The Price/Cost of Freedom: Re-evaluating IPOB’s Monday Sit-At-Home Protest

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Rev. Fr. ChukwuEmekalum Nwosuh, OP

Associate Professor, Dominican University, Ibadan

I have closely followed the discussions regarding IPOB’s Sit-At-Home protest. Naturally, there are arguments in favor and against this order. The argument against this mode of protest adopted by IPOB is anchored primarily on the economic implication for the SE. According to the proponents of this position, the Monday Sit-At-Homes, if sustained will be costing the SE billions of Naira bearing in mind that the SE harbors some of the largest markets both in Nigeria and West-Africa and even beyond. Some describe IPOB’s approach as a case of cutting off one’s nose to spite the face. In their view, IPOB is doing more injury to the SE in its protest against the Federal Government. The angst against IPOB’s Sit-At-Home order was further intensified by the fact that students of the SE were unable to participate in the examination that was written last Monday in the ongoing WAEC examination. This, according to critics of IPOB, was tantamount to robbing these young Igbo youths of their educational future. Among those who had written a stinging attack against IPOB’s Sit-At-Home protest is Ogbu Kalu who, no doubt, has on several occasions written in favor of IPOB and its leader, Nnamdi Kanu. Ogbu’s article which went viral particularly as he is known to be sympathetic to IPOB’s cause was waved about by staunch opponents of Nnamdi and IPOB as a “biblical text proof” that IPOB and its leaders are up to no good for Ndigbo.

The arguments advanced by opponents of IPOB’s Sit-At-Home order, particularly the economic argument, appear quite sound and impugnable. It makes no sense for IPOB to cause Igbo traders and businessmen and women, whose interests they are supposedly fighting for, to lose billions of Naira all in the name of a protest to get its leader released. It makes no sense that IPOB will cause thousands of Igbo students to lose the chance of gaining admission to higher institutions next year because they missed writing one or more papers. Although this argument appears intelligible and sounds it is, however, facile, fatally flawed, and misleading. This is usually the case with every argument that is reductive in nature and not properly situated within its proper context.

IPOB’s Sit-At-Home order can only be objectively and fairly evaluated when placed within the larger context of the quest for self-determination. And the quest for self-determination is a quest for freedom in the light of the heightened exclusion of Ndigbo from the Nigeria polity. When properly situated, therefore, the fundamental question, which should serve as the criterion for evaluating IPOB’s Sit-At-Home order would be: What is the worth or value of freedom? Framed differently, one would ask, how much is one willing to pay for one’s freedom? The answer that one gives to the above question underscores the value such a person places on freedom.

The story of the Israelites would help to throw some light to this discussion. After the people of Israel escaped the iron-fisted rule of Pharoah, they sojourned in the harsh desert for years. At a point, they began to murmur and complain bitterly against Moses. They lamented: If only we had died by the LORD’s hand in the land of Egypt! There we sat by pots of meat and ate our fill of bread, but you have brought us into this desert to starve this whole assembly to death! We remember the fish we ate freely in Egypt, along with the cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions, and garlic (Ex. 16:4; Num. 11:5). For these Israelites, their freedom was only worth the bread, meat, cucumber, melons, leeks, onions, and garlic they ate in Egypt. In other words, they would not have minded remaining slaves in Egypt as long as they have enough food to eat. Their stomach meant more to them than their freedom. This appears to me to be the mindset of those who would rather have shops and businesses open on Mondays even if it meant being treated as third-class citizens in a country they call their own.

There are, however, persons who place a higher premium on their dignity and freedom and are willing to obtain it even at the cost of their lives. For these persons, no amount of sacrifice is too high to pay so far as they obtain and secure their dignity and freedom. This is the mindset of all freedom fighters all through history. They are willing to spend their lives in jail or even suffer death. But what is the sense in spending the rest of one’s life locked up in prison in the quest for freedom, one may ask? And does it make any sense for one to die in quest for a freedom he/she will not live to exercise and savor? Seen from a narrow utilitarian lens, none of these make any sense. In fact, it appears outrightly foolish. But this is what distinguishes the mindset of one whose stomach is of greater premium from one whose places greater premium on his/her freedom. The former is a narcissistic individual whose visual field does not extend beyond himself and his/her immediate materialistic gains. The latter, on the other hand, looks beyond himself/herself and his /her own personal interests. At the core of his/her thoughts and concerns are those coming after him/her. He/she is willing to lay down his/her life in order to secure the future of the coming generations. He/she is willing to plant a tree of which fruits he/she knows fully that he/she will not eat. To those with tunnel vision, the actions of such individuals or groups of individuals who are willing to accept some personal losses and pains might appear foolish. That is precisely how IPOB’s Sit-At-Home order appears to some, especially those who pride themselves as intellectuals or Igbo elites. For them, it is silly or foolish for IPOB to inflict economic pains on the Igbos in the name of a Sit-At-Home protest. However, those with this mindset do not understand that you cannot obtain a good without self-sacrifice which oftentimes might even involve the laying down of one’s life. Freedom, justice, and equity are not obtained on a platter of gold. Freedom is never free; you must pay a price for it.

