Nigeria’s Biafran Separatist Upsurge
Nigeria’s Biafran Separatist Upsurge
Fighting among Boko Haram Splinters Rages On
Fighting among Boko Haram Splinters Rages On
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.
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 9 minutes

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.

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