By Simon Kolawole
The brutal murder of Dr Chike Akunyili by the so-called “unknown gunmen” — I call them “the Boko Haram of the south-east” — has torn my heart to pieces. I was an associate member of the Akunyili family, having related closely with his wife, Prof Dora Nkem Akunyili, who did an amazing job as director-general of the National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control (NAFDAC) from 2001 to 2008. She died in 2014 after losing her fight with cancer. Her husband was one of those rarely celebrated in Nigeria — a successful man in his own right who did not feel threatened by his wife’s success. Rather, the medical doctor encouraged and supported her all the way.
I remember being in their hotel room in London, UK, sometime in 2006 when Prof Akunyili was preparing to receive an award at the Palace of Westminster, which houses the UK Parliament. She gave me her address to help review. Dr Chike had a copy. I was reading aloud and making comments. He was taking notes and commenting too. We agreed to rephrase a few paragraphs in which we felt she went into too much detail on her encounters with producers and sellers of fake drugs. Before we left the hotel, the couple shared a kiss in my presence. “Simon,” she said, with a smile and a giggle, “you know, we’ve been married for decades and the love still dey shark me.”
It is a fitting tribute, though a tragic one, that Dr Akunyili was killed on his way from a memorial lecture in honour of his beloved wife. The tragedy happened on Tuesday at the Nkpor junction, Idemili North, Anambra state. On hearing the news, I started searching for clues on what might have gone wrong. A friend forwarded a WhatsApp message to me, along with a gruesome photograph which I refused to open or expand. The writer blamed the Indigenous Peoples of Biafra (IPOB) for the murder. He said the gunmen mistook Akunyili for a politician and opened fire on him. The separatists had vowed that the November 6 Anambra governorship election would not hold.
However, in this age of “conjecture journalism” — a fast-moving deadly brand wildly shared and consumed even by those who supposedly went to school — I was not surprised to see online reports attributing the killing to, you guessed right, “Fulani herdsmen”. All kidnappings and killings in southern Nigeria are attributed to “Fulani herdsmen”. It must be a thing of mystery that there are no longer southern criminals as every crime is committed by “Fulani herdsmen”! In Ebonyi communities where they have been at war for three decades, every dead body is now the handiwork of “Fulani herdsmen”. That is a sure narrative that serves the evil purpose of inflaming ethnic passion.
I later saw a Facebook post by someone who created a fantastic theory on Dr Akunyili’s gruesome murder — going as far as linking it to President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua. According to him, the attempt on Mrs Akunyili’s life 17 years ago was by “Fulani gunmen”. He said they were angry that she wrote a memo asking the federal executive council to declare Yar’Adua incapacitated and make Vice-President Goodluck Jonathan the substantive president. The character said it was the same “Fulani people” that killed her and finally came for her husband. For the record, Dora was attacked by gunmen on December 26, 2003. The Yar’Adua episode was in February 2010 — six years later.
You cannot stop people from blaming “Fulani herders” for the crimes in the land — freedom of speech could also lead to freedom of ridiculous conjecture in some instances — but I think they are playing with fire the way they rush to defend IPOB and exonerate the separatists from everything going on in the south-east. The attacks on INEC offices, police stations, prisons and politicians tell a familiar story of the insurrection that IPOB preaches. The sit-at-home orders, brutally enforced as we have seen in verified videos, all fall into the pattern of the insurrection. By pampering these Frankenstein’s monsters, their defenders are only “doing” themselves, to use a local expression.
By the time IPOB, Eastern Security Network (ESN) and “unknown gunmen” are done with the south-east, Boko Haram would be learners. Have we learnt nothing from the north-east? When the Boko Haram cancer started, it did not present as malignant. It was projected as a benign group of Islamic purists who were out to reinstate religious piety to the society. Boko Haram had ready defenders and apologists among northern politicians, government officials and journalists. I once addressed a group of police officers and one of them, from the north, told me without flinching that Igbo were behind Boko Haram, that they wanted to destroy the north in retaliation for losing the civil war!
