If crisis situations are the true test of leadership, then the Abia State Governor Okezie Ikpeazu is passing the test. Ikpeazu has shown solid leadership in these worrying times where a single misstep, misspeak or mistake by a leader could hasten the slide into complete anarchy.
The leader of the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB), Nnamdi Kanu, hails from Afara in Abia State. In fact, his father, HRH Eze I.O Kanu, is a monarch in the community. With the younger Kanu on bail and back in his community, Abia suddenly became the epicenter of the IPOB militancy and the military’s ill-timed show of force in the region.
A lot has happened in the past week, from the announcement by the Nigerian Army of Operation Python Dance 2; the reported siege of Kanu’s home; the attack on journalists by soldiers; the heated, inciting words online and offline with Kanu leading the charge; and the seeming lack of solid leadership and communication by the presidency. Through all of this, Gov. Ikpeazu has been a public beacon of restraint and strong, sensible leadership.
For one, the governor and his deputy, Rt Hon Ude Oko Chukwu, have been speaking – a lot. Not just bland press releases by media aides, but actual verbal communication with various stakeholders in the state and the general public. When reports of the clash between IPOB and soldiers first surfaced, Chukwu quickly released a statement confirming the situation and the fact that there were casualties but no deaths, and then he called for calm.
On Tuesday, Gov. Ikpeazu held a Security Council Meeting with heads of security agencies in the state where they reviewed the security challenges and brainstormed on necessary measures to “guarantee the protection of lives and properties of citizens and residents of the state.”
After that meeting, he declared a three-day curfew in Aba. His broadcast announcing the curfew is a study in restraint. The governor could have chosen to pander to the politics of the South East which currently doesn’t favour the central government and make bombastic statements about the military’s Operation Python Dance 2. However, he stated correctly that the original intent of the operation was “to check kidnapping, banditry, assassination, secessionist activities within the region, amongst other forms of criminal activities.” While recognising the right of the Army to carry out its statutory duty of protection of lives and property, Ikpeazu cautioned that “such duties must be carried out within acclaimed Nigerian and international standards of engagement with the civil populace, with due respect to the human rights of citizens and sanctity of human lives.”
The governor proceeded to reach out to important stakeholders. He invited all traditional rulers in the state to a meeting the next day, and also invited the leaders of all Market Associations in Aba, including Umuehilegbu Shoe Makers, Bakassi Shoe Makers, Ariaria Shoe Makers and leaders of all markets in Umuahia to a meeting on Thursday.
While all these were ongoing, the state government put out information quickly on the state of things and quashed rumours as soon as they surfaced. A particularly dangerous rumour on alleged attacks on persons and properties around Uratta, Umuode, Ariaria and Umuozuo axis of Aba were conformed to be false and the reality was widely circulated.
At the meeting with the monarchs and the General Officer Commanding (GOC) commanding the 82 Division of the Nigeria Army Enugu, Major General A.B. Abubakar, at the Government House, Gov. Ikpeazu called on the military to deescalate the tension by reducing its presence in the state. A lot of the anxiety and tension stemmed from the heavy influx of soldiers into Abia. On the other hand, he asked the monarchs to” liaise with HRH Eze I.O Kanu (father of Nnamdi Kanu, Leader of the Indigenous People of Biafra, IPOB) to further explore ways of restoring peace and normalcy.”
Seeing as the tensions had still not subsided in Aba, the governor extended the curfew in the state’s commercial capital.
By today, it became clear that his balancing act was working. In another broadcast to the people of the state, Ikpeazu announced that “there will be withdrawal of solders from the streets at Aba and Umuahia, apart from the pre-existing military checkpoints at various location in the state.”
He emphasised that although soldiers were leaving, the government will not tolerate agitators and protesters taking over the street and fomenting trouble. He confirmed that there had been some attacks on police stations and use of petrol bombs to obstruct fee movement, and warned that such acts won’t be tolerated “as the government will work with security agents to ensure the protection of lives and properties in the state without fear or favor. There will be no hiding place for you.”
His broadcast touched on several issues of concern including an alleged plot to attack the popular Ariaria International Market and steps taken to maintain the peace. He warned IPOB and its sympathizers to desist from spreading false rumors capable of throwing our state into disorder. He also disclosed that he will be meeting with President Muhammadu Buhari “to discuss possible ways of relaxing the Operation Python Dance 2 in the state for now.”
The tension is far from over and only till normalcy is completely restored can a proper verdict on the governor’s leadership be made. But so far, it’s been commendable, and may be the reason why a terrible situation is not far worse right now.