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 The Tricky Trial of Nnamdi Kanu

The Tricky Trial of Nnamdi Kanu


After a four-year interregnum, the trial of the ‘supreme leader’ of the proscribed Indigenous Peoples of Biafra (IPOB), Mr Nnamdi Kanu resumed on Tuesday at the Federal High Court in Abuja. First arraigned on 14th October, 2015 before he eventually secured bail and fled the country, Kanu had been slammed with an 11-count charge bordering on terrorism, treasonable felony, managing an unlawful society, publication of defamatory matter, illegal possession of firearms and improper importation of goods. According to the Attorney General of the Federation and Justice Minister, Abubakar Malami, SAN, Kanu is now also accused of inciting violence through television, radio and online broadcasts that resulted in the loss of lives and property of civilians, military, paramilitary, police forces as well as the destruction of civil institutions and symbols of authority in the Southeast.

While the security agencies may have scored a huge coup by arresting Kanu abroad and bringing him home to face trial, nobody should be under any illusion that this is a simple case. The trial of Kanu resembles that of his friend-now-turned-foe, Mujahid Dokubo-Asari who was charged with similar offences under President Olusegun Obasanjo. Let’s hope it doesn’t turn out the same way. Although Dokubo-Asari’s case eventually ended with his release from detention by my late boss, President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua on 14th June 2007 (two weeks after assuming office as a prelude to the Niger Delta Amnesty programme), anybody who wants to recall that drama and its lurid details should read the Supreme Court judgement of 8th June 2007. Incidentally, that judgement (on a bail application case) was delivered by Justice Ibrahim Tanko Muhammad, the current Chief Justice of Nigeria (with concurrence by Aloysius Katsina-Alu, Niki Tobi, Francis Fedode Tabai, Pius Olayiwola Aderemi and Anthony Ikechukwu Iguh). Meanwhile, Dokubo-Asari’s lawyer was Festus Keyamo, SAN, the current Minister of State for Labour and Productivity.

Let me refresh the memory of readers on that case before I go to the substance of my intervention. Arraigned on 6th October, 2005 before the Federal High Court in Abuja, Dokubo-Asari was accused of managing “unlawful societies of more than ten persons respectively known and called Niger Delta Peoples Volunteer Force (NDPVF), Congress for the Liberation of Ikwere People (COLIP) and Chikoko Movement” with objectives that allegedly include: Levying war on the government of Nigeria; encouraging the killing and injuring of persons and property; promoting the subversion of the government of Nigeria and its officials; committing and inciting acts of violence and intimidation; encouraging interference with or resistance to the administration of law; and encouraging the disturbance of peace and order in the Niger Delta.

In one of the charges, Dokubo-Asari was said to have held a meeting on 28th August 2005 at Samsy Hotel in Benin, Edo State capital where he planned to cause civil disorder that would lead to the overthrow of what he reportedly called “the dictatorial government of Chief Olusegun Obasanjo”. And on 10th September 2005, he also granted an interview to the Independent Newspaper where he said: “Nigeria is an evil entity. It has nothing to stand on and I will continue to fight and try to see that Nigeria dissolves and disintegrates and I am ready to hold on to the struggle to see to this till the day I will die. I do not see any reason why I should continue to live with people that have no relationship with me whatsoever.”

During the trial on 19th February 2007, Dokubo-Asari created a never-to-be-forgotten scene when he told Justice Peter Olayiwola who had asked that he be taken out of court for unruly behaviour: “Stupid man! Stupid judge! You want to adjourn this matter again? You want to send me back to the underground cell again? I am sorry for you. Your family will weep when it happens. They will cry and cry.

Your family members cannot escape too. I know where they live. And Obasanjo will not be able to protect you.” In the end, that trial catapulted Dokubo-Asari into national and international limelight and perhaps, stupendous wealth as well.

However, while the recall is important to situate the issue of Kanu’s trial, I am also aware that the Southeast is not exactly the Niger Delta in the mind of the current dispensation. Obasanjo and Yar’Adua may also have taken different approaches but for essentially economic reasons vis-à-vis the oil factor. There are no such considerations in this case. Besides, the most incensed members among Kanu’s supporters are in the Diaspora. The feeling within the Southeast political circle may be one of relief that Kanu is out of circulation. Indeed, following their meeting in Enugu on 15th September 2017, the Southeast Governors’ Forum announced the proscription of IPOB activities. The then chairman, Governor Dave Umahi of Ebonyi State also assured Nigerians that “full investigation is ongoing on all allegations of killings, maiming and other unlawful conduct in the (Southeast) zone within this period”.

