Nigeria: Could Peter Obi’s rise bring an end to the Biafran struggle? 

By Eniola Akinkuotu
Posted on Friday, 9 September 2022 12:25

Peter Obi, Presidential candidate of the Labour Party, speaks during an interview with Reuters at his residence in Lagos, Nigeria August 18, 2022. REUTERS/Temilade Adelaja

For the last six years, Nigeria has been facing violent secessionist agitations in its southeast region. However, the recent rise of Peter Obi, the Labour Party's Presidential candidate, seems to be resonating with people there. Could his candidacy help bring an end to the Biafran struggle? 

The presidential election of 2015, in which General Muhammadu Buhari defeated incumbent President Goodluck Jonathan, was regarded as one of the most divisive in Nigeria’s history. This also seemed to be reflected in the election results, with Jonathan garnering more than 85% of all votes cast in the Christian-dominated southeast, while Buhari earned about 80 per cent of the votes in the Muslim-dominated northwest. 

To exacerbate the situation, in one of his first interviews as president, delivered at the United States Institute for Peace, Buhari gave some insight into what his presidency would look like when he was asked how his government would handle agitations in the Niger Delta: “I hope you have a copy of the election results?”, the new president said. “The constituents [who] for example gave me 97 % [of the vote] cannot, in all honesty, be treated on some issues with constituencies that gave me 5 %. I think this is a political reality,” he concluded back in 2015.

Buhari, however, assured his audience that he would be fair to all and would not marginalise any group, since the constitution protects everyone.

His first key appointments began to reflect a particular trend, as many from the southeast were conspicuously absent except when it came to statutory appointments. Of the 17 security appointments made, none was from the southeast, even though the Igbo account for more than 20 per cent of Nigeria’s population. 

“The exclusion of the south-east is a matter we have carried in this chamber and indeed in the executive chamber because I have personally led the south-east caucus to Mr President to discuss this matter,” said Senator Eyinnaya Abaribe, who led a Senate debate on Buhari’s alleged marginalisation of the south-east. 

Rise of Nnamdi Kanu 

While the complaints about the marginalisation of the southeast continued, a relatively unknown London-based activist, Nnamdi Kanu, decided to take advantage of the situation. Kanu, who was the director of the UK-based Radio Biafra, had founded a group known as the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) in 2014 with the sole aim of reviving the defunct Republic of Biafra, which had been crushed by the Nigerian side in the civil war that lasted from 1967 to 1970. 

However, Kanu’s message did not really resonate with the people of the southeast, who saw President Jonathan as their kinsman. The southeast elite also secured juicy appointments in Jonathan’s administration, which boosted his popularity in the region. 

Exploiting the cries of marginalisation in Buhari’s administration, Kanu began seeking the financial support of Nigerians in the diaspora. On 5 September 2015, Kanu, who was a guest speaker at the World Igbo Congress in Los Angeles, said, “we need guns and we need bullets”. He returned to Nigeria weeks later and began pushing the Biafra agenda more vigorously, organising protests in the southeast. In October 2015, he was eventually arrested and charged with treason by the Nigerian government. 

But this arrest only boosted Kanu’s popularity in the southeast, and he grew a cult following. Biafra flags, shirts and memorabilia were once again sold openly on the region’s streets. Kanu was eventually granted bail 17 months later with the strict condition that he would grant no interviews and avoid trouble.  

However, Kanu’s home in Abia State became a Mecca of sorts as journalists, politicians, clerics, businessmen and supporters visited him daily. His supporters were also emboldened by his release as they continually held street processions while Kanu himself became a media favourite. Amid frequent clashes between his supporters and security agents, IPOB was designated a terrorist organisation by the government.  

Attempts to re-arrest Kanu failed as he fled to London during a raid on his home. Like a wounded lion, Kanu intensified his message, which was full of vitriol and ethnic slurs. In 2020, he set up the Eastern Security Network (ESN), which was tasked with protecting the southeast from “Fulani intruders”. 

More than 175 killed 

According to a Nigerian government report, this triggered a wave of violence. Attacks were carried out between October 2020 and June 2021 leading to the killing of 175 security officials. 

The report read in part, “On 21 October 2020, Nnamdi Kanu through an online call-in radio programme (Radio Biafra), further instigated IPOB members to burn down all police stations and kill government security forces, which was carried out. Several security personnel (especially police officers) were killed and public and private properties destroyed.” 

“[Some] 175 security officials were killed by IPOB/ESN, comprising 128 policemen, 37 military men and 10 other security operatives.” 

The committee found that as a consequence of Kanu’s broadcasts, there were 19 attacks on electoral facilities while 164 police stations and formations, including police headquarters in Imo State, were attacked by IPOB/ESN, leading to the death of 128 policemen while 144 were injured and 628 vehicles were destroyed. It said 396 firearms and 17,738 rounds of ammunition were confiscated during the IPOB/ESN attacks. 

