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Nigeria’s Biafran Separatist Upsurge
Nigeria’s Biafran Separatist Upsurge
Winning Back Trust in Nigeria’s Rescheduled Elections
Winning Back Trust in Nigeria’s Rescheduled Elections
Hundreds of pro-Biafra supporters wave flags and chant songs as they march through the streets of Aba, southeastern Nigeria, to call for the release of a key activist on 18 November 2015. AFP/Pius Utomi Ekpei
Commentary / Africa

Nigeria’s Biafran Separatist Upsurge

Crisis Group’s Nigeria Analyst Nnamdi Obasi discusses Nigeria’s new struggle with supporters of the short-lived, secessionist Republic of Biafra, which was defeated by federal forces in 1970.

The month-long demonstrations by pro-separatist ethnic Ibo youth in south-east Nigeria degenerated into violence on 2 December. At least eight of the thousands of protestors who had blocked the strategic Niger Bridge at Onitsha, Anambra state (linking the predominantly Ibo south east to western parts of the country) as well as two policemen, were killed. Demonstrators set fire to the city’s central mosque and eight trucks belonging to Dangote Group, a conglomerate owned by northern billionaire Aliko Dangote. Crisis Group’s Nigeria Analyst Nnamdi Obasi discusses Nigeria’s new struggle with supporters of the short-lived, secessionist Republic of Biafra, which was defeated by federal forces in 1970.

What triggered the recent surge of agitation for Biafran independence?

The immediate trigger was the 19 October arrest by the Department of State Services (DSS) of Nnamdi Nwannekaenyi Kanu, leader of a separatist organisation, the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB), and director of Radio Biafra, an unlicensed station urging violent struggle to achieve independence for Biafra in Nigeria’s south east. Charges against him include sedition, ethnic incitement and treasonable felony. Some of these offences carry heavy penalties, from long jail terms to the death sentence. The agitators are primarily demanding his freedom, but also calling for the restoration of Biafra as an independent country.

Does Biafra exist as a distinct unit in Nigeria today?

No, and the separatists are not clear about how they see the territory of the “new Biafra”. Some claim it would include all areas inhabited by people of Ibo descent, including parts of the oil-rich Niger Delta to the south and Benue state to the north, but the other peoples of these regions vehemently oppose inclusion in any new Biafra. Other separatists say a restored Biafra would be limited to the five core Ibo states – Abia, Anambra, Ebonyi, Enugu and Imo – referred to administratively as Nigeria’s “South East Zone”.

Nigeria’s last national census in 2006 counted 18.9 million people in the five states of the South East Zone. There were no questions about ethnicity in the census, but in these five states, Ibos constitute nearly all of the population. The trouble for Biafran separatists is that the South East Zone is landlocked and has only marginal natural resources. Its agricultural land is already densely populated and overworked, and, should ethnic conflict intensify, certainly could not sustain many of the millions of Ibos who live in other parts of Nigeria.

Ibo-populated South East Zone states in Nigeria. Ibo-populated South East Zone states in Nigeria.

What other factors have fuelled the protests?

In a way, this is a new attempt to attract attention and spending from the central government, but it is based on a cocktail of longstanding and recent economic and political grievances. Some pre-date the three years during which Biafra fought to establish its independence in 1967-70. The would-be state was recognised by five countries (Côte d’Ivoire, Tanzania, Zambia, Gabon and Haiti), but was reintegrated into Nigeria after losing a bitter war in which one million people died, mostly of starvation and disease due to a federal government blockade.

The south east, like much of the country, suffers from deficient and dilapidated infrastructure and widespread youth unemployment. The resulting economic frustration feeds into longstanding complaints that the federal government never fully rehabilitated the region after the civil war. Critics hold that administrative changes (such as the creation of new states and local government areas) decreed by northern-led military governments from 1983 to 1999 diminished the region’s share of federal appointments, revenue and development projects.

Grievances were further aggravated when President Muhammadu Buhari’s first appointments after coming to power this year were seen by many as favouring the north. Subsequent ministerial appointments have substantially redressed the earlier imbalance, but mistrust persists. Agitators say the south east is not getting its due from the country’s federal system.

What are the recent politics of Biafran separatism?

For over a decade, agitation for Biafra’s restoration was championed by the Movement for Actualization of the Sovereign State of Biafra (MASSOB), formed in 1999 and led by Ralph Uwazuruike. The group pledged to be non-violent but, over time, its members, alleging provocation, clashed with police repeatedly, resulting in several members killed. (In May 2008, the group alleged security operatives had killed an implausible 2,020 members since 1999).

