Buhari’s government may have backed itself into a dead end in the Nnamdi Kanu case — By Emeka Ugwuonye11 min read
The judgment of the Nigerian Court of Appeal in the case of Nnamdi Kanu exposes the Nigerian Government’s weaknesses and vulnerabilities over that case. The handling of the case by the Government of Nigeria has, from inception, shown the height of incompetence and ineptitude on the part of Government. In October, 2015, the government arrested a relatively unknown Biafran agitator, who did not actually commit any crime, except for his rhetorical expressions of his desire for the restoration or actualization of Biafra.
Prior to his arrest in October of 2015, Mazi Nnamdi Kanu was merely a more vocal version of Ralph Uwazurike of MOSSOB, who had already been contained by the government. In October of 2015, Kanu entered Nigeria through Benin Republic without his passport being inspected and stamped at the border. His only offense then was entering Nigeria uninspected by immigration. It was a minor infraction. A fine perhaps would have been the right punishment for that. But because of a deep-rooted obsession of hate toward the word Biafra, Nigerian government rolled out its drums of war to deal with Nnamdi Kanu. It was just like getting a sledge hammer to kill a mosquito. Kanu was arrested in a hotel in Lagos and taken to Abuja with self-congratulatory statements from the Nigerian law enforcement.
On December 31, 2015, in his meeting with the press, President Buhari stated that there were three people who could never be granted bail. He named Kanu along with Al Zakkzakki and Colonel Sambo Dasuki. You wonder why Kanu would be lumped with these men? But that was because for Buhari, one of the actors in the brutal war against Biafrans in the 60s, he re-imagined the war each time the word Biafra was mentioned to his hearing. But even more disturbing; when did it become the duty of the President to decide who gets bail in court and who doesn’t. The goal was clearly to suppress every dream of Biafra and to do so in a manner that left no one in doubt about the impossibility and futility of that dream. But right from that early stage in this absurdity, the Nigerian government miscalculated. Through these miscalculations and missteps, the government plunged the country into the biggest mess it has faced in ethnic tensions since the civil war. What we saw on Thursday with the judgement of the Court of Appeal has been the culmination and crystallization of the chain of blunders over its handling of Nnamdi Kanu.
After his arrest, if the government were honest and had wanted to punish Kanu for the only offense possible, they would have charged him with obtaining by false pretense. That charge would have been be based on the fact that Kanu was seen in a video recording asking people to contribute money for him to buy bullets to fight for Biafra, but ended up not buying any bullet with the money so-raised. If the government had charged Kanu with that, the government would have won, as the only effective defense would have been for him to show that he bought guns and bullets. Yes, there was evidence of fund-raising for bullets, which were never bought. The only reason the government did not pursue the only viable charge was because it was not a serious enough charge to justify the denial of bail and indefinite detention. The DSS wanted to detain Kanu without releasing him. The only way they felt they could achieve that was to charge him with a capital offense and one that gives DSS the excuse to detain a person indefinitely. So, they charged him with terrorism and treasonable offenses. And that was after several months of detaining him without charge. That is the stage we have returned to now – detention without charge.
But rather than intimidating Nnamdi Kanu and suppressing the clamor and agitation for Biafra, the government’s highhandedness ignited a level of public interest in Nnamdi Kanu that turned him into an instant hero and a symbol of the quest for an end to the perceived injustice in the structure of the politics of Nigeria. Millions of disempowered and uneducated youths of the East joined to support Kanu, naturally more from their hearts than from their heads.
After nearly one year of pretrial detention of Kanu, a lot of back-and-forth and clear refusal to prosecute, the court quashed a number of the charges against Kanu, striking out the most serious of the charges – terrorism charges. Without terrorism charges, the DSS’s grip on the case of Nnamdi Kanu was greatly weakened. Then in April of 2017, the same court granted Kanu bail on health grounds, but imposed bail conditions that were clearly designed to be breached which would then justify his re-arrest and further detention. It was clear from those bail conditions that Justice Binta Nyako, the trial judge then, was neither free nor independent. It was a tinder box waiting to explode. And almost immediately he was set free, Kanu violated the terms of his bail by holding series of rallies attended by thousands of people. He was a hero accidentally created by the DSS and handed to a people desperate for a leader. He even set up the Biafran Intelligence Service, a uniformed motley group of unemployed youths.
