While the sharp division of opinions over the government’s Operation Python Dance 11 in the Southeast, the proscription of IPOB and the consequent designation of the organization as a terrorist organization could be interpreted either as a reflection of the vibrancy of our putative democracy or a reflection of how polarized the society has become, what is clear is that there are useful lessons to be learnt from the entangled affair:
One, in a polarized environment like ours, solutions thrown at the country’s multifarious problems could quickly become part of the problem. One would think that with tension being sky-high in the southeast, people will be excited that the tension has been doused. What became obvious rather is that in a low-trust society like ours, people are going to look at ‘possible hidden agendas’ of any government intervention, especially a solution fashioned by officials considered as not being part of the in-group. We also saw this play out when Lt-General Azubuike Ihejirika headed the onslaught against Boko Haram. He was accused of killing innocent Northern civilians as a revenge for the Biafran war. When Jonathan declared a state of emergency in some states in the Northeast as a way of curtailing the activities of Boko Haram, some elders from the North said the measure amounted to a declaration of war against the North. The import of all these is that it is not enough for the government to believe it has done the right thing; it must be sensitive to the environmental variables and the politics that flow from them. For instance why was anyone unable to introduce ethnic and regional angle to the general condemnation of the DSS after they raided and arrested some Judges at inhuman hours in 2016? The answer is simple: we might disagree with what they did but they got the politics right.
Two, I feel the government was right to proactively send the military to help douse the escalating tension in the Southeast. We can discuss the propriety or otherwise of using the military to do police duties (and the collateral damage that often result when they are so used). But unfortunately this has become fairly commonplace in the country. Tension was high. And IPOB, though not publicly armed, was by its rhetoric, crossing the line. There is no government anywhere in the world that will stand akimbo while a chunk of its territory treats itself effectively as a de facto independent country or being above the laws of the land. In fact a state’s ability to effectively govern its territory and enforce its laws throughout that territory is one of the four criteria for recognising modern states in international law. The four attributes of statehood enshrined in Article 1 of the 1933 Montevideo Convention are a defined territory, a permanent population, a government (or sovereign authority within its territory) and capacity to enter into relations with other states. Any state that falls short in any of the four is on the way to becoming a failed state. True, civil societies have rights to agitate for self-determination as part of their democratic rights. But governments in mature democracies often have the ‘clear and imminent danger’ test for knowing when they should move in to protect the liberties of others. The cause of the tension and who was right or wrong is immaterial in the state doing its duty in this regard.
Three, while the government was right to move in to re-establish effective control over the Southeast, I believe that it muddled the politics of it all. For instance, why was it necessary for the government to announce the proscription of IPOB when the Southeast governors that are the chief security officers of the areas could make the announcement? Had the government allowed the Governors to take sole ownership of that announcement, the responsibility for managing the politics of it all would have been theirs alone. This would have made it difficult to introduce ethnic or regional angle to it.
Four, the government completely goofed when it designated IPOB as a terrorist organization. Although any group can be labelled a terrorist organization in a political sense as a way of de-legitimating the activities of such a group, technically it is doubtful if any serious researcher on terrorism can regard IPOB as a terrorist group. In fact terrorism researchers make a distinction between different types of sub- state violence such as insurgency, terrorism and militancy. Mistaking one of these forms of sub-state violence for the other (simply because violence is involved in the three) will be akin to arguing that vehicular homicide is the same thing as premeditated murder.
Technically speaking IPOB is an insurgency, not a terrorist group. An insurgency is a group which aggressively contests the legitimacy of the existing authority, enjoys the support of a significant population of where it operates (often by tapping into the group’s grievances) and directs their aggression (rhetorical or physical) against the state and not civilians. The overall aim of insurgents is to gain control of a defined area to rule it themselves. In contrast, when we talk of terrorism we are looking at a group of people (or even a single person) who uses violence or threat of violence to purport a political, religious or social change. Terrorists are also either part of an international terrorism franchise or draw inspiration from such a franchise. Organisationally, while terrorists operate either in cells or as individuals, the organizational structure of insurgencies mirrors that of the military. Unlike insurgencies, terrorist activities are driven primarily by revenge and renown and they often measure the success of their activities by their media impact and ability to generalize fear in the civilian population.
Following from the above, it did not come as a surprise that the USA and the European Union came out to say that they did not regard IPOB as a terrorist organization (which is not the same as saying they approved of IPOB’s activities). Designating any organization as a terrorist group has implications, including for the people and territory where such a group is domiciled. What does the government really want to achieve by designating IPOB as a terrorist group that its proscription cannot achieve?
Five, by wrongly labelling IPOB as a terrorist organization, the accusation of selectivity and bias often made against this government will be reinforced. The government is already coming under increasing pressure over its lack of action against the nomadic pastoralists (otherwise known as ‘Fulani herdsmen’) who exist in at least seven West African countries and which was identified by the World Terrorism Index 2015 as the fourth deadliest terrorist group in the world – after Boko Haram, ISIs, and al-Shabab. The government will also come under increasing pressure to designate any form of sub-state violence and agitation – from OPC, Niger Delta militants and even student protest as terrorism – or risk being accused of especially targeting the Igbos. Besides, with the USA and the EU disagreeing with the designation of IPOB as terrorist group, the government’s democratic credentials and ability to use democratic means to resolve group grievances will also come under increasing scrutiny in the international media.
Six, I find it unfortunate a statement credited to the Special Adviser to President Buhari on Prosecution, Chief Okoi Obono-Obla to the effect that the designation of IPOB as a terrorist organisation, being Nigeria’s internal affairs, “both EU and US should mind their businesses and not meddle with Nigeria’s affairs” because doing so “could amount to infringement to Nigeria’s territorial integrity” (Vanguard, September 25, 2017). Not only do I feel it was tactless for a government official to say such, I also believe it smacks of ignorance of contemporary world affairs. The truth is that the notion of ‘non-interference in the internal affairs’ of states has since evolved. In fact, since the 1990s, there has been a normative shift away from the traditional understanding of state sovereignty to an acceptance of sovereignty as responsibility. This is the underlying premise of the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) doctrine, a commitment which was endorsed by all the member states of the United Nations in 2005 to prevent genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity. Part of the arguments of R2P, is that in a globalized world, where what affects one country often has repercussion on several others, the doctrine of ‘non-interference’ should have the doctrines of ‘non-indifference’ and R2P as its checks. In this respect, the Responsibility to Protect and the doctrine of non-indifference are to be seen in the same light as the doctrine of humanitarian intervention.
Following from the above, the government should quickly find a way to reverse itself on the designation of IPOB as a terrorist organization, not only to prevent the organization from winning local and global sympathies and going underground but also to avoid deploying unnecessary resources in managing what is clearly a policy mistake.