President Muhammadu Buhari and Nnamdi Kanu are hucksters selling dreams preserved in snake oil to a deluded crowd in search of a messiah.
After the initial revulsion at the words presidential aide, Lauretta Onochie, used to describe the followers of the Indigenous Peoples of Biafra leader, Nnamdi Kanu, one wonders what it is about the man that makes him the wet dream of President Muhammadu Buhari’s government. Why would a presidential aide cast aside every pretence at executive neutrality to publicly declare that Kanu ought to be permanently incarcerated, thereby unabashedly valourising injustice? Why preempt the judiciary by subtly asking them to go beyond the constitution in punishing him? Since no one has disowned Onochie’s comments, I suspect the disdain she expresses for Kanu’s followers is her paymasters ventriloquising their desires through her mouth. That explains a lot and is, in fact, consistent with Buhari’s contempt for Southeastern Nigerians.
My feeling is that Buhari’s “dis-ease” with Kanu relates the fact that the latter is a lot like him. Both men are hucksters selling dreams preserved in snake oil to a deluded crowd in search of a messiah. Kanu’s followers are no less miserable than Buhari’s almajiris. Buhari’s followers come from one of the poorest and the most illiterate regions in the world. Despite their adulation of their “Baba”, he is implicated in the larger systemic forces that have always impoverished them. They deserve more than our sympathies; they need an awakening.
Buhari became President on the strength of a myth: that he is pro-Talakawa, an incorruptible soul who abjures worldly goods so he can be friends with the poor. Indeed, he has mostly shunned the company of the rich and powerful class in Nigeria, preferring to fight the cause of lowly herdsmen on behalf of whom he once threatened a sitting state governor. Now that he has been propelled to power, his halo no longer glitters. It turns out that if Buhari did not mingle with the powerful corrupt class then, it was because he had little political capital to trade with the members of the club. If he had never aspired to be wealthy, it had less to do with his military training or a personal principle of discipline but because he could live off welfare funds creamed off the backs of hardworking Nigerians. His bills have been paid by Nigeria for decades, so why should he have been bothered to strive to rise above such placid condition?
Even more helpfully, he could live a “double life” — spending enough of Nigeria’s money to send his children to school abroad, and even buy himself good quality health care abroad while lapping up all the adulation of his followers who think his seeming simplicity is proof of avowed asceticism. They compare him with his former heads of state colleagues living a less pretentious life and concluded that their “Baba” shed his importance to be one of their lowly selves. Never mind that he lives a far more secure lifestyle than they could dare dream either for themselves or their children. Even before becoming President, Buhari regularly travelled abroad for medical care but somehow his followers keep believing he is on their side. It was when he was attacked by Boko Haram in 2014 that we realised that our Mr. Simple rides in bulletproof vehicles and has all the pomp and circumstance of power he publicly condemns as “corruption.” And anytime Buhari needed to contest an election, there had always been a shadowy figure whose fingers dripped with corruption to pick up the tab.
Kanu, on the other hand, was just a regular guy who managed to make a name for himself spewing inanities on a foreign radio. He was neither a Thomas Sankara nor a Che Guevara, but his lack of tact in the age of political correctness caught attention and fuelled by the resentment generated by the 2015 elections, it propelled him to both fame and infamy. Fortunately for him, Buhari’s government made a strategic mistake by having Kanu arrested when he stepped in Nigeria. That made a Mandela of him. Since his imprisonment, Kanu has flirted with several incoherent ideologies. When he dabbled in Judaism, he accoutered himself with the paraphernalia of the religion and culture. If Kanu was enamoured by the parallel between Jew historical sufferings and the hand Nigeria has dealt with the Igbo, he could at least have researched a bit about the relationship between Jews and their Palestine neighbours to understand the inherent contradictions of his acquired identity. There was a time he wrote a letter to Donald Trump begging him that he had a moral imperative to “liberate enslaved nations in Africa” and end the neo-colonial enslavement of IPOB. Of all people to save Africans, Trump, a neo-Nazi sympathiser?
Now, Kanu has morphed into a political cum spiritual leader. Like our prosperity pastors, he too now delivers messages from the otherworld and his poor followers grovel at his feet like the congregation of a popular Lagos pastor. It did not take long for Kanu to unravel. He started by being a freedom fighter, now he is Jesus Christ whose feet are kissed by poor wretched “sinners” seeking to be free from their misery. Tomorrow, who knows what he may be? No matter what we may think of Kanu’s charlatanism, neither he nor his followers deserve to be subjected to any kind of judicial injustice because they will not let oppressive power be at ease. They are free citizens of Nigeria who can choose to execute their political agency with whatever theatrics and shenanigans that suit them as long as they are not putting the rest of us in danger.
But here lies one key difference between Buhari’s supporters and Kanu’s: bloodthirstiness. Buhari’s supporters are readily violent. In 2011, following the announcement of the presidential election which did not favour him, they murdered about a thousand people, and destroyed even many more lives. Given the recent episode in Wuse with Charly Boy, anyone with half an eye knows they will not hesitate to kill again. Kanu’s followers, on the other hand, have yet to kill anyone on his behalf. In fact, their resilience in the face of state-sponsored violence against them is impressive. Perhaps, if the rest of us can stand up for what we believe with equal zeal and courage as Kanu’s followers, maybe, we can still save our country. What one cannot conclude yet is this: if things come to a head, would Kanu’s followers be willing to kill on his behalf? Until then, I still worry more about Buhari’s followers than I ever do about Kanu’s.
Kanu is now riling his followers up, asking them to raze Nigeria to ashes if he is re-arrested. Underlying that charge is Kanu’s fear of interminable incarceration, a measure the Presidency is openly advocating for. Kanu probably knows that Nigerians have a short attention span and their initial vehemence at his re-arrest will peter out. The religious mysticism he is building up these days to shore up his political authority will become stuff for Facebook jokes when he is locked up like an animal in the “zoo”. Kanu’s followers will, expectedly, put up a fight but we have been Nigerians long enough to see how dissent is treated in this Hobbesian jungle of ours. Under the military, people were either killed or permanently detained as Onochie advocates. Under civilian government, protesters are tear-gassed and mowed down like rabid dogs. Under Buhari’s watch, the army will make the pro-Biafra protesters target practice as they have done in the past; as the police did in Owerri recently during the demolition of the Ekeukwu Market that resulted in the shooting and killing the 13-year-old Somtochukwu Ibeanusi and nobody has, so far, been asked to account.
By now, even the most slow-witted Nigerian realises this ineluctable fact: our lives do not matter. Our country has neither shame nor conscience; people can be killed for nothing. We have seen that with not only pro-Biafra activists but Shiites and the poor people killed by herdsmen in Benue, Kaduna, and other parts of Southern Nigeria. If Buhari is so worried about Kanu that his spokesperson wants him put away, then they will have no qualms subjecting Kanu’s followers to inordinate violence. They will wear them out until they eventually simmer, and our Nigerian lives will go on like always.