Author(s): Chika Oduah
Type of publication: Article
Date of publication: May 30, 2017
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.” Kanu left Nigeria to study economics and politics at the London Metropolitan University and started Radio Biafra, an obscure, niche, London-based radio station in 2009.
In one 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.
Nigeria’s ethnic politics and perceptions of marginalisation
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.
“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.
The south-eastern region of Nigeria has five states, while other regions have more.”They certainly are at a disadvantaged position now,” Obasi says. “The political configuration of the country ensures that less federal allocation gets to the southeast.” Nigeria’s national economics is closely tied to its politics. Nigeria is a highly centralised federalism that relies on revenue from oil sales. Money trickles down from the central government and more money flows towards regions that have more state and local governments.
A recent 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.
In his landmark 2015 election victory, Buhari garnered the least amount of votes in the southernmost and southeastern region. Buhari commented on this during a visit to the 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.
“I hope you have a copy of the election results,” Buhari responded to the woman. “Naturally, the constituencies that gave me 97 percent cannot, in all honesty, be treated [in the same way] on some issues with constituencies that gave me five percent. I think this is a political reality.”
The political configuration of the country ensures that less federal allocation gets to the southeast
Buhari’s soundbite has been tagged and re-posted across Nigeria’s social media spaces. “To be honest, things like the president’s 97 percent and five percent comment only helped add further fuel to the fire that the southeast is being marginalised,” Nwanze says. And that fire is already burning in the southeast. On storefronts along the streets of Umuahia, photos of Nnamdi Kanu and Odumegwu Chukwuemeka Ojukwu, the leader of the short-lived Republic of Biafra (1967-1970) are pasted on wooden doorframes. 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.
In Kanu’s mind, Umuahia does not exist in Nigeria. It is in Biafra and he is waiting for the world to acknowledge it.
A recent 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
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 south-eastern Nigeria, came after failed attempts by the Nigerian government to address the grievances expressed by south-eastern 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.
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.
Three years of war left south-eastern Nigeria in ruins. Estimates of the death toll range from one million to six million. After the Nigerian federal military government – supported by the UK – imposed blockades that made it difficult for aid groups to deliver food and relief supplies to Biafra, many children died of kwashiorkor, a severe form of malnutrition characterised by a distended abdomen.
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.
The declaration of the establishment of the Biafra nation, carved out of south-eastern Nigeria, came after failed attempts by the Nigerian government to address the grievances expressed by south-eastern Nigerians
But today, the pro-Biafra movement is back and louder than ever. Dozens of pro-Biafra activists were arrested last week in cities across southeastern Nigeria. Last year’s May 30 Biafra Remembrance Day ended in what Amnesty International described as part of a “chilling crackdown” that left at least 60 peaceful pro-Biafran activists dead at the hands of Nigerian security forces. An investigation by the organisation revealed that more than 150 pro-Biafrans were killed from August 2015 to August 2016.
Nigerian federal government officials say the country must remain united. “They say that secession is the answer to the charges of marginalisation,” said Acting President Yemi Osinbajo during a Biafra civil forum last week in Abuja. “Brothers and sisters, permit me to differ and to suggest that we’re greater together than apart.” But people like Amah and Kanu no longer identify as Nigerians. They say Nigeria has failed them. They are Biafrans.
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