Ethnic Militias and Sub-Nationalism in Nigeria: a comparative Study of massob and opc


:5 Leadership and the Militia Movement



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3:5 Leadership and the Militia Movement

Leadership is vital to any organization. Going by the words of Maxwell (1999) ‘everything rises and falls on leadership’. If this statement is to be taken as true, then it presupposes that special attention has to be paid to the leadership of organizations including the ones under study to enable us grasp a better understanding of the groups operation and cohesion. Therefore the question that arises from here is; how has leadership impacted on the two organizations under comparison?

Starting with the OPC, we are made to know that the founder, Dr Fredrick Faseun from his personal narrative, portrays himself as a visionary leader which is one of the important attributes of leadership (Faseun 2005:134). However, his ability to organise owes much to the many years of acquiring leadership tutelage acquired through experience in leadership positions prior to the founding of OPC. Before aspiring for the presidential slot of the social Democratic Party (SDP) under the Babangida transition to civil rule programme in 1992, he has held some leadership positions that are of pan-Nigerian appeal which makes it surprising that he founded an ethnically based organization (Guichaoua 2006). Before launching his campaign to pick the presidential ticket of the SDP, he was the chairman of National Labour Party, one of the political associations that sought relevance under the Ibrahim Babangida’s transition to civil rule programme. It should be recalled that the Babangida administration did not find any of the twenty-three political associations that sought official registration qualified to be recognised as one of the two legally permitted for the politics of the transition programme. The administration instead, created two political parties; the Social Democratic Party (SDP) and the National Republican Convention (NRC) and ordered politicians to join any of them as co-joiners and co-founders. Faseun and his associates in the National Labour Party flocked into the SDP. His association with labour activists dates back to the years when he was a physician providing consultations to the Dockworkers Union of Nigeria. Therefore, it was easy for him to heed the call of Babangida for new breed politicians to get involved in partisan politics that will be devoid of the back biting and corruption that dogged the previous experiences in the first and second republic. His utter disgust for that transition to civil rule programme came to the fore when he witnessed the multiple and dubious political manoeuvres of Babangida who cancelled their party primaries and banned all of them from further participation in the presidential race. He increasingly doubted the sincerity of the process as did many non-partisan observers of the time who believed that the program was not designed to succeed (Reno 1999). It was at this point that Faseun directed his activism towards human rights, civil liberties and the promotion of genuine democracy (Faseun 2005). The annulment of the June 12, 1993 presidential election and the emergence of General Sani Abacha who unleashed repression on popular forces and civil society drove Faseun and other activists into the trenches. It was under this scenario that OPC was founded to defend Yoruba interests. OPC, according to Faseun was created after a careful reading of the political situation in the country. In his own words;

‘The Yoruba are no longer considered disfavoured second-class citizens but have become enemies that must be hounded into exile, hounded into detention,humiliated,dehumanmized and marked to be wiped off the surface of Nigeria’ (Faseun 2005:147).


Juxtaposing his background prior to formation of OPC, Guichaou stated that Faseun’s embracing of ethnic agenda and forays as an ethnic champion was purely a tactical and strategic move to flatter the primordial instincts of the crowd (Guichaou 2006). Even Faseun himself believed that the recoil to parochialism by a substantial number of Yoruba elites was circumstantial in the sense that the ethnic group was not treated fairly in Nigeria (Faseun 2008). His thinking was that the Hausa-Fulani who controlled the Nigerian military went after the Yoruba as the only threat to their desire to perpetuate their political and cultural domination (Faseun 2005). It was this perception that necessitated the formation of a movement in the fold of OPC imbued with the capacity to halt the northern agenda of perpetual domination of Nigeria. His thinking is that for such a movement to have any chance of success, it must be a mass based popular organization with the capability to display physical force. This informed the need to gather youths who fit into the description of the organization in great proportion. That should explain how characters like Gani Adams who was in his late twenties became a core members of OPC. The incarceration of Faseun by the Abacha military junta was not able to make members to be weary of the organization as the vacuum was effectively filled by Gani Adams who ensured that the organization remained cohesive in the absence of Faseun (Adams 2008).

