Political assassination in Nigeria

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OF all the political developments that currently bother me, the one most difficult for me to analyse and comprehend appears be the new regime of political assassination in the south-east zone of Nigeria. General Sani Abacha’s junta first professionalised political assassination, and then developed it into a systematic method of fighting the “enemies” of the state in general and the supporters of Chief Moshood Abiola in particular. After the death of the general and the inauguration of Obasanjo’s government, the nation enjoyed a brief assassination-free period. Then the evil regime returned- thus confirming the thesis that a political weapon, once it emerges out of historical circumstances, does not simply disappear, and is not withdrawn at will.

However vigorous the campaigns against the weapon, however righteous or self-righteous our opposition to it may be, a political weapon disappears only when the circumstances that brought it into being, the need which nourishes it, and the conditions which makes its employment possible disappear. Thus, whereas it is debatable whether or not the weapon of aircraft hijack employed in Nigeria in October 1993 has disappeared, we know that the weapon of political assassination in Nigeria did not come as an aberration. It is, in fact, still being fashioned and developed.

I am of course, not the only one bothered by the regime of political assassination. But what bothers me more is the peculiarity of this regime in the South-East. I can, without being cynical, advise a Nigerian politician who is scared by the spectre of political assassination to disengage publicly from politics, and be seen to have done so. But then, in the South-East, especially in Enugu and Anambra states, non-politicians are being assassinated politically. Chief Victor Nwankwo, who was assassinated in Enugu a couple of weeks ago, was not a politician in the Nigerian sense of the term: hustling for office – appointive or elective – and “chopping” from politics. However, although Victor was not a politician, he was political in the sense that his thinking, his actions, his ideas and his pronouncements were all informed and influenced by politics, radical politics, to be specific; He was a brilliant intellectual, engineer and publisher. His contemporaries say he was very brilliant as a student. I can also confirm that he was a serious human being. I first met Victor in Enugu in 1990 when I was a guest of his elder brother, Arthur Nwankwo. I had come to attend events marking Chinua Achebe’s 60th birthday in Nsukka and to negotiate the publication of a manuscript by The Fourth Dimension the management of which Arthur was then handing over to Victor.

Professor Chimere Ikoku, assassinated in the same city, Enugu, a fortnight after the elimination of Victor Nwankwo, was not a politician. However, as an academic and intellectual, he belonged to the radical political tendency. In other words, he was political. I first met Ikoku in Jos in May 1976, at a meeting of a national committee of solidarity with the people of South Africa then fighting the apartheid regime. Professor Ikoku chaired the meeting and I acted as Secretary in the absence of the substantive Secretary. We, on the left, celebrated the appointment of Chimere Ikoku as Nigeria’s first leftist University Vice-Chancellor. Others have since followed, including the latest: Professor Akpan H. Ekpo of the University of Uyo. A few months before Nwankwo and Ikoku were murdered, armed thugs invaded a prayer ground at Enugu. The priest can be described the way that I have described the two murdered compatriots, that is, he is political and radical, but not partisan. The priest, I think, escaped unhurt, but some worshippers were reportedly killed and others wounded. Several other priest, I understand, have recently escaped assassination in Enugu. A couple of weeks ago, Anambra State witnessed the murder, in Onitsha, of a prominent lawyer and his wife.


I may attempt a further description of the frightening phenomenon that now characteristics politics in parts of the South-East, including Enugu and Anambra States. We remember Ken Saro-Wiwa, the radical writer and minority rights activist, a highly political but not-partisan fighter, who was executed by General Sani Abacha seven years ago, in November 1995. Saro-Wiwa was offered large sums of money to keep quiet and betray his people. He refused. He was offered a big and lucrative position in government. He refused. He was blackmailed. He called the bluff of the blackmailers. He was threatened. He asked the faceless agents to go to hell. Having exhausted all possible means of calling Saro-Wiwa “to order”” but without success” the forces against which he was battling decided he must die. And he died. If the opportunity of the “Ogoni Four” had not offered itself for use in carrying out the death sentence on Saro-Wiwa, other opportunities would have been found, or created, by forces whose power, while it lasted, was second only to that of God.

Although he was not interested in coming to power through a coup or otherwise, Ken Saro-Wiwa was considered by the Abacha junta to be more dangerous than opposition political leaders and coup-tested, but disloyal, army officers. Why? Because Saro-Wiwa’s ideas and messages went deep into the foundations of the civil society and some state institutions. As Karl Marx would say, Saro-Wiwa’s ideas were becoming a powerful weapon. A coup plotting army officer and his collaborators can be arrested and executed. The matter may end there. An ordinary politician can be defeated or rigged out of an election. The matter may also end there. But the “danger” represented by someone like Saro-Wiwa cannot be easily excised. It is deep, pervasive and “poisonous”. And you know how poison moves. The current wave of political assassination in the South-East can be likened to the Saro Wiwa question.

The question arises why has politics in the South-East produced the Saro-Wiwa question? In other words, why has political assassination of non-partisan radicals become so prominent in the South-East? Or put differently, why has the conservative political right become so desperate in the South-East? If I restrict myself to the level of politics and the state, a provisional answer can be given. The Eastern power bloc was destroyed during the crisis and civil of (1966-1970), leaving Nigeria with only two power blocs – the Western and the Northern. The situation subsists. But the struggle to reconstitute the power bloc in the East, with the Igbo ethnic group as core, has been going on since the end of that war and the re-integration of defeated Biafra into the Federal Republic of Nigeria.

The struggle is between the political forces in support of this reconstitution and those opposed to it. Of course, there are political forces which, for various reasons, are neither here nor there. Most of those fence-sitters are opportunists seeking to benefit from both sides. The whole argument over Igbo presidency is an aspect of the struggle for, or against, the reconstitution of an Eastern power bloc. If the dividing line appears confusing to you, then seek out the political opportunities for explanations. And in doing this you must distinguish between revolutionary partisans of a truly equal and united Nigeria and opportunists who seek accommodation in slave situation.

Whereas before Olusegun Obasanjo became president, the struggle was not altogether a do-or-die affair, it has now become so. And whereas before Obasanjo it was not an either-or question, today it is. Several Igbo politicians argue that you are either in support of the historical project, or you are against it; that you cannot eat from both sides. Those who are against the emergence of the power bloc seek federal support to hold on to the control of their states, while trading away any claim which the Igbo mainstream politicians make on the centre. Those in favour want to establish their hegemony in the East as a way of strengthening their claim on the leadership of the centre. I think the group opposed to the emergence of an Eastern power bloc is the one fashioning and using the weapon of political assassination. It would appear that there is a support for my thesis in the press statement which Arthur Nwankwo, brother of the slain Victor Nwankwo, released after the latter’s burial at Ajali, Anambra State. This support, I think, I saw, at least, in the list of the government and state agencies Arthur indicted for complicity in the murder.

In conclusion, let me make two quick points. As I recalled in this column a couple of weeks ago, the Austrian philosopher, Karl Popper, posed the question of how to construct a state such that governments can be changed by a majority vote, without violence, without bloodshed, and before an incumbent government does too much harm. We may ignore Popper’s class prejudices and reflect on his question. Secondly, we should try to make a distinction between victims of political violence in general and victims of deliberate political assassination.

April 2003

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