OBASI: To Tackle Biafra, Let Govt Show Fairness To All
What triggered the recent surge of agitation for Biafran independence?
THE immediate trigger was the October 19 arrest by the Department of State Services (DSS) of Nnamdi Nwannekaenyi Kanu, leader of a separatist organisation, the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB), and director of Radio Biafra, an unlicensed station urging violent struggle to achieve independence for Biafra in Nigeria’s South east. Charges against him include sedition, ethnic incitement and treasonable felony. Some of these offences carry heavy penalties, from long jail terms to the death sentence. The agitators are primarily demanding his freedom, but also calling for the restoration of Biafra as an independent country.
Does Biafra exist as a distinct unit in Nigeria today?
No, and the separatists are not clear about how they see the territory of the “new Biafra”. Some claim it would include all areas inhabited by people of Igbo descent, including parts of the oil-rich Niger Delta to the south and Benue State to the north, but the peoples of these regions vehemently oppose inclusion in any new Biafra. Other separatists say a restored Biafra would be limited to the five core Ibo states – Abia, Anambra, Ebonyi, Enugu and Imo – referred to administratively as Nigeria’s “South East Zone”.
Nigeria’s last national census in 2006 counted 18.9 million people in the five states of the South East zone. There were no questions about ethnicity in the census, but in these five states, Ibos constitute nearly all of the population. The trouble for Biafran separatists is that the South East zone is landlocked and has only marginal natural resources. Its agricultural land is already densely populated and overworked, and, should ethnic conflict intensify, certainly it could not sustain many of the millions of Ibos who live in other parts of Nigeria.
What other factors have fueled the protests?
In a way, this is a new attempt to attract attention and spending from the central government, but it is based on a cocktail of longstanding and recent economic and political grievances. Some pre-date the three years during which Biafra fought to establish its independence in 1967-70. The would-be state was recognised by five countries (Côte d’Ivoire, Tanzania, Zambia, Gabon and Haiti), but was reintegrated into Nigeria after losing a bitter war in which one million people died, mostly of starvation and disease due to a federal government blockade.
The South East, like much of the country, suffers from deficient and dilapidated infrastructure and widespread youth unemployment. The resulting economic frustration feeds into longstanding complaints that the Federal Government never fully rehabilitated the region after the civil war. Critics hold that administrative changes (such as the creation of new states and local government areas) decreed by northern-led military governments from 1983 to 1999 diminished the region’s share of federal appointments, revenue and development projects.
Grievances were further aggravated when President Muhammadu Buhari’s first appointments after coming to power this year were seen by many as favouring the North. Subsequent ministerial appointments have substantially redressed the earlier imbalance, but mistrust persists. Agitators say the South East is not getting its due from the country’s federal system.
What are the recent politics of Biafran separatism?
For over a decade, agitation for Biafra’s restoration was championed by the Movement for Actualization of the Sovereign State of Biafra (MASSOB), formed in 1999 and led by Ralph Uwazuruike. The group pledged to be non-violent but, over time, its members, alleging provocation, clashed with police repeatedly, resulting in the death of several members. (In May 2008, the group alleged security operatives had killed an implausible 2,020 members since 1999).
Uwazuruike claims he is MASSOB’s sole sponsor but the group also sells “Biafran passports” to members and fundraises from some Diaspora Igbo organisations. In May 2013, then President Goodluck Jonathan listed the movement (along with the radical Islamist Boko Haram and the militant Yoruba group, the O’odua People’s Congress) as an “extremist group” threatening Nigeria’s security. In recent years, MASSOB has fractured and, on 30 November 2015, a major faction tried to expel Uwazuruike, alleging he had compromised the secessionist cause and pocketed some 100 million naira of the group’s funds.
In September 2010, a splinter group formed the Biafra Zionist Movement (BZM), later renamed as the Biafran Zionist Front (BZF). It claimed international links and even an “alliance” with Israel. On 5 November 2012, BZF leader Benjamin Igwe Onwuka “re-declared the Republic of Biafra” at a rally in Enugu; he and about 100 members were promptly arrested and charged with treason, but granted bail. On 8 March 2014, Onwuka and BZF members tried to seize an Enugu-state-owned radio station and broadcast another Biafra declaration: they were arrested by police and are now on trial.
What do we know about the group involved in the recent flare-up?
Kanu, the figure at the centre of the current unrest, fell out with Uwazuruike in 2009, and emerged as the leader of IPOB in 2012. Shortly thereafter, he set up Radio Biafra, live-streamed from London, which broadcast highly provocative messages laced with misinformation, hate speech and anti-Nigeria derision. IPOB has more recently opened “embassies” (small offices) in the Basque county in Victoria, Spain, and also in Luxemburg.
Following Buhari’s victory in the March 2015 election, Kanu’s Radio Biafra stepped up its messages of hate and incitement against the new president, his government and northern Nigerians.
What is the relationship between the Biafra separatist movement and other restive groups in the Niger Delta?
The Igbo of the South East and minority groups in the Niger Delta share common feelings of marginalisation. IPOB has strong following among the Igbo in Rivers State, particularly in its chief city, Port Harcourt. MASSOB’s leaders and some ex-militant Niger Delta leaders have exchanged solidarity visits and jointly called for the right to self-determination.
However, the Igbo and delta groups are sharply divided over their practical interpretation of what to do with that right. Most groups in the delta are demanding regional autonomy and the right to control their petroleum resources within Nigeria.
How have the Federal Government and security agencies responded?
President Buhari has said Nigeria is indivisible. Initially police action was largely restrained, although they broke up some rallies, arrested scores of people and charged 137 as at 1 December. The agitators claimed some protestors were killed by police and posted gruesome pictures of alleged casualties on social media, which were repudiated by the authorities.
But Army Chief Lt Gen Tukur Buratai later vowed to “crush” any threat to the country’s unity and territorial integrity, a warning apparently carried out in the 2 December shooting of protesters.