In September Nigeria’s military launched Operation Python Dance II, its second military exercise in South East Nigeria this year. It was carried out with the intention of quashing any calls for secession in a region with a long history of antagonism with the central Nigerian state. The stakes are high. An attempt in the 1960s to proclaim an independent Republic of Biafra in the same region resulted in the 1967–70 Nigerian Civil War in which 3 million people were killed and millions were displaced.
The desire for independence among Igbo people of South East Nigeria is fuelled by a feeling of marginalization, and historical grievances against a state that they say doesn’t represent them. Feelings have reached boiling point with this latest military action. Python Dance II escalated into a violent confrontation in which supporters of secessionist group the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) claim some of their members were killed, and the home of the group’s leader, Nnamdi Kanu, was raided. Kanu has not been seen in public since the raid on his house.
Revived calls for independence
The new campaign for Biafran independence is largely championed by young people who were born after the civil war, with no memory of the suffering it caused.
The first sign of reviving the call for Biafra emerged in 1999 – shortly after the end of Nigeria’s period of military rule – in the form of an organisation called MASSOB, the Movement for the Actualization of the Sovereign State of Biafra. The group was led by Ralph Uwazuruike, who had several brushes with security agencies, and was arrested and imprisoned on charges of treason.
IPOB came to prominence at the centre of the latest wave of Igbo nationalism following the arrival in office of Nigeria’s President Muhammadu Buhari. The tone of the new president towards the people of the southeast was perceived as at best dismissive, and at times hostile. He was accused of favouring his northern constituents, notably in terms of senior government appointments. The president has yet to visit the southeast. With anti-Abuja sentiment growing in the southeast, IPOB seized the opportunity to reactivate the demand for secession.
IPOB leader Nnamdi Kanu was at the forefront of these demands. A British-Nigerian political activist, Nnamdi Kanu is the director of London-based Radio Biafra, a broadcast outfit set up to propagate the demands of secessionists. He had been recruited by MASSOB leader Uwazuruike to run Radio Biafra in London. The pair fell out and Kanu later re-emerged as IPOB leader. The station broadcasts daily programmes in English and the Igbo language, including anti-Nigeria and pro-Biafra propaganda.
Arrests and demonstrations
Nnamdi Kanu was initially arrested in Nigeria’s commercial capital, Lagos, on 14 October 2015, during a private visit. He was detained and arraigned in court on charges of criminal conspiracy and treason. The Nigerian government accused him of inciting hatred, threatening state security, and mobilizing for secession – an offence which carries a maximum sentence of death. He was twice granted bail, but security agencies ignored the court’s decisions. Prior to his arrest, Kanu was relatively little-known, without the profile his imprisonment has since generated.
After demonstrations were held across major cities in the south demanding he be freed, Kanu was released on 28 April 2017 under stringent conditions which included an order not to be seen in a gathering of more than 10 persons. But rather than resolving the crisis, his release from detention seems to have heightened tension in the southeast. His supporters staged more rallies, announced that they had set up their own security arm, and clashed with government security forces. Things came to a head with the launch of Operation Python Dance II.
The results of military action
Shortly after the raid on Kanu’s home the military declared IPOB a terrorist organization – a move which was endorsed by the Nigerian government but rejected by many Nigerians and international observers. Critics of the conduct of Nigeria’s military make the point that IPOB supporters are not known to be violent and that the protests have been largely peaceful. During the demonstrations some protestors threw sticks and stones but there were no reports of armed confrontation. The EU and the US rejected the decision but Nigeria maintains it is irreversible and has warned foreign governments and organizations not to interfere.
The government’s response to the IPOB and the situation in the southeast is comparable with its response to the Islamic Movement of Nigeria (IMN). The home of the leader of the IMN and Nigeria’s minority Shia population, Ibrahim Zakzaky, was raided in December 2015 by the Nigerian army who killed hundreds of his followers and buried them in a mass grave. Zakzaky was seriously injured and detained with members of his family and has not been seen since, despite a court order for his release in December 2016.
Like IPOB, Zakzaky’s group is viewed as a security threat by the government. The state government of Kaduna – home to the majority of Nigeria’s Shias – has banned the group and proscribed it a terrorist organization. Like IPOB, members of IMN are said to have carried out non-violent protests against Nigeria’s government and the treatment of their leader has led to anger and demonstrations against the state.
Such proscriptions and disproportionate responses to groups that express grievances against or oppose the state risk in fact fuelling the causes of these movements and escalating situations – something Nigeria’s stretched security forces can ill-afford.
The risk of insurrection
Indeed, in the southeast, Operation Python Dance II seems to have emboldened rather than silenced IPOB supporters, through adding to the feeling of discrimination felt in the region and by making a martyr out of Kanu. And in any case, IPOB may be the most prominent, but it is not the only group advocating secession. MASSOB is also accused of violence by Nigeria’s government, and, like Kanu, Uwazuruike has previously been imprisoned, accused of treason and released. There are several other pro-Biafra groups in the southeast but internal disputes have so far prevented them from presenting a unified front.
The umbrella body of Igbo people, Ohaneze Ndigbo, has openly voiced its concerns and is calling for the government to address the grievances of the region. They may not all support IPOB’s rhetoric but are vehemently against labelling the group a terrorist organization, and condemn attacks against its members.
Kanu’s continued absence and violent confrontations risk igniting an insurrection that could destabilize Nigeria’s southeast. The federal government’s response and tactics employed by Nigeria’s military should be called into question as forces are stretched on many fronts. In addition to the Boko Haram crisis in the northeast, the military has also been deployed to combat a rise in kidnapping of civilians and violence in the oil producing Niger Delta region. The proscribing of IPOB could in fact lead to a fully armed insurrection, plunging the country into deeper insecurity and sewing further division in this fragmented nation.
Sola Tayo, Associate Fellow, Africa Programme and Fidelis Mbah, journalist.