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Nnamdi Kanu, Ndigbo and Nigeria -Segun Adeniyi

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The young Yoruba man was leaving office early to go and receive his visiting Igbo wife undergoing her National Youth Service Corps (NYSC) primary assignment in a neighbouring town when he encountered a co-worker who planted in him the seed of doubts that eventually destroyed a beautiful union and set his own life crashing down. The careless remark that would play in his head again and again was that he was being naive to believe that his wife would remain faithful, especially considering that “she is young, she is a corper…and she is Igbo!”

The predilection to stereotype and label people by blaming the conduct of one person on an entire group he or she belongs (age, class, religion or ethnicity) is for me the central message in Tunde Kelani’s movie, ‘Magun’ (Thunderbolt). It speaks to a time like this in our nation when some Yoruba and Igbo irredentists are promoting hate speech in the name of a meaningless superiority war that glorifies some distorted accounts of the past.

The cast of the movie, written by Professor Akinwunmi Isola, included seasoned professionals like Adebayo Faleti, Bukky Ajayi, Uche Obi-Osotule, Lanre Balogun, Wale Macauley, Ngozi Nwosu and the Dr. Larinde Akinleye. The story is woven around Ngozi, (played by Uche, one of Nigeria’s most adored actresses who for some inexplicable reasons, doesn’t feature much in Nollywood) and Yinka (played by Lanre Balogun). The duo met and fell in love at the NYSC orientation camp.

 

With the insinuation that an Igbo woman could not be trusted and feeling rather insecure and jealous—notwithstanding the fact that he actually met his wife a virgin—Yinka eventually sought the diabolical power of ‘Magun’, the mysterious chastity control which instantly terminates the life of any man who dares to ‘climb’ a straying wife. The snag though is that if the woman played no ‘away game’ within a specified period while still being laced with ‘Magun’, she stood the risk of death. Being a faithful wife, it was Ngozi’s life that was in danger in the movie.

‘Magun’ is fatal and remedies are rare and often not foolproof. So the efforts to break its life-threatening effect on Ngozi provided the entertainment and the drama of existence captured in the movie. But in the final analysis, Ngozi’s redemption came from the family of her irresponsible Yoruba husband, the Yoruba native doctors, her local Yoruba guardian and finally the love-struck Yoruba medical doctor who offered himself as a guinea pig to test the efficacy of ‘Magun’ on the altar of a five-minute enjoyment. He was lucky to survive with an experience he would never forget!

When her tribulation was over and she was confronted with the prospect of another Yorubaman as suitor, Ngozi, quite naturally, was hesitant but her father, who started out as a Yoruba antagonist, saved the day by advising her to follow her heart. He said it would be wrong to blame a whole ethnic group for the misconduct of one man, before giving us that memorable line: “A man is a man; and a race is a race”.

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I wrote the foregoing on this page on 22 August 2013 in my piece “Yoruba, Igbo and Media Warriors” at the height of the Igbo-Yoruba verbal confrontation following the unfortunate ‘deportation’ to Anambra State of some Nigerian citizens by the Lagos State government at the time. The “Igbo this, Yoruba that” argument that dominated the period, I argued in my piece, “is unhelpful and detracts from what should be the focus of our attention. I believe it will serve us well if we return to what the real issue is, or at least should be: Whether they are Igbo, Hausa or Yoruba and regardless of their ‘state of origin’, no Nigerian should be discriminated against in any part of the country on account of his or her social status. It is time we put an end to the on-going nonsensical debate between some Igbo and Yoruba commentators and face the real issues of poverty, development and national unity.”

Eventually, sanity prevailed but the madness resurfaced after the 2015 presidential election. With the defeat of President Goodluck Jonathan who was heavily backed by South-east voters and the public declaration by President Muhammadu Buhari that the distribution of opportunities would be according to the number of votes he got in each region, there was always going to be trouble. Then came Nnamdi Kanu who, as I said on Monday, was “egged on by the mob, comprising mostly okada riders with online support from several of his kinsmen in the Diaspora” and was “allowed to take hate speech to an unprecedented level, even by the standards of our country”.

Before I go further, let me commend the Senior Pastor of the Covenant Christian Centre, Pastor Poju Oyemade for his vision in bringing critical stakeholders together every year on the anniversary of our independence so that we can share our fears and aspirations while provoking national engagements for the peace and progress of our country. Every year, people look forward to ‘The Platform’ where I was privileged to speak for a record sixth time on Monday. Meanwhile, some sympathisers of the so-called Indigenous Peoples of Biafra (IPOB), who were evidently not happy with my presentation, have asked me to explain what I meant by saying Kanu is spreading hate speech.