Another major misstep was when the Governors of the South East states sought the help of Federal Government on the ground that Kanu and his IPOB were posing serious threat to security in their areas. This was immediately after these Governors had tried but failed to persuade Kanu to give up his agitation. In fact, the Governors were only afraid that Kanu had become more popular than they. When the Governors sought for the help of the Federal Government, they played into the hands of the Federal Government, which still wanted to suppress Kanu and Biafran dreams. So, the Federal Government was quite eager to deploy troops to take Kanu back to detention and to send a message of blood and violence to deter his followers. But this was a big miscalculation and blunder in defining their goal and in planning the execution thereof.
Without sound intelligence, the soldiers that invaded Kanu’s home in Afara Ukwu did not know that Kanu was not in the house when they arrived. In fact, fully suspicious that the soldiers would come for him, Kanu had moved into a hotel away from his house, but left everyone with the impression that he was at home. In fact, his members were being urged to go to the house of Kanu to protect their leader, while their leader was not there. As they are used to, Nigerian soldiers went to Kanu’s house and visited violence and mayhem on everyone in sight, but failed to capture or arrest Kanu. Kanu escaped. With the help of friends in Niger Delta, he moved to Sao Tome and from there out of Nigeria.
For nearly a year, there was silence. No one heard from Kanu. It was not clear what happened. Then Kanu surfaced in Israel. His presence in Israel at the time had visceral and emotional appeal to the Igbo youths. It was like a prophet who had receded onto the mountain, and expected to come back with new messages from God. Outside Nigeria and beyond the reach of Nigerian security forces, Kanu was free to use the new technology of mass communication and propaganda to give Nigerian government their worst nightmare. With the reinvention of Radio Biafra, a veritable tool in the hands of the Ojukwu government during the civil war, Kanu had a weapon in his hand as lethal as a cruise missile. And he hauled that weapon on Nigerian Government mercilessly. Kanu aimed for the hearts of the Igbo youths and he was hugely successful. The day President Buhari felt it necessary to prove that he was still alive, and not dead as Kanu had convinced millions of Nigerians, was the day every person with any level of discernment understood that Kanu had the Nigerian government in a tight corner.
Kanu’s relentless propaganda, but particularly the aspect of his message that tended toward incitement for violence was an overreach. It became a concern even for the British Government. If Kanu had not been arrested in June 2021, the British Government was very close to invoking their laws against him for inciting hate. Indeed, the British had began to put some heat on him and his deputy, Mr. Uche Mefor. To escape from that heat, Kanu moved to Kenya. He was actually not just visiting Kenya when he was captured. He had rented a home in a rich suburb of Nairobi and was well settled in Kenya. He was well-settled enough to be able to drive himself unaccompanied by friends or aides to the Jomo Keyata International Airport to receive a visitor when he was kidnapped by agents of the Nigerian Government in the parking lot of the airport.
We believe that Nigerian Government sought the help of the British in returning Kanu to Nigeria. But there was no way the British could do that. The only help the British could give was to see if Kanu, a British citizen, had violated a British law through his IPOB activities. They believe he had. Hence the British police invited Kanu and Mefor. But also, to make sure this was not perceived as something targeting the Igbos alone, the British prepared to apply the same law to a Yoruba man based in the UK who had been preaching hate against the Igbos. It is believed that when Kanu left Britain and began to spend time in Kenya, the British intelligence informed their Nigerian counterpart. Kanu’s movement was tracked. Yet, it must have taken the involvement of someone very close to Kanu for the Nigerian agents in Kenya to know the exact time Kanu drove himself to the airport and to follow him there. Who is that insider who knew how Kanu dressed that day, what car he was driving and the exact time he drove off and where exactly he was going to?
