NewsWest AfricaThe new, weak fight for Nigeria's Biafra


Posted on Friday, 05 February 2016 18:30

The new, weak fight for Nigeria's Biafra

By Konye Obaji Ori

Nnamdi Kanu, IPOB leader, has been refused bail on charges of treason and managing the affairs of an unlawful societyIn accordance with the wish of the Igbo people, Odumegwu Ojukwu declared an independent state in 1967. Many lives were lost in one of the bloodiest wars in the region. Fast-forward to 2015 and Nnamdi Kanu is leading the charge for an independent Biafra nation for the Igbos in a much-changed national environment.

Kanu is a political activist leading a separatist organisation, the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB). As the director of London-based radio station Radio Biafra, Kanu argues that Biafra is not a state to actualise but a state to realise. That Kanu's views have been in harmony with sentiments expressed in There Was a Country by award-winning author Chinua Achebe is nothing far from the truth. There was a country called Biafra, and Kanu seeks to realise that country.

They should look at how Sudan broke up

But while Ojukwu enjoyed the backing of almost every Igbo leader and community when he embarked on his vision of an independent Igbo state in the 1960s, Kanu has struggled to whip up the same level of support, despite significant media attention. The Igbo Information Network (IIN), an Igbo-focused media entity, says neither of the two main Biafra secessionist groups – the Movement for the Actualisation of Sovereign State of Biafra (MASSOB) nor IPOB – has the mandate to speak for the Igbo.

The Kanu-led IPOB's secessionist agenda became headline news in October 2015 as supporters of the movement staged protests in several major cities across Nigeria, Europe, parts of Asia and the United States following his arrest and detention in Nigeria, where the authorities said he had arrived without his British or Nigerian passport. He was refused bail on charges of treason and managing the affairs of an unlawful society.

In protest of his detention, local Kanu supporters hijacked a merchant ship and threatened to blow it up, with its foreign crew, if Kanu wasn't released. Nigeria's defence ministry spokesperson, Major General Rabe Abubakar, has since confirmed that the hijacking took place and called it "an act of sabotage".

The IIN goes further in its argument, suggesting that recent pro-independence agitations may not be unconnected with hidden personal interests. "We can no longer continue to pretend that all is well when some groups capitalise on our sad experience of the past to try to railroad us into fighting another avoidable civil war," the group's leader, Chuks Ibegbu, explained.

Different dynamics

Ojukwu's agitation was largely viewed as being in the interest of the Igbos, but the perception is seemingly different for Kanu. Although that could change, what with the martyr-like treatment some believe he is being subjected to. But at the moment, it is safe to say Kanu does not enjoy the same support as Ojukwu did, part of the reason being the opportunity-grievance dichotomy.

In 1967, Ojukwu and the Igbo people were driven by grievances of inequality, and many wonder if the grievances that underscore Kanu's perception of Biafra can be compared to 1960s Biafra.

Ojukwu, six years after Nigeria's independence, was appointed military governor of the Eastern Regions by the Supreme Commander of the Nigerian Armed Forces. That same year, in May 1966, an uprising in northern Nigeria saw the indiscriminate killings of Nigerians of south-eastern origin. This culminated in the grievances that subsequently drove Ojukwu to encourage south-easterners living in the north to return to the south-east, a region he would – a year later – declare the independent Republic of Biafra.

Among other factors that motivated Ojukwu included access to oil wells and the accompanying financial boon in the Niger Delta, the possibility of international support and sympathy for south-easterners and access to weapons from foreign governments.

Today, however, the dynamics are different for Kanu. Although Kanu and his supporters point to existing levels of ethnic dominance – citing the limited appointments of Igbos in President Muhammadu Buhari's government – it would be difficult to point to stark levels of income inequality between the rest of Nigeria and the Igbos.

The Jonathan factor

Under President Goodluck Jonathan, Kanu and his supporters did not vigorously agitate for Biafra's secession for many reasons, one being that Jonathan was perceived as the closest thing to a Biafran to occupy the presidency. It could partly explain why Jonathan received 98% of Igbo vote in the 2011 presidential election, aside from the numerous promises he made to Igbos during his campaign.

Jonathan promised to revamp the coal industry in Enugu – a south-eastern economic capital – as well as construct the second Niger Bridge through a public-private partnership. He also promised the construction of the Azumini seaport, the acceleration of the dredging and expansion of the Port Harcourt and Calabar seaports, and the exploration of oil deposits in the Orashi and Anambra River Basins, all of which are in the perceived Biafra region.

Jonathan did not deliver on most of these promises and lost some Igbo votes in 2015. Seemingly disappointed by Jonathan and sceptical of Buhari, MASSOB and IPOB remembered Biafra, again. And since the beginning of the Buhari presidency, the two independence movements have resorted to the othering of Buhari's administration: an inclination that has been further exacerbated by the fact that Kanu is still being detained by the security agencies under Buhari's command.

It is a fact that Kanu and his supporters cannot point to the same blatant ethnic rivalry, ethnic polarisation or religious tensions that fuelled the grievances described by the 1960s independence movement as factors preventing the Igbo people from living the Nigerian dream – whatever that may be. The indices that appeared to have legitimised Ojukwu's war for secession are not strong under Kanu's Biafra. It is accepted knowledge that Ojukwu's Biafra ambition was defeated as a result of a number of factors, such as the denial of access to oil resources, a shortage of international recognition and sympathy, limited access to finance and the small flows of arms. Aside from lacking unwavering support, Kanu's movement is limited by the same factors.

Confrontational vs Consitutional

The current Biafra movement, as it were, does not have the backing of the Niger Delta and its oil. The ethnic groups of the Niger Delta and South-South geopolitical zone, have opposed and dismissed any interest in Biafra and have asked to be counted out of any future plans. The Biafra movement also lacks the recognition and sympathy of continental or international institutions – at least for now.

Ojukwu's ill-fated independence bid nonetheless succeeded to agitate at a time when Nigeria was qualified as a weak democracy with weak state capacity. And considering that Nigeria's democracy today is a far cry from what it was 50 years ago, it is only sound judgement to conclude that Kanu will have a harder time seceding Biafra from Nigeria, even by using force.

Kanu is becoming a martyr and symbol of oppression to some of his Igbo supporters, but unlike Ojukwu, his independence bid may have hit the wall even before it properly began. And outside a peaceful approach to his movement, the realisation of Biafra may never happen.

According to Chief Tahil Ochil, the president of pan-Igbo group Enugu Unity Forum, any efforts at trying to secede from Nigeria should employ constitutional means. "The Biafra struggle should not be confrontational. They should follow the dictates of the law. They should look at how Sudan broke up. As an Igbo man, I will be part of the struggle if it is done constitutionally but if it is done by force, I cannot be part of it," Ochil told reporters.

While the Biafra dialogue and discussion grow in volume, it must be said that it is not the only region boiling in Nigeria today. The Yoruba, through the Oodua People's Congress, are calling for their own state. There is still the Boko Haram insurgents' desire for an Islamic caliphate in the north. God help Nigeria.

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