Uwazuruike claims he is MASSOB’s sole sponsor but the group also sells “Biafran passports” to members and fundraises from some diaspora Ibo organisations. In May 2013, then President Goodluck Jonathan listed the movement (along with the radical Islamist Boko Haram and the militant Yoruba group, the O’odua People’s Congress) as an “extremist group” threatening Nigeria’s security. In recent years, MASSOB has fractured and, on 30 November 2015, a major faction tried to expel Uwazuruike, alleging he had compromised the secessionist cause and pocketed some 100 million naira (about $500,000) of the group’s funds.

In September 2010, a splinter group formed the Biafra Zionist Movement (BZM), later renamed as the Biafran Zionist Front (BZF). It claimed international links and even an “alliance” with Israel. On 5 November 2012, BZF leader Benjamin Igwe Onwuka “re-declared the Republic of Biafra” at a rally in Enugu; he and about 100 members were promptly arrested and charged with treason, but granted bail. On 8 March 2014, Onwuka and BZF members tried to seize an Enugu-state-owned radio station and broadcast another Biafra declaration: they were arrested by police and are now on trial.

What do we know about the group involved in the recent flare-up?

Kanu, the figure at the centre of the current unrest, fell out with Uwazuruike in 2009, and emerged as the leader of IPOB in 2012. Shortly thereafter, he set up Radio Biafra, live-streamed from London, which broadcast highly provocative messages laced with misinformation, hate speech and anti-Nigeria derision. IPOB has more recently opened “embassies” (small offices) in the Basque county in Victoria, Spain, and also in Luxemburg.

Following Buhari’s victory in the March 2015 election, Kanu’s Radio Biafra stepped up its messages of hate and incitement against the new president, his government and northern Nigerians. Repudiating MASSOB’s pledge of non-violence, Kanu has strongly endorsed violence as an instrument for resuscitating Biafra. Addressing a diaspora group, the World Igbo Congress (WIC), in Los Angeles, U.S., in September, he said: “We need guns and we need bullets and those of you in America will give it (sic) to us …. If we don’t get Biafra, everybody have (sic) to die”.  IPOB is the main group coordinating the recent “free Kanu and restore Biafra” agitation.

What is the relationship between the Biafra separatist movement and other restive groups in the Niger Delta?

The Ibo of the south east and minority groups in the Niger Delta share common feelings of marginalisation. IPOB has strong following among the Ibo in Rivers state, particularly in its chief city, Port Harcourt. MASSOB’s leaders and some ex-militant Niger Delta leaders have exchanged solidarity visits and jointly called for the right to self-determination.

However, the Ibo and delta groups are sharply divided over their practical interpretation of what to do with that right. Most groups in the delta are demanding regional autonomy and the right to control their petroleum resources within Nigeria. They are fiercely opposed to any suggestion of joining the Ibos in a breakaway Biafra. Armed Niger Delta groups could be a source of weapons, but will not join any insurrection in support of Biafra.

How have the federal government and security agencies responded?

President Buhari has said Nigeria is indivisible. Initially police action was largely restrained, although they broke up some rallies, arrested scores of people and charged 137 as at 1 December. The agitators claimed some protestors were killed by police and posted gruesome pictures of alleged casualties on social media, which were repudiated by the authorities. But Army Chief Lt Gen Tukur Buratai later vowed to “crush” any threat to the country’s unity and territorial integrity, a warning apparently carried out in the 2 December shooting of protesters.

Is there a risk the violence could escalate?

Yes, particularly following the 2 December shootings. Much depends on the federal government. MASSOB spokesman Uchenna Madu said Kanu’s arrest and detention assisted “immensely in reviving the consciousness and sympathy for Biafra’s actualization”. Reacting to the shootings, he said the killing of protesters showed government gestures toward dialogue were “hypocritical and deceitful”. Any further heavy-handed response could earn the agitators wider local sympathy, radicalise their followers and trigger more desperate actions.

Conflict could also escalate if the agitation spreads beyond the south east. Some protest leaders have threatened to march to the federal capital, Abuja, if Kanu is not released. Taking the agitation outside the South East Zone will lead to further clashes with security forces. Moreover, further attacks on mosques and northern business interests in the south east could invite retaliatory violence against Ibos and their businesses in the north.

Do these agitations have any further significance for Nigeria’s stability?

The agitators view Nigeria’s present federal arrangement as a “forced and flawed marriage”, a view shared by several other groups, as analysed in Crisis Group’s 2006 report, Nigeria’s Faltering Federal Experiment. The fact that the protesters are predominantly un- and under-employed youths reflects widespread economic frustration. The agitation could grow worse, if this is not addressed.

