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Obasanjo - A seemingly Mediator in the Ethiopia - Tigrai conflict

By LG Yohannes
Tigrai Online 8/9/2022

The current genocide on Tigrai could be seen as a carbon copy of the Nigerian Biafra war (1967-1970), albeit for the wrong reasons.  In order to establish the oneness rather than the similarities in scope, methods used and desired outcomes of the then Biafran and the current Tigean wars, we need to look into what happened in Nigeria.  In both regions, the scope was on the wider population, the methods used were massacre on civilians, rape, burning houses, starvation; and the desired outcomes were annihilation, ethnic cleansing and genocide.  Nigeria has probably over 400 ethnic groups and over 500 languages but the population can broadly be divided into three major groups according to their size (although a credibility issue around the census is raised), the Hausas in the North, the Yorubas in the South West and the Igbo people in the South East, respectively.

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What Inspired the War?

The root cause for the genocide war against the Igbo people was considered to be systematic marginalisation including repeated election frauds by the Northern Hausas intended to deter the Igbos from holding government power through democratic elections.  Frustrated by this, young officers majority of whom were Igbo staged a successful coup d’état where in the process several important politicians were assassinated.  Those assassinated included the Sokoto based leader of the north, Sir Ahmadu Bello that was most feared, loved by many and respected by all.  The killings against key figures such as Ahmadu Bello ignited large scale violence and massacre on the Igbo minority that lived in the North (in the Hausa areas).  They were persecuted and over a million of them fled from the north back to the south eastern part of Nigeria, Biafra, where they would find safety.

The new government led by the Igbo coup leader lasted for six months only.  Then a joint group of Hausa and Yoruba officers organised counter coup, killed the Igbo leader and chose Colonel Yakubu Gowon from the North to assume the presidency of the Federal Government of Nigeria.  Igbo people were purged from work places and continued to be massacred even under the administration of President Gowon.  They were excluded from having a say in the management of their resources that Biafra is endowed with for example oil, gas and other minerals.  Igbo people were, as well, deprived of their fair share from the proceeds of their rightful Biafran national wealth.  Encouraged by the fear of not being allowed to have access to their resources, the Igbos opted to declare an independent Biafra.  

Then the Igbo people led by Colonel Ojukwu went on declaring an independent Republic of Biafra that immediately got recognition by six countries, five African and one Caribbean.  The Nigerian Federal government was angered by the succession and decided to open large scale war against the Igbo people.  The purpose was to reverse the situation with the intent to annihilate the new independent Republic of Biafra.  The scope of the engagement was not limited to the leaders but rather on the Biafra population as a whole.  It seems to me that annihilation of people is brutal and would amount to the use of atrocities beyond the rules of engagement.  I am not a military man but from my layman’s understanding of the technicalities of warfare, I presume war is conducted between equals, i.e., between two well trained and armed antagonists while annihilation is between unequal, i.e., between a well trained land, air and sea based national defence forces that is armed to the teeth on the one hand, and untrained and unarmed militia (having three days of training and most probably carrying an AK).  Moreover, war has rules of engagement and is conducted with absolute disciplined manners and civility while annihilation has no rules; it would be dirty, cruel and brutal and would be simply an act where humans turn beasts

I mentioned above that the reasons for going to war in Tigrai are none of the ones mentioned for Biafra.  Tigrai willingly relinquished its status in the Federal Government and never went into confrontation.  Neither it attempted nor had the desire to hold senior federal appointments.  It never had the idea of staging a coup d’état in a million miles.  There was neither the desire nor a call to secede from Ethiopia rather than exercising its constitutional right to elect its regional government administrators.  So there was no valid reason to go to war in Tigrai.  Tigrai was at peace with itself and was working hard to develop its region and eradicate the prevalent poverty that is above national average.  The only communality between Biafra and Tigrai is the resources they generate.  In the case of Nigeria, all the nation’s oil and gas is found in Biafra.  It also has significant steel and other mineral wealth not to mention the fertile agricultural potential.  As to Tigrai, it has vast agricultural land in the west as well as in the south which the Amhara regional government want to grab.  It is also estimated to have significant mining potentials.  Most importantly, it has a wealth of rich history supported by tangible and intangible heritages.   Rich heritage together with beautiful and gorgeous landscapes would also make Tigrai one of the top travel and tourism destinations in the world.  So similar to Biafra, the people of Tigrai were also destined to be wiped out from the face of the earth.  

