CAUSES, CONSEQUENCES AND REMEDIES FOR THE AGITATION OF BIAFRA SEPARATISM
There is a gap in the narrative around the renewed agitation for Biafra. Most analyses of the issue are mono-dimensional, reflecting one bias or the other. Furthermore, many studies on the subject are historically selective, placing overwhelming emphasis on the period since 1999, thereby presenting an incomplete picture which neglects the links between the current agitation for Biafra and the previous experiences dating to colonial times. Moreover, there has not been a satisfactory attention paid to discussion of the governance issues that are at the heart of the renewed separatist agitation. There is therefore the need for a systematic inquiry to understand why the agitation has persisted, nearly 50 years after the end of the Nigerian civil war, the implications of the agitation, and ways it can be addressed. This study is designed as a knowledge building effort to analyze the various elements and dynamics driving the uprising, its potential risks, and possible intervention to address them. The main objectives of this study are: a) to explain why there is a resurgence of the agitation for an independent Biafran state; b) to analyze the elements driving the renewed agitation;
c) to explore the role of Igbo leaders in the agitation; d) to examine the consequences of the recurrent agitation for Biafra; and e) to suggest measures and actors that could help in addressing the agitation.
The data used in this study were collected from four different sources, namely documentary sources (desk review), opinion survey using a questionnaire, interviews, and reports in newspapers. Data collection from documentary sources involved mapping and evaluation of the relevant literature on Nigerian politics and society particularly those relating directly to the Biafran war, its onset, termination, and post-war peace building. Documentary data were complemented by questionnaire-based survey of 121 respondents, purposively selected to reflect the various sections of the society such as Biafra supporters, community leaders, community members, and professionals. The survey was carried out in ten locations across the South East, namely Aba, Asaba, Awka, Enugu, Mbano, Nsukka, Owerri, Okigwe, Onitsha, and Umuahia (ten copies of questionnaire were sent by email to some Biafra supporters residing in Finland). Additional data were derived from interviews with key informants, drawn from among former Biafran soldiers, Biafra supporters, academics, security agents, and media practitioners. Finally, a content analysis of reports of three daily newspapers for the period – January 2010 to June 2018 was conducted.
To understand why agitation for a separate state of Biafra has been persistent, this study reviewed existing analyses. It found that extant explanations for the recurrent agitation for Biafra fall into three main strands: 1) those that focus on ethnic divisions and competition, 2) those that focus on economic frustrations, and 3) those that focus on state-society relations. Ethnicity based explanations perceive agitation for Biafra as a response to the failure of the Igbo elite to capture federal power, and “a bid for re-inclusion by political actors excluded from power.” Analyses focusing on economic frustration see the agitation as a struggle by young people expressing resentment over their deteriorating material condition. Lastly, the state-society relations perspective interprets the agitation as a “confrontation between state-led nationalism and state-seeking nationalism.”
INTRODUCTION/BACKGROUND TO THE STUDY
Since November 2015, the South East Nigeria, dominated by the Igbo ethnic group, has witnessed demonstrations by Biafran separatists. On 2 December 2015, the protests degenerated into violence, when two policemen and at least nine protesters, out of the thousands that had blocked the strategic Niger Bridge in the commercial city of Onitsha in Anambra State, were reportedly killed.1 Several properties including the city’s central mosque and eight trucks belonging to Dangote Group, a conglomerate owned by northern businessman Aliko Dangote, were destroyed during the protests. Since the 2 December 2015 incident, several protesters have been reportedly killed in clashes with security forces in Onitsha, Aba, Port Harcourt, Owerri and Asaba.2 In June 2016, Amnesty International accused the Nigerian military of killing unarmed Biafra supporters in Onitsha ahead of their planned May 2016 commemoration of Biafra. According to Amnesty, “opening fire on peaceful IPOB supporters and bystanders who clearly posed no threat to anyone is an outrageous use of unnecessary and excessive force and resulted in multiple deaths and injuries”3. To be sure, there is now a history of extra-judicial killings of supporters of Biafra, which predate the present government. For instance, in January 2013 fifty bodies believed to be Biafra supporters were found afloat in the Ezu River in Anambra State.4 Still, none of the past and present killings have been thoroughly investigated by Nigerian governments.
The immediate trigger of the recent protests by Biafran separatists was the 19 October 2015 arrest of Nnamdi Kanu, leader of the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) and director of web-based Radio Biafra, on charges of sedition, ethnic incitement and treasonable felony.5 The IPOB and Radio Biafra represent the most high-profile and radical movement for a separate State of Biafra that currently exists. The IPOB and Radio Biafra stepped-up a struggle championed by the Movement for Actualization of the Sovereign State of Biafra
(MASSOB) formed by Ralph Uwazuruike in 1999. Although MASSOB based its struggle on a non-violence pledge, its members, alleging provocation, have clashed repeatedly with police – these clashes have resulted to several deaths.6
A combination of state repression and internal dissent weakened MASSOB and introduced deep cracks in its organization. On 30 November 2015, a major faction tried to expel Uwazuruike, alleging that he had compromised the secessionist struggle and deviated into the mainstream of Nigerian politics.7 The attempted expulsion of Uwazuruike was preceded by the formation of another faction in September 2010 calling itself the Biafra Zionist Movement (BZM), later renamed the Biafran Zionist Front (BZF). On 5 November 2012, BZF leader Benjamin Igwe Onwuka and about 100 members were arrested and charged with treason after the group “re-declared the Republic of Biafra” at a rally in Enugu.8 They were later released on bail. But on 8 March 2014, Onwuka and other BZF members were again arrested and placed on trial for attempting to seize an Enugu-state-owned radio station and broadcast of another Biafra declaration.9 The detention of BZF members has led to a decline of the group’s activities. However, the weakening of MASSOB and BZF seems to have opened the way for IPOB to continue the agitation.10 The protests by IPOB have heightened security fears and tension in the South East and Niger Delta regions of Nigeria, and put pressure on the Nigerian government to deal with the agitation.
interesting because it could provide insights into other separatist movements and identity-based conflicts in Nigeria. With other past separatist movements also simmering in the Niger Delta and the Middle Belt, as well as the persistence of the Boko Haram insurgency, it is important to study these centrifugal demands in the context of their implications for peace building and development. This study is designed as a knowledge building effort to analyze the various elements and dynamics driving separatist uprising in South East Nigeria, its potential dangers, and possible interventions. The study begins with a review of the contending explanations for the persistence of Biafra separatism. It argues that perceived collective victimhood by the Igbos, rather than poverty and ethnic identity mobilization, is perhaps the most lasting impetus to the recurrence of agitations for Biafra. This does not mean that poverty and identity differences might not contribute to foster separatist feeling. Experience from elsewhere shows that they could.13 These factors, however, are not sufficient to explain why a sense of marginalization of the Igbo has enthused separatist feelings and why the Nigerian government has been unable to conclusively resolve the agitation for Biafra. This study examines the major ways the Igbo have responded to their perceived collective victimization, namely struggle for greater inclusion in Nigerian politics and efforts to disengage from Nigeria. It also discusses the consequences of the recurring agitation for Biafra, and suggests what the Nigerian government and other actors should do to resolve Biafra separatism.