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Nigeria: Who is Nnamdi Kanu? From Biafra secession, to follower incitation

By Nwokoye Mpi
Posted on Wednesday, 16 June 2021 12:13

Biafran separatist leader Nnamdi Kanu attends a court hearing at the Federal High court in Abuja, Nigeria ,Friday, Jan. 29, 2016. Saturday Oct. 17, 2015. (AP Photo)

Nnamdi Kanu, the leader of the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) wants secession from Nigeria. To do so, he incites followers to acts of violence against Nigerian security forces, engages expensive Washington-based lobbyists, and has established a paramilitary wing.

The controversial tweet by Nigeria’s President Buhari that was immediately deleted by Twitter, sparked commentary accusing the head of state of inciting violence against the Igbo people. But the fight for Biafra remains a divisive issue especially with Nnamadi Kanu at the helm.

While speaking at a gathering of Igbos in the United States five years ago, Nnamdi Kanu, the leader of the Nigerian separatist group, the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB), made a request:

“We need guns and we need bullets,” Kanu told the audience at the World Igbo Congress in Los Angeles in September 2015. He said without them, the Igbos would be overrun by the Hausas who, according to him, had succeeded in planting Governor Rochas Okorocha in the south-east. At the time, Okorocha, who speaks fluent Hausa, was the governor of Imo, one of the five states in the south-east.

Kanu’s request was turned down.

Although he later clarified that it was for self-defence against criminal herdsmen back home in Nigeria’s south-east region, analysts believe that his call for arms marked a turning point in IPOB’s relationship with the Nigerian state.

‘The animals in the zoo’

From 2012 when it was founded, IPOB’s activities had comprised mostly of organising street rallies in south-eastern Nigeria and Kanu’s daily, inciting outbursts on Radio Biafra, a propaganda radio station he established four years earlier where he rails at Nigerian public officials. He refers to Nigeria as ‘Zoo’ and frequently urges his listeners and followers to attack “the animals in the zoo.”

  • In October 2015, during a visit to Nigeria, Kanu was arrested and charged with “criminal conspiracy, intimidation and membership of an illegal organisation.”
  • Between 2015 and 2016, at least 150 peaceful pro-Biafra agitators were killed by Nigerian security agencies, according to Amnesty International.

The rise of ‘The Director’

How did Nnamdi Kanu rise to become a prominent voice in Nigeria’s south-east region?

He was born Nnamdi Okwu Kanu on September 25, 1967, into a royal family in Abia State, in Nigeria’s south-east. He attended the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, and later moved to the UK where he gained British citizenship.

It was there that he founded Radio Biafra in London in 2009, and the Indigenous People of Biafra four years later. In the beginning, he was simply known as ‘The Director,’ and was introduced at gatherings as Director of Radio Biafra.

Biafran supporters of Nnamdi Kanu stage a protest on Whitehall. London, UK. – 23 Sep 2016. Photo by Matthew Chattle/REX/Shutterstock

Before the establishment of IPOB, another pro-Biafra separatist, Ralph Uwazuruike, had formed the Movement for the Actualisation of the Sovereign State of Biafra (MASSOB) in 1999. Like IPOB, it garnered huge followership among Igbo youths but the agitation fizzled out years later, in spite of the continued marginalisation of the south-east by the federal government.

The demise of MASSOB created a vacuum, so IPOB filled that void.

Kanu returned to Nigeria in October 2015 and was arrested by officials of the State Security Services (SSS) in Lagos. He was later flown to Abuja where he was detained without trial for over a year. He was later charged with “criminal conspiracy, intimidation and membership of an illegal organisation.” He was granted bail 18 months later on health grounds.

Some of the conditions for his bail include:

  • Must not hold rallies;
  • Must not grant interviews;
  • Must not be in a crowd of more than 10 people;
  • Must provide three sureties in the sum of N100m (about $250,000), one of whom must be a highly respected Jewish leader; and he must deposit both his Nigerian and British passports with the court.

In 2017, while Kanu was still out on bail, soldiers invaded his home in Umuahia, south-eastern Nigeria, reportedly killing five people and injuring many others. He fled during the attack and his whereabouts remained unknown for several months. A few weeks later, Kanu’s IPOB was proscribed by the Nigerian government.

Bail revoked

He resurfaced in Israel in October 2018, where he said during a broadcast on his Radio Biafra that he owes his “survival to the state of Israel.”

A video showed him praying at the Western Wall in Jerusalem draped in a prayer shawl sparked questions of how he got to Israel despite submitting his travel passports to the Nigerian court added to his veneration by his followers.

His bail was revoked by the Nigerian court in 2019 and he was declared wanted. The judge said she gave the order because of Kanu’s repeated failure to attend his trial. Kanu’s lawyer, however, said his client would return to Nigeria to face trial on the condition that his safety would be guaranteed.

The judge responded with “even judges are no longer safe in the country.”

Paramilitary wing established

IPOB has since established the Eastern Security Network (ESN) as its paramilitary wing in response to the escalating herdsmen-farmers clashes in the south-east. In his broadcasts, Kanu frequently orders his followers to attack and kill Nigerian security officers.

According to the Nigerian Army, the ESN have killed 128 military and police personnel, as well as 15 civil defence officers, and 31 community policing members in the South-east.

What’s next?

In March this year, Kanu enlisted the services of an American lobbying firm to help IPOB win the support of the US government. The one year deal is reportedly worth $750,000.

In April, IPOB made a formal declaration of partnership with Ambazonia secessionists who want to carve out a new nation from the  Northwest and Southwest regions of Cameroon.

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