Obasanjo and War Crime

If it meant to annihilate Biafra, President Gowon needed to find the right man to do the job.   In the selection, the name of Brig. Benjamin Adekunle, also known as "The Black Scorpion” stood tall among all other commanders only to be replaced soon by none other than General (Lt. Colonel at the time) Olusegun Obasanjo.  Both are considered to be the architect and executer, respectively, of the atrocities, war crimes and what many call genocide on Biafra or what I call the war for the annihilation of Biafra.   In fact, the daughter of the former revealed her father to have said; "I WANT TO SEE NO RED CROSS, NO CARITAS, NO WORLD COUNCIL OF CHURCHES, NO POPE, NO MISSIONARY AND NO UN DELEGATION. I WANT TO PREVENT EVERY BIAFRAN FROM HAVING EVEN ONE PIECE TO EAT BEFORE CAPITULATION.  WE SHOOT AT EVERYTHING THAT MOVES AND WHEN OUR TROOPS MARCH INTO THE CENTRE OF BIAFRAN TERRITORY, WE SHOOT AT EVERYTHING EVEN A THING THAT DO NOT MOVE" (http://www.thebiafratimes.co/2015/10/olusegun-obasanjo-mocks-and-shows-pride.html).  It seems to me that what Adekunle suggested above constitute to genocide as defined under Article Two of the UN convention and is exactly what happened even under Obasanjo’s command.  

So, the carnage that  started by Adekunle, continued in an intensified manner under the command of Obasanjo through two infamous operations known as ‘Operation Finishing Touch’ and ‘Operation Tail Wind’.  These operations demanded that innocent people and animals be killed, women be raped, houses and crops burnt.  Total sieges, with land air and sea blockade were in place.  On 14 January 2020, Pat Okedinachi Utomi, a political economy professor and former presidential candidate in a keynote speech at an event to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the end of the war, said “that the Nigerian civil war was the second (probably after Armenia) worst genocide of the 20th century in terms of the extent and depth of the atrocities” (https://hallmarknews.com/biafra-war-was-second-worst-genocide-of-the-20th-century-utomi/).  Starvation was used on Biafra as a means to bring the so called rebels to surrender and end the war.  More than two million innocent civilian Biafrans were starved to death.  Al Jazeera interviewed a Biafran Activist and former president Obasanjo on the theme #Biafra50YearsOn, where the former contended that Obasanjo should not be walking the streets as a free man and should be in jail because he is a war criminal (https://igberetvnews.com/417167/obasanjo-war-criminal-biafra-freedom-justice-insurance/#forward).  As if what he did then was not enough, Obasanjo even came out in public on 12 October 2015 and showed pride in the genocide and even lamented to repeat same policy against the Bokoharam.  

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Obasanjo, Corruption and Adultery

On Jan. 3, 2008 Sahara Reporters published a sensational report where Obasanjo’s eldest son alleged his father to have sexual intimacy with his wife (http://saharareporters.com/2008/01/13/my-father-made-love-my-wife-%E2%80%94gbenga-obasanjo).  BBC’s Alex Last corroborated the allegation on 3 April 2008 that President Obasanjo had a court case for committing adultery (is it incest?) with his own daughter in law and the accuser was none other than his own son who in this case happened to be the husband of the lady in question (http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/africa/7328097.stm).  He has also been at the centre of widespread corruption allegations involving billions of dollars contracts in the gas, oil, power, steel, tele, etc.  It is well known fact that corruption in Nigeria had hit the roof under President Abacha.  But according to the respected Nigerian weekly magazine Vanguard report of 4th September 2011, Mr. Mallam Nuhu Ribadu chairman of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, EFFC, argues that “corruption under Obasanjo’s eight years of presidency was much worse” (https://www.vanguardngr.com/2011/09/corruption-obasanjo%E2%80%99s-eight-years-worse-than-abachas-ribadu/).    The reason why I brought the corruption allegations here is to show a direct link between his backgrounds on these issues, the Ethiopian Federal government authorities that are at present the most corrupt in Africa and that Abiy and Obasanjo would have a common language in this.  

Obasanjo’s trustworthiness

Former Liberian president Charles Taylor was president of Liberia from 2 August 1997 until his resignation on 11 August 2003.    After resignation in 2003, my Nigerian friends tell me that he went to Nigeria to live, perhaps on the invitation of his friend the then president of Nigeria, Obasanjo.  Then came the indictment by the International Criminal Court (ICC) for his alleged involvement in arming rebels in the Sierra Leone’s Civil War (1991 – 2002). In 2006, Obasanjo handed over his friend Charles Taylor to the Liberian government.  In 2012, the ICC found him guilty for the war crimes and atrocities committed by the rebels that he allegedly armed and sentenced him to serve 50 years in prison.  However, many that followed the live aired court proceedings argue that the sentence was politically motivated as there was no enough evidence (beyond reasonable doubt) to earn him such lengthy sentence.  My point here is absolutely not to defend Mr Taylor.  Of course, I absolutely believe that criminals found guilty beyond reasonable doubt, including Mr Taylor, should face the full force of the law. But then, can Obasanjo be trusted, after all Mr Taylor was his friend?