At the same time, the agitators’ use of ultimatums, intimidation and threats of violence highlight Nigeria’s shallow democratic culture. Many citizens and groups are yet to consent to constitutional avenues for righting perceived wrongs.

The protests may also further stretch Nigeria’s security forces. With the Boko Haram insurgency still very much a challenge, new unrest in the south east could detract from the resources the military and police need to improve security and resettle internally displaced persons in the north east.

There are no clear wider religious ramifications yet. In fact, IPOB and MASSOB leaders denounced the 2 December arson attack on a mosque, insisting it was the work of “hooligans” not the agitators. However, regardless of who is responsible, if attacks on mosques in the predominantly Christian south east continue, they could also invite retaliatory attacks on churches in some parts of the predominantly Muslim north.

What has been the broader reaction of Ibo communities and the South East Zone authorities?

The size of the recent protests (rallying over 10,000 people in some cities) suggests the pro-Biafra groups may be gaining a stronger following. However, while many Ibos are nostalgic about Biafra and feel marginalised by the federation, there is, for now, hardly any enthusiasm for actions that could lead to another secessionist war. The umbrella Ibo socio-cultural organisation, Ohanaeze Ndigbo, has called for both Kanu’s unconditional release and also for an end to the unrest. Many Ibo leaders, however, quietly support the agitation, not to achieve secession but as a means of compelling the federal government to respond to the region’s grievances.

Initially ambivalent, the five Ibo-dominated state governments in the South East Zone have denounced the agitation, especially as it is disrupting trade and transportation in the region. In nearby Rivers state, which has a large Ibo population, the government has banned all rallies and demonstrations.

What should the government do?

First, tone down threats of “crushing” the agitation, apply force with utmost restraint and only in extreme situations, and prosecute offenders following due process of law. Second, encourage governors, federal legislators and other south-eastern leaders to more actively persuade protesters to channel their grievances and demands through constitutional avenues.

Thirdly, assure all regions of equitable attention and distribution of resources. Though the south east voted massively for former President Goodluck Jonathan and the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) in the last elections, President Buhari should ensure his policies are even-handed and effectively communicated to all Nigerians. He should emphasise this with an official visit to the south east and make a public commitment to addressing local grievances.

Finally, Nigeria must improve governance at all levels. President Buhari should implement the political and administrative reforms recommended by the 2014 National Conference. The National Assembly (the federal parliament) should resume its stalled review of the country’s constitution and work toward guaranteeing all citizens equal rights and a stronger sense of national belonging. State and local governments in the south east must also read the agitation as a wake-up call to create jobs and improve service delivery. If they fail, the country risks more revolts.

A woman checks her name in voting lists at the Independent Electoral Comission Office in Jimeta on 16 February 2019. Nigeria's electoral watchdog postponed presidential and parliamentary elections for one week, just hours before polls were due to open. Luis Tato/AFP
Q&A / Africa

Winning Back Trust in Nigeria’s Rescheduled Elections

Only hours before polls were to open, Nigeria’s electoral commission postponed elections scheduled for 16 February by one week. In this Q&A, Crisis Group’s Nigeria expert Nnamdi Obasi says the commission and other authorities must act now to win back trust and reduce risks of violence.

What happened?

Nigeria’s 84 million voters were set to vote in presidential and federal legislative elections on 16 February. But at 2.40 am that day, just over five hours before polling stations were to open, the nation’s election management agency, the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), postponed the balloting. INEC’s chairman, Mahmood Yakubu, announced a one-week delay to 23 February. He also said gubernatorial and state legislative votes would be rescheduled from 2 to 9 March.

Was there any forewarning of the delay?

The postponement came as a surprise. INEC had repeatedly told both Nigerians and international observers that it was fully prepared to bring off the elections according to schedule. Voters had gone to bed assured. Some had already gathered around their candidates’ residences, all set to troop to polling stations at dawn. International observers had deployed teams across the country’s 36 states and rented all the meeting rooms at the federal capital Abuja’s five-star Transcorp Hilton Hotel, for use as situation rooms throughout the voting. INEC itself had set up its National Collation Centre at the International Conference Centre in Abuja, where it was to receive results from the states later in the day.

Why were the elections postponed?

Yakubu said the postponement followed a review of logistical and operational plans, which showed that proceeding with the polls as scheduled was no longer “feasible”, even though as recently as 11 February, he had insisted that it was. The chairman claimed the commission had been unable to deliver election materials to all distribution centres and polling units across the country ahead of the vote.