However, Faseun’s re-emergence into the fold of OPC after he was released from detention marked the beginning of another phase of OPC as an organization. This stems from the ideological difference between the two leaders, Gani Adams, and Fredrick Faseun which resulted into the division of the group to two factions, one led by Gani Adams and the other by Fredrick Faseun. Adams and most of his supporters in the OPC have enormous distrust for the elite and the Nigerian system as it was constituted and as such desired a radical change in the political system which the new transition programme as projected by General Abubakar was not offering by their reading of the situation (Adams 2008). Thus, the members of OPC leaning on him vowed not to have anything to do with the transition notwithstanding the fact that the military elite have decided to placate the Yoruba with the presidency as the selection process of the transition political parties were skewed to produce two Yoruba sons as the presidential candidates of the major parties contesting the election. Faseun was amenable to the OPC participating in the process to ensure that the candidate with the Yoruba support emerges as the president. Gani Adam’s refusal to allow OPC participation was hinged on the perception that the politicians only use the youths to achieve their selfish interest. In his words;

“we don’t like to bother ourselves with people from a capitalist background or rich people because they can only behave like sympathisers to the struggle and can be difficult to be devoted member. The real people are deprived one way or the other. They have the will and courage to fight. For instance, take student union movement, children of the rich people do not bother to join such movement to fight for their rights, it is only students from deprived homes who are often at the forefront of the battle” (cited in Guichaou 2006).
However the irreconcilable nature of this ideological difference sustained the crack which was carried beyond the electoral process that ushered in the democratic dispensation in 1999.Apart form the splitting of the group into factions, the OPC’s leadership structure is of a loose hierarchical form where the zones which comprise membership cell of about fifty are the smallest administrative units. But this structure is not a closely knit organizational structure which implies that leadership at this level is not obligated to obey orders from the factional leaders at the apex.

MASSOB presents a not so similar feature with the OPC in terms of the background of the leadership of the organization though structurally the two organizations look the same. Ralph Uwazurike, the founder of MASSOB did not hold national leadership positions prior to his founding of MASSOB. Though he led an ethnic elite club, but it was not similar to the type of organizations that Faseun has led, all of which are pan-Nigeria in terms of membership outlook. Uwazurike only led the Igbo Council of Chiefs, a parochial Diaspora organization that is exclusively Igbo. Though he is educated like Faseun who founded OPC, he was not visible nationally prior to the founding of MASSOB, unlike Faseun who had name recognition, having already attained national prominence before his forays with OPC activities. Uwazurike was only a member of a campaign committee of candidate Olusegun Obasanjo of the PDP. He had hoped that a democratically elected government would correct the acts of injustice perpetrated against the Igbo and make the renewed demand for Biafra unnecessary (Uwazurike 2008). Uwazurike’s optimism is premised on the belief that wide political space produces accountable government, and having obtained its mandate from the people is better placed and obligated to address issues that border the people and in the case of the Igbo, redressing the perceived marginalization. Just like the OPC, the success of MASSOB can be attributed to its organizational structure. The administrative format of the group is a four tier system of well-knit structural organization that not only makes mobilization easier but also ensures constant flow of information among the various strata. This structure made it very easy for replacements to emerge to fill a vacuum so as to keep the organization together whenever there is a clampdown on leadership element of the organization. Though there is a manifestation of division in MASSOB, it was not well pronounced like the division in OPC. But just like OPC, disagreement in strategy is responsible for the crack in the organization. This notwithstanding, greed and envy seem to be another factor that seems manifest in the MASSOB leadership structure. The struggle to control the organization is at the root of the divisions in the organization. The massive edifice called the Freedom House located in Uwazurike’s country home which MASSOB uses as headquarters is a source of envy because certain elements believe the funds could not have come from his personal earning since his law practice or businesses have virtually grounded since he started his activism. A consequence of this was the purported replacement of Uwazurike by Nnamdi Ohiagu (Okoli 2007) which was promptly refuted through a news release which asserted the authority of Uwazurike as the leader of the group (Unese 2007).