Why Obasanjo as a Mediator?

The first question that comes to my mind is ‘who recruited Dr Obasanjo to be the mediator?’  Well, the answer cannot be the United Nations (UN) but it is the African Union (AU).  When a person is appointed to do certain task, he/she is likely to be given the necessary background information on which to base his/her work.  Obasanjo’s background loudly speaks for itself that he has committed war crime and possible genocide on his own people similar to what the Ethiopian PM Abiy Ahmed is doing on the Tigrean people.  The AU from the outset denied and still keeps on denying the ongoing ethnic cleansing, systematic rape, mass killings of religious leaders, bombings of places of worship and monasteries, looting of properties, domestic animals, and artefacts; burning crops on the ground, in stores and warehouses; destroying schools, universities, industries, hospitals, health, irrigation and water facilities; destroying and wiping out their historical values and much more that amounts to genocide.  The AU through its Chairperson Moussa Faki-Mahamat denied the atrocities perpetrated against the innocent people of Tigrai as if nothing happened and rather endorsed it at the Inter Governmental Authority on Development (IGAD) meeting in Djibouti by saying that “what is going on in Tigrai is law enforcement and that PM Abiy was doing the right thing” (emphasis mine).   The AU also consciously uses the terminologies used by Abiy to describe the situation in Tigrai including labelling the Tigrai regional government as TPLF rebels.  AU and its president Moussa Faki-Mahamat, before moving forward, should first and foremost stop appeasing and cajoling Abiy Ahmed and instead openly recognise that there are no rebels in Tigrai but Tigrean people and Tigrai Regional Government that are victims condemned to be annihilated by the Ethiopian government.  

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Abiy came to power with a grand design of committing genocide on his own people, the Tigreans.  As such, he needed to eclipse the AU to his side and further look for a strong support from a powerful African nation that has a history of committing genocide on its own people.  That country is none other than Nigeria.  The position as head of the Peace and Security Council (PSC) at the AU was held by Ethiopia. Since the person happened to be Tigrean it was easy for Abiy to make him redundant and replace him, perhaps on the advice of his buddy, Moussa Faki-Mahamat, with a Nigerian.  So the second question is could Obasanjo’s recruitment have been made on the recommendation of PM Abiy himself as we have noticed his cosy relationship with the AU? Or could Nigeria have provided Obasanjo as a “seemingly mediator” that would be useful either to whitewash Ethiopia’s crimes or to complicate the situations even further?  Obasanjo’s cosy relationship with the Abiy government is well known to the effect that he would neither know the Tigreans nor understand their suffering.  We know that political conflicts are cropping up here and there in Nigeria.  We also know that there are some Igbo people who want to revisit the Biafra case and bring it back to the surface.  Wouldn’t these ideas give President Buhari sleepless nights?  Also, wouldn’t he want the Tigrean war to end the way the Biafra war ended so as to discourage descent in his own country as well as to show to the world that it is not only Nigeria that has a dark history on the African continent?  If so, is it not plausible to suspect that Nigeria is indirectly behind the scenes through its man at the PSC and upfront through its war crime expert, “seemingly mediator Obasanjo”?

Conclusion

To conclude, Obasanjo who was a perpetrator himself in the Biafra war, who still prescribes same atrocities on Bokoharam, who was in the centre of wide spread corruption during his term in office and still is even while out of office, and who is, as well, mired by egregious sex scandal has is by no means a force for good.  He never had experience of such role any where either.  His international roles that I know are in establishing the African Growth Initiative and the Tana Peace and Security Conference.  Both of these are single handily created by the late Prime Minister Meles Zenawi who involved Obasanjo in the projects considering Nigeria’s African big nation status.  It is also rumoured that Ethiopia participated in the Biafra war by supporting the Nigerian Federal Government.  So how can we expect that he would be impartial?  Simply, he won’t have the moral high ground to answer questions such as, “what did you do in the Biafran war?” that may be thrown at him from the floor.  Don’t take me wrong.  Obasanjo is still my hero for peacefully relinquishing his presidency as a military ruler and overseeing Nigeria’s transition to democracy in 1979.  But on the basis of the arguments mentioned above, I would conclude by saying that Obasanjo is absolutely wrong Obasanjo, “The Architect of the Biafra War”, to mediate the ongoing genocide on the people of Tigrai that started on 22 June 2018 as a cold war and escalated to hot genocide war on the 4 November 2020.

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Today August 2, 2022 United States Special Envoy for the Horn of Africa, Ambassador Mike Hammer, European Union - EU Special Representative for the Horn of Africa, Dr. Annette Weber, UN Under Secretary General & Special Envoy to the Horn of Africa, Hanna Tetteh, and Ambassadors of Canada, Italy and Deputy Head of UK Mission arrived in Mekelle, the capital city of Tigrai.