What’s Going On: Nigeria’s President invokes genocidal past to threaten war

History could repeat itself

No victor, no vanquished. That was the edict issued by the General Yakubu Gowon-led federal government of Nigeria in January 1970, following a civil war that lasted about two-and-a-half years. With estimates of around a hundred thousand military deaths and over a million civilian casualties in the south-eastern Nigeria region, the conflict was way too fatal to be summarised into a pacifying statement.

It wasn’t some quibble, it was a war; and as we know, wars have victors and they have vanquished, too.

The civil war was effected by South-eastern Nigeria’s secession, with the region self-determining itself as the Republic of Biafra, an independent country officially declared by Major Chukwuemeka Odumegu Ojukuwu on May 30, 1967. Over a month later, Nigeria, which was now firmly under military control, declared war on the region under federation principles, deeming Biafra’s separatist move as an undermining of Nigeria’s sovereignty. What followed was Nigeria using every tool at its disposal to suffocate the self-separated region into surrender—massacring towns, and cutting off aid supply channels, using starvation to weaken and kill off a significant portion of the region’s civilian population.

“Many of those misbehaving today are too young to be aware of the destruction and loss of lives that occurred during the Nigerian civil war,” a tweet from the official handle of Nigeria’s President Muhammadu Buhari read last Tuesday. “Those of us in the fields for 30 months, who went through the war, will treat them in the language they understand.” Appearing as part of a thread aimed at addressing the attacks on government facilities in the country’s southeast, the tweet was widely decried for its explicit threat of genocide in the region, especially within the context of Nigeria’s widespread security problems and the manner in which the president has addressed these issues.

Just last month, Mr. Buhari made an “appeal” to the kidnappers of the students of Greenfield University, Kaduna, asking for their safe release despite the fact that the deceased bodies of five abductees had already been found. It was symbolic of the limp tone the president and his administration have adopted in addressing bandit-related activities prevalent in Nigeria’s Northern region which is fast becoming a nationwide epidemic, a sharp contrast to the caustic tone used in addressing the security and vandalism issues in the southeast. Many Nigerians on Twitter quickly reported the president’s tweet invoking the late ‘60s civil war, leading to its deletion and the temporary suspension of the account for “abusive behaviour.”

Like many government officials, it is widely believed that Mr. Buhari isn’t directly responsible for managing his Twitter account, but as an elected office holder, it is still meant to disseminate his statements and amplify his ideologies, even if its handler(s) give him some modicum of separation from the account. In literal fashion, the thread carrying the genocide-implying tweet is a slightly edited transcript of the president’s address during a meeting with the joint service chiefs earlier that day. It’s another indication that Mr. Buhari, a former military dictator in the early ‘80s and a commanding officer during the civil war, seemingly still harbours the autocratic ideals that defined the decades of sustained military rule in Nigeria.

By recalling the genocidal conflict which claimed millions of Igbos and ethnic minorities in the southeast, the president is knowingly using one of the darkest, most brutal times in Nigerian history to exacerbate the same ethnic, political and religious tensions which were ingredients for the civil war. The secession of Biafra and the ensuing conflict was a culmination of coups, pogroms and blindsiding tactics, a complicated order of events with a devastating outcome for all Nigerians which is still experienced today.

Philosopher George Santayana famously said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” With President Buhari’s threatening comments, he’s almost condemning Nigeria to repeat a bloody past. Across primary and secondary school education curricular, there are no part of the History and Social Studies curriculum dedicated to the civil war, leaving millions of young Nigerians in the dark about a pivotal, even though gruesome, part of the country’s history. With the internet as a sprawling resource for knowledge, though, many are aware of this past and the conditions behind them.

Five decades after the war, pro-Biafra agitations are alive and are probably at its loudest in the years since. The motivations haven’t changed, it’s still a quest for autonomy amidst tussles defined by ethnic, religious and political differences. Where the gift of hindsight and a democratic system of government should be beneficial in addressing the issue, the president’s tweet is emblematic of the lack of nuance and brashness with his administration. During his first 4-year term, the Buhari-led presidency backed three phases of Operation Python Dance, the armed military action aimed at forcibly quelling the separatist movement, Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB). It also publicly persecuted Nnamdi Kanu, founder and leader of IPOB, arresting and detaining him for over a year-and-a-half.

In its second term, this administration’s dedication to “crushing” the separatist agitation is still unwavering, intermittently sending soldiers to the southeast for armed operations that have played its role in the worsening security situation in the region. Since last August, security forces have clashed with IPOB members on several occasions, a trend that doesn’t seem like it’ll be stopping anytime soon. In that time, there’s been attacks on several police stations and Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) offices, a violent raid on the country home of Imo state governor Hope Uzodinma, an attack on the prison in Owerri which set nearly 2,000 inmates free, amongst other sinister occurrences.

These events have been broadly attributed to militant operations or, as they are colloquially referred to these days, unknown gunmen. These attacks have also coincided with the emergence of the Eastern Security Network (ESN), formed last December as the paramilitary wing of IPOB. The army has routinely raided towns in south-eastern states and faced off with ESN members, with civilians being fatally caught in the crossfire. While it’s been routinely accused of the attacks on government facilities across the region, the ESN has routinely denied and explained that its aim is to protect private citizens against bandit-related activities, allegedly perpetrated by herdsmen of Hausa-Fulani descent.

The current situation of things in Nigeria’s southeast is complicated, its outcome can become greatly devastating, and the president’s incendiary statement inspires no confidence that a peaceful resolution will soon be reached. Over his time as a democratically elected president, Buhari has been accused of being tribally biased, and the difference in tone when addressing insurgency in Nigeria’s north and southeast doesn’t swing the argument his way. Pro-Biafra agitations have always bordered on the region being unfairly treated when it comes to economic allocation, infrastructural development, and political inclusion. In an ideal democracy, these are issues that can be addressed without guns. For the president to seemingly espouse autocratic ideals, is to validate the idea that unity can only be achieved by force—even if it means genocidal ethnic cleansing.

A few days after Mr. Buhari’s incendiary tweet, the Coalition of Northern Groups issued out a communique claiming that “the Igbo have benefitted more than any other tribe in terms of economic monopoly”, going on to state that pro-Biafra agitations are borne of “pent up jealousies against the North and its people.” The communique ends with scarcely veiled resolutions, even going as far as threatening pogroms against people of southeast origins. This is the sort of reaction this administration is currently engendering with its tone-deaf and violent stance, and it remains to be seen if things will change positively for the sake of wholesome unity.

At the moment, though, it doesn’t look like it. On Friday, two days after Twitter deleted Mr. Buhari’s tweet, the Nigerian government suspended Twitter’s operations in the country. It’s the latest move in this administration’s explicit aim to censor free press and gag freedom of speech amongst those living in Nigeria. Considering that social media bans and restrictions are mostly employed in countries under dictatorships, it feels very much like the president is intent on waging “War on Everybody”, similar to his regime in the ‘80s.

Wars have victors and they have vanquished, too.

@dennisadepeter is a staff writer at the NATIVE.