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An open road in Eastern Nigeria

Nigeria’s Southeast Bleeds over Renewed Biafran Independence Struggle

Infighting among factions of IPOB, the Igbo secessionist group, is leading to violent clashes and civilian deaths.

Words: Promise Eze
Pictures: Nnaemeka Ugochukwu
Date:

In 2009, the British-Nigerian political activist Nnamdi Kanu, the leader of the now-forbidden secessionist group, Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB), began broadcasting from Radio Biafra, a private station he managed with his deputy Alphonsus Uche Okafor-Mefor, in London. Through the platform’s ups and downs (it closed due to financial difficulties from 2009-2012), he conveyed his message to a global audience, emphasizing the need to establish a breakaway state in southeast Nigeria.

His broadcasts resonated primarily with the Igbo people, a significant ethnic group in Nigeria, with a population of approximately 40 million concentrated mainly in the southeast region of Nigeria. In 1967 some Igbos attempted to establish an independent nation in the region, calling it the Republic of Biafra.  However, a bloody civil war quashed the Igbo’s secessionist dreams. Nonetheless, a growing number of Igbos continued to feel marginalized by the central government. There was little funding for the region from the government and infrastructure development was slow.

Background

The Igbos’ decision to attempt to break away from Nigeria and establish the Republic of Biafra was triggered by the series of pogroms against them in other parts of the country.

However, with support from Britain, primarily driven by its economic interests linked to safeguarding oil resources in its former colony, the Nigerian federal forces managed to suppress Biafra. The war ended two and a half years later. Between 500,000 and 3 million people lost their lives, mainly due to starvation and disease caused by a federal government blockade.

But calls for Biafra did not cease. 

“We Need Guns”

In 1999, Ralph Uwazuruike, an Indian-trained lawyer, established the Movement for the Actualization of the Sovereign State of Biafra (MASSOB). However, the Nigerian government responded with a forceful crackdown on the group, resulting in Uwazuruike’s repeated arrests and the death of many of his followers. This series of events ultimately fractured the group and diminished its significance. 

Kanu was once allied with Uwazuruike, but they fell out in 2009, at which point Kanu created his own group — IPOB. Kanu is recognized for his aggressive tactics and mastery of disinformation, yet he continues to hold a revered status among his vast number of followers. Many consider him to be a savior.

“We need guns and we need bullets,” Kanu said at the World Igbo Conference in Los Angeles in September 2015.

One month later he was arrested by the Nigerian government in Lagos and tried in court for treasonable felony, a crime punishable by death. He jumped bail in 2017 and fled the country.

After a bloody crackdown in 2016 and attacks from Nigeria’s security forces, IPOB’s tactics shifted. Since the creation of the Eastern Security Network (ESN), IPOB’s militant group, in 2020, there has been an increase in attacks against Nigerian security personnel. Kanu made several statements via his broadcasts, where he urged his followers to kill security personnel and politicians and attack pan-Igbo platforms like Ohaneze.

From October 2020, when Kanu made those statements, to June 2021, over 164 police facilities were destroyed, and 175 security personnel were killed. Death tolls continue to skyrocket, which is a marked shift — the Southeast was the country’s safest region in the decade spanning 2011-2021. 

Nevertheless, IPOB has persistently denied responsibility for these assaults. This contradictory stance persists as deadly clashes between factions loyal to IPOB and the Nigerian government result in hundreds of casualties. Those expressing dissent toward IPOB’s activities often become targets and are brutally murdered.

Meanwhile, the Nigerian government’s response involves the ransacking of communities in the southeast. Even Igbos who do not support IPOB are detained without trial or extrajudicially killed.

Oludare Ogunlana, Professor of National Security, at Collin College in Texas, believes that the frequent attacks on the group without attempts to understand the underlying issues for the agitation have actually contributed to making the group more radical. “Nigeria is known to mismanage crises. Prior to Kanu’s IPOB, there were other groups advocating for Biafra which were subdued with brutal force. Even if the government employs force to quell IPOB, another, potentially more violent and perilous group could emerge,” he said. “It’s crucial for the government to engage in dialogue with the group to comprehend their grievances. The persistent failure to address the root causes of the agitation is driving young individuals toward criminal activities.”

