by Uche Chukwumerije
IN response to the traditional anniversary inquiries from some newspapers, my progress report on 47 years of Nigeria’s growth is the political message of the fate of Chief Ralph Uwazuruike and other MASSOB leaders incarcerated. The continued detention of Chief Ralph Uwazuruike and some of his comrades is an arrow at the conscience of this nation. A nation destined to endure (as I believe Nigeria is) must invite all its citizens to a level playing ground. They must all be equal players. A nation in which a component is treated as war-vanquished pariah – who must endure a penance of the status of glorified indentured labour for an indefinite time before re-admission into full citizenship – faces the prospects of self-dehydration.
Chief Uwazuruike is a metaphor of the structured castration of Ndigbo ethnic nationality in a Federation founded on and valiantly articulating the ethos of justice and equity. His continued detention is a statement on the glaring inequality and discrimination on which the edifice of the dispensation of democracy, rule of law and equity of access to equity rests. The fate of Chief Ralph Uwazuruike must therefore be seen as an insightful comment on the pace and direction of our evolution towards nationhood in 47 years of existence. It is the intention of this brief plea to examine the political nature of Chief Ralph Uwazuruike’s ordeal, the link between the ordeal and the disposition of his constituent ethnic nationality, the impact of this link on the quality of our democratic dispensation, and the type of verdict which this gives on 47 years of Nigeria’s growth.
The court as arbiter: It is an evident fact that the Nigerian State suspects Chief Ralph Uwazuruike and co as offenders, that they are arraigned before a court of competent jurisdiction, that the independence of the judiciary decrees that the law must take its full course, and that any contrary action may be construed as interference with the process. We respect the hallowed independence of the judiciary, a major pillar of our constitutional democracy.
So far for the legal position. But it is also a political truth that the court is basically an arbitrator in a dispute. It takes two to make a dispute. If one side withdraws from a dispute or modifies his/her stand, the role of the umpire automatically readjusts to the new reality - still in strict compliance with the rules of the game. This case is a dispute between two parties - Uwazuruike and co versus state of Nigeria represented by the Federal Government of Nigeria. The court is the arbiter, weighing the claims of each side. If either side modifies his/her stand, the court has to abide by the new reality.
The political truths: The political character of Uwazuruike’s travails cannot be detached from the legalese of the situation. Let’s briefly understand the political environment. Uwazuruike is of Igbo ethnic stock. An Igbo proverb says that it is only when a madman - who has been vegetating, naked and apparently abandoned, in the village marketplace - comes to harm that the whole village is compelled by the reactions of his family to know that he has relatives.
Uwazuruike’s agitations are basically a cry for equity and justice, a desire which all Igbos share even if many may disagree with him on ways of achieving it. The fate of Uwazuruike is bound to be of concern to Ndigbo. Situated in its Federal context, the political message of Uwazuruike’s fate to Ndigbo acquires a new meaning as a flash of self-discovery. The average Igbo man compares the treatment of Uwazuruike and his MASSOB with the treatment given to his compatriots in other ethnic/regional groups and continues to ask: why are Uwazuruike and Massob treated differently? Ignorant of the legal technicalities of court process, the generality of Igbo people are not able to understand what they see as discriminatory treatment. It is not helpful to blame their perception on ignorance of the law because popular impression is more potent than facts of a given situation in information management.
The question agitating Ndigbo arises from their belief that in objectives, pronouncements and operations, Uwazuruike’s Massob shares similarities with Gani Adams/Faseun’s OPC and Asari-Dokubo’s NDPVF. The leaders of the two other groups have been released, but not Uwazuruike. More on this later. For now, it must be emphasized that in our plural multi-ethnic federation, in which ethnicity stubbornly clings to its prime place as a major vehicle of aggregating interests and the index of corporate identity of groups, ethnic-based youth rebellion has emerged as a symbol of visibility and even virility of an ethnic group. This may be a passing phase in the political evolution of the Federation, if the zoning fad and some elements of our constitution do not unwittingly endow the primordial phenomenon with self-perpetuating strength. For now, ethnic-based power blocs are a reality. For now, youth restiveness represents in a way the arrow head of the continual competition of the silent majorities of ethnic groups for their share of the scarce resources of the federal commonwealth.
All indications point to this link - the sulking silence of the majority of the Yoruba’s over the harsh treatment meted out to OPC leaders, the shock of the Ijaws at the brutal sack of Odi, the resentment of people of Zaki Biam and environs of the military invasion of their communities, and the increasing disquiet of Ndigbo over the discriminatory treatment of Uwazuruike and Massob leaders. Therefore, commonsense suggests that while rule of law follows its sovereign course, the political option of mediation and reconciliation offers a ready expedient short cut to peace.
Negative consequences: In Uwazuruike’s case, failure to pursue this course has produced two negative consequences. The first is the slow but sure alienation of Ndigbo. The generality of Ndigbo are not able to understand the differences in Nigerian state’s responses to what they see as similar offences of three youth organizations, Gani Adams’s OPC, Asari Dokubo’s NDPVF, and Uwazurike’s MASSOB. In similarity, they are militant youth bodies, articulating and championing the causes of their ethnic/regional constituencies - in language always in rhetoric of incitement and overstatement of separatism, in activities often overflowing into youth exuberance, in temperament rarely inclined to democratic accommodation.