Hate speech, as I understand it, is any verbal or written statements deliberately meant to offend, insult, intimidate or threaten a person or group of individuals based on ethnicity, race, religion, gender, sexual orientation etc. In case that sounds a bit vague let me try to be more direct. Basically, if I say ‘I hate this Yoruba man because he is a thief’ that does not qualify as hate speech but if I say ‘because this Yoruba man is a thief all Yoruba people are thieves’, then I am on a slippery slope. That is the kind of things Kanu has been saying about non-Igbo Nigerians. For instance, when Kanu says “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”, am I expected to clap for him?

Whatever may be the disposition of anybody to this government, it was bad politics to have allowed Kanu to run riot the way he did, saying unprintable things about several people, including the president. So, when some grandfathers under the aegis of Arewa Youth issued an ultimatum for Igbo people in the North to quit the region, it was obvious that they were responding to the fact that Kanu was allowed to abuse, malign and threaten other Nigerians without anybody in the South-east restraining him.

Therefore, it was on the basis of the foregoing that when on Tuesday I got a rather instructive mail from a regular reader of this page who lives and works in Canada, I decided to raise a critical point about Kanu and the Ndigbo question to which he also responded. With his permission, I want to reproduce our exchanges:

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Dear Segun,
I read with dismay President Buhari’s independence message where he premised the recent calls for secession to be based on calls for restructuring. Unfortunately, Nigeria is missing another opportunity to truly evolve into a nation by refusing to answer the Biafra question sincerely; not by brute force but by serious engagement, with a genuine intention to repair and reconcile.

To be clear, I am not in favour of Nnamdi Kanu’s method or message but any objective observer cannot deny identifying with his sentiments on the place of the Igbo in Nigeria. For perspective, the US after their bloody civil war engaged in deliberate healing which included accurate history of events regardless of who would be portrayed as the villains and heroes especially since the events leading to the civil war pertained to slavery. Regardless of their intentional efforts, the flashpoints of the civil war still remain as we have seen recently with the controversies surrounding the confederate monuments that defined that era. We are talking about resurrecting an event that occurred over 150 years ago!

Last month, Justin Trudeau, the Canadian Prime Minister, stood before the UN general assembly, not to advertise Canada to the world or promote her contribution to international fights against terrorism or humanitarian crisis but rather to apologize for the ill-treatment meted out to the indigenous people when the Europeans first arrived Canada. Trudeau apologized for an event that occurred over 150 years ago because the hurt is still being felt among the indigenous population and has always haunted the country since. Germany only healed from the World War II because of deliberate efforts at reconciliation and reconstruction but even at that, we are seeing a gradual resurgence of such sentiments from the results of the last parliamentary elections. The agitation of the Scottish people from the larger UK is rooted in hundreds of years of acrimony between both peoples.

Therefore, the premise that the hurt from the Nigerian civil war will dissipate with time is simply childish and whoever subscribes to that idea has failed to learn from history – our own history and the history from elsewhere. The civil war is only 50 years old and we somehow expect the emotions from it to be overtaken by events without any deliberate efforts to address both the factors that led to the war and the fall-outs thereof. And it is most expedient for Nigeria to confront this monster because there seems to be no unbiased documentation of that dark history.

Unfortunately, the history will still be passed on from generation to generation with the added consequence that such oral transmission will be mixed with emotions on both sides thereby deepening the hurt. Little wonder, unarmed IPOB members, most of who did not witness the war will stand and confront armed military men during the last Operation Python Dance. That many Igbos have moved on to establish businesses and residences across the country does not negate the emotional hurt they still carry.

While it seems more convenient and lazy to ignore this past and pretend it did not happen, the consequences will be greater for future generations to handle. The blanket statements and ideological underpinning of non-negotiable Nigeria may ultimately result to her implosion. Therefore, it is incumbent on Nigeria to summon the courage to sincerely heal this hurt and build a nation from there. Incidentally, genuine truth and reconciliation does not necessarily equate to secession or even confederation as the authorities seem to equate; that is just shallow reasoning. When genuine efforts are made, it will be surprising that what is needed to bind Nigeria together may be very simple after all.

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Dear Bright, thanks for your mail. In as much as I do not want to discuss President Buhari because I hold him partly responsible for this problem by not rallying the nation together after he was elected, I must also point out that I am worried about the damage Nnamdi Kanu has done to the Igbo cause within a multi-ethnic Nigeria and the fact that many Igbo people do not see it. If you notice, you will realise that the Igbos are practically carrying their cross alone at this period without much sympathy from the rest of Nigeria, save for a few opposition politicians in the South-west and South-south who are using him (Kanu) as a proxy to fight President Buhari. Talk about an enemy’s enemy being a friend!