3:6 The Militia Oraganizations and their Control Groups

The question that begs for an answer in this analysis is the nature of relationship between the two organizations in our study and their control group. A good understanding of this relationship will shed light on the source of strength and confidence of the groups. It should also provide understanding as to what propels the members of the organization and their leadership to engage in activities that are in defiance of the state and its might.

The control group in this instance represents the elite of the ethnic group that the organization represents either in government or close to the corridors of power. In this instance, we shall be looking at the relationship between the OPC and Afenifere or the Yoruba Council of Elders and south west government leaders. For MASSOB it shall be its relationship with the Ohaneze Ndi Igbo and other Igbo cultural associations as well as government leaders of southeast extraction.

There is an indication of a significant contrast between the OPC and the MASSOB, when it comes to the roles of elite members of the ethnic group in the formation of the organizations, the level of covert and tacit support offered to organizations as a form of social pressure on the state advancing the general interest of the ethnic group. We are also interested in the nature of association these elite members maintain with the organizations and their members who run into problems with the state given the nature of the activities.

On all these parameters, the situation of the two organizations bears little similarities. First the formations of the two organizations resulted from different circumstances. The OPC emerged during the era of the military under a brutal regime that brook no opposition and had driven popular forces underground because of the ambition of its leader who wanted to transmute into a civilian head of state. The brutality of General Abacha’s regime and the clampdown on pro-democracy activists was responsible for the tactical move of some of them to recoil back to their ethnic cocoon in order to counter the onslaught from the regime effectively. As such the formation of OPC received endorsement from prominent Yoruba elites who were the immediate victims of these brutalities. The founder, Dr Fredrick Faseun belongs to this class and received a lot of support from them to go ahead with the idea of forming an organization in the mould of OPC. According to Faseun,after his meeting with three grassroot mobilizers in Mushin, Mrs Idowu Adebowale (market women leader at Odo-Asimau market) Alhaji Ibrahim a.ka ‘Baba Oja’ or market father and Papa Taiwo a retired soldier,all of whom were his political associates when he was chairman of the defunct Nigerian Labour Party, there was a need to intimate prominent Yoruba elites on the initiative and so the first port of call was Chief Michael Adekunle Ajasin, the leader of Afenifere,the umbrella Yoruba socio-political group who also held sway as the chairman of National Democratic Coalition(NADECO),the frontline organization fighting for the revalidation of June 12,1993 presidential election that was annulled by the military. Having mentioned the plan to the people at the apex of Yoruba leadership, he turned to intimate others such as Papa Anthony Enahoro, who was then the Deputy Chairman of NADECO, Chief Bola Ige, former governor of Oyo state and deputy leader of Afenifere at that time, all of whom embraced the idea and encouraged him to carry on (Faseun 2005: 13-16). Other prominent Yoruba who were contacted include Reverend Tunji Adebiyi, Dr Doyin Okupe a prominent politician and Dr Beko Ramsome Kuti who was leader of Campaign for Democracy, a pro-democracy group that challenged the annulment of June 12, 1993 presidential election meaning that the support of Yoruba elites for the formation of a militant organization was solid (Badmus 2006:193). That support reflected in the roles these personalities played at the height of the division and rivalry that befell the organization by organizing reconciliation meetings to settle the rift between the two factions (Faseun 2005).

The formation of MASSOB did not follow similar path. Uwazurike, the founder of the organization was neither known nationally nor even among the Igbo before the formation of MASSOB. He therefore came into limelight through the activities of MASSOB, a group, state authority and even the Igbo elites thought will fizzle out with passage of time. Two reasons lend credence to these fact; the first is open objective of the organization to actualize Biafra which was seen as a task in futility and given that Uwazurike concentrated his initial activities in Lagos made people to regard him and his supporters as bands of unserious people who were seeking attention.