But nobody can deny that Kanu is now a huge factor in Southeast politics. Because some people cannot differentiate between Biafra and the Igbos, Kanu has been able to create a ‘We’ versus ‘Them’ narrative on what remains an emotional injury in the Igbo collective psyche. The tragedy really is that it did not have to come to this, if Kanu had not been consumed by hate-mongering. In my 1st October 2017 ‘Platform Nigeria’ presentation, ‘A Nation on the Edge: Which Way Nigeria?’, I spoke on how Kanu was insulting other ethnic nationalities. Yet those who ought to have restrained him refused to do so. As I asked in one of my columns, when Kanu said “anybody attending a Pentecostal church with a Yoruba pastor is an idiot, a complete fool and an imbecile” before adding, “if your pastor is Yoruba, you are not fit to be a human being” or “Pastor Kumuyi should be stoned and dealt with thoroughly if he comes to Aba for his planned crusade”, was I expected to clap for him as a Yoruba man?

However, what provoked my ‘Platform Nigeria’ intervention was the ultimatum given by some ‘youths’ for all Igbos to vacate the northern region, as a result of killings in the Southeast at the time. Let me take excerpts from what I said on that occasion: “On 6th June this year (2017), some old men under the aegis of Coalition of Arewa Youths gave all the Igbo people living in the North till yesterday, 1st October to vacate the region. Even though the quit notice was eventually withdrawn, the damage that ultimatum did to our national psyche would take many years to heal. But then, the action of this group was also a response to the uncontrolled verbal aggression by Mr Nnamdi Kanu, leader of the so-called IPOB.

“Egged on by the mob, comprising mostly Okada riders with online support from several of his kinsmen in the Diaspora, Kanu was allowed to take hate speech to an unprecedented level. Even when he was presented a golden opportunity to champion the genuine grievances of his people with civility, following an ill-advised treason trial that catapulted him into national limelight and prominence, Kanu could not rise beyond the mediocrity of the adulation of some street urchins. He felt that by making incendiary statements to offend, insult, intimidate and threaten people from other ethnic groups, he was helping whatever his cause was. At the end, he made a strategic miscalculation.

“However, while I do not know why Kanu believes spreading hate and violence would help his cause, the Arewa youth counter-response was also very much unfortunate because the inference was that because Kanu is Igbo, all Igbo people must suffer the consequences of his action…Unfortunately, the message that was also lost on the authorities in Abuja is that you cannot build an inclusive society when you react to national security threats in a manner that suggests some people are above the law; although many people across the country also felt let down that some otherwise respected senior citizens from the South-east who ought to have called Kanu to order were practically genuflecting before someone young enough to be their grandson!”

In that presentation, I also made it clear that the excessive military show of force in the South-east under the pretext of ‘Operation Python Dance’ was a dangerous gambit that could play into the hands of Kanu given public resentment by the people who were made to pay for what they knew nothing about. Sadly, that was what fed the general angst that eventually turned Kanu into a folk hero within the region.

Now, let me come back to the 2017 ‘Platform Nigeria’ intervention for my closing argument: “Admittedly, ours is a fragile polity but the social and economic bonds that unite us are strong and hard to dissolve. Yet the task of conscious nation building has hardly been done. The rights of citizenship are still shackled by boundaries of state of origin and ethnicity. The excessive hangovers of prolonged military rule are still with us in the form of impulsive arbitrariness. Our government still finds it easy to call in military force to quell elementary civil unrest. We are yet to teach our citizens from infancy the values of group living and how to compete as individuals without resorting to primordial hate when we cannot prevail.

“However, despite all these, the real challenge is that of creating enough wealth to cater for the need of our huge population. If we remain a poor country with an external reserve that is less than the cash holding of Facebook alone, our competitions might get bloodier and our future more speculative and tentative. Our task therefore is to make Nigeria a land of equal opportunity for all, a nation whose unity is not decreed as non-negotiable but is guaranteed by the practical incentives it offers for all to want to stay in and perfect the union.”

ENDNOTE: As we gradually inch towards the 2023 general election and the permutations for presidency in the two leading political parties continue, we are bound to confront the Igbo question in a way that could tie into Kanu’s travails, even if unintended. His trial has now been compounded by the fact that he jumped bail which, in some jurisdictions, is usually deemed a “consciousness of guilt”. But Kanu deserves a proper trial and respect for the rules. The federal government should grant him access to his lawyers, obey the courts, and ensure that he gets justice, according to the laws of the land and the constitution.

Meanwhile, Southeast leaders will also do well to reassure other Nigerians that IPOB does not speak for the region. By his conduct and utterances in the past six years, Kanu has succeeded in alienating many open-minded Nigerians (outside the Southeast) who appreciate the legitimate demand of Igbo people for fairness, equity, and justice in an inclusive nation they can call their own.

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