Is MASSOB a joke?

Members of the Indigenous People of Biafra during a protest. PHOTO: AFP PHOTO / PIUS UTOMI EKPEI

I reproduce here this column published in The Guardian on Sunday of November 23, 2015. I do not wish to say I told you so but to suggest that in the current heated climate of war of words following the ultimatum given by the Arewa Youths to Ndigbo to leave the north by October 1, we would do well not to continue to treat IPOB, MASSOB and the Arewa Youths as misguided youthful irritants in our body politic.

President Muhammadu Buhari last week described the leaders of the Movement for the Actualisation of the State of Biafra, MASSOB, as ‘jokers.’ Buhari believes the agitators are hacking at a granite with a kitchen knife if they believe they can change the minds of Nigerians to stay in one, indivisible country. After all, as he rightly pointed out, our country has “witnessed a lot of internal strife, survived a civil war and has remained united.” So, no shaking.

I find the president’s statement rather disappointingly dismissive of what is happening in the South-East geopolitical zone. MASSOB is agitating for the dismemberment of our country. Its agitation is a direct challenge to state authority. It is not wise to dismiss such an agitation as a joke. History has enough evidence to show that challenges to state authorities often begin as seemingly innocuous social or political protests. And quite often by the time the state wakes up to the threat to its corporate existence, it loses the chance to nip an incipient problem in the bud and the protest or agitation blossoms into a major national crisis that, in some cases, defied a quick or an easy solution. Think of insurgencies and civil wars.

MASSOB has been around since the return to civil rule in 1999. At first, no one took the young men seriously. I think the general attitude, including that of the Obasanjo administration, was that what Lt-Col Ojukwu could not achieve with his army, navy and air force, despite the recognition of Biafra by at least six countries, a bunch of young men would be ill-equipped to achieve with bare hands. Even the Nigerian state could not resist the temptation to dismiss MASSOB as a socio-political irritant.

The first seeds of a possible state mistake were thus sown. MASSOB is becoming progressively bolder and gaining traction among young men in that geopolitical zone. Only the previous week they led public protests that disrupted economic and social activities in parts of that zone. These men are not jokers. They are not joking.

Mrs. Josephine Anenih, former minister of Women Affairs, appears to be one important personality who felt compelled to alert us to the dangers posed to peace in our dear country by the MASSOB agitation. In an opinion piece last week, she wrote: “I see a looming war in Nigeria. A war that will consume the whole country if allowed to conflagrate. What Nigeria is battling with in the North East will fizzle into child’s play if the insidious danger that is brewing in the South East is not nipped in the bud now.”

A timely and sensible warning. Her view must have earned her the tile of alarmist by now. It is not unusual for lone voices in matters of this nature to be drowned in indifference. Put her statement against that of the MASSOB director of information, Comrade Uchenna Madu: “Biafra agitators are more determined to sacrifice our shops, businesses, jobs, comfort and even the supreme sacrifice for the sake of our freedom.”

Bravado? Maybe. Let us not forget that the small guy who takes on the state quite often manages to turn himself into the Pied Piper. Uninformed and the unwary youth flock to him.

Mrs. Anenih wrote: “I have listened keenly to hear the voice of Igbo leadership but was deafened by the silence that hit me.” I, too, have listened for that voice from the Igbo leadership. I, too, am deafened by the sound of silence. I do not accuse the Igbo leadership of complicity in the MASSOB agitation. I know of many decent and patriotic Igbo men and women who are, I am willing to bet, pained by the self-destructive activities of these agitators that is impugning the patriotic credentials of such people. I suggest that it is unhelpful for those who disapprove of what MASSOB is doing and appreciate, like Mrs. Anenih, the elementary fact that the agitation is an ill wind for their geopolitical zone and the country, to padlock their lips. It amounts to moral cowardice.

What is MASSOB really agitating for? What has the Nigerian state denied the Igbo? Or to put it another way, what are the grievances of these young against the Nigerian state? You are not likely to hear sensible answers to these and other questions from the people who are prepared to sacrifice lives and limbs for an ill-defined cause.