You wonder why?

The answer is simple: Many people have the tapes of what Kanu has said about other ethnic groups so you can easily situate their resentment against him and those they consider his enablers. For instance, I have watched several of Kanu’s videos because I know those who have the collections and I cringe at the kind of bitterness and hate spewing from the mouth of the young man. He abuses, maligns, curses and threatens Yoruba and Hausa people as well as their leaders. And when I see Igbo people following and hailing such a person, how do you think I would feel?

Even if Kanu hates Yoruba and other ethnic groups, he ought to understand that he cannot fight everybody at once. But in his folly, that is what he tried to do. And with that, especially when he was being hailed by those who should call him to order, he brought resentment against his kinsmen from other Nigerians who feel injured by his violent outbursts and hate rhetoric. And that is why many people, including those sympathetic to the Igbo cause, also do not want to hear any talk about Biafra or IPOB, especially if what it means is to demonise them and their leaders.

Believe me, I speak to a lot of people across a broad spectrum of the Nigerian society, including those who may appear quiet, so I know what I am saying. Kanu is damaging, not promoting, the Igbo cause, regardless of the anger that may make some people to think otherwise, and I say that with every sense of responsibility.

I have always fought the Igbo cause not only because, for some inexplicable reasons, some of my closest friends as well as mentors (professional and spiritual) happen to be Igbo, but also because I can see the injustice, especially in the distribution of opportunities by this administration. But when I see respected Igbo people venerating Nnamdi Kanu not only do I get offended, I take it as an endorsement of his hatred against other Nigerians, including Yoruba people of which I am one.

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Dear Segun,
Thanks for the reply and for your perspective. You are right about how Nnamdi Kanu’s comments have affected the mood of other ethnic groups and based on his actions and utterances, we may be tempted to ‘leave him to his fate’. However, I have since adopted Michelle Obama’s catchphrase, “when they go low, we go high”. I think Nigeria should rise above Nnamdi Kanu’s irresponsibility and provide leadership for the future of her country. Besides, Nnamdi Kanu only tapped into a hidden sentiment that has not healed.

Before him, there was Ralph Uwazurike and his MASSOB movement and government’s intimidation and arrests of his members didn’t erase the sentiments. Nnamdi Kanu came with a different approach, a disgusting approach I must confess, but an approach nonetheless and tapped into that sentiment. We may spend a lot of time trying to analyze all the factors that led to his successful mobilization of such a huge following but that is a topic for another day. In a nutshell, I think his success at mobilizing supporters is a consequence of government’s immediate and progressive failure over the years in properly educating her citizens beyond paper qualifications and ability to read and write. Similar argument can be made on why USA elected Donald Trump and why Zimbabwe is comfortable with Robert Mugabe despite a so called 97% literacy level.

My fear is that after Nnamdi Kanu, someone else will rise. It is not a matter of ‘if’ but ‘when’. When such person arises, s/he will tap into the hidden sentiments again and mobilize supporters. Therein lies the problem. We have seen how advances in technology helped fuel the crumbling of the dictatorships in Algeria, Egypt and Libya. We have also recently seen the sonic attacks in Cuba. We do not know which direction technology is going years from now and it is scary to imagine that a future Kanu might have access to technology that can cause serious damage to Nigeria should s/he go that route.

The direction of spending of the US military indicates there is a gradual shift away from brick and mortar type of warfare. In that regard, Nigeria is not future-proofing herself by addressing the most uncomfortable but necessary questions now, but is rather delaying the seeds of discord to a future date. That is my worry and that is why standing aloof and watch Kanu implode is not very helpful to Nigeria’s future. This is compounded by the fact that we seem not to care about objective and accurate accounts of events, which is was why I was happy you documented the 2015 presidential election into a book.

I remember raising this same concern with you when President Buhari’s biography was published and the half-truths therein. Lack of accurate account of event promotes room for distortion with an emotional slant. That I believe is what gave IPOB supporters the conviction to stand up to armed military and the Arewa Youths the conviction to issue quit notice. These are people who most likely did not witness the civil war but can recount it based on the emotions that came along with what they were told. The history of the civil war is still being passed on but from an emotional stand point on both sides and that is driving the wedge even further. By delaying a sincere and genuine truth and reconciliation, Nigeria may inadvertently be preparing for her demise.

NOTE: This conversation shall continue.

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