By Reuben Abati
In a recent interview with Arise TV, the attorney general of the federation, Abubakar Malami (SAN) had indicated that the federal government of Nigeria may consider a political solution to the matters involving Nnamdi Kanu, leader of the proscribed Indigenous Peoples Organisation of Biafra (IPOB) and Sunday Igboho, the self-determination, Yoruba Nation activist, currently in custody and on trial in the Benin Republic. But only if an approach in that direction was proposed to the federal government. It is therefore not surprising that within two weeks after this declaration, a delegation of Igbo elders led by 93-year-old statesman, former minister of aviation in the first republic, Mbazulike Amaechi, the trade unionist known as “The Boy is Good”. Known as the highly respected Igbo greats, the delegates included former Anambra state governor, Chukwuemeka Ezeife, Sunday Onuoha, a bishop of the Methodist Church, former president of Aka Ikenga, Goddy Uwazurike and Tagbo Amaechi.
Mbazulike Amaechi, speaking on behalf of the Igbo greats (representatives of Igbo greats actually because there are so many of them across the globe), pleaded for amnesty for Nnamdi Kanu. This request must have been made in full knowledge of the fact that a political solution is indeed possible under the circumstances, as opposed to a strictly legal or authoritarian approach, and that whereas the former could result in healing, reconciliation, a sense of justice and accommodation when in the past the Nigerian government relied on authoritarian and heavy hand choices, the country ended up paying a heavy price. Remember the trial and murder of Ken Saro Wiwa in November 1995. Against all counsel to the contrary, the Abacha military junta went ahead and killed Ken Saro Wiwa on November 10, 1995. Nigeria has not yet recovered from that error of judgment.
Decades after, the world continues to memorialise Ken Saro-Wiwa and the ideals for which he lived, fought, and for which he ultimately paid the supreme sacrifice – the rights of the Ogoni people to self-determination, their right of control over their own resources, and the need to sanction the abuse of the environment by the oil multinationals. In contrast, the men who ordered his death, those who danced on his grave are either dead or forgotten, their legacy a faint memory of shame, and evil. Saro-Wiwa was a champion of his people’s rights to be treated fairly and justly. He was president of the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP). The Nigerian state, like a colonial overlord, deployed divide and rule tactics among the Ogonis. Ken Saro-Wiwa was turned into the fall guy and scapegoat in the unfolding spectacle of intra-fratricidal conflict. For those who remember history, this is a fairly, contemporary cautionary tale. Leaders who wish to avoid the mistakes of history must first appreciate the value of it not merely as narrative but as a source of learning and wisdom.
We are not in a position to teach history to President Buhari’s guests nor to the president himself who have all been major witnesses to Nigerian history and indeed architects of it, each in his own way. President Buhari’s response was loaded, rather cautiously, he gave nothing away. The best that the Igbo greats went home with was the promise that he would consider their rather difficult request. Hear him: “You have made an extremely difficult demand on me as leader of this country. The implication of your request is very serious. In the last six years, since I became president, nobody would say I have confronted or interfered in the work of the judiciary. The demand you made is heavy, I will consider it”.
The meeting with the Igbo greats on the matter of Nnamdi Kanu is perhaps the most noteworthy attempt in that regard so far. It was initiated and led by persons who were not seeking any immediate political gain. If that meeting had been led by politicians or state governors, nobody would have taken them seriously. But can the president grant the amnesty? Yes, he can. And there is a precedent in that regard. The president’s powers to grant amnesty, otherwise described as the prerogative of mercy, exist under section 175 (1) of the 1999 constitution. Section 175 (2) and (3) define how such powers may be exercised. This section of the law was applied in the Henry Okah case in 2008/9. Okah, based in South Africa, was identified as a major leader of the then notorious Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND). The group, fighting for the rights of the people of the Niger Delta, kidnapped foreign oil workers, destroyed strategic oil installations and posed a threat to the economic interests of the country. Okah was arrested in Angola and deported to Nigeria in February 2008. He was charged with 62 counts of treason, terrorism, illegal possession of arms, arms trafficking, with the possibility of a death penalty. Like IPOB today, MEND also had a spokesperson – one Jomo Gbomo. MEND also had a militant wing led by self-styled generals. In 2009, the then President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua, acting on the recommendations of the presidential panel on amnesty and disarmament for militants of the Niger Delta proclaimed amnesty for Okah and other militants pursuant to section 175 of the 1999 constitution.
The other ground on which the accused person can be set free is under section 174 (1-3) of the 1999 constitution, where the attorney general of the federation can intervene in any proceedings in any court of law in Nigeria other than a court-martial, with regard to any offence at all, and either take over the case or discontinue it through the instrumentality of a nolle prosequi. The AGF is required to do so, however, in person or by proxy, with “regard to the public interest, the interest of justice and the need to prevent the abuse of legal process”. Further, the constitution grants the attorney general full and express authority here, without recourse to the president but because the offices of the AGF and that of the minister of justice are combined under our jurisdiction, the AGF is not just a chief legal officer of the federation, he is also a political appointee, cabinet minister, in his capacity as a minister of justice. Hence, he hardly acts independently, without the approval of the president. In effect, under both sections 174 and 175 of the 1999 constitution, the executive arm of government can free or grant amnesty to any accused or convicted person, before, during or after a trial. The argument that this would amount to a violation of the doctrine of the separation of powers is mainly academic. However, there may be other issues of concern that define the president’s circumstances.
