Nigeria 2023: Buhari in dilemma as court orders release of separatist leader Nnamdi Kanu

By Eniola Akinkuotu

Posted on Friday, 14 October 2022 16:10, updated on Wednesday, 23 November 2022 12:26
Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) leader Nnamdi Kanu seen with his counsel at the Federal high court Abuja, Nigeria
Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) leader Nnamdi Kanu is seen with his counsel at the Federal high court Abuja, Nigeria January 20, 2016. REUTERS/Afolabi Sotunde

In an unexpected ruling, Nigeria’s Court of Appeal has ordered the release of separatist leader Nnamdi Kanu. With crucial elections barely four months away, the government is now torn between appealing the verdict or releasing a man who is bent on ensuring that elections do not hold in the southeast.

About 11 months ago, notable leaders and politicians from the southeast region led by 94-year-old ex-minister, Mbazulike Amaechi, visited President Muhammadu Buhari to – among other things – seek the release of Kanu, the leader of the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB), who was extradited from Kenya under controversial circumstances. Buhari made no commitment.

Three months later, however, in a televised interview on Channels Television, President Buhari gave his verdict. “Nigerians know that I don’t interfere with the judiciary… For those who are saying we should release him [Kanu], no, we cannot release him,” the president said.

To many, Buhari’s cold response did not come as a surprise. Kanu represents everything that Buhari detests. The Nigerian leader had, as a young soldier in the 1960s, fought on the federal side to crush the separatists and the defunct Republic of Biafra during the three-year civil war. For him, the unity of Nigeria is non-negotiable. Kanu, on the other hand, seeks to revive the Republic of Biafra.

Kanu was arrested in October 2015. The IPOB leader was charged with treason before a federal court and then granted bail. He was eventually released on 28 April 2017 with the strict condition that he would grant no interviews and stay out of trouble, a condition he could not keep.

His supporters were also emboldened by his release as they continually held street processions while Kanu became a media favourite. Amid frequent clashes between his supporters and security agents, IPOB was designated a terrorist organisation by the government.

Attempts to re-arrest Kanu failed as he fled to London during a raid on his home. Ahead of the 2019 election, he got active on social media where he insisted that there would be no elections in the southeast unless there was a referendum. Observers noted that Kanu’s activities affected the voter turnout in the southeast, an opposition stronghold. Election results showed that this worked in Buhari’s favour in the 2019 poll that he won.

In 2021, however, Kanu was arrested in Kenya and extradited under the most controversial circumstances and arraigned on fresh charges of terrorism. However, Kanu’s lawyers challenged his extradition, describing it as an extraordinary rendition.

On 13 October 2022, the Court of Appeal declared as illegal and unlawful the abduction of Kanu from Kenya to Nigeria and quashed the entire terrorism charges brought against him by the government.

Will the government obey?

The attorney-general’s office does not seem keen on releasing the secessionist leader.

In a statement, the attorney-general’s office hinted that the matter might be taken before the Supreme Court, the country’s final arbiter.

For the avoidance of doubt and by the verdict of the court, Kanu was only discharged and not acquitted.

It added that Kanu’s prior trial before his extradition was not affected by the judgement of the Appeal Court.

“For the avoidance of doubt and by the verdict of the court, Kanu was only discharged and not acquitted. Consequently, the appropriate legal options before the authorities will be exploited and communicated accordingly to the public,” the office said.

Currently, there are no indications that the government will free Kanu. The Africa Report notes that the Buhari administration has come under intense criticism in the past for its disobedience to court orders. This would not be the first time that a court would order Kanu’s release.

“Honourable Shuaibu of Wuse magistrate court granted me bail, [but] Buhari did not release me. Hon Justice Ademola granted me unconditional bail, Buhari and his cousin, [but] Lawal Daura refused to honour that court order,” Kanu said in an interview with The SUN in 2017.

Dr Kolawole Olaniyan, a legal adviser to Amnesty International, said as of 2019, the Buhari administration had disobeyed at least 40 court orders.

Attorney-General Abubakar Malami had stated repeatedly that human rights will always take the back seat whenever national security is involved.

Kanu had, while in London, continued to broadcast hateful messages. According to a Nigerian government report, this triggered a wave of violence. Attacks were carried out between October 2020 and June 2021 leading to the killing of 175 security officials.

