The FG’s handling of Kanu’s case and its general management of the pro-Biafra movement in the South-East have proven to be strategic blunders which ended up raising the profile of both the man and his cause. Just two years ago, Nnamdi Kanu was unknown to most Nigerians. Even within South East Nigeria, some saw him as an abrasive presence on the airwaves because of his incessant spewing inciting vitriol against Nigeria and other enemies of “Biafra” on the pirate station, Radio Biafra. His arrest, detention and prosecution for treason transformed him from a somewhat marginal figure into a prisoner of conscience. It gave the pro-Biafra movement, a personality that could embody its aspirations and made Kanu, something of a living martyr.
The larger question though, is what accounts for the resurgence of pro-Biafran populism almost fifty years after the end of the civil war? Why has the idea of Biafra drawn legions of supporters notably from generations that were born after the end of the civil war? Why is the movement growing?
The Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) is only the latest iteration of pro-Biafran mass movements dating back to 1999. That year, a little known lawyer named Ralph Unwazurike, founded the Movement for the Actualisation of the Sovereign State of Biafra (MASSOB), and began a campaign for the revival of the defunct republic. In the beginning, Uwazurike and his organisation were an unknown quantity and drew little mainstream media attention. He described himself as a Gandhian pacifist whose goal was the establishment of an independent Biafran state through peaceful means. MASSOB’s activism was restricted to sensitization campaigns, radio and online propaganda and trafficking in memorabilia. It gained national attention when in 2004 and 2005 large numbers of ethnic Igbos responded to its calls for a sit-at-home civil disobedience campaign to observe ‘Biafra Day’, which paralysed commercial activities in the South-East, parts of the Niger Delta, notably Delta North and the Port Harcourt area, and even in Igbo-dominated markets elsewhere in the federation.
|Timeline of major events associated with pro-Biafra agitation since 1999|
|1999||MASSOB founded in Okwe, Imo State|
|2005||MASSOB reintroduces Biafran Pound currency|
|2005||MASSOB asks Igbo people to stay at home on “Biafra Day”. Order largely obeyed, leading to arrest of MASSOB founder|
|2007||MASSOB founder released|
|2009||MASSOB releases Biafran passport|
|2011||MASSOB founder and 280 others arrested in Enugu|
|2012||16 MASSOB members killed in Anambra|
|2013||50 corpses found in Ezu River. MASSOB claims the bodies are their members killed by the police|
|2013||President Goodluck Jonathan brands MASSOB as one of three extremist groups threatening the security of Nigeria along with Boko Haram and OPC|
|2013||MASSOB splinters, hotheads form BZF to pursue cause by violent means|
|2014||BZF attacks Government House, Enugu. Leader arrested|
|2014||Radio Biafra heralds the formation of IPOB, starts broadcasting into the South-East and South-South|
|2015||25 MASSOB members arrested in Anambra during anniversary of the organisation, one killed|
|2015||IPOB leader arrested in Lagos|
|2015||IPOB leader granted bail, but government fails to release him, leaading to protests in Abuja|
|2016||Large pro-Biafra protests in South-East and South-South. Up to 150 protesters killed by the military|
|2017||IPOB leader freed on bail|
The Federal Government reacted to MASSOB with typical disproportion. Uwazurike was arrested and jailed while scores of MASSOB members were extra-judicially killed. In the years that followed, younger elements within the broader pro-Biafra movement rebelled against Uwazurike’s leadership, dissatisfied with his enduring pacifism which they termed as cowardice in the face of unwarranted and iron-fisted brutality of the Nigerian state. In March 2014, a group calling itself the Biafran Zionist Front, BZF, attempted to invade the Enugu State Government House, an attempt that resulted in a four-hour gun battle with security forces. They were repelled.
Kanu and IPOB represent the organised expression of a more militant pro-Biafran tendency that has emerged among a younger generation which believes that Uwazurike’s gradualist engagement with the Nigerian state has failed. The popularity of Kanu’s tirades on Radio Biafra indicates a groundswell of support for this sentiment. IPOB is fuelled by other factors, chief among which are, a pervasive local sense of alienation and marginalisation usually articulated as the lack of federal programs and projects in the South-East geopolitical region. This conviction has deepened since the inception of the present administration. President Muhammadu Buhari’s Freudian slip early in his term – remarking that zones which had delivered only 5 percent of votes cast for him – widely seen as a veiled reference to the South-East – could not expect to get the same level of federal attention as zones that supplied 97 percent of his electoral bounty, confirmed suspicions that the perceived marginalisation of the South-East would intensify under his administration. The documented extra-judicial killings of pro-Biafra protesters by federal security forces and the increasing militarisation of the region, especially last year’s Operation Python Dance, have only further compounded this sense of alienation and very likely drawn even more people into the ranks of IPOB.
