Operation Python Dance and IPOB: The Foreign Policy Dimensions


International With Bola Akinterinwa

‘Operation Python Dance’ is a military doctrine conceived to put in check threats to national security from the south eastern region of Nigeria and partly translated into action through the instrumentality of a preventive show of military power and intimidation on Sunday, 10th September, 2017 in Afarachukwu, the home town of Nnamdi Kanu. IPOB is the acronym for the Indigenous People of Biafra, currently led by Kanu, who is seeking the detachment of the Biafran land from Nigeria. Thus, operation python dance necessarily has a secession-prevention as a major objective, as well as show of military force and intimidation as a tactic.

Kanu claimed that he was having his siesta on Sunday, 10th September at about 6.30 pm, when his attention was drawn to the presence of a big contingent of soldiers surrounding his home at Afarachukwu in Aba, Abia State. He explained that the soldiers came with the sole intention of killing him, because of his non-preparedness to abandon the agitation for the actualisation of the State of Biafra. In the eyes of Kanu, the presence of the soldiers was nothing more than a ‘crude show of power on innocent and defenceless people of Biafra.’

Additionally, Kanu also claimed that the ‘soldiers wanted to bulldoze their way into his father’s palace but the IPOB members formed a human shield and resisted them. ‘They wanted to break the shield and fired at three persons and wounded others before leaving… They wanted to use force and beat us into submission because they have lost the argument but they will fail’ (The Punch, Monday, 11 September, 2017, pg. 16).

The claims by Kanu raise many issues in foreign policy and the legality of the operation. They also raise the extent of functional responsibilities of the Nigeria Army. For instance, while it can be rightly argued that the show of military power and intimidation within the proximity of the residence of Kanu is condemnable, the show of military power may also not be condemnable in light of Kanu’s publicly announced statement that anyone, who dares to come to his place to arrest him will not go back alive. He is also on record to have said that in the Biafran domain, come 2019, there will not be any federal general elections. This is, without any shadow of doubt, a declaration of an intended war. This cannot be taken lightly by any government elected to protect severally and collectively, lives and property, as well as defend the territorial integrity of Nigeria.

True enough, looking at it legally, it is not the military that should have been engaged in the quest for public peace and order. It should have been the police force. However, if we remember how the first civil war started in Nigeria in 1967, General Yakubu Gowon first deployed the policemen to go and arrest Colonel Odumegwu Ojukwu before he regretfully realised that police would not be able to do it. Operation python dance may, again not be condemned simply for condemnation sake.
Whichever way the operation python dance is looked at, it must still be admitted that the operation in Afarachukwu was largely predicated on a faulty foundation. Kanu does not appear to be the problem. He is simply and apparently the trumpet but he is certainly not the trumpeter. If a survey is carried out in the South-east today, there is nothing to suggest that the majority of the Igbo people would not support Kanu. The supporters are therefore the trumpeters while Kanu only remains the instrument. This means that PMB may not currently be simply fighting Kanu as an individual but most of the Igbo people, who apparently are simply keeping silent.

Besides, public reactions to the alleged show of power or what the soldiers have dubbed ‘python dance,’ are thought-provoking, essentially because of their implications for Nigeria’s foreign policy. First, Emmanuel Kanu, the younger brother of Kanu, underscored their father’s earlier call on the United Nations to quickly investigate an alleged plot to kill Kanu, even though the killing is not expected to be capable of nipping in the bud the actualisation of a State of Biafra. If, for whatever reasons, Kanu dies within the framework of operation python dance, there will still be hundreds of Kanu that will still continue to sustain the struggle. In fact, there is no way government would have been able to control the disorderliness and general hostility vis-a-vis the PMB administration that is much likely to follow his death, especially if we admit that an intimidating show of force can deter and can also strengthen (vide infra under the North Korean case).
From the perspective of the military, Major Gbadamosi Oyegoke, Assistant Director, Army Public Relations, 14 Brigade, has denied any shooting at anyone or killing anybody and that it was the IPOB members that ‘insisted that the military vehicles would not pass and, therefore, started pelting the soldiers with stones and broken bottles to the point of injuring an innocent female passer-by and a soldier, Corporal Kolawole Mathew. The troops fired warning shots in the air and the hoodlums dispersed. No life was lost.’ Even though there has been no loss of life, new complicated issues are being raised as a result.