Kanu is still innocent in the eyes of the law.

The report said in part: “On 21 October 2020, Nnamdi Kanu through an online call-in radio programme [on Radio Biafra], further instigated IPOB members to burn down all police stations and kill government security forces, which were carried out. Several security personnel [especially police officers] were killed and public and private properties destroyed.”

With Kanu still considered a national threat, it remains unlikely if the Nigerian government will release him.

However, rights lawyer Inibehe Effiong tells The Africa Report that the government is under compulsion to obey the court judgement even if it plans to appeal

“Kanu is still innocent in the eyes of the law. The government can appeal the judgement, but until the Supreme Court rules otherwise, Kanu cannot be kept in detention any longer for whatever reason,” he says.

The 2023 angle

With elections approaching, Kanu could be released for political reasons. Kanu’s struggle has had an adverse effect on the politics of the southeast, a region that has remained a stronghold of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) since 1999, but is now gravitating towards Peter Obi, the presidential candidate of the Labour Party who also happens to be from the southeast.

Since the Biafra struggle intensified, many election offices have been burnt down. Several viral videos have shown armed secessionists attacking election offices where people had gone to register. In one of such videos, a masked man wielding an AK47 rifle kills an electoral official and insists that there will be no election in the southeast come 2023.

The struggle has also led to weekly lockdowns in the southeast on Mondays where people are barred from leaving their homes while some who defy such orders are attacked or sometimes killed.

Peter Obi’s campaign roster carefully avoids the southeast on Mondays when there are lockdowns.

The November 2021 governorship election in Anambra State in the southeast witnessed a very low voter turnout at just 10% no thanks to the activities of separatists.

Peter Obi winning the presidential election will undermine Kanu’s perceived superiority.

With the highly anticipated elections set for February, the government is now caught between releasing Kanu and continually detaining him. Should the government take the matter before the Supreme Court, it could take months for the apex court to deliver judgement. Also, the government could file fresh charges against Kanu to detain him longer as it has done in many other high profile cases.

However, some are of the view that the government could also release Kanu immediately and allow him to continue with his agitation in the southeast. This will in turn affect the voter turnout in the opposition stronghold and boost the chances of the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) and its candidate, Bola Tinubu.

Already, polls show that Obi of the Labour Party and Atiku Abubakar of the PDP will take most of the votes in the five southeast states which hold nothing less than a combined 10 million votes. The APC has never won any state in the southeast as far as presidential elections go. Should the southeast witness a low voter turnout, then it works in the APC’s favour.

Journalist, David Hundeyin, said on Twitter that the timing of the judgement releasing Kanu was suspect.

“A few months to a crucial election in 2019, Nnamdi Kanu miraculously resurfaced and led a successful election boycott in the opposition stronghold. A few months to a crucial election in 2023, an Nnamdi Kanu miracle has just happened in the Appeal Court. Is this happening again?” he said.

Kanu sees himself as the de facto leader of the southeast.

Adamu Garba, a former presidential aspirant with the APC, tells The Africa Report that Kanu’s release will reduce Obi’s popularity and boost the chances of the APC and the PDP at the polls.

“We are very happy about this. It works in favour of the APC. Tinubu has said they will labour in vain and it is coming to pass. As you can see, since the announcement of Kanu’s release was made, his popularity has overtaken that of Peter Obi in the southeast,” Garba says.

Chukwudi Iwuchukwu, a public commentator and media strategist who grew up in the south-east, tells The Africa Report that should Kanu be released, it will affect Obi.

The lawyer, however, argues that it is doubtful if the IPOB leader will be released.

“Kanu sees himself as the de facto leader of the southeast. Peter Obi winning the presidential election will undermine Kanu’s perceived superiority. Kanu will truncate all efforts of people going to vote. He will declare that there would be no election until there is a referendum. This will reduce voter turnout.

“People in urban areas will vote where there is security, but those in the rural areas, where the votes are many, would not be able to vote. Kanu’s release will reduce Peter Obi’s momentum. It affects Peter Obi the most,” Iwuchukwu says.

All eyes are now on Buhari. Will he free Kanu in the spirit of the rule of law and boost his party’s chances at the poll? Or will he keep Kanu in detention in the name of national security?

Meanwhile, Amnesty International is now formally demanding Kanu’s release.

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