I have heard glib talks about the so-called political marginalisation of the Igbo. I am not aware of a Nigerian state policy expressly intended to marginalise the Igbo or deny them their rights in any shame or form. Under both military and civilian regimes, I knew of no tokenism in the appointments of Igbo men and women to important political and other positions in the country. Only nine years after the civil war brought on the country by an Igbo man ended, an Igbo man became the number two citizen as vice-president of the country. The Igbo made it to the number two position in the Babangida administration. Only the Igbo have had five Senate presidents; an Igbo man has been Senate president for more than eight years; the Igbo have headed the three armed forces and the police. We have had at least three Igbo governors of the Central Bank of Nigeria. I known of no one from another state imposed on an Igbo state as a governor. The Igbo, like the rest of us, have been free to choose our governors; and like them, we have not always made wise choices. I rest my case on the so-called marginalisation.

Ah, I remember. The Igbo have not had a president. A sore point, obviously. The other two big tribes have had more than their fair share here. The Igbo is the third in the three big tribe league in our country. I am not aware that other tribes conspired to deny them the highest office in the land. They, not others, are to blame. The highest office in the land will continue to elude it surely, the tribe that plays its politics poorly.

I offer three humble reasons why I believe the Nigerian state cannot afford to play Rip Van Winkle. My first reason is that behind the MASSOB agitation is a feeling of entitlement. Its leaders argue, and they can find takers among top leaders, that their people have not been given their fair share consistent with their sterling contributions to our national development. I can testify to their contributions to our national development. All our teachers at the Methodist School, Agila, were Igbo. I can confirm too that in every town in Northern Nigeria before the Nigerian crisis and the civil war, all the traders – wholesale and retain – motor mechanics, lorry owners and drivers, eatery owners, electricians and so on, were all Igbo. Their leadership in economic activities might have been unrewarded but the rest of us have never failed to recognition them. In any case, people primarily engage in such activities for personal gains; the national gain is an unintended consequence.

My second reason is that there is an incipient but palpable sense of isolationism in the South-East geopolitical zone. This is evident among senior Ndigbo leaders, who, at the best of times, ensure that what they say is at variance with what they believe or do. While they benefit from the system they tend to believe they are in it but not of it. It seems to me that this has created the vacuum being exploited by the leaders of MASSOB. Perhaps, that is why these people find virtue in padlocking their lips.

The sense of entitlement is the more reason why the Nigerian state would be remiss if it continues to shrug off the agitation as a harmless youthful exuberance indulged by those who want to draw attention to themselves. The coup of 1966 by four Igbo and one Yoruba majors resulted primarily from a similar feeling their entitlement was denied, in the Yoruba denying the premiership of the Western Region. I think the young majors must have felt that entitlement denied their people by the ballot box had to be requited by the barrel of the gun. It was an ill wind. We are still reaping the whirlwind. A sense of unrequited entitlement exacts a price in all societies and nations.

My third reason why the Nigerian state cannot afford to be indifferent to MASSOB is that there are militias prepared to protect their ethnic and geopolitical interests: OPC in the South-West, Arewe Youths in the northern states and Egbesu Boys in the South-South. If the Nigerian state fails to address the MASSOB agitation, it could wake up some of these militias. I do not wish to predict what this could mean for us and our country.

Boko Haram has ample lessons for those who are dismissive of incipient insurgencies. So far, MASSOB leaders have conducted themselves in a non-threatening but systematic manner: street protests and radio propaganda. This could change should they be attracted to AK-47. If this happens, things could get messy and attract international do-gooders.

President Buhari is confronted with a messy cocktail of insecurity challenges. It is the burden thrust upon him by a nation polarised by its fault lines – ethnicity, religion, poverty – and the immediate past leadership failure by those who put the enjoyment of the perks of office above and beyond addressing lingering and new national challenges. How the president addresses these challenges will define his presidency.



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