An American diplomatic cable published by Wikileaks in 2010 named a top government official, a retired general, as “a radical fundamentalist” who said the US wanted to eliminate Islam “like it did with communism”. According to reports, the same official ordered the release of Boko Haram leaders when they were arrested by the security agencies in 2009. Some of those released went on to become the deadliest Boko Haram commanders. One of them was Mamman Nur, who would later mastermind the 2011 bombing of the UN building in Abuja that killed 26 people. He became the de facto head of Islamic State in West Africa Province (ISWAP) before he was killed in 2018.
In 2010, when Jonathan deployed troops in Borno state to tackle Boko Haram, the Borno Elders and Leaders of Thought (BELT) opposed him. If Jonathan had succumbed to their demand, Borno would have become history. They condemned Jonathan for seeking help from the US, saying “it is unconstitutional”. At a time we needed all hands on deck to tackle Boko Haram, our leaders — including those in Jonathan’s corner — saw an opportunity to play politics. See where we landed. Borno state has become a massive graveyard and a pile of rubble. They were busy playing ethnic and religious politics and caressing the Frankenstein’s monsters but they were only “doing” themselves.
Just as it now obtains in the south-east, Boko Haram were slitting the throats of security operatives and attacking security agencies in the north-east. They were attacking DSS offices and police checkpoints, and killing politicians. They were soon bombing churches before moving to mosques. They have definitely killed more fellow Muslims than Christians in their war on the Nigerian state. It was fun for some people until it became clear that nobody was safe. It was too late to undo anything. And here comes the south-east where some are hailing the insurrection. IPOB denies these attacks and claims to be protecting Biafraland. So, how many attacks has IPOB stopped?
There is no doubt that Igbo feel unfairly treated in the Nigerian federation. For a people who have distinguished themselves in all walks of life, they feel highly marginalised in the scheme of things, compared to other ethnic groups. While many do not subscribe to the activities of IPOB, they cannot say so openly because they could be seen as going against popular sentiments. Some fear for their personal safety. Some also think Nigeria only listens to those who speak forcefully and upturn a few tables. In truth, it appears violence has become an acceptable bargaining chip in the country, as we can see with the clamour for amnesty for the bandits terrorising the north-west. So it goes.
In the south-west too, the ethnic champions are romancing Chief Sunday Igboho in his self-appointed task of “liberating” Yorubaland. I watched one of his videos where he was claiming that Yoruba are suffering in Nigeria. Can you beat that? “Iya nje awa Yooba ni Naijiria,” he said, tearfully. He threatened that there would be no elections in the south-west in 2023 because he would kill the politicians — a reckless admission of his stock-in-trade. He actually boasted of his exploits. You would take him for a joker until you realise some top Yoruba intellectuals actually endorse him. That is how low things have sunk in Yorubaland that a common political thug would be a thought leader.
Yoruba probably dodged a few bullets when Igboho decided to flee to Germany, although he landed in the prisons of the Republic of Benin, just across our border. Otherwise, the south-west would probably be witnessing an orgy of violence by now as the Yoruba Nation activists try to make good their threat not to allow elections in 2023. I am not in a position to appreciate why people think empowering the Igbohos would do the Yoruba any good. Like the Frankenstein’s monster, these guys would turn on their backers sooner or later. When you endorse mobsters, don’t ever think you can call them to order when they go berserk. It doesn’t work like that. Boko Haram is my witness.
I would like to be very clear once again: I am not opposed to playing politics, but we have to decide what to play politics with and if it is worth it. I am not against people promoting their ethnic agenda — it is part and parcel of fundamental human rights. But I will keep asking: have they counted the cost? Are they ready to pay the price? Is it worth the bloodshed? As Jesus Christ would say, “What king, going out to encounter another king in war, will not sit down first and deliberate whether he is able with ten thousand to meet him who comes against him with twenty thousand?” Insurrection comes with human and material costs. We are still counting the dead bodies in the north-east.
The painful death of Dr Akunyili should ordinarily serve as food for thought for those promoting or funding the activities of these “unknown gunmen” in the south-east, but are they reasonable people? In any case, the horse has bolted from the stable. The south-east is going through its worst devastation since the civil war. When you cripple economic activities, you push your people further into poverty. When you stop children from writing exams, you push them down the education ladder. When you kill your leading lights, you hurt yourself more than you hurt the people you think you are fighting. My condolences to the Akunyili family. May evil depart from our land.