Nigeria: Will the arrest of IPOB’s Nnamdi Kanu end Biafra agitations?

By Chinedu Asadu
Posted on Wednesday, 30 June 2021 18:32, updated on Tuesday, 20 July 2021 10:53

Biafrans in Trafalgar Square protesting against the Nigerian Government and demand the release of many Biafrans including Prince Nnamdi Kanu. Biafrans protest, London, UK. 30 May 2018. Photo by Matthew Chattle/REX/Shutterstock

Nnamdi Kanu, the self-acclaimed freedom fighter and leader of a secessionist organisation demanding the Igbo ethnic group breaks away from Nigeria to form an independent Republic of Biafra, was arrested while abroad and extradited back to Abuja on Tuesday 29 June. But could his detention change the course of Biafra tensions?

Updated on 1 July 

It happened fast and unexpectedly.

Just as Nigerians were trying to digest the shocking news of Nnamdi Kanu’s arrest, the Nigerian government quickly arraigned him in court where a federal judge declared that he be remanded until 26 July when his trial is scheduled to resume.

This poses a setback for the separatist leader, once again. More than four years ago, he was released from prison on bail and since then, has continued to evade arrest by Nigerian security operatives, partly due to his residency in the UK where he also holds British citizenship.

“This would be a major blow to the morale of the Independent People of Biafra (IPOB),” says Ephraim Onoja, a security expert based in Imo where Kanu’s followers are concentrated.

The responses to Kanu’s arrest so far have reflected Nigeria’s deep ethnic divisions.

“Buhari has been able to send a strong message that he is capable after all and that no matter where you are or how long it would take, the arm of the law will eventually get you,” Onoja says.

Kanu’s long journey back to detention

There is no official information on the exact location where Kanu was arrested, but local media quoted the British High Commission as saying the IPOB leader was picked up outside the UK before being extradited.

Nigeria’s Minister of Justice Abubakar Malami, who announced Kanu’s arrest, said he was “intercepted through the collaborative efforts of Nigerian intelligence and Security Services” and would continue to face a trial that started in 2015.

  • The IPOB leader was first arrested in October 2015 following years of campaign for Biafra.
  • He was subsequently charged with alleged terrorism, treasonable felony and illegal possession of firearms and, after six months in detention, was granted bail on health grounds and under stringent conditions, which included not granting interviews or appearing in a crowd of more than 10 people.

Kanu flouted most of his bail conditions before fleeing Nigeria, after a failed attempt by the military to arrest him at his residence in the south-east state of Abia in November 2017.

When he returned to the courtroom on Monday, wearing a Fendi tracksuit and void of any of his lawyers, he was accompanied by heavily armed security operatives. There, he told the judge that he “might have been killed” by Nigerian soldiers had he stayed in the country.

His legal team issued a statement after the court appearance insisting that “no matter the gravity of the offences or charge preferred against him, Section 36(5) of the Constitution still presumes him innocent of the allegation”.

Maxwell Okpara, a member of Kanu’s defense team, tells The Africa Report that they have not been briefed about his arrest, much less his arraignment, echoing concerns over the manner in which the Buhari administration has handled Kanu’s case.

“Nnamdi Kanu’s arrest confirms that the Buhari regime can be swift, decisive and methodical when it is motivated – usually by ethnic or religious sentiments,” says Demola Olarewaju, a public commentator.

He adds that how this resumed trial plays out could be “the final demystification of the man or yet another step towards his glorification as facilitated by the Buhari regime ab initio”.

Mixed reactions

So far, the responses to Kanu’s arrest have reflected Nigeria’s deep ethnic divisions.

Northern groups such as the Arewa Consultative Forum commend the Buhari administration for arresting Kanu “who has vowed to destroy the country”, while their southern counterparts such as the Alaigbo Development Foundation say the news of his arrest “summarises the grave injustice in the federal government’s attempt to crush Nnamdi Kanu and his IPOB supporters”.

Three months after the separatist leader launched a militant arm of IPOB and armed them to “halt every criminal activity and terrorist attack on Biafraland [referring to the south-east]”, violent killings tripled in the region, according to local media house TheCable, with security agents mostly targeted.

