Fifty years after the declaration of independence of Biafra, the cause of the secessionists seemed to be well and truly buried. All Nigeria’s spotlight was on the Islamist Boko Haram sect terrorizing the north of the country. Biafra was a distant memory until Nnamdi Kanu, an Igbo (majority ethnic group in the south-east) of Great Britain, appeared. A country where he had completed his studies started in Nigeria.
Kanu, 50, worked in London in the real estate industry and, apart from his family, no one was worried about his fate or his vision of the world. He came out of anonymity by founding in 2009 Radio Biafra. During the day, he worked to survive in one of the most expensive cities in the world. At night, he defended the independence cause on the airwaves. Of course, he knew he could not have done such a fight in his homeland where he was immediately arrested. For half a century, Biafra has remained a taboo subject. His supporters avoid talking about it in public so as not to get in trouble with Nigeria’s political police.
Invited to an Igbo Congress in California in 2013, Nnamdi Kanu said, “What we are missing are weapons and bullets. If we fail to create Biafra, everyone will have to die“. Two years later, during a stay in Abuja, the federal capital, he was arrested by the DSS (Department State Service), the Nigerian security services. Kanu is thrown in jail. He will spend eighteen months without being judged. On the eve of the fiftieth anniversary of Biafra’s declaration of independence, he was released at the end of April on bail by the authorities. The secessionist then decides to return to live in the house of his parents who is in Umahia, the last capital of Biafra. According to Kanu, the family home is attacked at the end of September by the Nigerian army. Several Kanu supporters were reported to have died during the assault, according to secessionists. Since then, Kanu has disappeared. On October 25, Kanu’s trial and his supporters opened in Igbo country, but the secessionist leader did not resurface. The federal regime accuses him of running away, while his supporters ask the army to prove he is still alive.
A keen sense of staging
The ephemeral Republic of Biafra (southeastern Nigeria) lived from May 1967 to January 1970. It first had Enugu as its capital, but when this city was taken by the federal army, the Biafrans retreated in the Umahia region. This city became a symbol of the fierce resistance of the Biafrans when they were blockaded and starving.
Does history repeat itself? Kanu claims that Nigerian soldiers who stormed his family sanctuary on September 11 allegedly attempted to murder him. An allegation difficult to prove. But it should be noted that the repression in Igbo country is particularly violent. Major events were organized in 2016 and 2017 to demand the release of Kanu. According to Amnesty International, their repression killed more than 150 people. When they were not killed, the demonstrators were humiliated. According to the Nigerian press, the army beat them and forced them to walk naked in the streets of Igbo cities, including Onitsha, the economic capital of Igbo country.
The Nigerian army launched in September a major operation called “Python Dance”, officially to fight against crime in Igbo country, but probably also to suppress the secessionist movement Biafra. Given its reputation for brutality, it is to be feared that the intervention of the army will strengthen the determination of the secessionists. “She’s going to throw people into Kanu’s arms who initially were not sensitive to her fight,” said Okechuku Ude, an Igbo trader.
With the Biafran activists, President Buhari decided from the outset to opt for the strong way. Thus, he reinforces Kanu’s cause. The federal government is defending itself by making it an Igbo spokesman, while many of them do not aspire to independence at all. ” Since his stay in prison, he is seen as a demi-god by the Igbos, ” said Amaka Ngozi, a university professor in Nsukka (southeastern Nigeria). According to the daily The Punch, the attitude of the federal authorities has transformed ” Kanu into a hero” for a large number of Igbos. “What he does not deserve,” says this title Lagotien.
A strong sense of marginalization
Kanu is also good at saying that “Igbos are not at home in Nigeria“. Since the civil war, they have felt marginalized, kept out of the most important posts in the higher administration or the army.
This feeling of abandonment had faded a little under the reign of the previous head of state, Goodluck Jonathan, in power until 2015. Many Igbos were incorporated in the first circle of decision: this was the case with the very influential finance minister, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala. The Igbos used to say that they had never been closer to power than under the rule of Goodluck Jonathan. Moreover, during the 2015 presidential elections, they voted overwhelmingly for him.
Since the election of Buhari, they are again removed from the circles of power. When they complain about not getting important positions, the Head of State explains that he will not please people who have not voted for him.
Buhari and Igbos: a difficult relationship
Buhari participated in the Biafra war. He has always had a difficult relationship with the Igbos. In his circle of intimacy and power, he places mainly northerners, Muslims and very often Fulani, like him.
Following his election in 2015, Buhari made no official trip to Lagos, the country’s economic capital. Nor did he visit Port Harcourt, the oil capital. On the other hand, he never hesitates to leave Abuja, the federal capital to honor with his presence a ceremony in Katsina, in the far north. His lack of appetite for southern citizens has earned him the nickname of ” northern president“.
Arewa youth (an influential northern youth movement) proclaimed last June that “the Igbos had until October 1st to leave the north“. None of the perpetrators of this threat has been worried by the authorities, confirming among the Igbos the feeling that there is a double standard in Nigeria. Since then, the Arewa youth seems to have come back on his threat, but the damage is done. Igbos feel less and less at home in the north. The declaration of independence of May 1967 was preceded by anti-Igbo pogroms. These massacres served as a pretext for Colonel Emeka Ojukwu to declare independence.
Biafra, the “promised land“
All these tensions are the game of Kanu and his followers. It is particularly emulated among younger Igbos, those who have not experienced the ravages of civil war. “Other Nigerians do not like us. We are treated as second-class citizens. So why not have our own country? More and more of us are seriously considering this hypothesis,” said Ifeomah Okereke, a student at Nsukka University.
Kanu develops the same type of argument. He claims that Igbos are a “lost tribe of Israel” and that Biafra is the “promised land“. His followers also wear the kippah and Kanu practice Shabbat. He presents himself as a spiritual guide as well as a political leader or warlord. Which makes it probably even more difficult to fight. “With the power of Nigeria and the help of the United States, Great Britain, and the USSR, it was easy enough to defeat Colonel Ojukwu, who was stuck in his Biafran squad,” Azuka Okocha Igbo business, installed in Benin. He adds: ” It is always relatively easy to destroy an army and defeat soldiers, but to destroy an idea and a dream, it is much more complicated. Kanu understood this well. ”