Nigeria: Arrest of IPOB leader Nnamdi Kanu sparks diplomatic row with UK

By Chinedu Asadu

Posted on Friday, 9 July 2021 18:23, updated on Tuesday, 20 July 2021 10:54
Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) leader Nnamdi Kanu is seen at the federal high court in Abuja, Nigeria 20 January 2016 REUTERS/Afolabi Sotunde

For many in Nigeria, there’s a feeling of déjà vu about the capture of Biafran separatist leader Nnamdi Kanu by President Muhammadu Buhari's administration. That's because in 1984, then as a military head of state, Buhari engaged cross-border security operatives in a failed attempt to kidnap and smuggle home from London a Nigerian fugitive and former minister, Umaru Dikko.

Now, as a democratically elected president, his government’s decision to “intercept” Kanu, who is also a British national, has sparked a diplomatic row between Nigeria and the UK.

More than a week after Kanu, who leads the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB), was “intercepted” – as the Nigerian officials put it – on 29 June, the government has not yet provided details of the operation.

No one knows where or how he was picked up before being taken to Nigeria. Kanu’s family say that he was in Kenya and that the Nigerian government conducted an illegal extraordinary rendition in order to take the separatist leader into custody.

An attempt by the British High Commission in Abuja to get official word about the arrest has hit a brick wall.

Arrest or abduction?

“I think what happened to Kanu is more of an abduction and not an arrest,” says Bola Akinterinwa, a former director-general of the Nigerian Institute of International Affairs (NIIA).

Akinterinwa tells The Africa Report that the government’s claim that Kanu was “intercepted” does not hold any water as Kenya, where his brother said he last visited, has denied any involvement.

“Interception means it involved the Kenyan government, which has been denied,” he says. “And because Kanu was not re-arrested in Nigeria but in a third country, the UK has the right to ask questions – that Kanu is a British citizen and it has the responsibility to find out the manner of arrest of its citizens.”

Asking questions

Hours after Nigerian officials announced that Kanu had been arrested, with pictures of him looking solemn and in handcuffs trending on social media, the British High Commission told local media that the Biafran activist “was not arrested in the UK for extradition purposes”.

The commission says it began making moves to engage the government regarding the developments but no information has yet been communicated to the UK, according to sources at Nigeria’s federal ministry of foreign affairs.

When Catriona Laing, the UK high commissioner to Nigeria, attempted to bring up the matter during a meeting with attorney general Abubakar Malami, she was immediately rebuffed, according to local media outfit TheCable. A statement issued after the meeting said both officials addressed important bilateral issues but made no mention of Nnamdi Kanu.

Dean Hurlock, a spokesperson of the British High Commission, tells The Africa Report that the UK is “continuing to seek clarification about the circumstances of the arrest”, even though Malami’s spokesperson said there is no official enquiry launched yet by the British government.

“Ask them [the UK] if they have sent any official information…if there is any evidence that they have reached out, then you can share it with us,” Umar Gwandu, a spokesman for the attorney general’s office, tells The Africa Report.

UK parliament’s intervention may not help either

On Tuesday 6 July, lord David Alton, a member of the UK parliament, raised the issue of Kanu’s arrest and wants it to be discussed in parliament.

His office tells The Africa Report that he is asking the government “what assessment they have made of the alleged role of the government of Kenya in the detention and alleged mistreatment of Nigerian activist Nnamdi Kanu?”

The UK parliament’s intervention is unlikely to do much, as Kanu is facing 11 major charges including terrorism and treasonable felony.

And the separatist leader himself has not been a big fan of the British government.

He has often accused the UK of being the major obstacle to his quest for the creation of a Republic of Biafra to be formed by the south-eastern states. Their populations are largely Igbo, Nigeria’s third-largest ethnic group.

Asylum? No thanks!

In April, when the UK updated its ‘Country Policy and Information Note Nigeria’ to consider asylum for “persecuted” Biafran separatists, IPOB rejected the offer, saying that it wants a referendum, not asylum for its members.

“It is just an example of cognitive dissonance by IPOB, who hold Britain to be responsible for Nigeria’s ills and to be implacable foes of IPOB and Igbo’s, but at the same time asking Britain to act on his behalf,” says Chidi Nwaonu, of London-based Peccavi Consulting, a security group that focuses on Africa.

The UK’s support for a united Nigeria and the secessionist quest of IPOB, which is now snowballing into an insurgency in the south-east, are also two worlds apart.

“The UK supports a united Nigeria because they fear the consequences of dissolution. It is not the same reality as 1967, where there were strategic imperatives as well as personal relationships underpinning British actions,” Nwaonu tells The Africa Report.

He continues: “Kanu barely poses a threat to Nigeria and poses a minimal threat to the UK. There is a small risk of radicalised IPOB members acting on the anti-British rhetoric to launch attacks in the UK, but the risk is quite low.”

In the end, it all comes down to Buhari

Since 2015 when he started leading the most populous African country with over 300 ethnic groups, President Buhari has seized every opportunity to remind separatists that “Nigeria is indivisible.”

He participated in the 1967-1970 civil war that broke out when Igbo leaders formed the breakaway Republic of Biafra, before Nigeria’s security forces crushed their efforts. At least one million people, mostly Igbo, were killed during the war.

And the Nigerian army’s attempts to arrest Kanu in Abia State in 2017 led to more extrajudicial killings. IPOB was subsequently banned and declared a terrorist organisation by the military and a court, even though the group spokesman Emma Powerful tells The Africa Report that it does not support violence.

With Kanu in custody, Nigeria’s cooperation with the UK on the matter is largely dependent on Buhari’s wishes, according to former NIIA director Akinterinwa, who does not agree that Nigeria is indivisible.

“Does the President want a united Nigeria or not, beyond saying that Nigeria is indivisible? As a president who swore on oath to protect the territorial integrity of Nigeria, does he really believe in national unity?” he adds.

Divided opinions

To calm frayed nerves both in south-east Nigeria and the UK, Akinterinwa, who is the current president of the Lagos-based Bolytag Centre for International Diplomacy and Strategic Studies, says Buhari should understand that “no nation is indivisible” and pardon Kanu if found guilty of the treason charges against him.

Nonetheless, international security expert Nwaonu argues the UK will still perform its duties of consular assistance to Kanu, which he says has nothing to do with the IPOB leader “as an individual [but] is simply the principle of countries seeking to protect their own images by ensuring they look after their citizens”.

How fast that help would come is not known yet. But Nigeria’s cooperation is certainly a key factor.

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