In the aftermath of the Anambra Gubernatorial election in December 2021, I wrote an article titled “Anambra Gubernatorial election: A Post Mortem“. In my piece, I x-rayed the factors responsible for a remarkably low voter turnout at the polls. Two of which were – threats by the proscribed Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) and pro-Biafran sentiment. The body of my article examined the duo and the conclusion; an appeal to the Federal Government to collaborate with Governor-elect Professor, Charles Soludo and incorporate negotiations and dialogue in its approach to addressing the secessionist agitations.
Interestingly, upon assuming the duties of Governor, Prof. Soludo took the bull by the horn and initiated a Truth, Peace, and Justice commission as a restorative justice approach to the violent agitations.
The terms of reference for the committee reads:
“The purpose of the Committee on Truth, Justice, and Peace is to seek a restorative justice approach for truth-telling or real facts, for the healing of the victims of the violence.
Accounting for responsibility and accountability of the actors, conditional mercy for the repentant perpetrators, restitution for certain losses and rehabilitation of the perpetrators, for the overall aim of restoration of peace and justice as well as the promotion of development in the State, and the region/Nigeria. Terms of Reference for the Committee are to identify the remote and immediate causes of the agitations, restiveness, violence, and armed struggle in the Southeast since 1999.
Document victims/circumstances of death, brutality, and incarceration, identify stakeholders and groups who have played critical roles in the agitations and conflicts, their roles, capabilities and demands. Address any other issue(s) that may be germane to unravelling the extent of the crisis and charting the roadmap for the future and make recommendations for sustainable peace and security in Anambra state/Southeast”.
As civilians and Government Security Forces, comprised of paramilitary and military outfits in the South-East are witnessing an avalanche of attacks from Unidentified Armed Groups (UAG) popularly referred to as ‘Unknown Gunmen’ and the Eastern Security Network, the militia arm of IPOB, the composition of this committee is timely, as initiatives that would bring insecurity and potential instability to a halt must be supported.
Channels for reconciliation and dialogue are an opportunity for people to state their grievances, which can be recognized and addressed. With Governor Charles Soludo leading such a promising charge, the Federal Government must offer him their covert and overt support, he must also push for inclusiveness from the Southeast Governors to make this a thorough regional dialogue. It is high time governments at the State and Federal levels look at this conflict to solve it from the root.
From the standpoint of statecraft and stability, actions and inactions of the Federal Government have contributed to IPOB’s insurgency. From the onset, the Federal Government was mistaken to interpret IPOB’s Biafra agitation as a security issue, when it was in the realm of the political. As opposed to political dialogue and solutions, Federal Government responded with an overkill- military response.
This military response was conducted without tact and worsened feelings of grievances against the Nigerian state. A report released by Amnesty International details how in 2016 the Nigerian Army extra-judicially executed at least 150 pro-Biafran protesters. The report titled: “Bullets Were Raining Everywhere”: Deadly Repression of Pro-Biafra Activists, relied on the analysis of videos, photographs and eyewitness testimonies to reveal the Nigerian Army firing live ammunition to disperse protesters most of them being members of IPOB, this was a gross human rights violation dastardlier than the one that triggered Boko Haram’s violent streak. This gross human rights violation is a remote cause of the armed chapter of IPOB’s agitation, it contributed to feelings of discontent against the Nigerian state and sympathy for IPOB amongst indigenes of the South-East.
IPOB is not blameless in this debacle because suppression by the Nigerian Army is not a justification to go haywire and set the country ablaze. If anything, they have shown they’re agents of destruction and they deserved their proscription as a terrorist group. The group has participated in senseless killings of security personnel, persons who “flout” their sit-at-home orders, Igbos who do not accept their reign of terror, Fulani pastoralists/herders, and related ethnic cleansing in the South-East through its ESN militia. These killings are deliberate and not accidental. IPOB understands targeted assassinations of Northerners might prompt retaliation in the North; they are betting on their killings precipitating a chain reaction of terrible events that would lead to the realisation of Biafra.
