SPURNING the need to find ingenious ways to tackle the demand by the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) and the Movement for the Actualisation of the Sovereign State of Biafra (MASSOB) for independence, the federal government has spoken of force and used it. It will not negotiate; it will not even be discussed and it sees the two groups’ demand as nothing but treason. To the federal government, the unity of Nigeria is non-negotiable, and those who question this fact are either too young to know the difference or too misguided to be countenanced by the government. It was therefore not surprising that Monday’s pro-Biafra protests in four states turned bloody, with the army saying soldiers shot dead five persons, and protesters asserting that some 30-53 persons were shot dead. And with each bloody protest, the country not only bleeds viciously, it inches towards apocalypse with steady and unflinching resoluteness.

The pro-Biafra protests were staged to mark the 49th anniversary of the declaration of Biafra and the 17th anniversary of MASSOB. Though the march was symbolic, it nonetheless signposted the protesters’  increasing frustration, if not complete alienation, with Nigeria as a country. There is no incontrovertible evidence that the pro-Biafra sentiment is widespread in the Southeast, considering how apparently limited to its young exponents the idea still is in the region. The more guarded and perhaps economically and ideologically guided older people of the region have watched the unfolding pro-Biafra campaigns with a tentativeness and caution that come with age. Sometimes they whisper their disapproval of the feistiness of the youths, most of whom nurture very romantic ideas of Biafra. At other times, they genuinely wonder whether the youths had taken cognisance of the dense population of the Southeast people, the adventuresomeness of the region’s commerce-inclined people, and their landlocked region.

Whatever the case, the protests, rather than abate, have acquired more force and urgency. Both the force and urgency are a product of the mishandling of the Biafra idea by the federal government. In the foreseeable future, the protests will intensify, the pro-Biafra youths will approach the matter with reckless abandon, and as long as no discussions are countenanced by the federal government, the region will continue to seethe, perhaps uncontrollably. With IPOB”s Nnamdi Kanu still in jail and on trial, and the police and army determined to unleash as much strong-arm tactics as they can muster on the pro-Biafra campaigners, the country should invariably prepare for more tension. This column had warned that the federal approach to the Biafra idea was wrong-headed and inflexible. The scale of destruction witnessed early this week, not to say the absence of wisdom and restraint, is an indication that the tension and violence can only get worse.

Predictably, the Inspector General of Police, Solomon Arase, has spoken forcefully about the matter. He has ordered the police to disarm the pro-Biafra agitators and warned of dire consequences of testing the resolve of the government. Such firmness as he has displayed is expected of a law officer, though the protesters insist they have never been armed. But the protesters themselves have noted that Mr. Arase is showing the kind of resolve he could not muster when the country was inundated by herdsmen attacks, where nomads bore arms openly and used them without challenge. The protesters have also noticed that the president has repeatedly spoken of Biafra with incalculable scornfulness, promising to crush any attempt to balkanize the country. And so, whether the country is contemplating the order to disarm or threat to crush, the problem is continuing and even heightening. Apparently, strong words and harsh tactics have not availed much. It may  therefore, be time to try something else if the problem is not to spiral out of control.

Indeed, with so much violence and many deaths, the problem may already be beyond President Buhari’s initiative. Given his testiness over the matter, his mind seems to have been made up, perhaps in the wrong direction. With such inexplicable inflexibility, what other options could he be contemplating? He sees it as a law and order problem rather than a manifestation of stress in the polity and economy. Such mindset is unhelpful. For now, Biafra has not appeared to have the unalloyed support of the region’s elders. That leaves a window of opportunity for the country to address the matter in a structured and constructive way to find a sensible solution. If the president can modify his mindset and recognise that too much has happened in the past few decades since the end of the civil war thus rendering old ideas and perspectives anachronistic, he may become more amenable to finding an exit out of the cul-de-sac.

The president has repeatedly harped on the fact that the pro-Biafra agitators were young or not born when the civil war raged, and so may be unaware of the consequences of another fratricidal conflict. The problem with that assumption is that the president believes that the rest of the country may be averse to dissolution, or that he would find wholehearted support from all corners of the country should he attempt to forcefully bar the Southeast from pulling out, assuming  of course the region could find the plurality to do so. Instead of advancing what may turn out to be false assumptions, the president should, as an elected politician, meet minds with his party to find a way out of the crisis. He has tried unsuccessfully to walk alone. Let him join hands with others to find a solution. This week, his party men from the Southeast paid him a visit. He should exploit that opportunity to make peace rather than prepare for war.

It is also time the president recognised that the pro-Biafra sentiment is probably a call for the holistic restructuring of the country. That panacea can no longer be waved aside or even moderated by the presidency. The call for restructuring is taking a life of its own, as the former vice president Atiku Abubakar explained early this week at a book launch. President Buhari can only ignore the call at his peril. If he is not to lose the initiative, the time to act may be now. In addition, President Buhari keeps making the shocking mistake of assuming that Biafra is a physical concept that can be crushed. It is not. It is an idea planted deep in the subconscious of the people of the Southeast. Both because there was no closure to the civil war, as this column has maintained, and because the country has been spectacularly misgoverned, the Southeast finds it irresistible contemplating the idea of isolation or independence.

More importantly, it is time the president was made aware of the virtue of peacemaking than warmongering. There is a limit to the things that can be crushed. In the case of Biafra, the problem is not beyond peaceful resolution. Let the president use his men in the region, and all other men of goodwill, to broker a solution. He has opened too many fronts in his war in various parts of the country, and has spoken rather unwisely and sanguinarily over some of them. Yet, he has neither the resources nor the personnel to tackle the problems if and when they become full-blown. The pro-Biafra agitators may romanticise a jaded idea. But much worse is the fact that the president has himself seemed to be an incurable romantic of war and an exponent of strong-arm tactics, one who tolerates and excuses overzealous military actions. He should be reminded he is now a politician and an elected president.

He mishandled the Shiite protest in Zaria last December; he is mishandling the pro-Biafra protest in the Southeast; he is misspeaking on the herdsmen attacks;  and he is appallingly stoking the flames of the Niger Delta revolt. If he cannot see the futility of the measures he is embracing, his advisers should lean on him to help him see more clearly in order to move in the right direction.

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