It was the antecedence of these organizations that defined the nature of relationship with their control group. While the Yoruba elite stood solidly behind the OPC and its leaders even in their travails, the Igbo elite were competing to project their degree of alienation with MASSOB and what the group stands for. The Ohaneze Ndi Igbo had on several occasions condemned MASSOB and its leader Uwazurike purporting that its radical activism can only derail its agenda of producing a Nigerian president of Igbo extraction (VOBI 2006). The privilege that OPC leaders enjoy in gathering of the Yoruba people was never accorded the leaders of MASSOB. Whereas cooperation is cordial between OPC and Afenifere, the relationship between MASSOB and Ohaneze was competitive as to which of them represents the authentic voice of the Igbo. Prominent Yoruba elite have attended OPC’s programmes, including representatives of people in government which gives credence to the view that the organization enjoys some level of covert support from them (Adams 2008). While on one hand the factional leaders have been invited and treated dignifiedly in public functions organised by Yoruba groups, MASSOB and its leaders on the other hand were seen as outcast by the Igbo elite. The group had a running battle with the former governors of Imo state Chief Achike Udenwa and Anambra state Mr Peter Obi for issuing an order to police to shoot them at sight.

Again, the easy help OPC leaders get from Yoruba activists whenever they run into trouble with security operatives eludes MASSOB leaders until recently. For instance, Uwazurike stayed longer than the rest of self-determination group’s leaders arrested in the run up to the 2007 general elections in Nigeria. His incarceration lasted longer, after Dr Faseun, Chief Gani Adam of OPC and Asari Dokubo of Niger Delta Peoples Volunteer Force (NDPVF) were released following political pressure by their kinsmen. That incident awakened some Igbo elites led by Senator Uche Chukwumerije and Ikechukwu Obiora who joined the groups that started to call for Uwazurike’s release which paid off when he was granted a conditional three months bail to go and perform burial rites for his late mother. It is difficult to ascertain whether this change of attitude stem from an acceptance of MASSOB’s agenda of a revitalized Biafra republic or a sort of grandstanding by these elites to enhance their political capital within the Igbo public.


3:7 The Militia Organizations and their Micro Groups

The prevalence of violence-oriented ethnic organizations in Nigeria operating outside of the confines of the law has been justified by leaders of these organizations who cite marginalization, injustice and unfair treatment of their ethnic group. If these organizations are truly championing the cause of their sub-groups, it then becomes imperative to analyse the relationship between the organizations and the base of their ethnic group especially their public or micro group perception. How popular are these organizations among members of their ethnic group? Do the organizations publics view them favourably? What are the levels of support to the organizations by these publics?

Looking at these issues from the perspective of Badmus (2006: 192) who describes militant ethnic movements as the extreme form of ethnic agitation for self-determination that has assumed militant posture and purports to act as the machinery through which the desires of its people are sought to be realised. One parameter to measure this is membership strength and spread of the organizations. On this score, both the OPC and MASSOB appear to be popular with both the Yoruba and Igbo public which they purport to represent. Though there is no way of verifying this, the leadership of OPC claimed that the membership strength of the movement is in the range of six million people spread across all the Yoruba speaking states of Nigeria and the Diaspora. This fact if given to be true makes OPC a mass based organization. The movement is said to be mainly funded from the contribution of ordinary Yoruba people which indicates the level of micro group support for the organization and viewed from the perspective of the level of confidence reposed in the organization across the towns and cities of south west of Nigeria entrusting OPC with security responsibilities in terms of vigilante activities, then one can draw the conclusion that the micro group view of OPC is highly favourable. This explains the relative success the group has recorded in vigilante activities in line with one of its objective of creating a crime free society in the Yoruba area of Nigeria and a way of repudiating state institution like the police as inefficient and incapable of living up to the expectation or standard instituted by OPC advocates.

The MASSOB through its membership strength can be regarded as a mass movement. Its membership strength according to its leader is in the range of fifteen million is found almost in all the states of Nigeria and the Diaspora. Though the membership claim can not be verifiably established, a hint from top officers in the Nigerian police who estimated that MASSOB’s membership ratio to Onitsha residents is 20:1, gives us a clue that the claim may not be exaggerated. Though some Igbos may have reservation on secession agenda of MASSOB, yet subtle support for the organization as a social pressure group advancing the general interest of the ethnic group exist (Onu 2001). Another way of determining the level of micro group support is compliance to calls for civil disobedience. This was attested to on August 26,2004 and subsequently when the call was made by the organization on Igbo sons and daughters as well as sympathisers to sit at home was widely adhered to not only in Igbo states, but across Nigeria where the Igbos are found in large numbers. This fact finds support in a study conducted by Onu (2001:25-27) which sought to know the level of awareness of the Igbo of MASSOB and its objectives where the response was overwhelmingly positive with 76% of the respondents claiming awareness of the group just two years after its formation and another 52% supporting the groups’ objective of creating an independent Biafran state. Another index of measurement of the level of support the public for MASSOB is the source of funding for the movement which apart from other sources come from contributions made by ordinary Igbo people who sympathise with the organization. The police in one of the charges against Uwazurike and nine others had included illegal imposition of levy as one of the charges against him (Ige 2006a). MASSOB activists view this differently and believe that the contributions were not forced on those making the contribution but came out of volition of the individuals who believe in the cause of the organizationt.