I would like to respond to those who liken IPOB’s action to one who cuts his/her nose to spite the face by referring to the Montgomery Bus Boycott. The black community of Montgomery decided to boycott the city bus following the arrest of Rosa Parks who had refused to give up her seat to a white man. It was in the context of this mass protest that Martin Luther will emerge as an influential civil rights leader. (You can read the full story of the Montgomery Bus Boycott on https://www.nps.gov/articles/montgomery-bus-boycott.htm). If one were to evaluate the action of the black community of Montgomery, their action would appear stupid and self-defeating. While it is true that carpools were organized to convey some to their places of work, it was the case that most had to trek to and from their places of work. Wasn’t that silly of them? Were they not cutting their own noses to spite their faces it would seem? It wasn’t the whites who had to suffer the inconvenience of having to trek to and from their places of work. It was they, the black community. Granted that the city lost a lot of revenue from the boycott, yet there is no denying that the black community had to bear the inconvenience of having to trek to and from their respective places of work when they could have continued to ride to work even if it meant standing to do so. The impact of that boycott went beyond the imagination of those who conceived the boycott. It did not only lead to a court judgment that ruled on the unconstitutionality of segregation in public buses but even more significantly created the circumstance for the emergence of the greatest black civil rights leader, Dr. Martin King, whose activities did win for blacks even greater rights than they ever imagined.

Now, the Montgomery Bus Boycott may not be a perfect analogy for the IPOB’s Sit-At-Home Order, but there is a parallel, namely, you have to inconvenience yourself and make sacrifices if you wish to obtain something greater or bigger. What is losing a day’s income in exchange for securing one’s dignity and right to be treated justly? But like the Israelites of old, dignity and freedom can go to blazes as long as their stomachs and bank accounts are burgeoning. The wisdom of IPOB’s action is actually encapsulated in the ancient Igbo proverb which says that ana ebugoduzo zota ana tupu azoba ute, meaning that one must first secure a space before struggling for the mat that will be spread on that space. Of what use will your mat be if you have nowhere to lay it? But you can at least still lie on the bare floor even if you end up not securing the mat. If Ndigbo does not secure their dignity, equality, and due rights in this political space, of what use is your business? A single policy can wipe out all your economic activities. Ask Ibeto, what happened to his cement business. And so, while the critics of IPOB’s decision are not seeing beyond the tip of their noses, IPOB and their supporters are looking much farther. While the critics of IPOB are struggling over the mat, IPOB is asking Ndigbo to first secure a space. Which of these two approaches is wiser?

Now, some may ask what results the Sit-At-Home protest would achieve other than hurting the economic fortunes of Ndigbo. Well, such a question betrays a manner of thinking that may be rich in quantitative considerations but is grossly deficient in qualitative considerations. But to briefly respond to it, the success of the IPOB Sit-At-Home order has finally revealed the irrelevance of the different State governments and non-political Igbo leadership groups like Ohaneze. These have consistently betrayed the Igbo cause either by their deafening silence or even active connivance with those who are bent on reducing the Igbos to third-class citizens if not slaves. It is interesting that the threats by the different State Governments of the SE did not deter people from heeding the call of IPOB to stay at home. You can deduce what it means. Believe it or not, the Federal Government will be very careful in dealing with a group that commands the respect and obedience of millions of people. And consequently, they will be very careful in ensuring the safety of their leaders. Like every civil protest, the full benefits of the Stay-At-Home protest lie in the future and not in the present.

