The historical efforts by the Igbo people of South East Nigeria to achieve a separate state, Biafra, are now 50 years old but the simmering tensions appear to have come to a boil in the recent past. A campaign to recreate the state of Biafra appears to be in full swing, led by the enigmatic Nnamdi Kanu. Peter Ezeh reports.
It is becoming ever clearer that even 47 years after the end of the Biafran war in Nigeria’s south-east, the aspirations of the Igbo people, who lost their bid for secession as well as over a million lives, have not faded. Following the end of the brutal war, those aspirations simmered deep inside but have resurfaced strongly in recent times.
The latest bid to break away from Nigeria is being spearheaded by the relatively young British-Nigerian Nnamdi Kanu, leader of the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) pressure group. The group, which has now being proscribed by the government as a terrorist organisation, has demanded a referendum “to settle the issue of Biafra in a civilised and democratic manner”.
Kanu ran a London-based radio station called Radio Biafra, agitating for a break with the federal government and the creation of a new state of Biafra. He was visiting Nigeria from the UK in October 2015 when the secret police picked him up in Lagos.
After well-publicised court appearances on charges of treason, he got bail on condition that he should not leave Nigeria and should not be involved in campaigns while the trial lasted. But from his father’s house he resumed his agitations, and his following grew by leaps and bounds.
Unless a referendum was held and Nigeria “restructured”, he warned, his organisation would not allow any elections to be held. The next gubernatorial elections are scheduled for 19 November.
As part of celebrating the 50th anniversary of the old Biafra on 30 May this year, Kanu and his IPOB asked people in the region to stay at home in symbolic mourning for those killed during the 1960s war; and stay at home they did.
Offices, marketplaces, transport services – all activities were ceased. Streets were empty in the region that is home to more than 30m people. Enraged counter-activists, protesting as a coalition of youth organisations in the north of Nigeria, reacted by issuing a notice to people of Igbo extraction living in that part of the country to leave before 1 October. Efforts by diverse actors, including government officials, defused the situation, persuading the youth organisations to rescind their
But in the south-east, tensions remained high as Kanu’s following seemed to gather pace. It was at that point that the army said it would conduct a special campaign in the region, code-named Operation Python Dance II. But the army also said that the operation was not aimed at IPOB but all security threats in the region.
It cited the rising tide of violent crimes – kidnapping, robbery and murders – in the region for its action. In one recent case, a gunman surprised a large congregation on a Sunday and massacred 13 of the worshippers.
But the army’s explanation failed to satisfy IPOB, who pointed out that the police were capable of tackling such crimes; there was no need to bring in the army. Others gave examples of parts of Nigeria with worse reports of crimes which, nevertheless, had not attracted the attention of the army.
One wit posted on the social media, “Over 400 people were gruesomely murdered in Agatu Local Government Area of Benue State by Fulani herdsmen, [but there was] no Operation Fox Dance.
“In Southern Kaduna, uncountable number of innocent men, women and children were slaughtered … But we never heard of this new dance by the noble Nigerian Army.”
The army stuck to its guns anyway, and a day before the announced beginning of the exercise, troops allegedly attacked the residence of Kanu’s father, the traditional ruler of his Afaraukwu community, on the outskirts of Umuahia. Artillery and lighter guns were used.
At the time of going to press, no confirmed numbers of casualties had been announced. Soldiers also went to a nearby press centre and beat up journalists and smashed their mobile phones. According to one of the victims, Bonny Okoro, the soldiers accused the journalists of recording their activities. Senior army officers later apologised for the excesses of their junior colleagues and promised that the damaged equipment would be replaced.
Clips of troops allegedly torturing men for carrying pro-Biafran emblems went viral on the internet. In one case, several young men were ordered to lie face down in a slimy, muddy puddle. In another one, they were ordered to counter-slap themselves on pain of harsher treatment by the heavily armed soldiers.
One confirmed report said that in Umuahia, three young men dressed in black trousers and black tee-shirts, the uniform of IPOB’s vigilante group, the Biafra Security Services, were shot and killed when soldiers saw them in the street.
The police accused IPOB of burning down one of their stations and killing an officer at Aba. Elsewhere in Enugu State, suspected IPOB sympathisers burned down a mosque. Igbo elders including Godfrey Onah, the Catholic Bishop of Nsukka, the local diocese, condemned the destruction of the Muslim place of worship.
President Muhammadu Buhari reportedly pronounced IPOB a terrorist organisation and his attorney general, Abubakar Malami, went to court at Abuja and got legal backing for the pronouncement.
Civil society is still debating the propriety of declaring the group “terrorists” under Nigeria’s domestic law or international law. Most see such a classification as an unjustified overreaction.
Reactions were swift. Nobel Literature Laureate, Wole Soyinka, speaking at an event at University of Ibadan to mark the 50th anniversary of the poet, Christopher Okigbo, who died in 1967 fighting on the Biafran side, called for restraint. “We are reaching a stage whereby, like Christopher Okigbo, people are putting their lives on the line again, which can lead to terrible consequences.”
Senate president, Bukola Saraki, said that IPOB was not a terrorist organisation under the definition recognised by Nigerian law. NdubuisiAnaenugwu, of IPOB’s directorate of information, denied that his group was a terrorist organisation. He told journalists: “The entity known as Indigenous People of Biafra is defined as the remnants of the Biafrans and their descendants who were not consumed in the war” – meaning the 1967–70 war.
Others blamed IPOB for provoking the reaction they got from the army. One commentator said: “We don’t need to stand in front of a moving train just to prove bravery. It is the height of stupidity.”
Most agreed, though, that there was the need to restructure Nigeria in a form that is more inclusive and fair to all the component units. Governors of the five states in the region emerged from a meeting condemning IPOB’s activities, but saying that a more equitable restructuring of Nigeria was necessary.
In the meantime, Nnamdi Kanu seems to have gone underground. The army carried out a couple of new raids at his father’s home but it is believed no arrests were made.
Nigeria’s elder statesmen, including former President Olusegun Obasanjo, have appealed for calm.