When contacted for comments on Kanu’s arrest, IPOB spokesperson Emma Powerful declined, but a faction of Ohanaeze Ndigbo, the apex socio-cultural group that represents the interest of the Igbo ethnic group, said in a statement that the development is “the beginning of the end of violent agitations in southeastern Nigeria and a lesson to others that deviation from the nonviolent agitations and wasting of the innocent blood of the Igbo youths contradicted what Igbos are known for”.

Okechukwu Isiguzoro, the group’s secretary-general, adds that “self-determination should not be used for purposes of fortune and fame-seeking” and that “Nnamdi Kanu’s refusal to adhere to the advice of Igbo leaders, elders, and political leaders is the outcome of what has befallen him.”

The voice of the struggle

From his base in the UK, and through the radio waves of Radio Biafra – the London-based radio station that serves as the voice of the secessionist struggle – Kanu indoctrinated many youths in the south-east with frequent discussions about how they do not belong to a united Nigeria and why they should remain passionate about the struggle for a Biafra nation.

He [Kanu] has been at daggers drawn with the governors and finally, they can focus on restoring sustainable peace in the region, which is the priority for all the five states,

12 of his supporters were killed on 14 September 2017, when security operatives tried to arrest Kanu in Abia State, according to Amnesty International. The Nigerian Army claimed that those killed had resisted arrest, but more importantly, the casualties added to the growing list of more than a hundred of Kanu’s followers who have been killed in violent crackdown since Buhari came to power.

“Kanu has been a big nightmare for governors and leaders of the south-east because he feels everyone has been sabotaged,” says an aide to the governor of Abia, where Kanu is from.

The one time that the governors tried to meet Kanu after he was released from prison in 2017, he backed out of the meeting at the last minute, alleging he might be killed by soldiers. Not long after, the governors banned IPOB; but just recently, pledged their commitment to a united Nigeria.

“He [Kanu] has been at daggers drawn with the governors and finally, they can focus on restoring sustainable peace in the region, which is the priority for all the five states,” says the aide.

On the flip side though, Kanu’s detention could aggravate the security situation in the south-east, says Onoja. “It might have a calming effect in the short term but in the long term, given that their [IPOB] leader is still held captive by Nigerian authorities, some of his followers might also re-strategise and step up the struggle as a means of putting pressure on the government to release him or enter negotiations,” he says.

Olarewaju agrees that the arrest does not mean an end to IPOB’s agitations, telling The Africa Report that because the group’s leadership operates in independent formations that do not all depend on Kanu for direction, “their inspiration will still be there even while he’s arrested and the formations will be largely unaffected.”

2023 and likely endpoint

With the next general elections in Nigeria around the corner, Kanu’s arrest may also become a political instrument in the south-east for an independent Biafra. Its quest for independence has been sustained by grievances of being marginalised and left out of the corridors of power in Nigeria.

Leaders in the region have tried to sell the campaign for Biafra as being primarily framed by the lack of a Nigerian president of Igbo background, in addition to other mostly political reasons.

In January 2021, when George Obiozor, the president-general of Ohanaeze Ndigbo, made a case for a person from the Igbo community to take over from President Muhammadu Buhari, he said the presidency position is “the most important thing that will happen to Igbos” and it is “finally our turn”.

Election data demonstrated that during the last general elections in 2019, the south-east made up just 11% of Nigeria’s voting population with 10,057,130 voters. Experts believe that President Buhari and the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) could use Kanu as bait to win over the region in the 2023 elections.

“The arrest could become a question of whether you stand on the side of Kanu or on the side of the government in 2023; in which case, with the tension so high around the elections, the government could be seeking to calm the situation and find a political settlement to release him,” Onoja says.

As for the IPOB, shortly after Kanu’s arrest, it issued a statement, asserting that the struggle will carry on to liberate him and to ensure it’s independence:

“We, therefore, enjoin every IPOB member both at home and in the Diaspora and all Biafrans to remain calm because  this is not the end of the road…IPOB will not relent in the pursuit of Biafra freedom. We have crossed the Rubicon in our struggle for the restoration of Biafran Sovereignty. There is no going back no matter the level of intimidation by our oppressors.”

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