MASSOB’s image problem with its micro group plunged when the organization attempted to enforce its will during the 2006 census exercise in Nigeria. The organization has warned the National Population Commission so stay clear of the south east and south-south zone of the country which it claimed were Biafran territories.
3:8 Militia activities and the Response of the Government

According to Kaur (2002) prevailing political institutions in the society provide viable channels through which people can express their dissatisfaction by resort to non-violent means. The political system is therefore protected by the political institutions that are well designed to weather the storms of history and limit the self-aggrandizing impulses of human actors. This is because these institutions serve as shock absorbers and hence protect the system from crumbling(Kaur 2002). This is the case where there are strong institutions that have experienced balanced development in the sense that each institution in the society is well positioned to play its respective role without hindrance or interference by other institutions.

The above scenario has not been the lot of the Nigerian state; rather the country has not had strong institutions that would enable the political system to face challenges in a systematic way without breaking. The basic reason is that the Nigeria state is an authoritarian ploy designed purely for the economic interests of the colonialist that created it. Centrifugal fissures have been the hallmark of inter-ethnic relationships which the state has not been able to handle effectively to create a united nation-state. According to Awodiya (2006), the Nigerian government reacts to ethnic activism in a manner that either stokes the courage of the ethnic militias behind the agitation or suggests that it does not know how to handle the situation.

The response of the government to OPC and MASSOB activities are re-enactment of the strategy adopted by the military authorities to suppress grievances. This strategy hinges on underplaying or completely ignoring the issues that give rise to conflict and organization spearheading them. Hence the erroneous belief that repression is the ultimate cure for uprising. The pervasiveness of this behaviour stem from the perception of the colonial state as illegitimate because its legitimacy ultimately depended on its ability to control and manage the political community it created rather than on enabling representation of its constituent parts (Chabal 1994:76). This centralized feature of the state has greater implication for citizenship status and condition in the sense that the state was far away from the people, unaccountable to them and unrepresentative of their views and opinions (Udenwa 2005).

The characterization of the colonial state and its perception by the people has not changed in spite of the transfer of power from the colonialists to Nigerian elite several decades ago. It is therefore not surprising that subnationalism expression still persists and the state still facing challenges of how to tackle the phenomenon. The reason for the intensification of ethnically gingered agitations and conflicts is not far–fetched given that subnationalism expression is a form of dissatisfaction with the state of affairs in the country. This dissatisfaction has been rife with occasional outbursts in the past but for the brute forcible response of the military administrations, kept the development at a minimal level, thus bottling up the grievances (Jinadu 2004).

Therefore, the avalanche of subnationalist protests and eruptions since the country transitted to democracy is a huge challenge for the managers of the democratic administration. Overwhelmed by the magnitude of the eruptions from the various nationality groups, the government resorted to its old tactics of suppressing these manifestations by the use of force (Obinor &Obayuwana 2006). The militarization of conflict situation has become the order of the day. On several occasions, the government has given order to security operatives to “shoot-at-sight”. The conflict in the south west area that involved the Oodua People’s Congress (OPC) and the Hausa’s as well as the Ijaws on the one hand and the police on another hand attracted such directive following the frustration of the government in containing the spate of clashes (Ploughshare 2004). This is clearly undemocratic as it has often led to abuse as the case of Police-MASSOB conflict and the Niger Delta indicates (PARAN 2006).