A Revolution Against the People

When Peter Obi, a former governor of Anambra State in southeast Nigeria, rose to contest the presidency in the 2023 general election, he faced racist detractors online. Politicians and celebrities who feared that Obi was already drawing a large following from around the country, encouraged their followers not to vote for him simply because he was Igbo. Obi went on to lose in a very tightly contested election and his supporters, mainly Igbos, were attacked in different Nigerian cities.

From the state-sanctioned anti-Igbo pogroms in 1966 that saw the deaths of thousands of Igbos, to the reluctance of the Nigerian government to apologize for war crimes against the Igbos, anti-Igbo sentiments have permeated the fabric of Nigeria’s socio-political atmosphere. These sentiments continue to thrive without being addressed by the government, and coupled with the tensions between the Muslim north and the Christian south, many young Igbos harbor resentment towards Nigeria as a whole. These various factors have contributed to creating a space for various kinds of Biafra nationalist movements that have popped up over the years.

In September 2021, Dr. Chike Akunyili, the husband of the late Professor Dora Akunyili, a revered former Director-General of the National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control and Minister of information, was brutally murdered by gunmen suspected to be IPOB members in Anambra state, southeast Nigeria. He was killed alongside eight others. His unprovoked murder sparked outrage in the country because his late wife was pivotal during her lifetime in the fight against fake drugs in the country, a feat that gained her recognition all over the world.

The gunmen were enforcing a sit-at-home order, which was decreed by IPOB for every Monday in the five Southeast states in protest for the release of Kanu who was arrested in Kenya and extradited to Nigeria in June 2021. Armed gangs loyal to Kanu and IPOB have continued to attack and even kill those who dared to disregard the order.

IPOB denied responsibility for the murder of Dr. Akunyili, tagging it a “political killing” and even vowed to “get” the killers. The situation exposed the fact that IPOB leadership, since the arrest of Kanu, has lost control of the group, as more armed factions purporting to be loyal to IPOB or Kanu have sprouted, some exploiting the Biafran movement as a shield for engaging in criminal activities

Ibrahim Baba Shatambaya, a lecturer in the Department of Political Science, Usmanu Danfodiyo University, Sokoto, Nigeria, contends that IPOB should redirect its concerns through legitimate channels, avoiding violence that undermines its global support. “IPOB is responsible for the deaths of innocent Nigerians, including those it purports to represent. Such actions have no compatibility within the framework of a functioning democracy. Instead of enhancing its cause, this approach is more likely to bring about negative consequences. Agitating for statehood is serious business and therefore, constitutional methods should be employed to attain that objective,” he asserted.

Battle for the Soul of IPOB

IPOB has a history of leadership conflicts. The initial division occurred in 2020 when Kanu’s deputy, Mefor, stepped down due to a financial dispute. He subsequently launched a new radio station he called “Biafra Human Rights and Freedom Radio,” aimed at safeguarding the rights of Igbo people whom he believes are facing violations from Kanu’s IPOB.

Following Kanu’s arrest in 2021, Simon Ekpa, a lawyer based in Finland, claimed to have assumed leadership and sought to take control of IPOB’s military division, ESN. The Directorate of State of IPOB (DOS), which is based in Nigeria and is overseeing the group in Kanu’s absence, attempted to stop him, but was unsuccessful. This has led to an ongoing power struggle. 

Simon Ekpa gained attention about four years ago when Kanu instructed his followers to listen to him. But now critics say that he has successfully usurped Kanu as the leader of IPOB. As an ex-Finnish soldier and athlete who had represented Nigeria before moving abroad, Ekpa appears to be more radical than Kanu, which resonates with many young Igbos who desire secession as soon as possible. Ekpa is infamous for issuing prolonged sit-at-home orders and making threats during his live broadcasts. The continuous sit-at-home actions, coupled with resulting insecurity, have resulted in economic losses of about four trillion naira (approximately $4,210,526.3). Ekpa attempted to disrupt the 2023 presidential election in the Southeast with the help of armed gangs loyal to him. He even went as far as labeling Obi, the only Igbo individual who ran for the presidency, as an agent of Nigeria working against the interests of Biafra.