When Nigerian government got information that Kanu was in Kenya, they prepared to commit the third major blunder in their effort to get Kanu. Instead of pursuing the lawful channel of extradition, they decided for the option of extraordinary rendition. The agents of the Nigerian government who kidnapped Kanu and held him for six days had the opportunity to kill him and still no one would know immediately. Why did they not kill him? Three reasons are responsible for them not killing him. First, the British intelligence that provided intelligence on Kanu’s presence in Kenya must have demanded that he be not killed. Second, the Kenyan intelligence which would have had to know about the operation would not have allowed for him to be killed in Kenya. And thirdly, the Nigerian Government must have felt that killing Kanu in a secret operation would not have been effective in quelling the rising agitation for Biafra. It would have actually worsened it. It would have immortalized Kanu and turn him into a god or a mythical figure, which would give greater impetus for the agitation. So, their option was to bring him back to Nigeria alive, try him and force him into political compromises that would trade off the Biafran dream for his freedom. That was how and why they committed the third blunder and renditioned Kanu into Nigeria in violation of all known laws.
The fourth blunder by Nigerian government was their failure to promptly prosecute Kanu after bringing him into Nigeria. When they began to manipulatively amend charges each time the case came up for trial, they made it clear that their intention was not to try him, but to keep him detained indefinitely. It showed that the Nigerian government had no confidence in their own case and in their own evidence. The prosecutors blundered even more by failing to show the world that they had clear and compelling evidence against Kanu.
Of all blunders, the worst blunder by the Nigerian intelligence was their failure to understand how the people could react over the rendition and detention of Nnamdi Kanu. The sit-at-home that has lasted for over a year and the general breakdown of law and order in the South East states were a big blow to the Nigerian government. The government failure to maintain law and order in the East shocked the world. It meant that Kanu’s detention led to a consequences that were beyond the comprehension, control and capacity of the government. The reasoning everywhere was this: “If you cannot control the situation, maybe you should rethink your approach and release the man”. This thinking has subtly played in the minds of the judges, and it will get worse. Justice Benson of the Abia State High Court boldly awarded damages in the amount of 1 Billion Naira against the government and in favor of Kanu. Now, the Court of Appeal has declared that the rendition was abuse of Kanu’s rights. Soon, a Federal High Court will similarly award more damages against the government. And each day the government fails to release him, more judicial pressure will mount. In fact, recently, a British court had ordered the British Attorney General to look into the rendition of Kanu. Now that the Nigerian Court of Appeal has confirmed that there was a rendition and that it was illegal, the British courts will have a greater need to look into compelling the British Government to put pressure on Nigerian Government.
In addition to judicial pressure, political pressure is mounting. All those who have been pleading for the release of Kanu have been strengthened by the decision of the Court of Appeal. The argument is no longer whether the Government should show mercy and release Kanu. It has changed to an argument on whether the Government should show wisdom and obey the Court of Appeal. As recently as today, several politicians are openly stating that releasing Nnamdi Kanu would end the lawlessness in the South East. In addition to the mounting judicial and political pressure, diplomatic pressure will soon start mounting too. The British Government must have taken notice of the decision of the Court of Appeal. Indeed, that decision is an embarrassment to the British Government, which had stayed away from the trial of Nnamdi Kanu. Now that the Nigerian Court of Appeal has discharged him, the British Government has no excuse to remain uninvolved. If Nigerian courts could determine that Nigerian government violated international law, what will be the excuse of British Government not to come to the same conclusion?
There is no doubt that President Buhari’s Government has mismanaged the entire problem. The President seems to have realized that. His hasty convening of the National Security Council was indicative of frustration and loss of sense of direction. And the Council’s irrational statement that Nnamdi Kanu still had a case to answer is just a furtherance of the same pattern of blunders. What case does he have to answer outside the courts? The sooner the Nigerian Government realizes that it has grossly mismanaged the case of Nnamdi Kanu, the better for all. Unfortunately, though, Nigerian government remains one with little respect for rule of law. In its characteristic arrogance and incompetence, it will refuse to release Kanu and the situation gets worse.