Nigeria: Could amnesty for Nnamdi Kanu end Biafra agitations in the southeast?

By Akin Irede

Posted on Monday, 29 November 2021 10:36
Nnamdi Kanu (via Twitter/@BiafranTweets)

Despite facing terrorism charges, Nnamdi Kanu, who leads Nigeria’s most powerful secessionist groups, is now being considered for amnesty by President Muhammadu Buhari. But can this end the agitations?

In 2012, a little known activist, Nnamdi Kanu, gathered alongside other protesters in front of the Nigerian High Commission in London, to demonstrate against the killing of innocent civilians by terrorist organisation, Boko Haram.

Kanu said he was determined to ensure that Nigeria did not disintegrate and that it must be protected from evil forces.

In a viral video, he said: “We are protesting [over] the killing of families by people who are determined to tear the country apart and it is not something we support, it is not something we would like to see continue.

“If that continues, it will lead to a violent disintegration of the country; there will be no more Nigeria for anyone to go to. There will be no Nigeria for anyone to refer to. We cannot allow this nonsense to continue so something must be done.”

However, by mid 2013, Kanu’s views had changed drastically. His new mission was the disintegration of Nigeria through the revival of the defunct Biafra Republic, which was crushed by Nigerian forces during the civil war of the 1960s.

The defunct Biafra is mainly Nigeria’s southeast region, which is populated by the Igbo ethnic group. Kanu set up the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) and then began operating Radio Biafra, through which he would broadcast his controversial messages to his supporters.

The Buhari problem

When Kanu began spreading his message of secession in 2014, it didn’t resonate with many of his people, mainly because of how President Goodluck Jonathan handled it. Jonathan, though not Igbo, was part of the defunct Biafra region and shared a common heritage with them. Moreover, he ensured that Igbo politicians were handed some of the most juicy government appointments, which gave them a huge sense of belonging. Besides, his political party – the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) – had a strong support base in the region and this helped to counter secessionist narratives.

Nevertheless, 2015 – a critical election year – would be the turning point. The southeast voted massively for the PDP, as usual, but this was not enough to get Jonathan re-elected, as the All Progressives Congress (APC) and its candidate, Buhari, would win the presidential poll thanks mainly to the huge votes from the north and the southwest.

During one of his first interviews as president-elect in 2015, Buhari insinuated that most of the political appointments would go to regions that supported him during elections.

With the southeast feeling alienated, Kanu’s message of secession began to resonate with many in the region, especially the youth. He returned to Nigeria to set up a base and then led daily demonstrations against the Nigerian state, insisting on secession. As resistance by Nigerian forces grew violent, the secessionists were more determined to achieve their goal.

This eventually led to Kanu’s 18-month detention and prosecution for treason, but this would make no difference as the street protests intensified.

Kanu was released on bail in 2019, but this did not stop him from propagating his message of hate. Let him face the law. He is not above the law.

Despite being granted bail on strict conditions – that he would not attend any rally, not be in a crowd exceeding 10 persons or grant any interview – Kanu intensified his activities and the number of his supporters grew.

The Nigerian government declared IPOB a terrorist organisation and deployed soldiers to the southeast to quell protests. This move was however seen as majorly political, hence other countries have failed to designate IPOB as such. In fact, the United Kingdom offered asylum to persecuted IPOB members, a move which drew the ire of the Nigerian government before it was later suspended. Amid the fresh onslaught, Kanu fled the country.

Birth of ESN

After fleeing the country, Kanu continued to broadcast his message to his followers. In 2020, however, things soon got out of hand after he announced the formation of the Eastern Security Network (ESN), the militant wing of IPOB. The group claimed its mandate was to rid the southeast of violent Fulani herders who were taking over farmlands and attempting to spread Islam in the region by jihad. The ESN burnt down herders’ camps, killing many of them.

The Nigerian government, which had been accused of pampering violent herders, launched a military offensive against ESN, killing some and arresting others, but this further exacerbated the situation. Several police stations were torched alongside election offices, while there were several jailbreaks perpetrated by IPOB, which had threatened that no elections would hold in the southeast any longer until they were given a referendum.

According to a 24-member panel led by Nigeria’s Attorney-General Abubakar Malami, the IPOB leader was indirectly responsible for the murder of approximately 180 people -mostly security personnel – in the southeast, including that of a former presidential Aide, Ahmad Gulak, and Chike Akunyili, the husband to one of Nigeria’s heroes, Dora Akunyili, who had launched a successful campaign against fake drugs.

