'This Time It Will Be Different': Nigeria's IPOB Conundrum


Image: IPOB

In 1991, an enterprising Sierra Leonean fellow called Foday Sankoh had a brainwave. Inspired by Charles Taylor’s successful armed takeover of the government across the border in Liberia, the ex-army corporal brought together a few friends and allies and launched the Revolutionary United Front (RUF).

This group was essentially a copycat of Taylor’s National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL). With a name apparently referencing a struggle for the interests of Sierra Leonean commoners against the corrupt, far-away government in Freetown, Sankoh’s RUF rapidly gained popularity in Sierra Leone’s countryside.

Positioning itself as the solution to the perceived arrogance of the Freetown elites who had entirely failed to bring any sort of meaningful development to the country outside the capital city, RUF promised free healthcare, free education and fair distribution of the country’s diamond revenues.

Bear in mind that for most people in a country whose government revenue base relied almost entirely on diamond mining revenues, tourism, foreign aid and loans, the promise to equitably distribute diamond revenues instead of investing everything into Freetown and its ivory tower elites was seen as the Holy Grail of political aspirations.

RUF’s popularity rapidly swept through the country and its slogan “No More Slaves, No More Masters. Power and Wealth to the People” seemed to indicate a bright new future for ordinary Sierra Leoneans once the corrupt Freetown government was out of the way.

Everything the indigenous people of the countryside ever hoped and dreamed of was on the other side of this armed struggle against a government dominated by snotty elites and descendants of resettled freed slaves. What happened instead, became a story that has inspired this column today.

“Long sleeve or short sleeve?” RUF and what happens when there is no plan

A little over 20 years after Foday Sankoh launched his Charles Taylor tribute act, another enterprising young man in West Africa came up with a similar brainwave. Nnamdi Kanu, a charismatic, temperamental and well-spoken political campaigner from Nigeria’s southeast region came up with the “Indigenous People Of Biafra” (IPOB) as a counterbalance to genuine wrongs committed against the region by Nigeria’s Federal Government. Like RUF, IPOB rapidly gained real street-level popularity, fed by historical grievances from Nigeria’s genocidal three-year civil war and its intractable legacy.

It is important to note that neither RUF nor IPOB in any way exaggerated the wrongs visited upon their purported constituencies – these wrongs were as real as they were egregious. If the wrongs did not exist, neither of these groups could have gained the popularity they did in such a short space of time.

If we are to believe the “Dr Strange” theory of reality, then there is a parallel universe out there where Foday Sankoh and Nnamdi Kanu both led successful, productive campaigns to free their constituencies from the yoke of oppression by distant governments in Freetown and Abuja.
In that universe, Foday Sankoh’s body is preserved in a national mausoleum in Freetown, and Nnamdi Kanu led the successful breakaway of Nigeria’s southeast into a successful industrial country called Biafra, which is now Africa’s Tiger economy.

This is not that universe.

In this universe, what happened was that beyond a few shouty slogans, a ton of highly emotional but intellectually empty rhetoric and threat of violence, both RUF and IPOB could not articulate a coherent and realistic roadmap to achieve their goals, or indeed agree on what their goals were.

Soon, the only observable goal became the acquisition of power over their constituencies using violence. Acting ostensibly in the name of the Sierra Leonean people, RUF embarked on one of the most horrific sprees of war crimes the world has ever seen.

Sierra Leonean children were kidnapped in industrial quantities from their families, forced to shoot both their parents, and become child soldiers or child prostitutes.

RUF became noted for lining up captured Sierra Leonean civilians – the same ones they were apparently fighting for – and asking them, “Long sleeve or short sleeve?” Those who answered “long sleeve” would instantly get amputated at the wrist with a sharpened bush knife or machete, while “short sleeves” would get amputated at the elbow. By the time the war ended in 2003, an estimated 27,000 Sierra Leoneans had been turned into amputees, and 14,000 Sierra Leonean children had been turned into some of the cruellest soldiers ever encountered by the ECOMOG and British Army soldiers who put an end to the war.

IPOB in 2022: Early-stage RUF redux

This column has made no attempt to be subtle about the parallels to be drawn between RUF and its present-day Nigerian reincarnation. This is because regardless of the hundreds of death threats and hate messages that will inevitably follow, it is important for everyone reading this who has some influence in Nigeria’s southeast to understand something very key about the ongoing violence and anarchy in the region – Nnamdi Kanu no longer has any real control over the activities being carried out in his name. Executing him or releasing him makes no difference at this point.

Non-state actors have been given firearms, basic weapons training and an overwhelming sense of power and agency that they have never experienced before. The only outcome of this is the same outcome that Sierra Leone witnessed as Foday Sankoh’s ideological creation turned into the violent mockery that saw seven year-old boys shoot their parents dead and hack the limbs off wailing civilians.

As was the case with RUF, IPOB completely failed to articulate a workable plan for actualising its political goals and took the easy shortcut – threatening and proposing violence against an enemy.

As was also the case with RUF, the identity of said enemy was fluid and subjective. and the start of IPOB’s guerilla information warfare campaign using Radio Biafra, the designated “enemy” was the Federal Government violent Fulani militia that acted with the clear and obvious approval of the Buhari government and elements in the armed forces. It was easy to sell the campaign as a self-defense effort, which is perhaps why the launch of IPOB’s so-called Eastern Security Network – essentially a non-state army – did not raise the alarm it should have.

These days, anything and anyone can be the enemy. A civilian woman and her four children. A trader going about his legitimate business in defiance of the illegally-imposed “stay at home” order. A bus driver trying to work to feed his family. Ordinary civilians on social media decrying the disastrous effects of the neo-RUF’s activities on trade and commerce in the southeast. The journalist writing this column. Everyone is or can now be IPOB’s designated enemy depending on what side of the bed anyone wakes up on.

Finally, just like with RUF in the 90s, there is a studied and concerted effort to deny ownership and responsibility of the atrocities being carried out by the armed non-state militia. This could be because the chain of command is broken and different armed elements are running riot over the southeast, doing whatever they see fit.

It could be because there has been a palace coup and the Finnish Mr Potatohead has seized operational control from Nnamdi Kanu. It could even be the Nigerian state itself taking advantage of IPOB’s in-house chaos to instigate more chaos, so as to give the Buhari regime the pretext it longs for to enact its long-desired anti-Igbo military crusade. It could be all three.

The only thing we know for sure is that the people of the southeast themselves are being set up to become the biggest losers in all this, just as the people of Sierra Leone were set up by Foday Sankoh’s RUF in the 1990s.

Only they have the power to end this escalating nightmare before it gets to the “long sleeve or short sleeve” chapter. Everything points to the reality that southeastern Nigeria is heading toward the condition of Sierra Leone before Nigerian military occupation created peace the same way dropping a high yield tactical nuke on a town solves its rat problem.

Maybe it will be different this time, but you know, maybe not.