over two and a half years of the war that saw 100,000 overall military casualties and about a million deaths from starvation on the Biafran side, Ojukwu fled into exile by plane to Cote D’Ivoire, leaving his deputy Phillip Effiong to handle the details of the surrender to the Nigerian government.
This decision was interpreted by General Yakubu Gowon, then head of State, as an act of opportunist cowardice.
“If he had done a Hitler, we would have thought that he’s at least a man of courage”, Gowon told the BBC not long after the war. “Ojukwu ran away and left these poor people that he has led into suffering to live with the money he has amassed outside in joy and plenty”.
Comparisons have been drawn between Ojukwu and Kanu by many who believe that Kanu’s apparent zeal to actualize Biafra is not matched by a readiness to follow it to its conclusion, military or otherwise
During his address, President Buhari echoed this sentiment subtly, saying “We shall not allow irresponsible elements to start trouble and when things get bad they run away and saddle others with the responsibility of bringing back order, if necessary with their blood.”
As things stand, Nnamdi Kanu stands at a definitive crossroads. The widespread support for his demands for secession may be the catalyst for a more aggressive campaign, one that many of his supporters now believe is the only option.
On the other hand, he may be convinced by his previous detention and the prospect of renewed aggression by the Nigerian government to soft-pedal on his demands, and perhaps explore dialogue and less militant options.
The same can be said of the Federal Government's reaction to the activities of IPOB and Kanu. While the existence of Nigeria as a single entity is enshrined in law, Buhari's claim that "the unity of Nigeria is not negotiable" will not win him many fans.
As a geo-political zone and a tribe, the agitation for Biafra is founded on genuine greivances that date back to the foundation of Nigeria's independence. The Federal Governemnt should recognise this and find a pragmatic solution that involves bringing aggreived parties to the negotiating table.
The possibility of re-working the Nigeria's configuration or 'restructuring' as the nation's lawmakers have chosen to call it, should not be discounted.
Whatever happens, it is clear that indecision is not an available option. It may be Buhari who has just returned from London but Nnamdi Kanu’s holiday is clearly over.