He said that bad weather caused the delays, referring to the harmattan season, a period of dry, dusty wind that blows from Sahara over West Africa from November to about mid-February, often accompanied by a haze that reduces visibility. The weather conditions, he said, had prevented aircrafts carrying election materials from landing and forced the commission to rely on slow-moving long-haul trucks for ground delivery. Yakubu added that early February fires in three of INEC’s offices, in Abia (2 February), Plateau (9 February) and Anambra states, also hindered its preparations.

The two main parties have blamed each other for the postponement, claiming it to be politically motivated rather than dictated by circumstance.

The scale of the distribution problem remains unclear, as INEC offered no figures. On the eve of the elections, however, there were media and other reports that polling materials, including ballot papers and result sheets, had not been delivered in parts or all of several states, including Ekiti, Oyo, Taraba, Edo, Niger, Ogun and Rivers states.

Yakubu’s explanations for the non-delivery are not entirely satisfactory. There were no weather-related impediments in southern states – Ekiti, Oyo and others – where materials went undelivered; other states lacking materials, like Kogi, are close to Abuja, and therefore required no airborne deliveries. More significantly, on 17 February, the Nigerian Airspace Management Agency tacitly disputed INEC’s claims of flight constraints by saying it had made sure two days earlier that all the country’s airports would be operational around the clock, precisely to facilitate the nationwide delivery of INEC’s materials.

What has been the reaction?

The postponement has stirred a firestorm of condemnation among voters, aimed at INEC. Many voters had travelled long distances to their registration and voting areas (as required by Nigeria’s election law) or had shut down their businesses for the weekend. Two main grievances feed the anger: the electoral commission had four years to prepare for the polls, yet failed to deliver, and it announced its decision only hours before voting was set to start.

Political parties have been similarly critical. The national chairman of the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC), Adams Oshiomhole, called the postponement a national embarrassment; the party’s presidential candidate, the incumbent Muhammadu Buhari, said he was “deeply disappointed”. The APC’s chief rival, the People’s Democratic Party (PDP), denounced the delay as “dangerous to our democracy” and demanded that the INEC chairman resign.

The two main parties have blamed each other for the postponement, claiming it to be politically motivated rather than dictated by circumstance. The APC alleged that the PDP, fearful of impending defeat, orchestrated the delay to buy more time to rally support. The PDP rejoined that the APC was behind INEC’s “shoddy arrangements”, and that it was seeking to regain ground it had lost in the last weeks of campaigning. Neither party has provided hard evidence to buttress its charges.

Civil society organisations are also aggrieved. The Nigeria Civil Society Situation Room, a network of over 70 organisations supporting credible, transparent elections in the country, expressed “disappointment”, especially “against the background of assurances given by INEC on its preparedness” for the polls. The Civil Society Legislative Advocacy Centre demanded that the federal parliament launch an urgent investigation.

Not all reactions have been critical, however. Some media commentators take INEC at its word that it had to reschedule because free, fair and credible elections were in jeopardy. INEC, they say, was simply acting in accordance with its statutory powers. Others argue that a delayed but successful election is preferable to a timely but botched one.

Does the postponement increase the risk of violence around the elections?

It does. On 17 February, the National Association of Nigerian Students said it was calling a nationwide action to protest what it called a “show of shame and disgrace to a country”. Thus far, neither this demonstration nor other street protests has occurred. But the postponement has heightened political tensions and sown conspiracy theories around the country, increasing the likelihood of disputes and violent incidents, both during and after the polls. Moreover, the delay has spread distrust of INEC’s motives, which could lead to greater hostility toward its personnel during the elections.

What are the other costs of the postponement?

The rescheduling comes at great economic and psychological cost to all concerned, including the electoral commission, security agencies, political parties, local and international observation groups and, of course, Nigeria’s 84 million voters. INEC and political parties have spent large sums, the former making election preparations and the latter recruiting and mobilising agents to keep watch at polling stations. Security agencies committed considerable resources deploying personnel across the country to guard against election violence. Normal life was disrupted by a police order prohibiting vehicle movement from 6am to 6pm on 16 February. That order shut down commercial transportation, as well as delivery of goods to small-scale enterprises such as markets and shops. Even after police lifted the order on election day, most businesses remained closed, as disillusioned voters stayed home lamenting the situation.

The cost to the nation’s economy is similarly huge. At noon on 15 February, Nigeria closed its international borders, and many firms dismissed workers early to let them prepare for the polls the next day. On 16 February, air and sea ports were closed. Ken Ukaoha, president of the National Association of Nigerian Traders, said the country’s trading sector lost more than 140 billion nairas (about $387 million). The Lagos Chamber of Commerce and Industry said the interruption of economic activity cost the nation no less than $1.5 billion, an estimate some analysts consider conservative. The postponement could slow down the economy until all the elections, from presidential to gubernatorial, are eventually concluded.