Several observers in the South-east have asked the federal government to first direct its energies to the suppression of kidnapping, armed robberies, assaults by Fulani herdsmen, etc, rather than using a sledge hammer to kill non-armed agitators for State of Biafra. In a statement made on Monday, 11th September, the Deputy Governor of Abia State, Ude Oko Chukwu, condemned the incident, noting that Abia State is a peaceful state and its people want it to remain so.
Mr. Chukwu also warned ‘Abia State residents to desist from confronting security men, who are on a lawful duty of protecting the people of the state.’ With this caution, the deputy governor recognises the point that the soldiers were ‘on a lawful duty.’ But what is the nature of the lawful duty? He also appealed to the army ‘to conduct their security exercise with caution.’ How do we explain this cautionary advice in this case?

In the same vein, the Governor of Abia State, Dr. Okezie Ikpeazu, has cautioned as follows: ‘While the government of Abia State recognises the right of the Nigerian Army and other security agencies to perform their statutory duty of protection of lives and property of Nigerian citizens, such duties must be carried out within acclaimed Nigerian and international standards of engagement with the civil populace, with due respect to human rights of citizens and sanctity of human rights.’ In this regard, how do we strike a balance between performing a statutory duty and also respecting Nigerian and international standard rules of engagement?

Perhaps, more interestingly, Governor Ikpeazu has not only declared a three-day curfew in Aba, the commercial capital of the state in order to prevent the deepening of the misunderstanding, but has also underscored the point that ‘Abia is a component state of the Federal Republic of Nigeria and subscribes to the supremacy of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria and all other extant laws.’ Thus, it can be rightly deduced that the Abia State Government wants to remain part and parcel of the Federal Republic of Nigeria but wants the application of human rights principle in handling the matter (The Sun, 13th September, 2017, p.11).

From the foregoing, it is clear that both the federal government of Nigeria and the IPOB appear to be doing the right thing, not only at the wrong time but also very wrongly. There is no disputing the fact that the environmental conditioning of political governance in Nigeria is currently hostile and unfriendly. The environment is fraught with many threats to Nigeria’s national security under PMB. The first and, perhaps the most critical threat, is even the ill-health of PMB.
Most Nigerians voted him in as President of Nigeria in the strong belief that his anti-societal indiscipline standpoint would be factored into political governance as a corrective measure in the building of a new Nigeria that would be free from political chicanery and ethnic jingoism. However, his ill-health has been serving as a divisive impediment, with some people asking him to stop his long medical vacation in the United Kingdom and return to the country, or to resign his presidential appointment.

His ill-health has also prompted a division between those who want him dead now, so that they can quickly succeed him and those who think that, whether or not he is alive, the presidency must still remain in the north. These conflicting interests have created heated debates and tensions in the polity.

Another major source of heated tension is the agitation for restructuring of the country, one major dynamic of which is the mania of political governance under PMB. His political appointments are one sided and are therefore generating much anger. PMB is no longer generally seen as the president of all Nigerians. Promise Adiele of the Department of English, University of Lagos, noted in his ‘Letter to Buhari,’ that ‘in 2015, Nigerians voted for (him) mainly as a response to the prevailing dystopia under the last administration. We didn’t accept the APC as a political party, because we were convinced that the difference between it and PDP is a matter of nomenclature, but we accepted you (Buhari) as the flag-bearer of the party based on your (Buhari) honest disposition’ (Daily Sun, Monday, September 11, 2017, p. 16).