Kanu had repeatedly disowned Ekpa from detention, to the extent of issuing handwritten letters through his lawyers but Ekpa, who claims to be on the side of Kanu and fighting for his release, scoffed at them. 

Under the influence of prominent Igbos, IPOB has made several attempts to suspend the sit-at-home order, albeit with a modification that ties it to the court appearances of Nnamdi Kanu. Yet, Ekpa’s faction has declined this suspension, maintaining its enforcement with backing from an expanding cohort of followers and armed groups.

Many are concerned about the direction the group is taking under Ekpa’s leadership and the potential consequences of his radical approach. 

IPOB will have a hard time convincing the international body to recognize the call for Biafra as a sovereign state.

“It has affected people’s lives and the economy negatively. Everyone is living in fear because you don’t know who is who and you can’t even trust your neighbor. No one can achieve secession through a ‘fire brigade’ approach. The Southeast can be independent but they’re not ready for independence. So many conflicted interests,” said a Southeast resident who simply identified himself as Ikedinachi.

However, Obumneme Osuchukwu, who still believes that achieving Biafra is feasible, alleged that Ekpa is being backed by the government to give IPOB a bad name. “Currently [the Nigerian government is] backing Simon Ekpa, a charlatan, to cause chaos in the east. Ekpa is not and was never a registered IPOB member anywhere,” he said.

Ekpa, who now claims to be the Prime Minister of the Biafra Republic Government in Exile, is at the same time a politician in Finland. He is a member of the National Coalition Party of Finland and was a candidate in the 2022 Finnish county elections. Igbo leaders and the Nigerian government have continued to call for his arrest and extradition for his role in destabilizing the eastern region, including raising the issue with the Finnish ambassador to Nigeria. However, with IPOB not recognized as a terrorist organization in the US or Europe, and with Finland’s extensive freedom of expression laws, there has been no Finnish action against Ekpa. 

For Timothy Avele, a security expert, and Managing Director of Agent-X Security, based in Lagos, Nigeria, releasing Nnamdi Kanu may help reduce the insecurity in the southeast but will not restore total normalcy to the region as the struggle has been hijacked by several other interests. “The crack has already worsened the agitation. Simon Ekpa seems to have his own different agenda and there are other splinter groups scattered over the southeast region beyond what Nnamdi Kanu and Simon Ekpa controls now. There’s little the Nigerian government can do without the active support of the political class from the region,” he said.

Uchenna Emelife, a literary enthusiast, argued that IPOB should focus on the issues troubling the Southeast, rather than become a menace to the people. He explained that while he may not fully support the agitation for Biafra, he understands its basis. Yet, its aggressive approach raises concern — causing harm and neglecting real issues like poor leadership and education in the southeast. “Nigeria has a system that is not very accommodating of Igbos and so of course, it’s only natural that it would open up old wounds from grievances that have still not been attended to. So I may not think that Biafra would solve all our problems, but I cannot blame anyone who thinks it will or force them to love a country that is not doing a great job loving them in the first place.”

“The problem in Igbo land is bad leadership. We need to start pointing the right fingers at the right places and start demanding accountability from these men we put in power,” he added.

What is the International Community Doing?

The Nigerian government, which designated IPOB as a terrorist organization in 2017, has attempted to lobby the international community to do the same but it has had no success. A deadly attack on a convoy of US Embassy officials in Anambra state this year has not changed the situation.

In its attempt to seek the support of the international community, IPOB maintains embassies outside Nigeria. 

The United Nations Commission on Human Rights condemned the arrest of Nnamdi Kanu, tagging it as an “illegal, unlawful, unconstitutional extradition.”

Yet Alamu Adebayo, a public policy expert, said that IPOB will have a hard time convincing the international body to recognize the call for Biafra as a sovereign state. “The Nigerian constitution does not recognize secession and therefore IPOB would have to find a way to have the constitution amended before the international community will consider its plea. The international community can only mediate in the conflict by organizing peace talk between both sides,” he added.

Promise Eze

Promise Eze is a young Nigerian journalist passionate about using journalism to improve public discourse and catalyze development.

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