50 years on: Nigeria's Biafra secessionist movement

2017-05-30 16:31
Nnamdi Kanu (AFP)

Nnamdi Kanu (AFP)

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Umuahia, Nigeria - Nnamdi Kanu waves his hand and puffs in frustration: "Nothing seems to be working in Nigeria. There is pain and hardship everywhere. What we're fighting [for] is not self-determination for the sake of it. It's because Nigeria is not functioning and can never function."

The leader of a group demanding the secession of southeastern Nigeria is speaking exclusively to Al Jazeera in the parlour of his father's home in the southeastern city of Umuahia.

It's the first time he has spoken to an international media outlet since he was granted bail on health grounds last month. His bail conditions prohibit him from being in a crowd of more than 10 people, leaving the country and giving media interviews.

But when asked if he is worried that he will get in trouble with the Nigerian authorities for speaking to Al Jazeera he scoffs, "I don't care", and rolls his eyes.

"I can't go outside to call for a press conference. I can't go on Biafra Radio to broadcast. I can't allow large [groups of] people to basically congregate outside to see me … it's like asking me not to breathe," he says.

broadcast, Kanu said: "We have one thing in common, all of us that believe in Biafra, one thing we have in common, a pathological hatred for Nigeria. I cannot begin to put into words how much I hate Nigeria."

Over the past two years, Kanu's status has risen.  

Today, he's a highly visible activist and leader of the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) organisation, and after being imprisoned in the Nigerian capital of Abuja for nearly two years on treasonable felony charges, he has now returned home.

"Kanu is my saviour," says Sopuru Amah, a senior student at one of Nigeria's oldest universities, the University of Nigeria in the southeastern city of Nsukka.

"Just like Jesus was sent to save the world, Kanu was sent by God himself to save the Igbo people."

Nigeria's ethnic politics

With an estimated population of more than 180 million, Nigeria is often called the "giant of Africa". The complexity of Nigeria's population is compounded by its ethnic diversity. Around 250 ethnic groups, each with their own languages, reside in Nigeria. With a myriad of ethnicities dotted across the landscape, three major groups tend to emerge in national dialogue due to their sheer numbers: the Yoruba, from the southwest; the Hausa-Fulani in the north and the Igbo from the southeast.

Pro-Biafrans say the federal Nigerian government is discriminating and marginalising them, the Igbo people.

"I'm not allowed to contest for the presidency of Nigeria because I'm Igbo. I'm not allowed to aspire to become the inspector general of police because I'm Igbo. I'm not allowed to become chief of army staff because I'm Igbo. What sort of stupid country is that?" Kanu asks. "Why would any idiot want me to be in that sort of country?"

In Kanu's mind, Umuahia does not exist in Nigeria. It is in Biafra and he is waiting for the world to acknowledge it.  

Since the 1964 appointment of the first indigenous Nigerian as the head of the Nigerian Police Force, known as the inspector general, more than a dozen officers have held the post. Two of them have been Igbo. In a lineup of almost two-dozen chiefs of army staff, the highest-ranking military officer in the Nigerian army, two have come from southeastern Nigeria. 

Perceptions of marginalisation

"The southeast feels it has been politically marginalised. There is a point to that. It has been shrunken from being one of the three major regions of the country to now being virtually a minority with the smallest number of states of the six zones in the federation," explains Nnamdi Obasi, a senior analyst at the International Crisis Group.

He says that there has only been one Igbo president and one Igbo vice president since Nigeria declared independence from the UK in 1960.

Pro-Biafrans also complain that the federal government is not funding enough infrastructure development in the region, despite a recent announcement by the federal Minister of Power, Works and Housing that road construction will be completed in the southeast. 

poll conducted by SBM Intelligence, a local research group, found that the pro-Biafra movement is gaining popularity in the southeast and that this growth could be a reaction to the perception that the region is marginalised and economically deprived.

votes in the southernmost and southeastern region. 

United States shortly after his win. During an address at the United States Institute of Peace, Buhari responded to a participant in the audience who asked how he would bring development to the oil-rich Niger Delta region in the south, which has suffered decades of environmental degradation due to oil spills and oil bunkering.

At the campus of Amah's university, more students are reading pro-Biafran books and followers of Kanu hold "evangelism" meetings to preach the gospel of pro-Biafra.

At crowded bus stations in town, Kanu's voice booms from loudspeakers. Many people here mark May 30 as Biafra Remembrance Day. 

A bloody past

Kanu and leaders of other pro-Biafra groups have called for supporters to stay at home on May 30 to remember those who died during the 1967-1970 Nigerian-Biafran War.

This May 30 will mark 50 years since the 1967 declaration of the Republic of Biafra, by the late Ojukwu.

The declaration of the establishment of the Biafra nation, carved out of southeastern Nigeria, came after failed attempts by the Nigerian government to address the grievances expressed by southeastern Nigerians. In 1966, thousands (PDF) of Igbo civilians were killed, mainly in northern Nigeria.

The 1966 killings began after a group of young army officers - some of whom were Igbo Christians -overthrew Nigeria's democratic government and assassinated several people, including the prime minister and other Muslim northern leaders.

"They came with every dangerous thing, some with arrow, some with gun, some with cutlasses, some with iron. So anything they could handle, they handled it and began to kill Igbo people," says Lawrence Akpu, recalling the day in 1966 when he was in a market in a town in northern Nigeria where he lived with fellow Igbos. "Everybody started running up and down and from there, we left everything we had."

Akpu joined the mass exodus of Igbo people from northern Nigeria to their ancestral homeland in the southeast.

When the war started, he joined a Biafran brigade to fight Nigerian soldiers. He says he fought wearing rubber sandals and t-shirts with holes in them. During a heavy wave of shelling, a piece of shrapnel cut into his spinal cord. Today, he's in a wheelchair.

Biafra today

The war ended in January 1970 with the surrender of the Republic of Biafra, which dissolved and was reincorporated into Nigeria. The federal government' s "no victor, no vanquished policy" was promoted to foster national unity.

report reads.

Amnesty International has released a statement recommending that the Nigerian security forces not repress today's Biafra Remembrance Day activities. 

Nigerian federal government officials say the country must remain united.

Read more on:    nnamdi kanu  |  nigeria  |  west africa
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