Without doubt, PMB was a man of proven integrity and a mirror of truth and honesty of purpose before he became president. Today, as president, his proven integrity is not only in doubt, it has also become another issue of debate. Promise Adiele, as further noted in his letter, said ‘Nigerians are no longer eager to blow the whistle since those indicted are either protected by political interest or ethnic loyalty’ (ibid).

And true enough, again, PMB’s foreign policy and strategic calculations are faulty in design. They lack specific focus and are, at best, reactive. Most disturbingly, there is the unending problem of the Boko Haram and the agitation for Biafra Republic. The Boko Haram does not recognise the sovereignty of Nigeria as it is, while the IPOB wants dismemberment. The main rationale for boko haramism as a security threat is Islamic religion-induced. The quest for the sovereign State of Biafra is induced by claims of unfairness and marginalisation of the Igbo people in Nigeria, especially in terms of political appointments.

What is fundamentally wrong and also seriously threatening national security is the threat to Aso Rock presidential seat. Threats to national security are quite different from threats to the occupant of the presidential seat. One good case for illustration is provided by Chief Olusegun Obasanjo in the interview he granted the BBC in Lagos. According to Chief Obasanjo, former President Goodluck Jonathan strongly believed that Boko Haram was specifically sponsored to remove him from office.

As reported by Adelani Adepegba, Chief Obasanjo said he went to Maiduguri in 2011, taking great risks ‘to find out what is really happening. Boko Haram was a serious issue. He (Jonathan) thought that it was a device by the North to prevent him from continuing as president of Nigeria, which was rather unfortunate.’ As Chief Obasanjo further put it, ‘even when the Chibok girls were abducted, it took a while for the government to believe.

Now, if that is the situation, you can understand why the right attention was not paid to the issue of Boko Haram when it should have been paid.’ And true enough, even though government has given the impression that the Boko Haram has been neutralised or flushed out of the Sambisa forest, and that only their remnants are left, Boko Haram terror is yet to come to an end. The terror group has started hoisting their flags near the Lake Chad (The Punch, September 12, 2017, p.10).

Chief Obasanjo’s observation is quite valid but there is still the need to push the analysis further: if there had not been a perception of attempts to remove him from office, wouldn’t have President Jonathan considered national security interest first and then take the issue of boko haramism more seriously? The point being made here is simple: personal or selfish interest has always been the hallmark of political governance in Nigeria.

This factor largely explains the many political tensions, and particularly the agitations for restructuring in Nigeria. It is within the context of the need to reduce the increasing political tensions, as well as contain agitations for separatism that operation python dance and its foreign policy implications should be explicated and understood.

The Foreign Policy Dimensions
First, operation python dance cannot but create unintended challenges for Nigeria’s Foreign Service Officers, and particularly for those of them that are accredited as diplomats abroad. The defence of the national interest is necessarily made difficult. For instance, it was in the course of the operation that soldiers attacked and destroyed the camera of a journalist allegedly for photographing the actions of the soldiers from his National Union of Journalists office. In this regard, since the soldiers had argued that they never intended to attack or arrest Nnamdi Kanu, and that they were simply moving around for the purposes of general regional security, having their security tactic recorded and eventually published by journalists for general public consumption, may be offensive. In other words, the unnecessary assault on the journalists may still be understandable.

However, why would an army be displaying in the public where anyone, not even the journalists, would be able to see and record security tactics meant to be secret? In any case, the army has apologised, implying acceptance of guilt. But, in terms of foreign policy implication, the soldiers in Nigeria cannot but be seen as non-respecters of press freedom. They will also be seen as incapable of managing the conflict between the protection of national security interest and Section 21 of the 1999 Nigerian Constitution, which requires the media professionals to monitor political governance in Nigeria.

