This piece was motivated by a number of related events around Nnamdi Kanu, leader of the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB): (a) The number of crowds he commands since his release from detention – whenever he goes in Igboland. And these were not rented crowd! (b) The photo of Nnamdi Kanu’s feet being kissed, apparently by an IPOB member, which has gone viral on the social media and the related stories/fabrications of some of his followers who claimed that they were cured of various ailments simply by touching Kanu’s garments or shaking his hands. (c) Nnamdi Kanu’s threat that the Anambra State elections, scheduled for November 18 2017 will not hold and the shadow of uncertainty cast over that election by that threat (d) The recent meeting between Nnamdi Kanu and Governors of the five Eastern states, together with Kanu’s father and Professor Ben Nwabueze over his Biafra agitation.
Given the above, it is difficult to ignore Nnamdi Kanu – whether you admire or loathe him. There are several questions begging for answers. How did someone, who two years ago was unknown, come to become so influential in so short a period of time across the country? What forces propelled him to national consciousness? How come he is able to achieve such eminence among the Igbos who take pride in their republicanism and their achievement-oriented culture – despite his lack of personal accomplishment in either education or business?
My search for answers to these questions led me to this reflection on the phenomenon of what psychologists often call ‘redeemer’ or messianic complex. We will deconstruct this concept step-by-step and then relate it to Nnamdi Kanu and his agitation for Biafra:
One, a redeemer complex – also known as messianic complex – is a state of mind in which an individual holds a belief that he or she is a saviour of sorts. The redeemer phenomenon is sometimes interpreted as part of man’s instinctive search for the ‘ultimate rescuer’- someone courageous and powerful enough to liberate and offer protection to people who feel oppressed or unjustly treated. Magical and spiritual powers are sometimes projected onto the assumed redeemer, which makes it possible for his followers to submerge their own individual egos and to unquestionably accept the assumed messiah as someone greater than themselves. It is generally believed that many cult leaders suffer from various forms of ‘messiah complex’.
Leaders with messianic complex must not be confused with charismatic leaders. While the charismatic leader is usually a leader who has demonstrated intellectual or physical accomplishment in some fields or possesses special attributes that people admire, leaders with messianic complex often have no history of personal accomplishment, making outsiders to wonder what their followers found special about them. For instance in Uganda, an uneducated spirit medium Alice Auma ‘Lakwena’ led the Holy Spirit Movement- a millenarian movement that proved a torn in the flesh of the Ugandan government from August 1986 until November 1987. She was able to successfully mobilize several respected members of the society, especially from her Acholi ethnic group against the government of Yoweri Museveni.
Two, not many leaders with messianic complex end well but some are able to ‘normalize’ into the society. A good example here is Gani Adams. When the election won by MKO Abiola was annulled in 1993, some Yoruba elites decided to form the Oodua People’s Congress (OPC) in 1994 to actualize that mandate – more out of defence of ethnic pride than love for Abiola as a person. Though the founding President was Dr Frederick Fasehun, in 1999, a faction led by Ganiyu Adams, a carpenter, broke away but continued to use the OPC name. In fact by 1999, OPC which was also variously known as Oodua Liberation Movement (OLM) or the Revolutionary Council of Nigeria (RCN) was the main separatist movement in the country. It was considered such a threat that in December 1999, the Arewa People’s Congress was formed to offer “full self-defence training for northern residents in reaction to attacks on Hausas by the OPC.” In 2000 Gani Adams was declared wanted by the Police (with a financial reward of N100,000) for his group’s involvement in violent clashes. Gani Adams was arrested on August 22 2001 but was later released after being held in prisons in Lagos, Abeokuta and Abuja. Some people at that time loudly wondered what the highly educated Yorubas saw in an artisan that made them accept him as their leader. Gani Adams managed to ‘normalize’ his agitation within the Yoruba political mainstream.
Three, as we reflect on Nnamdi Kanu and wonder how he has become larger than life across the country (when he seems to have no special gift of any sort or history of personal accomplishment), we must also acknowledge that Kanu was a creation of the current government. Ralph Uwazuruike of MASSOB, not Nnamdi Kanu was the face of Biafra agitations. When Uwazuruike was released from detention in 2011 – alongside 1000 other Biafra activists on the instruction of President Jonathan- MASSOB which was a fringe movement in Igboland, fractionalized, with accusations that Uwazuruike had become compromised. Even after the fractionalization, few people ever heard of Nnamdi Kanu who became leader of one of the factions, IPOB. Uwazuruike competed for space in the Biafra agitation movement with Benjamin Onwuka, who in 2014 forced himself onto media recognition by attempting to seize a radio station in Enugu to proclaim a Republic of Biafra. He was jailed by the Jonathan government and not many Igbos took notice or cared.
A crucial question then is why Nnamdi Kanu has become larger than life for being detained for just two and half-years when both Uwazuruike and Onwuka spent longer periods in detention than him without many Igbos caring? Any attempt to find honest answers to this question will invariably point some accusing fingers to this government. All insurgences and millenarian movements feed on local grievances. Therefore to effectively solve the Kanu phenomenon means that the local grievances that provide him oxygen are addressed and not continuously aggravated. The optics of seeing the grievances being addressed are sometimes more important than whether those grievances are actually addressed.
Four, not all who shout ‘Biafra’ believe in Kanu’s notion of Biafra. The truth is that Biafra has several narratives – for some, it is a defiance against an assumed contempt and disregard by the government, for others, it is something that creates a bond of oneness among the Igbos similar to how the evocation of ‘Oduduwa’ or ‘Arewa’ creates a sense of brotherhood and sisterhood among the Yoruba and people from the north respectively. Yet, for others, it is a shared victimhood narrative that reminds every Igbo of the pains of the civil war and the virtues of resilience.
Like every group that has lost a war, there will always be entities angling to redress the perceived humiliation of their fathers or forefathers. This is why some 150 years after the end of American civil war some still fly the Confederate Flag in the Southern USA, and why we have ‘neo Nazis’ in Germany more than 70 years after the end of World War 11. The challenge always is to ensure that the ideas espoused by those separatists remain on the fringe, and not mainstreamed. Therefore those who expect the word ‘Biafra’ to be deleted from the mouths and consciousness of every Igbo person because they lost the Civil War are being ahistorical.
Five, a redeemer movement becomes dangerous when the leader starts believing so much in his own hype or the hype of his followers that he loses all sense of proportion. At this stage, the danger of doing something really stupid is high. I have read people telling Nnamdi Kanu that he is bigger than Buhari or that no one can touch him. He will be a fool to act on such hype. The Anambra state election may be his defining moment.
Politicians are political investors who, who like other investors, are primarily in it for some expected returns (forget their camouflage of serving the people). When Nnamdi Kanu took the position that the election will not hold in the state, he brings himself against powerful political interests and sharpens the contradiction between him and the mainstream articulate Igbos. Standing in front of a moving train is stupidity, not a demonstration of courage. It will be naive to mistake the defence of ethnic pride that led to the mobilization to get him out of detention with a blank cheque to force his vision of Biafra and how it will be actualized on everyone – without debate. The meeting with the Five Governors of the Southeast is a golden opportunity, a soft landing if you like – for Kanu to start ‘normalizing’ his agitation within the framework of the Igbo political mainstream. As the Igbos would say, a fly who listens to no advice, invariably gets buried with the corpse.