Why Nnamdi Kanu Is Still In Detention - Vincent Obetta, Former IPOB Lawyer Tells The Story

Mr Vincent Egechukwu Obetta made history late last year when he took up a brief to defend the leader of the Indigenous Peoples of Biafra (IPOB), Mr Nnamdi Kanu who was arrested and detained since October last year.

The legal practitioner, human rights activist and public affairs analyst who is also the director of StreetLaw Africa Inc, a human rights education non-governmental organization, was able to obtain a court order in December for the release on bail of the Radio Biafra director, Kanu, which court order has not been obeyed till date.

Obetta was, however, dropped by the IPOB in the defence of Kanu after he had assembled some seasoned lawyers for the task ahead.

In this interview, Obetta bared his mind on the purported negotiation on behalf of the IPOB leader by the lawyers who took over from him and MEND, saying that negotiation would do the detained IPOB leader more good than harm. He praised the former Abia governor, Dr. Orji Uzor Kalu for his efforts when he contacted him to help use his connections to facilitate freedom for Kanu, saying that they were almost making a breakthrough when he disengaged from the defence of the IPOB leader. He also disclosed the efforts made by other prominent Nigerians in the negotiation to free Kanu.

Two days ago, IPOB again changed lawyers for their detained leader Nnamdi Kanu; you started his defence in court, why is the group always changing its counsel?

I do not think I am in the position to pontificate as to the reason(s) IPOB changes its lawyers. In a lawyer and client relationship, the client enjoys the privilege, in terms of how he manages his case. He can hire and fire at will. But on the other hand, a good client should be resilient and tread cautiously in the way and manner he exercises that right. To avoid abuses, firing a lawyer should be in extreme case, particularly where the fiduciary relationship existing between them no longer exists. In this instance, I learnt that members of the legal team went beyond the briefs that were given to them when they invited the Federal Government to the negotiation table, as well as cutting the ties between their clients with the members of the Niger Delta Avengers. In the same statement, all manner of allegations were levelled against the lawyers. So, once that conflict of confidence creeps in, I think, the lawyer(s) should throw in the towel. Legal representation is rooted in trust and confidence.

Also, we saw IPOB disowning the claimed negotiation with the Federal Government, including that of MEND for the release of Mr Nnamdi Kanu, how do you see that action?

I will say that it is not possible to shave a man’s hair in his absence. To me, the MEND may have been spurred into this by a genuine and bonafide desire to foster peace within the South-South and South-East regions. There is a missing link in- between. I think there was a discussion that took place, somewhere. Let us wait to hear from the MEND. I am optimistic they will rejoin it soon.

You said you also tried to use the negotiation option when you were IPOB counsel, how and what efforts did you make in that direction?

The principle of self-determination in international law is nebulous and ambiguous, depending on one’s point of view; as for me, the principle belongs to the province of law as of politics and it will serve me no purpose to set law up against politics, or politics against law. It is against this backdrop that I initiated the process of negotiation on behalf of Nnamdi Kanu, notwithstanding the fact that I had a robust outing in the court then – but that was the law aspect of it. The political aspect is also necessary considering our clime where those who ought to be custodians of our laws often observed it in breach. These two indispensable factors guided me. In selecting my legal team, I opted for a hybrid of both Igbo and non-Igbo lawyers. I contacted my learned silks: Chief Femi Falana (SAN), Chief Mike Ahamba (the oldest Igbo SAN), Chief Olisa Agbokaba (SAN), we had another Senior Advocate from the Niger-Delta Region in our team, Chief Nnoruka Udechukwu, who eventually led the team of other learned senior lawyers to defend Kanu. These men were not just erudite lawyers but also very well connected and respected Nigerians that could have brokered fruitful negotiation on Kanu’s behalf. On the other hand, were respectable Nigerians who I also contacted; Chief Chekwas Okorie, His Eminence, Bishop Matthew Hassan Kukah, His Grace Most Rev. Dr. Emmanuel Chukwuma; all of whom had indicated interest to interface between Kanu and the Federal Government. As a matter of fact, I had scheduled with Bishop Kukah to visit Kanu and have some words with him when I suddenly pulled out of the case. I also ‘drafted’ His Excellency, Dr Orji Uzor Kalu, former Abia governor, despite his tight schedule, into the negotiation team. Many will agree with me that Dr Kalu is one Igbo man who has robust relationship across the six geo-political zones. He is bold, courageous and passionate about Nigeria, and the Igbo cause in particular.