IPOB-ESN is an internal threat that exposes the ethnoreligious/political disunity in the country and the FG’s lack of monopoly on violence. The federal government and its institutions mismanaged the crisis at its inception and failed to nip in the bud the rebellion, now they must de-escalate in conjunction with the State government. Failure to counter it holistically would drag the country down a path of a protracted insurgency like Boko Haram. And this would not bode well for a country on the brink and for a region whose lifeblood is commerce.
Two factors at the core of IPOB’s reign of terror are:
– Sit at home order– As a ploy to protest the incarceration of its leader- Nnamdi Kanu. IPOB enforces an involuntary sit at home order for people of the SE. Every Monday members of the IPOB’s Eastern Security Network (ESN) move around the streets to ensure compliance. Markets, schools, banks, motor parks, worship centres and disturbingly even police stations closed. This remarkable compliance is troubling. It indicates that citizens comply because they are aware that security agencies cannot save them from the wrath of IPOB which affects the economy of the region adversely. This trend needs to be reversed.
– The Unknown Gunmen Phenomenon: The term “unknown gunmen” firstly arose from social media mediocre of the security term “Unidentified Gunman” or “Unidentified Armed Group,” with a combination of media bias. The Unidentified or Unknown actor tag is when an actor’s identity or connection is uncertain. However, a majority of these so-called unidentified or unknown armed actors operate in the same way as IPOB-ESN militias, who engage in arson attacks on public infrastructures such as police stations and Independent National Electoral Commission offices, extra-judicial killings of prominent Igbo people and non-natives, destruction of private property, and kidnapping with impunity.
The unknown gunmen phenomenon in the Southeast came to the fore amidst IPOB’s agitation, the group has denied being the sponsors or affiliates of these unidentified actors despite some of them wearing secessionist insignia and sharing pro-Biafran sentiments. IPOB has accused security agencies of carrying out false flag operations to demonise and discredit IPOB and justify a clampdown on them. IPOB’s counteraccusation makes no sense because security agencies themselves have been victims of unknown gunmen. This back and forth is happening amongst insecurity and tension in the Southeast and speaks to the incapability of security agents in unravelling the perpetrators under the guise of UGM. Their activities have created an insecure situation in the Southeast whereby residents live in perpetual fear of assault. It is of an expert opinion that it is the responsibility of security agencies to unearth if UGM is a moniker for criminal gangs’ false flagging or indeed an IPOB affiliate.
Before these non-state actors amassed the strength to adopt a calculated strategy to use violence against the security establishment and vulnerable civilians despite IPOBs’ continued denial.
They were indications they would do so; it wasn’t all of a sudden happening because arms were stockpiled, and training went on in the forest. Nigeria’s security and intelligence agencies were aloof all through these happenings. Their negligence is partly responsible for the insurgency in the Southeast staring the country in the face.
Governor of Anambra, Prof. Charles Soludo recently met with incarcerated IPOB leader- Nnamdi Kanu at a DSS facility. This meeting generated lots of social media reactions with people concerned that a Governor was cosying up to the leader of a proscribed terrorist organisation. Indeed, there is a compelling case to be made against this line of thought. There is also a case to be made for understanding that in the Southeast constituted authority are now second fiddle to non-state actors (IPOB). For the insecurity to be tackled and to bring about stability dining with the devil is inevitable. So, it is pragmatic but unpalatable. A political solution for this problem is inevitable but it must be situated in the context of IPOB being a formidable terrorist group with whom dialogue must happen to stop the madness of sit at home orders and prevent a protracted insurgency, not in the context of Kanu being unjustly incarcerated or a prisoner of conscience.