But come to think of it, what other legitimate avenue of protest is open to IPOB? When they match on the streets peacefully, they are mowed down by the hot bullets of the Nigerian soldiers. The same armchair critics will accuse them of foolishness and imprudence for having to peacefully protest in the face of the threat of murderous bloodthirsty soldiers and security operatives. And when they ask Biafrans not to march on the streets but stay back in protest, in the comfort of their homes, they are pilloried and accused of devising the economic ruin of Ndigbo. In fact, the argument of the likely destruction of the economic fortunes of the SE by the Sit-At-Home order is a spurious argument meant to mislead the undiscerning mind. It is a known fact that on great festivities like Christmas and Easter, most markets are shut down for days or even for a whole week or more, and yet that does not destroy the economic fortunes of the SE. Those who fabricate and propagate this piece of falsehood fail to tell us why the economic fortunes of the SE have not collapsed because markets are shut during those periods and every Sunday or why the economy of Nigeria hasn’t collapsed because of the number of public holidays that are declared by the Federal Government. And what says that the volume of business activities in SE cannot be intensified from Tuesdays to Saturdays while observing Mondays as a protest day? Imagine how much more effective this protest will be if Igbo businessmen and women in every part of Nigeria join in the Sit-At-Home protest!

The truth is that there are so many Igbos who have either not fully understood the degree to which they have been humiliated and reduced to third-class citizens or if they did, they have simply resigned to this condition and hence are willing to remain third-class citizens as long as they have their “cucumber, leeks, onions, melons, pomegranates, bread, and meat.” They are willing to continue to serve Pharoah. Sadly, a lot of Igbo elites and intellectuals fall into this category. They typify Plato’s Allegory of the Cave. And many of them suffer from what I can Joe Igbokwe Syndrome (JIS). They fear that IPOB’s protest will snatch away their “honey pot” from their tables, hence they do not lose any opportunity to attack every of IPOB’s actions. While they are adept at criticizing every action of IPOB, they are however sterile and impotent when it comes to offering better alternatives.

Finally, let me address the question of enforcing the Sit-At-Home order. Some have argued that no one should be compelled to observe the Sit-At-Home order. Again, that sounds reasonable. But let me ask this, when the Federal or State Government declares a curfew or for some reason restricts movement, does it enforce such restrictions or leaves it to each one to decide whether to observe it or not? Now, you may want to superciliously argue that IPOB lacks the authority of a “constitutionally constituted” government like the State or Federal Government. Well, that is where the reasoning of the anti-IPOBs is grossly limited. As far as the SE is concerned, the various State Governments have lost relevance and hence the moral authority over the people. They may be in office, but they no longer command the respect and obedience of most Igbos. This explains why the threats of sack or loss of one’s shop did not deter both government workers and businessmen from obeying IPOB’s order. Like it or not, IPOB is providing alternative governance in the face of a grossly deficient and ineffective political leadership in SE. Our State Governors are like emasculated eunuchs who despite their stature (apparatus of office) are pitifully impotent. Just as the Federal and State government can enforce a curfew and other restrictions of movement for the overall benefit of the people, so too, can IPOB, by virtue of the confidence reposed on it by millions of Igbos, both those at home and in diaspora, analogously enforce the Sit-At-Home order for the interest of the Igbo nation. Like it or not, IPOB has become a parallel government that commands greater respect and allegiance than the so-called democratically elected government or the supreme court-imposed government. Some have further argued speciously that many stay home for fear of being harassed by IPOB members. Well, the “fear” that kept Igbos indoors when IPOB declares a Sit-At-Home protest, is no worse than the fear of arrest, harassment, or even being shot by security operatives that keeps Nigerians indoors when the State or Federal Government declares a curfew or restriction of movement. It is, therefore, supercilious to argue that people stayed at home for fear of being harassed.

Is every action of IPOB and its leader, Nnamdi Kanu, perfect or even good? Certainly not! Since their actions are not immune from faults, we cannot but evaluate and critique such actions. However, there is a big difference between a critique that aims at building and consolidating and rabid criticisms that simply attack and never proffer better or superior alternatives. I had expected that now that Kanu is in prison, and removed from the scene, even if temporarily, that those “eggheads” who are adept at armchair criticisms would have stepped in and provided a much better leadership than Nnamdi Kanu. But they have remained in their comfort zone and continue to spew out meaningless criticisms. While I may not support every move or action of IPOB and its leaders, I am firmly convinced that they have filled the leadership vacuum that neither our political leaders nor the Igbo intellectual and religious class has been able to offer to Ndigbo. While it is the right of everyone to make a critique of any idea or action, any critique or criticism that does not offer better or more effective alternatives is mere verbiage and irritating noise. If one cannot help to build, then he/she should sit quietly at a corner and watch those who are doing so. The ANC was anything but a perfect liberation movement, yet it successfully championed the end of the apartheid system in South Africa. IPOB is not any less imperfect, but it is, for the moment, the most effective arrowhead that is championing the Igbo cause hence, its wide acceptance among Igbos, both home and abroad. Do not just point out what is wrong in their approach. Offer something better by stepping into the battlefield.

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