The committee found that as a consequence of Kanu’s broadcasts, there were 19 attacks on election offices, 164 police stations and formations, killing 128 policemen, while 144 were injured and 628 vehicles were destroyed. It said 396 firearms and 17,738 ammunition were carted away during the attacks, while 1,841 inmates escaped from prison.

Kanu’s second arrest

Kanu was reportedly kidnapped in Kenya and taken back to Nigeria, although the Kenyan government has denied complicity. Kanu’s lawyers say his extradition was in breach of international law, but the Nigerian government has failed to comment on the circumstances of his arrest. It has instead filed fresh charges of terrorism and treason against him, while he has been denied bail by the court.

However, Kanu’s detention has only worsened the security situation in the southeast. The IPOB obliges residents to sit at home once or twice a week. Those brave enough to go against such orders are sometimes brutalised or killed, while their vehicles are burned, even though IPOB says it doesn’t enforce such orders. Banks are forced to close, flights are cancelled, while schools and even government institutions dare not open, especially on days when Kanu is brought to court. A recent governorship election in Anambra also witnessed its lowest voter turnout at just 10%

Worried by the escalating crisis in the region, some of the most respected elders from the southeast, including serving ministers, recently visited President Buhari, pleading with him to drop the prosecution of Kanu for the sake of peace.

The leader of the delegation was 92-year-old Mbazulike Amechi, a former minister of aviation who is highly respected by Buhari. The ex-minister is said to have promised Buhari that he would ensure that Kanu is well behaved if released.

Releasing him will go a long way because his incarceration escalated the crisis in the first place. His detention is symbolic and has given some the impetus to perpetrate violence. Releasing him could reduce tension…

In his response, Buhari described the request as a heavy one, saying: “You’ve made an extremely difficult demand on me as leader of this country. The implication of your request is very serious. In the last six years, since I became president, nobody would say I have confronted or interfered in the work of the Judiciary… But the demand you made is heavy. I will consider it.”

Earlier on, the Attorney-General had said the federal government was open to negotiations with Kanu. Section 174 of the Nigerian Constitution gives the Attorney-General ultimate powers to discontinue any criminal case in court before a conviction has been reached.

This implies that releasing Kanu could be possible legally. Some argue that the president could free him since many ‘repentant’ Boko Haram terrorists have been granted amnesty by his government, but government officials tell The Africa Report that Kanu’s erratic behaviour makes amnesty a bad idea.

Northern leaders kick

Southeast leaders believe that releasing Kanu could bring peace back to the region, the way it did in the oil-rich Niger Delta in the late 2000s. However, northern leaders under the aegis of the Arewa Consultative Forum (ACF) have called on Buhari not to release him seeing as he flouted earlier bail conditions.

The spokesman for the ACF, Emmanuel Yawe, tells The Africa Report that Kanu cannot be trusted and should face full prosecution since he made it clear the agitations would never stop. “Kanu was released on bail in 2019, but this did not stop him from propagating his message of hate. Let him face the law. He is not above the law.”

Yawe further states that it would be immoral to let Kanu go after several people were killed due to his activities.

Even so, David Aworawo, head of the history and strategic studies department at the University of Lagos, tells The Africa Report that releasing Kanu could be seen as Buhari extending an olive branch to the southeast, a region which feels relegated by the government.

“Releasing him will go a long way because his incarceration escalated the crisis in the first place. His detention is symbolic and has given some the impetus to perpetrate violence. Releasing him could reduce tension and it could also provide the avenue for the establishment of trust,” says Aworawo.

He says: “If it is well managed, it could provide an avenue for the commencement of a long process that could bring the violence to an end. The current government is perceived not to like people of the southeast. Kanu’s release could be seen as a good gesture. It could be used to reassure the Igbo that they are welcome and the government is inclusive and the thought of secession could die down.”

Kanu’s lead lawyer, Ifeanyi Ejiofor, tells The Africa Report that discussions between the government and the Igbo elders are welcome, but he insists that Kanu’s release must be the starting point of any conversation.

“It must be pointed out that my client’s freedom should not be conditional to the outcome of the discussion, but should rather be a condition for this discussion to take place […] because you cannot shave a man’s head in his absence,” Ejiofor says.

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