Professor Soludo should see this parley to an end but not an end. Distinct groups are operating under the IPOB moniker their criminality would not immediately evaporate upon Kanu’s release or plea to desist from violence. Kanu himself would be perceived as a sell-out should he begin to denounce violence upon or before release. His influence and power were built on a steady broadcast of violent rhetoric, ethnic incitement, and instigation to kill government security forces. A sudden call for calm would undermine his “credence” among his supporters, paving the way for someone with more clout, such as Simon Ekpa in Finland, to take over the IPOB propaganda campaign and terrorist operation.
Furthermore, in the history of militancy and insurgency in Nigeria, the release of the mastermind has never led to an immediate cessation. Professor Soludo must therefore tread with caution as a dialogue with Nnamdi Kanu is not the silver bullet but a component.
To successfully counter IPOB, in addition to supporting Governor Soludo, the Federal Government needs to adopt a three-pronged solution (two of which are non-kinetic). These solutions should be conducted simultaneously as they mutually reinforce themselves.
Tracking funding and other accessories: Funding is essential to the activities conducted by non-state actors, in this particular case open-source intelligence indicates that diaspora funding has played a large role in sustaining the activities of the group. The National Financial Intelligence Unit is a federal government agency established to “safeguard the Nigerian financial system and contribute to the global fight against money laundering, terrorism financing and related crimes through the provision of credible financial intelligence”. The preponderance of terrorist groups whose funding nourishes them from the Nigerian Banking System is a pointer to fact that the agency is slacking in its responsibility.
The proscription of IPOB by the government gives it the power to freeze accounts and confiscate the assets of individuals linked to the group. The Government must also swing into action to identify weapons supply channels and block them as well as membership and prosecute them. One ironic but disturbing fact about IPOB is they never shy away from posting their videos online, so their members are in plain sight.
Information activities: A recently released video by BBC depicts how BBC’s Disinformation Unit uncovered a network of Nigerians based outside the country deliberately spreading false information and violent rhetoric on social media platforms, therefore shaping, and poisoning the minds of their listeners in a coordinated effort to stoke ethnic tension and encourage the breakup of the country. This coordinated public disinformation campaign is the main weapon in IPOB’s propaganda arsenal. It has successfully led to a chokehold on the minds of the average people in the Southeast.
As part of non-kinetic efforts to counter their narrative, the Federal Government must adapt and counter disinformation campaigns that are now firmly rooted in the minds of people. The minds of Nigerians are the second battlefield in this conflict, and we must win it over. Using information to unearth, amplify the atrocities of the group and galvanize communal support to combat the terrorists. Government must craft and sell narratives that emphasise the strength of Nigeria as a united, diverse country.
Tactful military strategy: Operation Egwu Eke also known as “Python dance” was a four-part military operation launched by the Nigerian Army to stamp out all forms of insecurity in Southeast Nigeria. When the military operation was initiated, negative reactions trailed it and accusations of “militarization” of the Southeast were rife. As if to compound this problem, troops of the Army operated in a highhanded manner resulting in numerous cases of extra-judicial killings. This combination of a lack of tact by the military and the absence of buy-in from the residents resulted in a field day for the terrorists.
A military operation must be at play but in a manner that takes into consideration the psychology of the environment. The Southeast is a place steep in a victimhood mindset from the civil war and perceived marginalization from the Nigerian State. A conflated military response has the potential to validate warped conspiracy theories against this administration and the reactions and bad blood that trailed operation python dance is an allusion to my point.
On a final note, it is about time for the Government of the Southeast to regain the trust of their people. Playing ostrich and deflection is a worn-out response. The sociocultural leadership of the region enabled the violent agitation at its inception through denial, obfuscation and whataboutism. At the onset, the carnage and cannibalism happening found support in a top to bottom ethnic solidarity for IPOB. Kanu’s release was and is still being vehemently pushed for and the atrocities of IPOB downplayed. It is time to put an end to ethnic solidarity for terrorists; the genie has escaped; it is time to push back against enemies of the state who exploit genuine grievances; and it is time for the Southeast to hold their leaders accountable and to demand better representation of the Southeast at the federal level.