Kanu’s extradition and lockdown 

In June 2021, Kanu was extradited — controversially say supporters, who question the legality of the operation — to Nigeria from Kenya and arraigned for treason. IPOB decreed that on days when Kanu was to appear in court, the people of the southeast should show their support by staying at home. Those who defied the order were usually attacked, even though IPOB claimed it was not behind the violent enforcement of such lockdowns. 

Today, the lockdown has become a weekly affair, as residents of the five states of the southeast usually stay indoors on Mondays, a development which has negatively affected the region’s economy. The incessant lockdowns also affected political activities, as voter turnout in the last governorship election in Anambra State was less than 10%. 

Fed up by rising insecurity in the southeast, notable leaders from the region visited President Buhari with a view to finding a political solution but this idea was rejected by the president, who said Kanu must face the law. 

Obi’s rising popularity 

With elections approaching, south-eastern leaders under the aegis of the socio-cultural group Ohanaeze Ngigbo insisted that their people had been marginalised for too long and that the best way to crush the Biafran agitation was to ensure that the next president comes from the south-east.

“The consequences of denying the Igbo the 2023 Presidency will strengthen Biafra agitations and it will sink Nigeria’s corporate existence and threaten its unity,” the group said. Ohanaeze Ngigbo’s message group was given impetus by the fact that the last time an Igbo man held any presidential power was in 1983 when Alex Ekueme was vice-president. Thus, the demand was clear: It is the southeast’s turn to produce the President. 

Although the two major political parties – the All Progressives Congress and the People’s Democratic Party – did not give their presidential candidacy to a candidate from the south-east, the Labour Party decided to give underdog and ex-governor of Anambra state, Peter Obi, its top slot. 

Against expectations, Obi’s popularity grew among young Nigerians who now refer to themselves as ‘Obidients’. The ex-governor is also seen as a hero in the southeast and many disenchanted people from the region are once more beginning to believe in the Nigerian project.  

“Before the emergence of what is now known as the Obidient movement, a lot of young Igbo were sympathetic to the IPOB cause and what it represented. For these young people of Igbo extraction, Nigeria had failed them,” Chukwudi Iwuchukwu, a public commentator and media strategist who grew up in the south-east, tells The Africa Report. 

Iwuchukwu, who has taken part in several political campaigns, adds that Obi has indeed inherited the support of IPOB sympathisers, many of whom have now registered to vote for the first time ever. “These young people, who saw the future in IPOB’s message of a bright future have transferred their love to the Labour presidential candidate with the hope that he will be the one to lead them to the Nigeria of their dream,” he says. 

Iwuchukwu says IPOB’s leader Kanu no longer makes headlines the way he did before as Obi has now upstaged him. 

“Even IPOB members and sympathisers went to get their voters’ cards, hoping to vote for Peter Obi, the man with the Midas touch who will solve all Nigeria’s structural problems. This has never happened in the history of the separatist agitation in the south-east,” he says. 

And unlike Buhari, whose administration has been arresting secessionists, Obi believes the agitations are a consequence of bad governance and he would rather engage them. 

 “I have never been in any agitation. I had said that the agitation is because of leadership failure over the years. I will engage them in dialogue if elected to power,” he told local media in June. 

The Africa Report learnt that while the activities of violent secessionists have reduced and the lockdown has not been enforced as violently as before, there is still some tension in the region. Recently, a Labour Party office was attacked by violent Biafra agitators in Enugu State, but no life was lost. IPOB has also distanced itself from the attack. 

Peter Obi’s chances 

While Obi’s candidacy has made the Biafra struggle less popular, it may also affect his chances at the polls, especially in the Muslim north where many see him as an IPOB sympathiser. 

Former governor Rabiu Kwankwaso, who enjoys a cult following in Kano State, had in June entered into negotiations with Obi with a view to forming a coalition that would see them running on a joint presidential ticket. However, talks soon broke down between the two. 

Kwankwaso said on live television that northerners would not vote for Obi because he is from the southeast and would thus be viewed as a secessionist. 

“As long as you have someone from there (south-east) in any party, it will be very difficult for the northern voters to vote. And that is the situation now,” he said on Channels Television in June. 

IPOB later lambasted Kwankwaso in a statement, saying that it has no ties with Obi but remains committed to secession. 

But Obi prefers to be seen as a national candidate and not an ethnic one. 

“Nigeria’s 2023 election should not be based on ethnicity, religion, connection, ‘my turn’ or any bias. It must be on character, capacity and determination to deal with the problems of Nigeria,” he has said. 

For the youths of the southeast, however, Iwuchukwu says the success or failure of the Biafra agitation might just be determined by the outcome of the presidential election. 

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