The survival of Nigeria as we know it now is increasingly put into question by separatist movements. Even if it is difficult to assess the real consistence of these groups, the danger cannot be underestimated.
The ghost of a war fought almost fifty years ago is haunting Nigeria. In 1967 the declaration of independence of a land called Biafra (encompassing the territory of some of the states in the South, where most of the oil plants can be found) led to a 30 months long civil war that was won by the Nigerian government. Nigerian security forces succeeded in encircling the rebels occupying the coast and stopping them from accessing to the sea. The following blockade led to a famine that killed (according to the estimates) a number of people between 500,000 and 2,000,000 who died of starvation.
The memory of this war and the economic and social grievances are used by movements coming from the Igbo ethnic group that are calling for a secession from Nigeria. The most public figure in this campaign is Mazi Nnamdi Kanu, the leader of Indigenous Peoples of Biafra (IPOB). Kanu is the son of a Nigerian monarch (the traditional ruler of Afaraukwu), and has a double passport (Nigerian and British) and is a Jew. According to some Nigerian analysts, even if he and his supporters are trying to project an image of Kanu as a victim, he started as the speaker of an illegal radio, Radio Biafra, and was quite notorious for his violent tones against Nigerian institutions. It was the ‘persecution’ from the security forces that transformed him into a martyr. He was arrested in October 2015 and, even though different judges granted him bail, he was denied it from the security apparatus different times before being freed in April 2017 due to health problems. The harsh treatment the state reserved to him made Kanu more famous, more popular, and therefore increased the number of IPOB militants and its funding. According to a November 2016 report from Amnesty International, from August 2015 and August 2016, Nigerian security forces killed 150 IPOB militants who were peacefully demonstrating for the independence of Biafra. The authorities dismissed these allegations. In a speech held on 9 August 2017, Kanu stated that if he were to be arrested again, the Republic of Biafra would become a reality faster. IPOB launched a campaign to boycott all the elections to be held in the South East states, starting from the 18 November 2017 gubernatorial elections in Anambra State. The other main autonomist group is the Movement for the Actualization of the Sovereign State of Biafra (MASSOB) which is older than the IPOB and is led by Uchenna Madu.
A country divided?
As reported by Jideofor Adibe in an article for Brookings Institution (July 2017), the Igbo agitation is not the only one taking place. It is just the one which gets more media attention, if only in Nigeria. In the North of the country some political groups ask for the creation of an Arewa Republic, another independent state. In the very same south agitated by Igbo activism, some movements want to create a ‘Niger Delta Republic’, an independent entity which should encompass some of the territories of the Niger Delta region.
On 5 August 2017 the Coalition of Niger Delta Niger Agitators, an umbrella group active in the Niger Delta, said it is ready to fight against the Government if the Government doesn’t share power and fiscal resources with the states. Within the Yoruba ethnic group, some sectors call for the creation of a ‘Oduduwa Republic’, while others ask for a Sovereign National Conference to decide the fate of Nigeria as a state. On 27 July 2017 in Lagos, the Yoruba Liberation Command (YOLICOM, a Yoruba group) declared that the Yoruba are ready to secede from Nigeria to create the ‘Oduduwa Republic’. YOLICOM claimed that Nigeria is dominated by the Fulani ethnic group. New movements appear more and more frequently in the local press.
It is difficult to evaluate the strength of these movements in terms of popular consensus and number of supporters. But it seems that since Muhammadu Buhari, a Northerner, was elected President of the Republic in 2015, they are becoming more vocal and aggressive. And not only against the Nigerian institutions, but also towards other communities. As a reaction of the ‘rise’ of Igbo separatism, on 6 June 2017 the Coalition of Arewa Youth, a group of young people from the North, published the so called ‘Kaduna Declaration’. This Declaration is an ultimatum to the Igbos living in the 19 states of Northern Nigeria: they must leave by 1 October 2017. After some talks with politicians, community elders and state security officers, on 24th August the Coalition suspended indefinitely its ultimatum. It is worth noting that the Coalition asked the Federal Government to let IPOB organize a referendum on secession. On 30 July, some alleged IPOB militants briefly disturbed a service in Saint Joseph Catholic Church in Ewulobia (Anambra State), a service attended by the governor of the state. IPOB denied any responsibility and stated that its ranks were infiltrated by miscreants. According to ASLADD, an NGO operating in Anambra State, Radio Biafra is still disseminating hate speech while IPOB militants extort money from traders and harass people. In early August Nigerian press reported that a song in Hausa language spreading hate towards Igbos and calling for the secession from Nigeria is being diffused through social media in the North of the country. Between 10th and 12th September unidentified men attacked Kanu’s home in Umuhaia clashing with his supporters. IPOB accused the Nigerian Security Forces but the Army denied any responsibility. Following those clashes, Nigerian Security Forces declared IPOB a terrorist organization. After the attack to their home, Kanu and his parents went missing.
In an article for the Nigerian newspaper ‘Vanguard’ (7 June 2017), Kingsley Moghalu (former Deputy Governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria) tried to put the Biafra issue into perspective. Even if nominally it’s a federal republic, Nigeria is a centralized country, with little power left to its states. According to Moghalu, this is a consequence of the military rule in Nigeria in the past decades. This phenomenon has a relevant consequence in terms of mentality within the political class, a consequence identified in the principle ‘the winner takes all’. That is to say, the political leader has in hand all the resources and can distribute them according to his will. Usually, the resources go to the ethnic or religious group of the leader. But this creates resentment among those who are excluded. Excluded who could begin to think to go on their own.
The different distribution of the economic resources (the state money) is a common theme in the words of the different separatist groups. But how to implement this principle? The main solution is the restructuring of the institutions and the devolution of power from the centre to the single states. According to Moghalu, the choice is between three hypotheses: a central government which remains strong even if it transfers some of its powers to the states; a federation like the U.S.A., with a government which has the same status as the single states; and a confederation, like Switzerland, in which the single states are superior to the central government.
There is also the problem of the single units that form the federal state. According to Moghalu, most of the 36 states that constitute the Nigerian federation are not economically sustainable. The alternative could be a repartition in six zones that comprise some of the old states.
The joker’s truth
A controversial Nigerian artist and activist, Charles Oputa (better known as Charly Boy), expressed an interesting point of view on the subject of Biafran independence. According to what he wrote in the ‘Sahara Reporters’ (April 2017), as a young Igbo he fought during the civil war between 1967 and 1970.
In several articles published by Nigerian media he expressed his skepticism about the idea of an independent Biafra. “I believe in the oneness of all Nigerian peoples. I believe that we have gotten to a point in our national history where a Yoruba man cannot live in isolation from an Igbo man. Likewise, an Ijaw man cannot live in isolation from a Hausa/Fulani man. All tribes in Nigeria today have become a mat of interwoven fibers that cannot be segregated. There have so far been intertribal marriages, intertribal business ownership, and intertribal partnership; and countless other intertribal collaborations and relationships in Nigeria”.
According to him, “the suffering of the people from the South East is also the suffering of the people from the other geopolitical zones in Nigeria. And the oppression of the Igbo people is also the oppression of all Nigerian peoples. An injury to one is an injury to all. A Biafra state is not going to change the players of the game, it will only exacerbate the sufferings of the victims of the game. […] my people, let us dutifully work ourselves back into reckoning by fighting for Fairness, Justice, and Equality for all Nigerians; Not Ibos only, Yorubas only or Hausas only but all Nigerians”. (Vanguard, 12 August 2017).