Now That The Southeast Is Burning

"Even a 90-minute trip from Onicha to Owere seems like a death wish. Those who are alive are robbed of sleep. Those unlucky are robbed of life."

Southeastern Nigeria is witnessing a baptism of blood, sweat and tears. For a region known as Nigeria's most peaceful not long ago, its slide into wanton state and non-state violence is a reality of grave concern. The actors are variegated, as are the typologies of the violence: assassinations and targeted killing of law enforcement officers; citizens terrorized by sit-at-home enforcers; indiscriminate arrests and extra-judicial killings by military forces; contract killing and armed robberies, etc.

People travelling in tinted SUVs do so at grave personal risk today. Worse still if they're travelling with police or army escort. Others going about their businesses are also unsafe. Even a 90-minute trip from Onicha to Owere seems like a death wish. Those who are alive are robbed of sleep. Those unlucky are robbed of life.

This sorry path was a destination foretold and forewarned, but there is certainly enough blame to go round. There is the inertia caused by poor governance in the region. We have governors who do not pay salaries, who owe pensioners, who do not create employment, who do not respond to the open extortion of their citizens by police officers. They also failed to respond to the loss of lives in Igbo communities at the hands of Fulani-herder militias. Their lack of legitimacy created the vacuum that Nnamdi Kanu occupied and exploited.

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Then you have IPOB/ESN, whose agents felt the only way to assert their grievances and those of the region was to burn down police stations and target security agents. It seemed like a good gamble to endure since no one loved the police, and the Fulani herders were run out of our bushes. Finally, there is Buhari's government breaching international law to rendition Kanu to Nigeria and initiate a contrived trial. Sure, the violence preceded Kanu's rendition, but his shambolic trial made it worse. One mustn’t forget the multiple jailbreaks across the region, which unleashed into the society, people who are supposed to be locked up.

At first, many in the region quickly rationalized the utility of IPOB/ESN's actions, even as the group treated the Southeast like their personal gulag. Some even believed they were exercising freewill solidarity towards the Biafran course. But the danger of riding a tiger is that one can easily end up in the animal's belly. To disagree with IPOB was to be called names and, in some cases, threatened. We heard all kinds of silly rationalizations for their crude strategies. Rosa Parks and Nelson Mandela were even dubiously cited as justification for the carnage in our land.

The escalation of danger to the present precipice reminds me of the boiling frog theory. The theory holds that the frog reacts to a pot of boiling water in two ways. If the frog is suddenly thrust into steaming water, it will immediately jump out. However, if the animal is put into water which is then boiled slowly, it will not perceive the danger. Instead, it will keep adjusting to the temperature of the boiling pot until it is cooked to death. The provenance of this claim is not known, but it serves as a relevant metaphor for how an entire region somnambulated in the face of danger until it is too late. Even politicians shamelessly sought to take advantage of IPOB's seeming popularity despite their misguided tactics. Some of us also took refuge in our silence and said nothing. We watched people conveniently declare after every attack that it is the work of the DSS. We cowardly denied the truth of our own eyes and chose the warmth of a convenient lie.

Read Also: Under IPOB's present reign, Ndigbo have the foretaste of a different Biafra

Things have now come to a head. The Southeast is now a custodian of some of the most lethal elements in the country. Too many faceless killers, too many unknown gunmen and too many unknown soldiers. Neither life nor property is safe, no matter the lies we try to tell ourselves. Without some modicum of certainty and normalcy, a society begins to fold into itself. When this happens, people and investments flee. Those who stay are often unable to commit their resources to the land. Those who flee do so with pain and trauma that may take a lot of time to heal. Slowly and steadily, such a land surrenders its promise to the dark forces that have cordoned it from light. We may act like all is well, but we are just ignoring the corpses piling up in our courtyards. It does not change the reality.

With 2023 elections fast approaching, Buhari has the Southeast region, which he hates so much, where he wants it. He knows that IPOB is now a fragmented entity, laden with internal squabbles. It cannot bring under control the violence it started. All manner of killers now operate under their logo, with or without their permission. It is a lesson of how not to start what you cannot finish.

Buhari knows that the impetus of the Biafran agitation has now been muddied, if not overtaken by an orgy of senseless violence. He needn't worry about Nigeria's territorial integrity anymore. He has taken a ringside seat to watch the region crumble and burn. Campaign season will soon commence, and politicians and their supporters will be doing so at enormous risk. An unimaginable apathy may plague election turnout. The danger is that even if people braved the climate of fear to vote, a shady INEC will have found sufficient alibi to underreport the numbers. For a region struggling to pull its weight nationally, our shackles only seem to be multiplying.

In a time like this, the age-old Igbo adage that says, "onye ajuru anaghi aju onwe ya" comes to mind, and I dare add, provides some comfort. The Southeast must rise and free itself from the pestilence of its current captors, whomever they may be.