Notwithstanding the repressive response of the democratic regime to this phenomenon, the manifestation of ethnic nationalism and ethnic conflict has not abated. Most of the issues that gave rise to formation of OPC and MASSOB relate to inadequacies of the Nigerian state. Response to the cry of marginalization has been slow and contemptuous. Awodiya (2006) had argued that ethnic movements enjoy a large followership in their region of occupation because the Federal Government of Nigeria has failed to give the people in these regions a sense of belonging. The Yoruba were compensated with the presidency in 1999 after recognition that they were collectively wronged by the denial of Moshood Abiola the opportunity to assume office as president. However, that was not enough pacification given the fact that Olusegun Obasanjo who won the election received little support of Yoruba people. Again, Sovereign National Conference which formed the major plank of OPC’s agitation was flatly rejected by the government of Obasanjo. OPC have had several clashes with security operatives but the one that angered government was OPC killing of policemen and burning down of a police station. That incident prompted the government to order a shoot-at-sight order on any one that claims to be member of OPC. The factional leaders of the group Dr Faseun and Chief Gani Adams have at various times been clamped into detention.

The case of the Igbo is very glaring. For instance, in the wake of the heightened publicity about the re-declaration of Biafra in the early 2000, the Obasanjo government announced a pardon and conversion from dismissals to retirement of all former Nigerian servicemen in the Armed Forces and Police of Biafra during the war with a promise to pay all their accrued entitlements (Omonobi 2007). That pronouncement was only implemented in the year 2006 (Edike 2006). Given that these men have suffered deprivations for many years, and coupled with government lackadaisical attitude to their plight groups like MASSOB take advantage of this lacuna to generate sectarian support for their cause.

Also government response to the activities of MASSOB has been characterized by repressive tactics (PARAN 2006). Though the organization professes non-violence as its guiding philosophy and had succeeded to project itself as a harmless organization, its experience with the state has been brutal (CWIS 2006). This has been the pattern after, the May 22, 2000 re-declaration of Biafra at Aba. The turnout which was not anticipated stunned security operatives and the police and in a panicky attempt to disperse the huge crowd, clashed with the organization leading to the death of two people (Uwazurike 2008). The clampdown on the organization and its leadership ended in clashes, most of which resulted in deaths (Aham 2005). A catalogue of MASSOB casualties in the hands of security operative has been compiled and documented by several right groups. People Against Right Abuses in Nigeria in their 2006 report gave a blow to blow account of monthly clashes with security operatives starting from May 2001 to February 2006. In that account, it was recorded that about 80 MASSOB activists have lost their lives, 66 were arrested, detained and arraigned, 106 detained and tortured while 217 were arrested and humiliated (PARAN 2006). Apart from arrests, detention and killings, members of the organization including the leader Chief Ralph Uwazurike has been, at various times, arraigned before the courts on charges that range from armed robbery, arson to treason (Onuegbu 2008).

This approach adopted by the government has not been effective in containing the activities of these organizations. Instead of containing the activities of the organization, it had rather radicalized the organization. For instance, MASSOB is gradually abandoning its philosophy of non-violence, and embracing a culture of confrontation with agencies of the state as the mayhem in Onitsha, Nnewi and other parts of Anambra state indicate (Anyanwu & Okaro 2006, Okonkwo 2006). The incidence in Onitsha particularly depicts militarized MASSOB appropriating the powers and responsibilities of local security agencies especially the police in its self imposed mandate of maintaining law and order. Thus in market places, motor parks, among others, MASSOB has taken over the responsibility of providing security. Those bodies that MASSOB new role is threatening to displace, has not left the situation unchallenged which gave rise to the crisis in Onitsha. It is in this light that MASSOB’s war against organizations it considers parasitic in motor parks such as NARTO can be understood. Again, MASSOB’s attempt to disrupt the census exercises in the south east zone is another daring act of lawlessness that pitched the organization against security operatives (Onyekamuo 2006). The transformation of MASSOB from a harmless non-violent organization to that which employs violence cannot be extricated from the manner of government responses to the issue. Effective management of subnationalism in a heterogeneous society demands that issues which engender ethnic based organizations be evaluated and appropriately dealt with in ways that make groups hatching on perceived deprivation loose that hold and consequently fizzle away with passage of time.





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