The leader of the Indigenous Peoples of Biafra, IPOB and Director of Radio Biafra, Mazi Nnamdi Kanu, has been languishing in detention since October 14, 2015 when the Directorate of State Services, DSS, arrested him. In spite of court orders for him to be released on bail, the Federal Government has stubbornly held on to him. He is being tried for treason: allegedly operating a pirate radio outfit that broadcast subversive messages and leading a group which is openly committed to the dismemberment of Nigeria, which is what the independence of Biafra will amount to.
What it simply means is that Kanu is a political detainee/prisoner. In many cases, such prisoners can hope for a reprieve from either prolonged, life or death sentence through political negotiations by his comrades, followers or sympathisers based on their willingness to shift grounds or the willingness of their opponents (the government) to shift grounds. For instance, Kurdish separatist leader, Abdullah Ocalan, was sentenced to death for a treasonable offence similar to that of Kanu, but when he renounced violence and opted for a political solution to the independence of the Kurds from Turkey, he was eventually granted reprieve.
On the other hand, anti-Apartheid leader, Dr Nelson Mandela remained unbending about his desire for the overthrow of the Apartheid regime, and had to spend 27 long years in jail. It took major shifts in international attitudes to the Apartheid regime and a willing reformer in the person of President FW De Klerk for conditions acceptable to Mandela to emerge for him to be released. He then joined a political process that eventually saw him becoming the President of South Africa on the platform of his party, the African National Congress, ANC. However, unlike Ocalan and Kanu, Mandela was not fighting for separation but majority rule.
The Buhari regime refused to entertain any notion of freedom for Kanu until the Niger Delta Avengers, NDA’s, massive bombing of our oil infrastructure in the Niger Delta held the country’s leadership by the balls. When the Presidency shifted grounds and became more amenable to a negotiated settlement to enable the country resume her full exploitation of the oil that she had depended on for over 40 years, the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta, MEND, re-entered the picture.
MEND, which had propelled the earlier version of the Niger Delta militancy that ended in the amnesty arrangement, saw an opportunity to wrest a deal that would accommodate the interests of the nation’s recently emerged unified political bloc, the South East and South-South. Thus, came the proposal for the release of political prisoners, including the Okah brothers apprehended for MEND’s acts of terror some years back, and of course, Kanu, if they would renounce their agitations for separatism.
Though the Federal Government has not yet openly admitted that such talks were ongoing, Kanu directly made it clear he was not game for any such deal. It was Biafra or nothing. Even his wife, Lolo Uchechi Okwu-Kanu, issued a statement saying: “Anybody thinking that my husband will renounce Biafra is certifiably insane”.
The truth is that Kanu has found himself in the situation that the late Bashorun Moshood Abiola did when he was detained by General Sani Abacha after the Epetedo Declaration on June 11, 1994: he is now trapped in jail. Abacha and his supporters would have been overjoyed to let Abiola go only if he would renounce the struggle for his annulled presidential mandate, but Abiola’s supporters, who were fighting – and some were dying – for him and the struggle, would have none of that.
Fancy what would have happened if Abiola had broken bounds, renounced his mandate and come back to open society? He would instantly have become a persona non-grata! The same National Democratic Coalition, NADECO, civil society groups and the Yoruba nationalist activists who were ready to lay down their lives for him would have turned viciously against him. His life and property (and possibly those of his loved ones) could have been in danger, for the precise reason that many had been killed and people’s property destroyed by the government forces for coming out to fight for him.
Kanu’s case is even more extreme in that the Army has killed hundreds of unarmed pro-Biafra protesters. They have been given heroes’ burials since the Biafra protests started in the middle of 2015. Many are also being tried for treason. With the kind of vehement emotion that these young men (and women) carry this Biafra thing, Kanu’s renunciation of the struggle would result in consequences better not imagined. He is far safer and better in jail, a hero and symbol of the struggle. He had better settle down for a long stay and hope that like in South Africa, the political atmosphere can suddenly change to accommodate a settlement terms that could safely propel him and his loyalists out of prison.
I don’t know how this can happen, but there is nothing permanent in politics – even the much-touted “indivisibility” of Nigeria. No political arrangement lasts forever, much less the Nigerian type which is guaranteed mainly by force, the power of oil and the indecisive character of those who complain the loudest.
One good thing going for Kanu and all the pro-Biafra groups is that they profess non-violence. But IPOB’s unbridled sabre-rattling over the airwaves is almost as effective in mobilising the angry youth against the Nigerian state – if not more so – as a call to arms.
I don’t think that any government (even if headed by an Igbo) will look forward to releasing Kanu to go and continue from where he stopped.
Mazi Nnamdi Kanu has taken up a brave and difficult struggle. It is going to be a long one as well. Going forward may be difficult, but going back will be impossible, as Ghanaian playwright, Kofi Awoonor-Williams would say. But in politics, miracles do happen.