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11 Oct 2017

Ikpeazu, IPOB and Saving Nigeria from the Brink of a Civil War

Mayowa Tijani heaves a sigh of relief as Nigeria's Independence Day came and went by without witnessing the supposed violence that was predicted.
Pro-Biafran protesters
I cannot explain the relief I felt on October 4, 2017, when it finally dawned on me that Nigeria’s independence celebrations had actually come and gone across the world and the country was still all intact. The celebrations by individual and institutions worldwide were beautiful, with all the doomsday prophets going silent and cast away in shameful caves.

In all my adult life, I have not seen a year as dramatic and precarious for Nigeria as 2017 has been. I really thought 2015 strained the cords of our unity, but 2017 came with more threats to Nigeria’s harmony. Arewa Youths had promised doomsday on October 1. The Nigeria Delta militants assured us retaliation and reprisal attacks. To aggravate the issues, the Independent People of Biafra (IPOB) took a pledge to rain brimstones and fire on the Nigerian state.

In my opinion, the federal government did not handle it well. As all these regional tensions raged on, President Muhammadu Buhari sent a voice note to Nigerians, celebrating the end of the Ramadan season in Hausa language. The president’s speech — rather than douse tensions — added some heat to the polity. The larger section of Nigerians were miffed by the president’s deliberate segregation, and narrowness of response to boiling national issues.

Upon return to the country, the president made another address, where he said Nigeria’s unity is not negotiable. This time around, the president went beyond words to show his leadership as the commander-in-chief of the armed forces. Three weeks to the October 1 “doomsday”, we had Operation Python Dance II in place; and in no time, the military was already clashing with civillians in a supposedly democratic country.

As October 1 drew nearer, the tensions got more palpable, and the uncertainty of a country’s unity was playing out in the South-East more than in any other part of the nation.

Averting the Doomsday Crisis

In all of these, very few politicians stood out besides the likes of Yemi Osinbajo, the acting president of the nation at the turbulent time and Okezie Ikpeazu, the governor of Abia state, who kept the peace in the midst of a raging storm.

Ikpeazu, particularly, sued for peace, despite every incentive to allow violence to reign. At a time when the Arewa Youths were busy giving ultimatums and IPOB was keen to match violence with violence, the governor emphasised the noblest of messages stressing unity and faith, peace and progress.
For him, there was pressure from the federal authority to handle the Abia crisis like the military was doing, leading to avoidable deaths. There surely was pressure from IPOB and Nnamdi Kanu, who had gained so many foot soldiers in the past two years. There was also pressure from the anti-IPOB camp within the same state. In the midst of all that, Ikpeazu still hosted northern governors and said the nation is one and “we won’t allow an infinitesimal few to separate us”.

Calling for conversations around marginalisation and infrastructural deficiencies in the South-East, the governor still placed necessary attention on Nigeria’s fragile peace.

“I want to announce that the population of Igbo outside the Igbo enclave is about 11.6 million; you don’t play with the lives of 11.6 million people,” he had said.

“We all have to be careful: the press, the leadership at the state level and at the federal level; everybody. We are still working on stabilising and sustaining the fragile peace that we enjoy now.

“I swore with the Bible to protect lives and property; because I take such oath very seriously, I will continue to protect the lives and property of our brothers and sisters irrespective of where they come from.”

In an interview with Osasu Igbinedion on The Osasu Show, after the potential crisis of October 1 had been averted, Ikpeazu revealed that despite his position as the governor and chief security officer of Abia state, he was not privy to the incursion of the army in Abia state.

He said he had a letter that the military were coming for operation python dance on Friday, “but they decided to test their pieces of equipment on Sunday,” earlier than the agreed date. He added that he had discussions with high-profile military officers who assured him that the military will withdraw its troops from Abia State, only to be countered by the same military, less than 24 hours after.

Despite all the miscommunication and political underlining of the python’s dance, the governor knew he had only one job which he said “is to secure life and property of not only Abians but everybody that is doing business within the geographical space called Abia”.

“So at that time, I should protect even those agitating for an independent country called Biafra. I come from a part of the country where the lives and property of visitors within your gate is perhaps more important than your own life.

“My duty and my responsibility as at that day was to make sure that I avert bloodshed of monumental proportions.”

Nigeria’s recent political history teaches that as a governor in the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) — a party at variance with the party at the federal level — Ikpeazu was expected to politicise the crisis in favour of his political ambitions or that of his party. But rather than do that, he supported the proscription of IPOB, that peace may reign.

In all, I’m delighted that the October 1 doomsday prophecy is now behind us, but we all must work together towards a peaceful and united Nigeria.

***
Oluwamayowa Tijani, a Chevening fellow, writes on politics, business and development.

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