But it is the differences in state’s responses to these youth groups that appall Ndigbo. Ndigbo are tuned to the grapevine in times like these. They hear and read that the leaders of these two other youth groups who did carry arms and engaged themselves in violent armed confrontation with the Nigerian state were charged with either illegal possession of arms or treasonable felony, relatively minor offences that carry prison sentences, but that Ralph Uwazuruike and his nine Massob colleagues, who never levied war against the state and who have never been found with arms, were charged with treason, a capital offence, and have consistently been refused bail, on the ground that they have an armory of arms.
Denial of bail
So, for two years the state has been searching everywhere for Massob fictional stockpile of arms. So, for two years, Uwazuruike and his colleagues were denied bail. Ndigbo see this game as another case of a George Bush inventing the fiction of Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and searching for the imaginary dumps in an obvious ploy to hang a bad name on a hated dog. The average Igbo man has therefore come to the conclusion that the Nigerian State is yet to come to terms with the Igbo ethnic nationality, forty years after the civil war and 47 years after independence. They believe that the discriminatory treatment being meted out to Uwazuruike is a deliberate overkill calculated to intimidate and humiliate Ndigbo.
They believe that the continued detention of Uwazuruike is a part of post-civil war attrition which reached its full circle in Obasanjo regime which engineered the final fall of Ndigbo, one of Nigeria’s three major tribes, into a political minority and into the sixth rung of the nation’s power ladder. Ndigbo have never been deceived by the tokenism of Obasanjo’s occasional recognition of individual talents: a dog owner will surely select his most fearless Doberman for the most dangerous thankless jobs.
Ndigbo never saw their future in Obasanjo’s Nigeria - a personification of the post-civil-war dispensation of victors which hit its climax in the emergence of the all conquering President/General who leaves Ndigbo in no doubt that the only Igbo-speaking citizens whom he trusts are the genuflecting subdued subalterns who at the sight of the General would in keeping with the tradition of ancient Rome, instinctively bow their heads in awe and murmur “Te morituri salutamus (We about to die salute you)”
The continued detention of Uwazuruike is a continual reminder to Ndigbo that their position today is one of structured castration. It confirms their worst fears that Obasanjo’s Nigeria has become the permanent parameters of their gilded prison.
Ndigbo’s attitude of mind is a mood which the state cannot afford to foster. The future of Nigeria must erase a situation in which the Nigerian state is alienated against parts of the Nigerian community. The second consequence is the drawback which Uwazuruike’s case inflicts on the development of rule of law. A major catalyst has been injected into the growth of constitutional democracy and rule of law by the Yar’Adua regime’s insistence on strict compliance with rule of law by all, big or small. The continued detention of Massob leaders detracts from the integrity of this revolution in two ways. The first is the continuing spectre of selective justice.
The discriminatory responses of the state to the three youth leaders negate the principle of equality of access of all citizens to equity. The second is the continuing specter of non-compliance with rule of law. Long before his arrest in 2005, the Imo State High Court has given an order specifically restraining SSS from arresting Uwazuruike. The order still subsists.
Yet SSS arrested Uwazuruike and the State has arraigned him in a Court. Rule of law is a major pillar in the bedrock of every enduring democracy. The stunted growth of Nigeria’s 47 years existence attests to this. If the revolution, begun by Yar’Adua on rule of law, takes root, the country will at last find a stable anchor as she confronts the turbulence of delayed maturity.
A superior option: The decline of tension in Niger Delta area and Western states after the release of Asari Dokubo, Gani Adams and Dr. Fasehun clearly demonstrates the superiority of the political option especially in conflicts which have unmistakable political character. The state will reap the same harvest if it releases Chief Uwazuruike and his fellow Massob leaders today. Conversely, the futility of the sledge-hammer approach is amply illustrated by the miserable failure of Obasanjo’s military approach to youth and other social conflicts.
For Ndigbo, the sledge-hammer approach may be provocative and counter-productive. It is like flogging a child a second time to silence his cry after making him in the first instance to start crying with your earlier flogging. An Igbo proverb says that you cannot beat a child and at the same time prevent him from crying. The activities of Uwazuruike, Massob and other Igbo youth bodies are the cries of Igbos for justice and fair play. To silence the youth leaders through sledge hammer devices while the basic causes of the rebellion are not addressed is like beating a child and at the same time preventing the child from crying out.
As Ojo Maduekwe once observed, Ndigbo are one of the few ethnic nationalities who have consistently voted for Nigeria’s national unity with their hands and feet. They live and work and develop everywhere. They are paying their dues for the transformation of the Nigerian state into a federal political community. The discriminatory treatment of Ralph Uwazuruike and Co gives Ndigbo the shock of a child rejected from a home which he considers his own. To thrive, Nigeria has only one way to go - evolve into a political community. A political community must remain an integrated whole. This is the minimum phase of development which a state must attain in order to thrive as a stable nation - an interdependence of autonomous and equal parts operating in a synergy.
Nigeria may be moving in this direction, but she is far from there. She is not yet a political community. She is at best a collection of social classes living in a Hobbesian state or at worst a mixed multitude of victors and vanquished, free men and indentured labour. The continued detention of Uwazuruike provokes a fundamental question. The threat to Nigeria’s future is not Uwazuruike or youth rebellion but the insensitivity of the state to the imperatives of equality and to the varied yearnings of a fledgling political community.