50 years on: Nigeria’s Biafra secessionist movement
On Biafra Remembrance Day we ask pro-secessionist leader Nnamdi Kanu if the call for secession is growing louder.
Umuahia, Nigeria – Nnamdi Kanu waves his hand and puffs in frustration: “Nothing seems to be working in Nigeria. There is pain and hardship everywhere. What we’re fighting [for] is not self-determination for the sake of it. It’s because Nigeria is not functioning and can never function.”
The leader of a group demanding the secession of southeastern Nigeria is speaking exclusively to Al Jazeera in the parlour of his father’s home in the southeastern city of Umuahia.
It’s the first time he has spoken to an international media outlet since he was granted bail on health grounds last month. His bail conditions prohibit him from being in a crowd of more than 10 people, leaving the country and giving media interviews.
But when asked if he is worried that he will get in trouble with the Nigerian authorities for speaking to Al Jazeera he scoffs, “I don’t care,” and rolls his eyes.
“I can’t go outside to call for a press conference. I can’t go on Biafra Radio to broadcast. I can’t allow large [groups of] people to basically congregate outside to see me … it’s like asking me not to breathe,” he says.
On the other side of the parlour door, dozens of people are waiting to see Kanu. A throng of young men dressed in black guard the compound. They refer to Kanu as, “our supreme leader” or “his royal highness”.
Kanu left Nigeria to study economics and politics at the London Metropolitan University and started Radio Biafra, an obscure, niche, London-based radio station in 2009.
In one broadcast, Kanu said: “We have one thing in common, all of us that believe in Biafra, one thing we have in common, a pathological hatred for Nigeria. I cannot begin to put into words how much I hate Nigeria.”
Over the past two years, Kanu’s status has risen.
Today, he’s a highly visible activist and leader of the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) organisation, and after being imprisoned in the Nigerian capital of Abuja for nearly two years on treasonable felony charges, he has now returned home.
“Kanu is my saviour,” says Sopuru Amah, a senior student at one of Nigeria’s oldest universities, the University of Nigeria in the southeastern city of Nsukka.
“Just like Jesus was sent to save the world, Kanu was sent by God himself to save the Igbo people.”
Nigeria’s ethnic politics
With an estimated population of more than 180 million, Nigeria is often called the “giant of Africa”. The complexity of Nigeria’s population is compounded by its ethnic diversity. Around 250 ethnic groups, each with their own languages, reside in Nigeria. With a myriad of ethnicities dotted across the landscape, three major groups tend to emerge in national dialogue due to their sheer numbers: the Yoruba, from the southwest; the Hausa-Fulani in the north and the Igbo from the southeast.
Pro-Biafrans say the federal Nigerian government is discriminating and marginalising them, the Igbo people.
“I’m not allowed to contest for the presidency of Nigeria because I’m Igbo. I’m not allowed to aspire to become the inspector general of police because I’m Igbo. I’m not allowed to become chief of army staff because I’m Igbo. What sort of stupid country is that?” Kanu asks. “Why would any idiot want me to be in that sort of country?”
In Kanu’s mind, Umuahia does not exist in Nigeria. It is in Biafra and he is waiting for the world to acknowledge it.
Since the 1964 appointment of the first indigenous Nigerian as the head of the Nigerian Police Force, known as the inspector general, more than a dozen officers have held the post. Two of them have been Igbo. In a lineup of almost two-dozen chiefs of army staff, the highest-ranking military officer in the Nigerian army, two have come from southeastern Nigeria.
Perceptions of marginalisation
“The southeast feels it has been politically marginalised. There is a point to that. It has been shrunken from being one of the three major regions of the country to now being virtually a minority with the smallest number of states of the six zones in the federation,” explains Nnamdi Obasi, a senior analyst at the International Crisis Group.
He says that there has only been one Igbo president and one Igbo vice president since Nigeria declared independence from the UK in 1960.
Pro-Biafrans also complain that the federal government is not funding enough infrastructure development in the region, despite a recent announcement by the federal Minister of Power, Works and Housing that road construction will be completed in the southeast.
The southeastern region of Nigeria has five states, while other regions have more.
“They certainly are at a disadvantaged position now,” Obasi says. “The political configuration of the country ensures that less federal allocation gets to the southeast.”
Nigeria’s national economics is closely tied to its politics. Nigeria is a highly centralised federalism that relies on revenue from oil sales. Money trickles down from the central government and more money flows towards regions that have more state and local governments.
A recent poll conducted by SBM Intelligence, a local research group, found that the pro-Biafra movement is gaining popularity in the southeast and that this growth could be a reaction to the perception that the region is marginalised and economically deprived.
“So the Nigerian government has to be seen clearly as carrying the region along,” Cheta Nwanze, a lead researcher at SBM Intelligence, says.
But pro-Biafrans like Amah have written off the Nigerian federal government and, in particular, the administration of President Muhammadu Buhari.
“Buhari hates the southeast because we didn’t vote for him,” says Chukwudi Diru, a taxi driver with a mini Biafran flag taped to the dashboard of his 2003 car.
In his landmark 2015 election victory, Buhari garnered the least amount of votes in the southernmost and southeastern region.