A taxi driver sits under political campaign posters in Maiduguri, north-east Nigeria, on 17 December 2018. CRISISGROUP/Jorge Gutiérrez Lucena

Beyond economic costs, the reputational damage to the country is substantial. The delay comes at a time when Nigeria is in the international spotlight. Following similar postponements in 2011, when voting was pushed back for a few hours due to logistical flaws, and in 2015, when polls were delayed for six weeks ostensibly to allow the military clear Boko Haram insurgents from parts of Borno state, INEC’s decision creates further doubts about Nigeria’s ability to manage its own electoral processes predictably.

What are the implications for the rescheduled elections?

If, as INEC claims, it postponed the vote strictly for logistical and operational reasons, then rescheduling may afford the commission time to rectify flaws and deliver more credible elections. For now, however, the delay raises several concerns.

An immediate concern is the security of ballots distributed to many states and local government areas before the postponement. These sensitive materials are vulnerable to theft or compromise.

Secondly, the conspiracy theories generated by the postponement could undermine faith in the outcome when polls are held. In particular, the two major parties’ allegations, each accusing the other of colluding with INEC to put off voting, could erode trust in the electoral commission and increase the likelihood of post-election disputes.

Thirdly, the postponement could have double-edged effects on voter turnout on the rescheduled dates. On one hand, the public anguish at the delay could spur greater turnout among opposition voters determined to remove Buhari and the APC from power. On the other hand, and more plausibly, it could depress turnout, either because voters have simply lost interest or because they have lost the wherewithal. Nigeria’s electoral law allows citizens to vote only where they registered: many must travel long distances to cast their ballots, and they may lack the means or the will to repeat the journey on the country’s hazardous roads.

The postponement could also impair election monitoring on the rescheduled dates. Having depleted their resources deploying teams across the country for the 16 February voting, numerous organisations – particularly Nigerian ones – may be reluctant or unable to do it all over again. Deficits in deployment could constrain field operations and diminish prospects for free, fair and credible elections.

The delay may also affect the electoral fortunes of political parties, creating an even greater disparity between the two major parties and numerous smaller ones. The APC and PDP, which control federal and state governments, have the money to mobilise a second time, but smaller parties do not and will be hard pressed to raise fresh funds. The postponement has thus tilted the playing field to the major parties’ advantage.

What should be done now?

Several key steps can ensure the success of the rescheduled polls on 23 February.

INEC should provide a more detailed explanation for its decision to delay the elections, in order to dispel the widespread suspicion that political interests manipulated it into doing so. It should take all feasible steps to ensure that all electoral materials distributed before the election was postponed are urgently retrieved and secured. In some states, resident electoral commissioners report that they are already gathering the materials for safekeeping in local branches of the Central Bank of Nigeria. The commission should immediately engage reputable audit firms to verify that all materials stored at Central Bank offices are intact. It should also engage with the security agencies to guard the retrieved materials until the rescheduled dates.

Political parties and civil society organisations, including the mass media, should step up messages to counter voter apathy and encourage turnout on the rescheduled dates.

The INEC has less than a week to regain the Nigerian public’s trust and the international community’s confidence in its ability to conduct free, fair and credible elections. It should update the public daily on the progress of its preparations. Most importantly, the commission needs to adhere to the new election dates. Barring unforeseen developments, if it postpones the polls again or cannot conduct them smoothly on the new dates, it risks further damaging its own reputation, with potentially serious consequences for Nigeria’s democracy and stability.

Other actors must also act responsibly. President Buhari should avoid any action that could further dampen public confidence in INEC. Sacking the INEC chair – as some opposition parties allege that Buhari wants to do ­– would be unhelpful, since it could lead to further delays or upheavals. Security agencies, particularly at state and local levels, should ensure that retrieved election materials are secure and reassure the public, for instance through the use of audit firms. Political parties – particularly the APC and PDP – should allow INEC to execute its mandate impartially and refrain from generating or echoing conspiracy theories for which they have no proof and which only undermine confidence in the electoral process. Political parties and civil society organisations, including the mass media, should step up messages to counter voter apathy and encourage turnout on the rescheduled dates.

Nigeria’s international partners should also stay engaged. They should maintain close watch on the evolving situation and flag any indications of manipulation or intimidation of the electoral agency. Most importantly, international observers who were already in the country for the 16 February date, should be especially vigilant about the activities of the electoral agency and security forces, not only in those states where delivery of materials was delayed but also in others where already delivered materials could be tampered with.