In the last one week, the South-East geo-political zone of Nigeria has witnessed crisis arising from the deployment of troops in an operation termed the Python Dance by the Nigerian Armed forces. A curfew has been declared in Aba, Abia State and there have been reports of the loss of lives and severe violations of the right to human dignity of fellow Nigerians.
A number of very well meaning Nigerians have called on the president, Muhammadu Buhari to withdraw the soldiers to prevent a further escalation of the conflict, which may lead to blood bath. The arguments are based on the fact that the military have no business in the routine maintenance of law and order and they can only be called in when the challenge overwhelms the normal police, and they are specifically invited by the civil authorities as a matter of last resort. Again, there was no reported breakdown of law and order in any part of South-Eastern Nigeria. Rather, the zone has witnessed loud agitations and complaints about not getting its due in the scheme of things under the present federal administration. This discourse admits that there is a certain Nnamdi Kanu leading the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) who has made provocative statements and taken steps that could be considered irritating by the federal authorities.
The current declaration of IPOB as a militant terrorist organisation by the military authorities seems to be an escalation of the crisis to a new level that may precipitate unimaginable bloodshed and violation of human rights. The Terrorism (Prevention) Act of 2011 and its 2013 Amendment are clear on how to identify a terrorist or a terrorist organisation. Section 1 (3) of the Act states of the act of terrorism as one which is deliberately done with malice aforethought and which involves or causes an attack upon a person’s life, which may cause severe bodily harm or death; kidnapping; destruction of government or public facilities; seizure of aircrafts, ship or other means of public transportation. It also includes the manufacture, possession, acquisition, transport, supply or use of weapons, explosives or of nuclear, biological or chemical weapons, as well as research into, and development of biological and chemical weapons without lawful authority; the release of dangerous substance or causing of fire, explosions or floods, the effect of which is to endanger human life; interference with or disruption of the supply of water, power or any other fundamental natural resource, the effect of which is to endanger human life; and an act or omission in or outside Nigeria which constitutes an offence within the scope of counter terrorism protocols and conventions duly ratified by Nigeria.
Terrorism further includes acts which may seriously harm or damage a country or an international organisation; is intended or can reasonably be regarded as having been intended to unduly compel a government or international organisation to perform or abstain from performing any act; seriously intimidate a population; seriously destabilise or destroy the fundamental political, constitutional, economic or social structures of a country or an international organisation; or otherwise influence such government or international organisation by intimidation or coercion.
Even though the provisions of the Act seem very wide, they must still be contextualised within the purview of the mischief the law was intended to cure. A literal meaning of these last parts of the definition may equate strong advocacy (unduly compel a government or international organisation to perform or abstain from performing any act) to terrorism. A careful examination of the above definition of the provisions on terrorism and our ordinary day-to-day knowledge of groups that have been declared as terrorists show that IPOB is nowhere near the status of being a terrorist organisation. Pray, can anyone in good faith argue that IPOB, Boko Haram and ISIS are on the same pedestal? Alternatively, can anyone point to the destruction of lives and property or the sabotage of public facilities that have been wrought by IPOB? One must distinguish irritants and persons who do and say things that may offend the sensibilities of others from terrorism. Again, even if the leadership and members of IPOB have been accused of hate speech – is this now the same as terrorism?
The second part of this discourse is that this declaration of IPOB as a terrorist organisation by the military high command is unknown to the law. The power to declare a group as a terrorist organisation lies with the Federal High Court upon an application made by the attorney general, the national security adviser or inspector general of the Police on the approval of the president. Although the order is obtained ex-parte, it is to be published in the official gazette, in two national newspapers and such other places as may be determined by the Judge. The proscribed organisation and persons affected have a right to seek to upturn the order through an application to the court on notice. This enables the court to further review other materials and facts which may not have been brought before it when the initial order was made. For the military high command to have failed, neglected and refused to follow the steps laid down in law, their action is ultra vires, null and void and of no effect whatsoever. And any steps they take in furtherance of their declaration will be in clear violation of the law.
In declaring IPOB a terrorist organisation and taking the entire South-East as its terrain means getting the authority to lock down the entire region and treat anyone suspected of being its member as soldiers will treat combatants who are out to attack them. In essence, their rules of engagement may permit the so called “terrorists” being neutralised or killed. It will legalise all forms of searches, seizures, detentions, curfews and other violations of fundamental human rights without the luxury of the declaration of a state of emergency. Thus, not just IPOB members alone are likely to be taken out, their purported financiers, supporters, sympathisers, accessories before and after the fact will all face the law as defined by the military authorities.
Can anyone in good conscience declare that there was a breakdown of law and order in the South-East before the deployment of the troops? Assuming without conceding that it is answered in the affirmative, was the breakdown of the magnitude that is beyond the capacity of the police and other civil authorities? Clearly, the agitations in the South-East are political in nature and require mature political negotiations to resolve them. It is important to recall that then acting president, Professor Yemi Osinbajo had held several meetings with stakeholders and was in the process of calming frayed nerves before the president returned and things started getting out of hand. Deploying soldiers and letting the agitataions escalate to the point of taking lives will only drive the agitation underground. And no one can predict if it goes underground whether it will not lead to a mutation and what kind of new demons that may emerge from the mutation.
Dear Mr. President, do not allow this crisis to degenerate, call back the soldiers; withdraw the declaration of IPOB as a terrorist organisation; give a sense of belonging to all Nigerians. Finally, call in good faith for a pan-Nigerian dialogue and settle the troubled waters of Nigeria by implementing the outcome of such dialogue.
Eze Onyekpere is lead director at Centre for Social Justice. Twitter: @censoj