Kanu’s release came after calls by some South-East politicians and governors for his release. This marks a major turning point. In the past, the pro-Biafra movement had been either completely ignored by the region’s mainstream politicians or at best tolerated as an irritant expression of youthful exuberance. The growing grassroots popularity of Kanu and IPOB seems to have awakened the political elite in the region to the pro-Biafran movement’s potential as a political force. There is a nascent recognition in official circles in the zone that the pro-Biafran movement can no longer be ignored. It is a group to either be courted, co-opted or compromised.
This raises more questions about the extent of the pro-Biafran movement’s appeal. Protests have been recorded in Igbo-speaking parts of Delta State, for example, but the extent to which separatist sentiments exist elsewhere in the Niger Delta is open to question. This question is related to the broader issue of what exact geographical and cartographical form a possible Biafra 2.0 would take?
Perception of Biafra 2.0
Over the course of a week in May 2017, SBM Intelligence sent correspondents to interview people in all the states in the South-East and South-South geopolitical zones. We also conducted an online survey open only to indignenes of those zones. A quick scan of the results shows an increased perception of Nnamdi Kanu, the leader of IPOB, as having been treated unfairly by the Federal Government. In total, 35.8% of respondents see Kanu as a freedom fighter, while the second largest proportion, 21.7% see him as a saviour for all of Southern Nigeria. This is in marked contrast to an earlier survey in which most of our respondents saw him as a noise-maker. Now, those seeing him as a charlatan comprised just 18% of respondents.
On the issue of whether the Niger Delta should be a part of any future Biafran state, 65% of respondents think that the Niger Delta’s right to self-determination should decide the question.
Looking at the survey results on a granular, state-by-state basis, it is clear that Kanu’s experience at the hand of the government has greatly caused him to be perceived as a freedom fighter in the Igbo heartland and to a lesser degree in the South South. Exactly half of the respondents from Bayelsa see him as some sort of freedom fighter, and with the exception of Delta state (34.6%), this number goes up for all the other states in the South-South geopolitical zone. However there remains a significant number of people who continue to view him as a charlatan and such sentiments can be explored to cast doubts on his sincerity and commitment to really obtaining change for the South East. Unexpectedly, this sentiment is particularly strong in Abia state where exactly half of the total respondents expressed reservations about him.
Most respondents in the SE considered Biafra to include the South-South and Civil War Biafra. Surprisingly, a significant portion of respondents in the South South agreed. A total of 42.5% of all respondents believe that both regions should make up a future Biafran state.
However, just under half, 49.3%, of the total respondents still believe that the way forward for the Nigerian state is as one country, but with “true federalism” being practised, in place of the unitary system they believe is currently in place. This thinking is supported by the fact that the largest number of respondents, 31.1%, believe that their regions (South-East and South-South) are being marginalised by the central government. Most respondents spoke of unfair leadership, perceptions of marginalisation, and restriction of economic choices, as the key reasons they currently find an idea of Biafra appealing. These are factors that can be resolved by focused and visionary leadership and does not require the force of arms to win over these respondents and by extension the larger populace in the two regions.
Our interpretation of this is while there is significant growing support to a separate Biafran State in the South East, most people are still more inclined to a united Nigeria with true federalism or some other arrangement that grants greater autonomy to the regions, leaving the door open for conversations around the restructuring of our nation. This is clearly the direction to go.
Our survey reveals that in general terms, there is rising support for a Biafra in the South East and South South geopolitical zones. However, those who support secession are not yet in the majority. More people are inclined towards a restructuring within a united Nigeria. Considering that Aba has been an epicentre of IPOB protests, we found that in Abia State in particular, support for Biafra is very low compared with the rest of the South East. A deeper interrogation of that showed that new economic initiatives may be responsible for the renewed belief in their prospects within Nigeria.
Support for the idea of Biafra is greater in Delta State than it is in the other South South states. We believe that because of the presence of a large Igbo speaking community, with respondents in Delta North almost unanimous in support. However, respondents in Delta Central and Delta South are also leaning towards the idea because of increasing hardship, and rising cases of conflict with herdsmen, most of whom are from the North of the country.
A key point is to note the reasons for support. These are issues that do not require military force for the government to fix and win the people over. Creating martyrs and symbols as is being done with Nnamdi Kanu, and will be done if military forces kill more protesters is counterproductive and will only further strengthen the perception of oppression and marginalisation that fuels the separatist sentiments, winning over those who today do not support it. The government must make use of a policy/diplomatic approach in solving the problem, targeted at winning hearts and minds more than anything else.
In May 2017, SBM conducted a survey in South-East and South-South Nigeria and found growing support for the pro-Biafra movement in both regions. Download the report.