A notable difference between the request for amnesty by the Igbo greats seeking amnesty and the MEND case, for example, was that both Henry Okah and the Niger Delta militants in MEND, agreed to the disarmament and amnesty plans as outlined by all parties involved. The second is that the amnesty was not for Henry Okah alone but all militants who were willing to cease hostilities. The long-term effect was the gradual return of normalcy to the Niger Delta and the eventual creation of a ministry of Niger Delta Affairs. In the recent Igbo proposal, the only name that was mentioned for amnesty was that of Nnamdi Kanu. What about lieutenants and sympathisers of the IPOB cause? Who will plead for them? The “many soldiers of the revolution” languishing in detention centres. Amaechi said of Kanu to President Buhari that if he was released to him, “he would no longer say things he has been saying”. He added that “he could control him not because I have anything to do with IPOB but I am highly respected in Igboland today”.
But did Amaechi and the Igbo greats consult with Kanu and his followers? Were they notified about the visit to Aso Villa? It is culturally acceptable in Africa for elders within the community to step forward to protect their children when they seem to be at war with external forces. It is part of the duty of the “ummuna” to protect its own. There must be a proverb for this in one of Chinua Achebe’s novels most certainly! But even the children that need to be saved must be carried along, particularly the children of nowadays. Before now, some other Igbo elders advised IPOB and members of the Eastern Security Network (ESN) to moderate the tone of their self-determination demands. Nobody listened to them. Other elders appealed to the people to ignore IPOB’s declared sit-at-home order in every part of the southeast. Even when IPOB came forward to announce that it had vacated the same order, the people stubbornly refused to follow IPOB’s lead. Till today, they stay at home on Mondays. IPOB is a more powerful force in the southeast today than any state government. Many Igbo families have stopped going home out of fear. Will the release of Nnamdi Kanu douse tension? More so as there are some other youth groups and stakeholders who are arguing that Nnamdi Kanu has not committed any offence and that he should be allowed his day in court and treated fairly. They don’t want any sympathy from the federal government. And Ndigbo should not go to Buhari to beg for anything. Same subject, different reactions across generational lines. Who should General Buhari listen to?
President Buhari’s hands may also be tied by the realisation that the issue of amnesty has become far more sensitive in Nigeria today than when it first became popular in the early part of the century. The scope of its meaning and context has been expanded to cover all kinds of issues: including religion, ethnicity and societal prejudices. We have heard cases of requests for amnesty also by bandits and terrorists, farmers and herders, husbands and wives. Thus, when certain stakeholders in the north asked for amnesty for Boko Haram, the ISWAP, and other members responsible for the tension in the country, the sharp retort was that this would amount to amnesty without justice. If the president is not allowed to grant blanket amnesty to Boko Haram, ISWAP, and herders, why should he grant amnesty to the leader of IPOB?
In addition, Nnamdi Kanu violated the terms of the bail previously granted to him. If he absconded a second time and continues to fight for the self-determination of their people, which in itself is a right under articles 1 and 55 of the UN Charter on people’s and civil rights, then, where does that leave Nigeria? Will Ndigbo appreciate the release of Nnamdi Kanu, who they believe was unjustly arrested, in Kenya? And shabbily treated? Will the same Kanu if he were invited by the government, agree to sit down for any negotiations, without first consulting his followers? The times have changed indeed. The same interests involved in the Okah case in 2008/2009, have now been amplified to the third degree.
So, what should President Buhari do? He should grant Nnamdi Kanu, Sunday Igboho, their followers and collaborators in different parts of the country amnesty to pave the way for the emplacement of a structure for dialogue, healing, reconciliation and justice. He has a duty to demonstrate that there is no war against the Igbos of Nigeria or any other group within. The big challenge for Ndigbo goes beyond amnesty for Nnamdi Kanu. Jobs for young Igbos. Equity in appointments to federal positions. Equitable distribution of resources and opportunities. Investment in education in the east. The completion of the River Niger Bridge. The lesson that should be learnt is that no group in Nigeria should be marginalised or maltreated. It is when this is not done that you find many youths on the streets claiming that they are better off in a land-locked independent country of their own than to stay in a Nigeria which flows with milk and honey, the access to which is monopolized by a minority, and that includes the milk and honey in other people’s backyards.
President Buhari has his personal issues. As commander-in-chief of the armed forces, what would he say to his troops that have engaged IPOB and Kanu’s followers in the past few years? The president himself once pointed out that the intention of the radicals of the east was to sabotage his government. The number of security agents and agencies deployed to Anambra during the last gubernatorial election in that state is in itself, proof of the government’s determination to do battle with IPOB, ESN or any other group of non-state actors. It is indeed, a difficult decision to make.
The president should look into the matter, nonetheless as promised. The Igbo greats can only nurse the optimism that President Buhari would indeed do so. For how long? Nobody knows. As in Samuel Beckett’s ‘Waiting for Godot’, we wait.