By Armsfree Ajanaku and Abubakar Yunusa, Abuja
Like a bombshell, last weekend’s news of the triumph of Nnamdi Kanu, the leader of the proscribed Indigenous People of Biafra over the Federal Government at the Court of Appeal has brought an extra dimension to the permutations around the 2023 general elections. In quashing the 15 count terrorism charges, which the government slammed on the separatist agitator, the appellate court seriously condemned the government for defying international norms and laws, especially against the background of the extraordinary rendition of the agitator and his forceful return to the country.
The court also reserved unflattering words for the government over its neglect of the due process involved in the extradition of an individual.
Although the Federal Government has been fighting tooth and nail to give its own slant and interpretation to the appellate court verdict, each pronouncement from the office of the Attorney General, Abubakar Malami to the effect that Kanu has not been freed by the court has been met with condemnation from a cross section of legal minds. Those who accuse the regime of President Muhammadu Buhari of engaging in widespread disobedience to court orders, will definitely say they are vindicated given the penchant of Malami to interpret court orders according to the government’s whims.
As many senior lawyers have pointed out, it smacks of lawlessness for the chief law officer of the federation to at every point give his own version of judicial verdicts, even after the courts have made themselves clear. Last week, a statement by Malami’s spokesman, Umar Gwandu, said the appellate court only discharged Mr Kanu on case of rendition not other pre-rendition issues.
It read: “The Office of the Attorney General of the Federation and Minister of Justice has received the news of the decision of the Court of Appeal concerning the trial of Nnamdi Kanu. For the avoidance of doubt and by the verdict of the Court, Kanu was only discharged and not acquitted.
Consequently, the appropriate legal options before the authorities will be exploited and communicated accordingly to the public. The decision handed down by the court of appeal was on a single issue that borders on rendition.
“Let it be made clear to the general public that other issues that predates rendition on the basis of which Kanu jumped bail remain valid issues for judicial determination. The Federal Government will consider all available options open to us on the judgment on rendition while pursuing determination of pre-rendition issues,” the statement said.
Reacting, Legal luminary and one of Kanu’s counsel, Mike Ozekhome, dismissed the claims by the claims by the Federal Government, just as he recalled that the government had amended the charges against the separatist leader seven times.
Ozekhome said: “At the Federal High Court, I was able to get eight of the 15 counts dismissed. It was the remaining seven that the lower court held on to that were today dismissed by the Court of Appeal. The remaining seven counts were set aside and Nnamdi Kanu was set free. Discharged by the court of Appeal and the Supreme Court has said that such a discharge amounts to discharge and acquittal.
“Continuing with appeal against a mere citizen when I see the Federal Government should see this as a good reception, as a matter that will be good for the whole country, to bring about normalcy, peace to the South East, peace to Nigeria, and they still want to appeal, then my take on it is that it will amount to persecution and no longer prosecution.” he said.
Consequently, there has been a groundswell of celebration among opinion groups in the South East, who have praised the Court of Appeal for what they have variously described as a landmark judgment. The pan Igbo socio-cultural organisation, Ohaneze Ndigbo is one of such groups, which have commended the verdict acquitting Kanu.
The extensive level of sympathy Kanu enjoys in the South East implies that the way and manner the government handles the court decision will go a long way in determining if the current tension in the geo-political zone subsides or increases. Many stakeholders believe that if the Federal Government continues to vacillate and refuse to obey the Appeal Court judgment, it would provide justification to agitators in the South East, whose cries of marginalisation have been a constant refrain since President Buhari took power in 2015.
Others have argued that the Federal Government can apply wisdom, negotiate, and release Kanu, thereby dousing the tension in the South East.
Already, frontline think tanks keeping a close watch on developments in the lead up to the 2023 general elections have pointed at the South East as a flash point, especially as it has become a hotbed of violent agitations against the conduct of the elections. Leading pro-democracy think tank, the Centre for Democracy and Development (CDD) in its recent SWOT analysis of the 2023 general elections drew attention to the need to address the agitations in the region.
The analysis of the polls flagged separatists’ agitation in the South East as one of the issues which would shape the Presidential election, which incidentally has Peter Obi from the region as one of the leading candidates.
The report makes allusion to the renewed agitations for a separate state of Biafra, which have emerged during President Buhari’s time in office.
The SWOT analysis documents the rife fears about how the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB), which has been the most vocal and active group, has been threatening to disrupt the elections unless the government calls a referendum on an independent Biafran state.
According to the report, efforts to prevent the conduct of the Anambra gubernatorial election in November 2021 did not succeed but a low voter turnout was recorded, especially in LGAs considered to be IPOB strongholds and election aspirants could neither campaign freely nor could INEC properly deploy for the election.
Providing further context, the SWOT analysis alludes to how IPOB has established an armed security wing, the Eastern Security Network (ESN), which has been at the forefront of armed conflict with Nigerian security forces. The report notes that: “The ESN has been accused by government of committing gross human rights violations against citizens and being behind attacks on government infrastructure.
More recently, the region has been taken over by sundry criminal gangs, popularly known as Unknown Gunmen, some of them politically sponsored, who have attempted to enforce a Monday stay-at-home order by attacking persons who fail to comply and their property.
“The multiplicity of non-state armed groups is further worsening insecurity as factions compete with one another for control over violence. IPOB has three core factions – the Simon Ekpa led Autopilot, the Chika Edoziem group known as the Directorate of State of the Indigenous People of Biafra (DOS) and Mefor who co-founded the Biafra Defacto Customary Government with former Niger Delta Militant, Asari Dokubo. All three continue to take a hardline that promotes violence and are increasingly isolated from the mainstream IPOB.”
Extrapolating on the effect of these agitators on the electoral process, the SWOT analysis points out that the activities of the splinter groups have affected the registration of voters in many LGAs across the southeast and are likely to also affect the election proper.
“INEC’s voter registration centres were attacked in Imo and Enugu states in July 2022, while officials were killed in Imo for attempting to support voter registration efforts. INEC infrastructure has also been targeted and destroyed.
Biafran separatists have proven to be particularly adept at using radio, local tabloids and social media to spread hate speech and misinformation to advance their hardline separatist agenda, which they are likely to continue during the election. This would be conducive to low voter turnout.”
In the face of these conditions, which would likely heighten tensions during the elections, keen observer of the situation believe President Buhari can start the process of reconciliation and healing by obeying the appellate court judgment. This they believe will set in motion chains of events, which would invariably bring back normalcy to the troubled south east.