Buhari commented on this during a visit to the United States shortly after his win. During an address at the United States Institute of Peace, Buhari responded to a participant in the audience who asked how he would bring development to the oil-rich Niger Delta region in the south, which has suffered decades of environmental degradation due to oil spills and oil bunkering.
“I hope you have a copy of the election results,” Buhari responded to the woman. “Naturally, the constituencies that gave me 97 percent cannot, in all honesty, be treated [in the same way] on some issues with constituencies that gave me five percent. I think this is a political reality.”
Buhari’s soundbite has been tagged and re-posted across Nigeria’s social media spaces.
“To be honest, things like the president’s 97 percent and five percent comment only helped add further fuel to the fire that the southeast is being marginalised,” Nwanze says.
And that fire is already burning in the southeast. On storefronts along the streets of Umuahia, photos of Nnamdi Kanu and Odumegwu Chukwuemeka Ojukwu, the leader of the short-lived Republic of Biafra (1967-1970) are pasted on wooden doorframes.
At the campus of Amah’s university, more students are reading pro-Biafran books and followers of Kanu hold “evangelism” meetings to preach the gospel of pro-Biafra.
At crowded bus stations in town, Kanu’s voice booms from loudspeakers. Many people here mark May 30 as Biafra Remembrance Day.
A bloody past
Kanu and leaders of other pro-Biafra groups have called for supporters to stay at home on May 30 to remember those who died during the 1967-1970 Nigerian-Biafran War.
This May 30 will mark 50 years since the 1967 declaration of the Republic of Biafra, by the late Ojukwu.
The declaration of the establishment of the Biafra nation, carved out of southeastern Nigeria, came after failed attempts by the Nigerian government to address the grievances expressed by southeastern Nigerians. In 1966, thousands (PDF) of Igbo civilians were killed, mainly in northern Nigeria.
The 1966 killings began after a group of young army officers – some of whom were Igbo Christians -overthrew Nigeria’s democratic government and assassinated several people, including the prime minister and other Muslim northern leaders.
“They came with every dangerous thing, some with arrow, some with gun, some with cutlasses, some with iron. So anything they could handle, they handled it and began to kill Igbo people,” says Lawrence Akpu, recalling the day in 1966 when he was in a market in a town in northern Nigeria where he lived with fellow Igbos. “Everybody started running up and down and from there, we left everything we had.”
Akpu joined the mass exodus of Igbo people from northern Nigeria to their ancestral homeland in the southeast.
When the war started, he joined a Biafran brigade to fight Nigerian soldiers. He says he fought wearing rubber sandals and t-shirts with holes in them. During a heavy wave of shelling, a piece of shrapnel cut into his spinal cord. Today, he’s in a wheelchair.
Three years of war left southeastern Nigeria in ruins. Estimates of the death toll range from one million to six million. After the Nigerian federal military government – supported by the UK – imposed blockades that made it difficult for aid groups to deliver food and relief supplies to Biafra, many children died of kwashiorkor, a severe form of malnutrition characterised by a distended abdomen.
Igwe Christopher Ejiofor, aide-de-camp to Ojukwu throughout the war, remembers carrying nearly dead children as he helped to manage relief services.
“I can’t count the number of people I picked [up] who were at the point of starvation and death,” he says. “And every time I took them to the hospital, they died and I [would go] back the next day [with more children].” Igwe Ejiofor is the traditional ruler of his community in the southeastern state of Enugu.
When images of Biafran children flooded Western media, the world began to pay attention. Beatles singer-songwriter John Lennon returned his MBE order in protest at the UK’s involvement in the Nigerian-Biafran War. Writer Kurt Vonnegut travelled to Biafra and wrote about the war. Steve Jobs, according to Walter Isaacson’s 2011 biography of the Apple co-founder, began to question his beliefs about God after he saw a picture of two skeletal Biafran children on the infamous July 12, 1968 cover of Life magazine. In the wake of what unfolded in Biafra, doctors and journalists formed Doctors Without Borders, known by its French initials MSF.
The war ended in January 1970 with the surrender of the Republic of Biafra, which dissolved and was reincorporated into Nigeria. The federal government’ s “no victor, no vanquished policy” was promoted to foster national unity.
But today, the pro-Biafra movement is back and louder than ever.
Dozens of pro-Biafra activists were arrested last week in cities across southeastern Nigeria.
Last year’s May 30 Biafra Remembrance Day ended in what Amnesty International described as part of a “chilling crackdown” that left at least 60 peaceful pro-Biafran activists dead at the hands of Nigerian security forces. An investigation by the organisation revealed that more than 150 pro-Biafrans were killed from August 2015 to August 2016.
“The night before the rally, the security forces raided homes and a church where IPOB members were sleeping,” the report reads.
Amnesty International has released a statement recommending that the Nigerian security forces not repress today’s Biafra Remembrance Day activities.
Nigerian federal government officials say the country must remain united.
“They say that secession is the answer to the charges of marginalisation,” said Acting President Yemi Osinbajo during a Biafra civil forum last week in Abuja. “Brothers and sisters, permit me to differ and to suggest that we’re greater together than apart.”
But people like Amah and Kanu no longer identify as Nigerians. They say Nigeria has failed them. They are Biafrans.
And with that Kanu stands up and goes outside to meet the people who have waited hours to see him.