At one point I made him cut short his meetings in the U.S. to attend to this issue in Nigeria. He had commenced discussions with top Nigerian politicians, especially the leadership of the ruling APC government and top security people to broker a truce in this direction. I remember vividly Dr Orji Kalu telling me that there is nothing wrong about the IPOB holding their opinion, and that to that extent, they are protected under the law. But he emphatically told me that the Igbo were better off in Nigeria. He said that experience had shown that no country that seceded in the past survived it. He cited the Southern Sudan political imbroglio. However, he concurred that there was marginalisation against the South-South and South-East zones, but was optimistic that this void could be cured through negotiation and concession. I made all these moves with the consent of Mazi Nnamdi Kanu, his deputy, Uche Mefor, and members of his family. It is unfortunate that this laudable move was cut short.

Why do you think that negotiation for the IPOB leader is the best way to go bearing in mind that the group said the problem is not political?

Just as I said earlier, self-determination as a principle of international law is nebulous and has an elastic construction. Since its adoption 40 years ago by the UN, the latter has not been able to set a concrete template for its smooth application. Though it had served as a beacon of hope, yet the lack of clarity surrounding its scope of application has resulted in much resistance from sovereign states who see it as subversion to the legal and political authority of such state. It is on the basis of the undulating ambivalence that agitators have been advised to anchor their struggle on non-violent approach. The IPOB which has been a non-violent organization should also embrace negotiation as their watchword. More so, negotiation is the best way considering the fact that IPOB’s agitation for self-determination of the people of Biafra is woven around complex independent entities within the Bight of Biafra whose commitment can only be extracted through dialogue. Even in situation where violent approach is employed, the actors eventually return to the negotiation table. Take the Israeli/Palestinian case, the Catalonians, Western Sahara agitation and the ongoing South Sudan negotiation, for example. The place of negotiation cannot be overemphasized considering also, the fact that some ‘nations’ that make up the present Bight of Biafra like the Akwa/Cross, Ijaws, Itsekris, Isokos, Deltas, Idomas and the Igalas are to be potential component units of the said Republic. You can only achieve success by negotiating with them. Anything short of that will amount to a conquest.

When you were Nnamdi Kanu’s counsel, you got a court order that he be released, why was that order not obeyed?

As I speak to you, the government has not adduced any reason for disobeying that landmark ruling of Justice Ademola Adeniyi of December 17, 2015. That ruling will ever remain indelible in my legal career.

What is your relationship with the members of IPOB since you withdrew from Nnamdi Kanu’s defence?

I was briefed by the duo of HRH Igwe Eze I. O. Kanu and the Deputy Director, IPOB, Mazi Uche Mefor; these are the people that I have relationship with. To that extent, our relationship is cordial. I appreciate them so much.

Considering the calibre of people you gathered in your negotiation team, don’t you think you should move on with the negotiation?

As I said earlier, you can’t shave a man’s hair in his absence. He must authorise you. I also believe that Mazi Kanu is not averse to negotiation. To me, last week recorded a watershed in the history of this case – the Federal Government has overtly demonstrated that it is willing to negotiate when it released IPOB members held in Aba and Enugu in the last four months. That is a positive act on the part of the government. I must reiterate that Dr Orji Kalu informed me that his resolve to bring peace and tranquility to the people of the South-East is unwavering and as such he is determined to bring the parties to the negotiating table soon.

What is your advice to the Federal Government on the clamour to restructure the federal system we practice?

I join other teeming progressive Nigerians to urge President Muhammadu Buhari to kick-start the process of restructuring the present federation in the interest of the corporate existence of Nigeria.


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