A former President, Goodluck Jonathan, has weighed in on the escalating crisis between the Nigerian security agencies and separatist elements in the South-east with a call for President Muhammadu Buhari to convene a Council of State meeting.
Separatist tensions flared across the region this week, with Abia State, the epicentre of secession agitations, declaring an extended curfew in major towns; while postponing resumption of primary and secondary school students.
In a Facebook update, Friday, Mr. Jonathan said his observations indicated that the unrest could mushroom into a full-blown conflict if not immediately checked by the country’s leaders.
“Perhaps it is time for the Council of State to intervene and offer its wise counsel,” Mr. Jonathan said.
Extant membership of the Council of State, an advisory body for critical national issues, according to Section 5, Third Schedule of the Constitution, is as follows:
The President, chairman of the council;Vice-President, deputy chairman; all former presidents and all former heads of the state, all former Chief Justices of Nigeria and the incumbent President of the Senate and Speaker of the House of Representatives.
All incumbent state governors and the Attorney-General of the Federation are also members of the body.
Mr. Jonathan’s appeal came hours after the Nigerian military proclaimed the Indigenous People of Biafra, IPOB, a terrorist organisation, a controversial move that capped a week of renewed ethnic and tribal skirmishes.
The Nigerian military began its latest physical onslaught against IPOB with the unexpected presence of soldiers at the residence of its leader, Nnamdi Kanu, in his native Abia State on Sunday.
At least three people, including a soldier and a policeman, were reportedly injured in the aftermath, which remained largely disputed.
The police on Sunday confirmed the death of an officer from the violence,
An official military statement said soldiers were on a parade exercise when some hoodlums allegedly pelted them with stones and broken bottles in Afara Ukwu, Mr. Kanu’s neighbourhood just north of Umuahia, the state capital.
But Mr. Kanu disproved this, saying through his lawyer that the troops’ arrival caused immediate panic in the area and also part of an elaborate state-sponsored plot to assassinate him.
The police said the soldiers retreated to their base after the incident and calm had returned by Sunday evening.
The troops returned to Mr. Kanu’s neighbourhood on Tuesday, with the Nigerian Army stating again that the soldiers were only on a routine parade through the area.
But Mr. Kanu’s lawyer, Ifeanyi Ejiofor, said his client could not be found after the encounter, which reportedly lasted for several hours.
The soldiers also allegedly assaulted residents around the area, with some journalists getting caught in the crossfire for taking pictures.
The military parade was billed as a precursor to the formal launch of Operation Python Dance II, an exercise the Army said was aimed at curbing violent crimes across the region.
Governor Okezie Ikpeaze expressed misgivings about the situation, saying it could have grave security and economic impact on the state.
The governor recognised the supremacy of the Nigerian state and Constitution but urged the federal government to consider the larger wellbeing of the state’s residents in quelling secession squabbles.
Mr. Jonathan’s latest statement was similarly tailored to accommodate the duty of the Buhari administration and the plight of aggrieved citizens.
“In as much as there may be a need to enforce order, there is a greater need to reinforce our humanity and treat Nigerian citizens humanely whether they be from the North or South,” the former president urged.
“Nothing justifies the desecration and destruction of religious places of worship or a police station,” he added. “But even more so, nothing justifies the endangering of human life.”
It is yet unclear if Mr. Buhari would be positively disposed to the idea of a Council of State meeting as part of his administration’s strategy to curtailing the separatist threats, which had spread to the North Central.
Calls and text messages seeking comments from presidential spokespersons, Femi Adesina and Garba Shehu, were not answered on Saturday.
The administration has been locked in bitter confrontation with supporters of IPOB since Mr. Kanu was first arrested in October 2015 after sneaking into the country from the United Kingdom.
He was charged alongside three other members of his group by the Nigerian government. He was granted bail in April 2017.
Amidst his trial, Mr. Kanu continues to push for Igbo secession, while regularly putting his popularity to test.
On May 30, thousands of residents in the Igbo-dominated eastern part of the country complied with a stay-at-home order which Mr. Kanu urged in memory of the 1967 Civil War.
At least 500,000 Igbo were said to have been killed during the war, which ended in 1970.
Last month, reports emerged that IPOB had launched a ‘secret service’ to protect its members and preempt any clampdown by security agencies with its own counter-intelligence.
But his exploits have not gone without notice by other ethnocentric elements across the country.
The Northern youth later withdrew their threat and assured Igbo of peaceful coexistence in the region beyond the October 1 deadline they initially issued.
Mr. Buhari, who returned to the country on August 19 after 103 days of medical treatment in London, was equally taken notes of IPOB’s activities.
Two days after using his August 21 address to reaffirm Nigeria’s indivisibility, the president ordered military chiefs to immediately neutralise all threats to reaffirm Nigeria’s indivisibility.
The military swiftly launched the second face of its South-east security exercise, Operation Python Dance II.
The first edition of the exercise ended in December 2016, with military declaring it a huge success over serious crimes across the region.
Friday’s designation of IPOB as a terrorist group appeared an actualisation of the president’s order, even though its legality had been put into question by critics.
Mr. Buhari had been criticised for failing to follow a precedent set by Mr. Jonathan, his immediate predecessor who grappled with the Boko Haram sect throughout his tenure.
Mr. Jonathan had procured an approval of the Federal High Court before proclaiming Boko Haram a terror organisation in a May 2013 federal gazette.
The Nigerian military did seem to have obtained a court order before proclaiming IPOB a terrorist group, a move that could contradict the Terrorism Act.
When PREMIUM TIMES asked about the legal basis for declaring IPOB a terror group, John Enenche, spokesperson for the Defence Headquarters who announced the proscription Friday, said he was “not a lawyer”.
Nonetheless, the move appeared to have been backed by South-east governors, who followed with their own prescription order a few hours later.
The governors said Mr. Kanu’s activities were “getting out of control” and it was time to put him in check.