By Ojo Maduekwe
President Muhammadu Buhari has approved the payment of pensions to the last batch of 162 former Nigerian soldiers, policemen and paramilitary officers and 57 next of kin who sided with Biafrans during Nigeria’s bloody civil war.
Following the war that lasted between 1967 and 1970, the veterans were dismissed for siding with the secessionist group. Their dismissal was later commuted to retirement through a presidential amnesty granted by former President Olusegun Obasanjo on May 29, 2000. The process involved a verification exercise conducted by the defunct Police Pension Office and recently the Pensions Transition Arrangement Directorate, PTAD, on one hand and the Police Service Commission on the other.
Taking from the PTAD statement, all of the officers have been paid except 162 and 57 next of kin. “Despite the presidential pardon and verification of these officers many of them remained unpaid years after the pardon.” The statement said payment to the remaining officers would commence on October 20, 2017 in Enugu state: “162 officers will be payrolled and 57 next of kin who have also not been paid their death benefits will be paid in the first batch”.
Despite the presidential pardon and verification of these officers in 2000, it has taken 17 years and three administrations to conclude payment. Many Nigerians were shocked that Buhari, accused of marginalizing the Igbos, would choose to conclude the payment process. His supporters consider it proof of his love to the Igbos.
In view of what many consider the underperformance of Buhari, it is only proper that as we approach 2019, every action of the president must be examined, and the right interpretation ascribed to them. We do this to ascertain his intentions and if his actions are window dressing so that voters can be properly guided. This is because Nigerian politicians are known for being insincere during election campaign seasons. Take for instance this gesture to Biafra pensioners.
We must first acknowledge the good in the gesture simply because the pardoned officers deserve their pensions, nothing more. This gesture is good because it is the right thing to do for those whose only crime was that they exercised their right to self-determination. Whether it was paid by Obasanjo who initiated the process, late President Umaru Yar’Adua, immediate past President Goodluck Jonathan or Buhari, the officers deserve their pension.
People have attributed Buhari’s action to politics and how it has everything to do with the 2019 presidential election. Looking at his relationship with the Igbos, one cannot fault this assertion. The action does not change the fact there remains a marginalization (in terms of appointment and infrastructure) of the Igbos under Buhari’s administration.
Nearly two months after he was sworn in as president in May 2015, Buhari while answering a question on inclusive government at the United States Institute of Peace, USIP, on July 22, said “I hope you have a copy of the election results. The constituents, for example, gave me 97% (of the vote) cannot in all honesty be treated on some issues with constituencies that gave me 5%.” The north voted massively for Buhari, while majority of the Igbos did not.
He would follow this up with a lopsided appointment of Nigeria’s security chiefs. All the country’s current security chiefs, minus two, are from Buhari’s side of the country, the north. Also, all the political-heads overseeing and supervising all the military and paramilitary arms and agencies are also from the northern region. This is the first time such has happened in Nigeria’s history.
It is important we reference the above divisive actions and threat to our unity so that we can point out the hypocrisy in this gesture extended Biafra officers. The lopsided appointments that have come to characterize the Buhari government make a mockery of this gesture. As laudable as this act should have been, coming from a man who only recently, even with all the evidence still denied marginalizing the Southeast, means that this is about the 2019 presidential election.
If Buhari were seriously interested in treating the Igbos justly and as first class citizens, there are two suggestions, simple things that he need do to convince the Igbos and show the rest of Nigeria that he is not an ethnic bigot. First is in the area of appointments. President Buhari should undo the recent appointment made into the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation, NNPC.
Of the 15 appointments into the NNPC, 10 were from the north; three were Yoruba’s from the southwest and the last two from the South-south. None from the Southeast. Buhari also has ample time before 2019 and the end of his first tenure to balance appointment in the security agencies, and make room for one of the country’s main ethnic group to be duly represented.
Second, since the federal government won’t do it, the Igbos should be allowed to remember their civil war dead in the manner they choose to (it doesn’t matter if it is a sit at home) without the security agencies sent to murder unarmed protesters or some section of the north misinterpreting the sit at home to mean secession.
Most importantly, the Asaba Massacre story must be told. The scar would heal faster if Buhari (a symbol of the oppressor federal government) take the lead and set the tone for future administrations to not only talk about the massacre, but allow the victims and their relatives to tell their story freely.
Unless these things are done, this gesture extended Biafra officers means nothing and should not be unduly exaggerated beyond mere politics.