Second, the operation necessarily makes the domestic environment more difficult for potential investors, who are generally not favourably disposed to going to any country, where insecurity has become recidivist. The South-east and the South-south are major areas playing host to Nigeria’s crude oil. If the areas are troubled, potential investors cannot but be frightened away. The principal representatives of Nigeria will find it difficult convincing new potential investors to come to Nigeria. In fact, many of the country’s ambassadors are just presenting their Letters of Credence. Their host countries are much aware of developments in Nigeria. Consequently, there is a major challenge for the ambassadors to defend the indefensible. There is also the challenge of what instruction to give to the ambassadors.

On the one hand, it can be posited that the operation was a desideratum in light of the need to also ensure the safety and security of everyone, inclusive of the members of the diplomatic corps. On the other hand, security-induced operation also assumes that the python dance will not last for a long period. In the event the operation quickly degenerates into a protracted guerrilla war, on the other, foreign investments cannot but be the first victim.

Third, the operation raises several questions about likely scenarios of international intervention in Nigeria in the event of outbreak of war. The proponents of the State of Biafra supported the election of Donald Trump in 2016 in the hope that he would, under normal circumstances, support their struggle because Donald Trump had earlier supported Brexit. Consequently, it is believed that he would similarly support a Biafrexit agenda.

Besides, and additionally, both the IPOB and the MASSOB have referred their self-determination struggle to the United Nations. How is the Ministry of Foreign Affairs handling the matter at the level of the United Nations? Will it not make a good sense to brief the Nigerian public in order to carry it along? What really is the attitude of the United States under Donald Trump to the politics of biafranisation?

Fourth, operation python dance has the great potential to strengthen the opposition against the government, especially if the opposition enjoys support at home and abroad. The case of the North Korean nuclear tests is relevant. The more the international community is taking more sanctionary measures against North Korea, the more hardened the country becomes in defying international law.

In response to the United Nations Security Council’s resolution drafted by the United States and unanimously adopted and which bans North Korea’s textiles, in reaction to North Korea’s sixth and most powerful nuclear test on September 3, 2017, North Korea has made it clear to make the United States ashes and sink Japan. As reported by Reuters, North Korea has said: ‘let’s reduce the US mainland into ashes and darkness. Let’s vent our spite with mobilisation of all retaliation means, which have been prepared till now’ (Shanghai Daily, Friday, 15 September, 2017, p.3).

What is particularly noteworthy about the North Korean saga is that the people of South Korea and North Korea are making strenuous efforts to reunite but the factors of Japanese-American foreign policies, on the one hand, and South Korea-United States relations, on the other hand have not been helpful. For instance, South Korea’s Unification Ministry is reported to be planning to provide US $8million through the UN World Food Programme and UNICEF to assist infants and pregnant women in North Korea. If this is so, how will the UN Security Council’s sanctions affect infants and pregnant women in North Korea?

Nuclear tests are one thing. Textile ban is another. If there is war in Nigeria today, the same global double standards cannot but replay itself. The truth is that no major power appears to be interested in a united Korea as such reunification will make the new country too powerful for the liking of existing powers, who do not want new members. And true enough, which powerful country is interested in a strong and powerful Nigeria that will have all required strategic resources to become a great power and will also be able to serve as another counterweight?

Fifth, and finally, any new conflict in Nigeria will provide new opportunities for the inflow of light arms and weapons into Nigeria. Such a conflict cannot but destabilise the ECOWAS region. Fears of disintegration cannot but be deepened. These are some of the foreign policy dimensions that everyone should begin to ponder, especially in the light of the inclement environmental conditioning of political governance.

Government should always find better arguments to defend the military and prevent it from eventual international blackmail. What prevents PMB from even going personally to discuss the grievances of the Igbo people with them and show appropriate readiness to resolve them rather than exhibiting use of force that will only complicate the problem?

Quote: : From the foregoing, it is clear that both the federal government of Nigeria and the IPOB appear to be doing the right thing, not only at the wrong time but also very wrongly. There is no disputing the fact that the environmental conditioning of political governance in Nigeria is currently hostile and unfriendly. The environment is fraught with many threats to Nigeria’s national security under PMB. The first and, perhaps the most critical threat, is even the ill-health of PMB