Elnathan John, author of Born on a Tuesday, Nigeria
It is a truth universally acknowledged, at least in Nigeria, that a group in opposition to the government, and especially its army, is in desperate need of a clampdown by the Nigerian security forces. I have worried about this all of my life, sometimes swimming against the tide of public opinion – albeit with a small band of co-swimmers – either by rationalising post-protest massacres or celebrating it and praising the army for a job well done. So, I understand if you are initially uncomfortable with the arguments in this article. But stay with me on this: I think the Nigerian state and its army are right after all. Let us look at the current crisis in Nigeria’s south-east, where there are secessionist agitations, and consider the evidence that, at the least, the Nigerian state and its policy of reacting to protests with the full weight of its army is the best one. But first, a short trip down a bushy path called Memory Lane – a patch of land not quite popular in Nigeria. Not to worry, I won’t take you too far. I won’t go back to the years when we used to write dates differently, like 1999. Let’s start in 2001, October, when 19 soldiers were abducted and killed in Benue State in northern central Nigeria. Later that month, soldiers from the 23rd Armoured Brigade of the 3rd Armoured Division of the Nigerian army, in an apparent retaliation, carried out an operation in the areas of Logo and Zaki Biam that ended in the deaths of more than 100 non-combatant civilians. I know 100 seems like a disproportionate response, but you have to think of the effects and consequences of that operation: silence. Silence from the Nigerian army in response to rights groups who denounced the atrocity, but more importantly silence in Zaki Biam. Massacred civilians can’t scream. Sometimes, you have to think long term. Now walk forward with me to 2015. In December, soldiers, for the heinous crime of standing in the way of the army chief ’s convoy in Z aria, north-west Nigeria, killed and buried at least 347 members of a Shia Muslim group that calls itself the Islamic Movement in Nigeria.
Don’t ask me why people expect to remain alive after a disagreement over right-of-way with soldiers. I am only a writer, not a sage. In fact, on 25 July 2014, 33 members of this group had been killed in similar circumstances. Again, don’t ask me why they need- ed to march so badly they decided to get killed by the Nigerian army. Now, granted, I was incensed when I first heard of these killings, but I am now stepping back to look at the facts dispassionately. Since December 2015, when hundreds of Shias were massacred, there has been no violence on this front. When 33 wasn’t sufficient, 347 proved to do the job. Again, it may seem like a high price to pay, but you know, peace and quiet comes at a price. Think long term. Which brings me to the south-east. According to Human Rights Watch, in February and May 2016, “police killed at least 40 pro-biafra members of the separatist Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) during protests and processions,” separating them
Don’t ask me why people expect to remain alive after a disagreement with soldiers
permanently from their family and loved ones. When agitations continued, the army – in a show of force – announced the launch of Operation Python Dance II, which some have claimed has already led to cases of abuse. Now, one might ask why, in response to a group that has engaged in mostly non-violent political agitation, is the army sending pythons to dance, leading potentially to the deaths of civilians? Reading the news from a continent where we take many of our democratic pointers from Europe, I have seen how the Spanish government’s belief in human rights has led to the Catalans doing a thing as audacious as attempting to decide for themselves if they want to govern themselves or be governed by Spain. I will not be surprised if there are Nigerians in Catalonia giving them dangerous ideas. But now the Spanish government has seen the light and is visiting Catalan secessionism with the force it deserves. They are finally learning from the Nigerian army.
Now some people may talk about respect for human life and dignity. Some may even blame President Muhammadu Buhari for alienating an already impoverished region by implying that those who did not vote overwhelmingly for him do not deserve equal treatment by his government. These are distractions. I am more interested in peace and stability. After all, we don’t want people running around exercising things like rights to free speech and assembly. Also, this has nothing to do with development and the economy. It is simply about unruly people seeking to disturb the peace. If you allow everyone to gather, you never know what will happen. Too much freedom is what produced things like Mr Trump, who, in an unprecedented nightmare, won the American gameshow where one is rewarded with nuclear codes and the best-equipped army on earth. This is why I encourage America to support Nigeria. It recently refused to consider the IPOB a terrorist organisation even though a court in Nigeria had classified IPOB as such. We need America to agree with us so that it will become easier for soldiers to separate more separatists from life and liberty. We really don’t want our solders to kill people and then find themselves facing war crimes charges in the near future. The US should think long term. In fact, I would suggest that the Nigerian army do preemptive operations in civilian areas with armoured personnel carriers (APCS) – and, just to lighten the mood, have ‘APC’ emblazoned on them and leave people guessing if it stands for the acronym of Nigeria’s ruling party. I am well aware of the people who want to walk deep into Memory Lane with all its weeds and dangerous animals lurking, people who want to go far into the reasons why the agitations of the south-east persist and why it might be important to take development and integration to a region which was the centre of the only civil war we have fought seriously. But I say it is irresponsible to complicate a simple matter. It is important to keep the Nigerian army active and engaged just in case we get attacked by an external force. Also think of the added benefit: while the Nigerian army is practising with civilian secessionists, it frees the police to do things like directing traffic and other important transactions with motorists.
While the army is practising with secessionists it frees the police to direct traffic