Rebels from Ethiopia’s northern Tigray region have announced that they are releasing more than 4,200 prisoners of war, almost two months after ... they agreed to observe a “humanitarian truce” declared by the federal government.
The Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) wants the independence of the Igbo, the country’s third-largest ethnic group. But President Muhammadu Buhari’s choice of using force instead of dialogue could lead to another insurgency, while the Islamist rebels of Boko Haram in the north are continuing to fight their insurgency some 10 years on.
On 5 April, while residents getting out of bed in the south-eastern Imo State, armed men – who the police claim were IPOB members – attacked a federal prison and released some 1,800 inmates before burning the nearby police command headquarters.
No group has claimed responsibility for the attack yet, but the police blamed the incident on the secessionist group, which has been running a self-funded security outfit known as the Eastern Security Network (ESN) since December 2020.
IMO ATTACK – IGP DEPLOYS SECURITY REINFORCEMENT SQUADS, SETS UP SPECIAL INVESTIGATION TEAM (SIT)
•Directs CP Imo and the Special Investigation Team to Fish-Out and Bring Perpetrators to Book
— Nigeria Police Force (@PoliceNG) April 5, 2021
Emma Powerful, an IPOB spokesperson, denies any involvement in the jailbreak. He did not answer journalists’ questions about how the launch of the ESN in December 2020 has coincided with a spike in the rate of attacks in the south-east where policemen are targeted.
The situation is worrisome and is being closely monitored, says Isa Sanusi, a spokesperson for Amnesty International in Nigeria.
In response to the prison brake, governors and other stakeholders of the region held a meeting and announced on 11 April the creation of a new regional security outfit named EBUBEAGU.
Spike in attacks
Data from the US-based think tank the Council on Foreign Relations shows that the south-east region (states of Anambra, Abia, Ebonyi, Imo and Enugu) has averaged 2.5 deaths per daily since IPOB’s ESN was founded in December, compared to the 0.5 deaths in the three months ahead of its launch.
Cheta Nwanze, lead partner at SBM Intelligence, a Lagos-based research and intelligence firm, says although the deteriorating security situation is not yet up to the level of an insurgency, “there is a possibility that it could evolve into that if we are not careful.”
“While what we have in the north is an insurgency, what we have in the south-east at worst can be defined as an insurrection,” Nwanze adds.
Dreams of Biafra more than 50 years later
We are determined to liberate Biafra from Nigeria, whether they like it or not. Buhari has never listened to us since we started; he doesn’t like the Igbos. Emma Powerful, IPOB spokesperson
Founded in 2012, IPOB says it wants to restore the independent state of Biafra, which was crushed by Nigerian forces during the 1967-1970 civil war that killed more than one million people, mostly Igbo.
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Nnamdi Kanu, IPOB’s leader, is currently based in the UK, where he operates an internet radio station pushing the group’s agenda. He claims south-easterners are not welcome in Nigeria.
IPOB is not alone in the struggle for Biafra. There are others, like the Movement for the Actualisation of the Sovereign State of Biafra (MASSOB) and the Niger Delta Peoples Salvation Force.
Their secessionist drives are also motivated by claims that the south-east region has been marginalised, especially in terms of key government positions. Not much has changed under President Muhammadu Buhari, who took office in 2015.
As of June 2020, only 8% of Buhari’s appointees were from the five south-east states, making it the least-favoured and the only geopolitical zone that did not have a state featured among the top 10 states in the list of the president’s appointments.
“We are determined to liberate Biafra from Nigeria, whether they like it or not. Buhari has never listened to us since we started; he doesn’t like the Igbos,” says Powerful.
More than just neglect?
When we talk about marginalisation, we are focusing on the symptoms and not the causes. Cheta Nwanze of SBM Intelligence
Some argue the problem is much deeper though and comes from years of neglect in terms of investment and resource distribution.
In Nigeria, the monthly federal allocation to states, representation at the federal legislative chamber and rotation of key government positions are carried out based on statistics at the state and local government levels. This formula has hurt the south-east zone, as it is the region with the least number of states and local governments.
“The real issue is an economic issue. When we talk about marginalisation, we are focusing on the symptoms and not the causes. People express their frustration in different ways and in the south-east, they express it in a typical place called Biafra,” Nwanze says.
Ralph Uwazuruike, leader of MASSOB, declined to speak on the issue when contacted, but back in 2007 he stated he was pushing for a Biafra republic because “there is a lot of tribalism here and we cannot allow our people to be treated like slaves in their own land.”
IPOB key suspects
In September 2017, Nigerian soldiers invaded the country home of Kanu, in an apparent effort to crush the Biafra agitations. Kanu managed to escape, but other IPOB members were not as lucky: 10 were killed and 10 were taken by the soldiers, according to Amnesty International.
In the following days, the group was banned and classified as a terrorist organisation. But that move by the Nigerian authorities emboldened Kanu and IPOB.
From the UK, where the secessionist leader fled after jumping bail in his trial for treason, Kanu has intensified efforts to mobilise support for the Biafra struggle. Amid reported killings in the south-east, he set up the ESN as a security outfit following allegations that the Nigerian security forces colluded with herdsmen suspected of involvement in the attacks.
“ESN was formed to stop the Fulani killings in our land, and we have been recording successes since then,” Powerful says.
Although the IPOB spokesperson insists that the group is “not interested in anything concerning security officers”, it remains a key suspect in attacks on security operatives in the region.
Parallel to Boko Haram
“Not so much is different from how Boko Haram started in what we are seeing now in the south-east. In fact, there are more similarities than there are differences between the two groups,” says Jack Vince, a security expert.
As is the case with Kanu and IPOB, the arrest and subsequent killing of Mohammed Yusuf – Boko Haram’s founder – elevated him to hero status, while the use of force in crushing members of the sect after a 2009 uprising pushed them to rebel against the government.
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A year after Yusuf’s execution by the police, Boko Haram members broke into a prison in Bauchi State, freeing all prisoners as their onslaught against the Nigerian government was intensifying.
“Killing people in uniform and sabotaging anything that had to do with the government was what Boko Haram was doing in the early days, and I notice that is what is happening in the south-east,” Vince adds.
“If there is anything the government should learn from the experience of Boko Haram in the north-east, it is the fact that they should not take [an] insurgency of any kind for granted. It could spiral into several other things. If you want to dialogue with ESN or IPOB, the time is now. We are where we are because the government failed to dialogue with Boko Haram in its early days.”
‘You cannot use force to solve every problem’
IPOB enjoys some support in the south-east region, but residents are worried about what will happen if things do not change.
In the worst-case scenario, an insurgency would strike the region faster than Boko Haram did in the north-east as a result of its smaller size. While the north-east has a land area of 275,000 km², the southeast spreads across just 30,000 km².
“You cannot use force to solve every problem. Sometimes, you have to use your head, you have to negotiate. You cannot put out fires that are economic in nature by using overbearing force,” SBM’s Nwanze says.
“What needs to happen in the region is for there to be a middle ground, where security is guaranteed and the security services of the Nigerian state are also accepted. Nigeria needs to rejig its security architecture [because] the current security architecture has failed,” concludes Nwanze.
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