Opinion: Big Brother – By Sam Omatseye


From his confinement miles away, Nnamdi Kanu growls on the streets. His people tremble indoors.

This is a bleak hour on the eastern front. The people are contending with forces that make for a Greek tragedy or a Shakespearean dilemma. It revolves around a man and a movement. Because he wants to tear out of the federation, he inspires teary-eyed people, either in rage against him or faith in him.

In a few weeks, we shall have a governorship election. That seeks to confirm his kinsmen as citizens. In a few months, the two political parties will argue their citizenship. The Igbos will assert fairness in zoning the president to their region. Underlying all this is the fear that they want neither governor nor president. They want Biafra. That makes them neither hot nor cold or too hot or too cold towards the Nigerian idea.

This essayist once asserted that the only way to end the confusion is fraught: it is to institute a plebiscite. Do the Igbos want in or out? The question is not easy. Who will conduct the poll? The same state that says Nigeria is not negotiable? If the anti-Kanu forces form a quiet majority and win, IPOB will say it was rigged. If the poll favours Kanu and company, will we even see the result? Will it not be a re-enactment of June 12 in the east?

What the state is doing is either to make Kanu a martyr like MKO or the Awo of the east. Kanu is growing in stature in spite of himself. His state foes are lionising the opportunist. His people, even the big sceptics of IPOB, started by seeing him as a nuisance. Then they saw him as a welcome irritant like flood in a desert. He grew from that into a sympathy. Now, some see him either as a hero or a necessity. His haters regard him as a monster fattening in the sewer. His admirers are waiting to unleash the tiger from the cage.

Awo grew in that trajectory. He was seen as a great man by a section of Yorubaland. His kinsmen even resisted his consequential ideas like free education. But the man with the sturdy ideas and gallantry dared an establishment in the centre. They goaled him out of fear. He came out of jail a bigger man, a hero, a mighty man of the west and a perennial powerhouse of Nigerian politics. Eventually he became a beloved statesman without compare. His enemies had mythicised him.

Kanu is no Awo in ideas, moral stature, or sublimity. He is puny by comparison. He is one of those men in history who become great leaders without being great men. They are the sort Shakespeare described as men that greatness “thrust upon them.” It is a giddy burden. Just like the character in Jerzy Kosinski’s novel Being There. They are cosseted heroes. They are closet icons just like Trump or, long before him, Andrew Jackson. In Italy, they had a higher brand of men in Cavour and Garibaldi. Germany gave the world Bismarck. They inspire great following but not ideas. Guinea at independence embraced Sekou Toure, who defied the servility of the French Loi cadre. He belonged to that generation of African leaders who lost their artificial gem and sought to entrench themselves. They forced on us that idea called Preventive Detention Act to pummel critics.

Such leaders win but have nothing else. They serve a temporary and desperate need like a thirst and people are thankful for it. Afterwards the man goes back into oblivion.

What lies ahead is intriguing. The Igbo political elite fear and hate him, but they fear the people too. So they cannot pretend even in public to like him. No one will believe them. He is an obstacle to their political dreams in Nigeria.

That is because Kanu is the big brother of the southeast. He is the Orwellian eye and ear of the street. He is the uncrowned royalty. When he says no one should move or breathe or have their being, they obey, even if they don’t respect, him. He is the Machiavellian model of a leader who must be feared or hated. He does not have to be loved to succeed.

Well, we have the irony. Buhari watches over Kanu in Abuja. He binds him in jail. He determines what he eats, where he sleeps or breathes and whether he has his bath. (By the way, the fellow looked well-kempt when he appeared for his first court outing).It is what French philosopher Michel Foucault conceives as the panopticon of the state in his books Discipline and Punish as well as Madness and Civilisation. From his invisible perch of power, he watches and entraps Kanu in his prison.

But in the east, Kanu is Buhari’s master and big brother. He bests his armies, sells dummies, blasts police stations, rattles his soldiers, cows the people and determines who sells and who buys and when. He orders when they can enjoy the sun or peer at the moon. Clerics would give him holy communion and plead with Jesus like the mother of Zebedee’s children for his place in heaven – and a mansion for that matter. They would rather recommend hell for his foes. Recently a governorship candidate swept through the popular Alaba market in Lagos. But the people shouted, “it is Nnamdi Kanu we want.”

The Anambra State governorship poll will hold. Even if only a hundred people vote, it will enjoy legal legitimacy. But will the election find faith among the Igbos? What it shows is that you can force a people to be with you but cannot force them to hugyou and enjoy it. It is like a horse. You can take it to the stream. You cannot force it to drink. That is why Malami’s bluster about a state of emergency was juvenile, at the least.

The Igbo horse may have the polls. They don’t give the vote. It is not a visceral hour for elections. It is imposed.

So those who say that we cannot renegotiate Nigeria are mistaken. It makes little sense that the man is taken to court and charges reeled out against him. He has inspired murder and arson. He has insulted other ethnic groups and their pastors. He has been a rabble rouser with gutter rhetoric. But he has enough heft to destabilise a state and make himself the de facto premier of the east. He may be raggedy and vain, but he is no rag with his people.

If we think we can continue by merely appealing to the law, we shall discover that laws are important, but can kill. People are better. We cannot make a people out of fear. The east is now an equivalent of a republic of fear.

The fear monger ironically is dear to his people, a leader no one can ignore. He is not your nice guy. When he smiles it is not the sort that cuddles children. He is not even interested in such mushy moments either, unlike another man from that part known as the Owelle of Onitsha. This man is a taskmaster of the cause. He is brutal. He is a rabble rouser. He wants to pull down the house. Like the anarchist who was asked what he would do after the house comes down, he says let it come down first.

He is no ideologue like Amilcar Cabral or a lofty charisma like Mandela, or a methodical hero like Awo, or even a colourful personage like Zik. He does not even have Ojukwu’s bearded, eye-storm of a presence. He is Kanu, slight, sullen, sour but sometimes savvy. No savoir-faire recommended.

He is sitting on the eastern dilemma. He is crippling the presidential hopes of his region. You cannot want to lead when you don’t want to belong. He is delegitimising a forthcoming governorship poll. And he is devastating the businesses of Nigeria’s most entrepreneurial race.

And we say we can just jail him, and all will be well? Think again. The law has its limits. “The law,” as I have often quoted, “hath not made anyone a whit more just.” Thoreau, who gave us civil disobedience, said it. Great American, Thoreau.

It is time to settle with the east, not settle it. It is a political matter. We cannot bully a race to love us. Or we will, by default, legitimise their exit. It is time for statesmen and not men of the state.

– Omatseye, a respected columnist, writes for The Nation

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