Powerful Rhetoric Gives Insight Into Biafran Independence Narratives

Uboha Damia, a 75-year-old veteran of Nigeria’s 1967 civil war, holds a flag of the separatist Biafra movement during an event in Umuahia, Nigeria on May 28, 2017. (Lekan Oyekanmi/AP)

BIAFRA NIGERIA WORLD (COUNCIL ON FOREIGN RELATIONS) -- The still unknown whereabouts of Namdi Kanu, a leader of the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB), has led to public exchanges that provide insight into the mindset of at least some of Biafra's supporters. The IPOB is one of a number of organizations that are calling for the secession from Nigeria of the predominately Igbo and Christian states in southeast Nigeria, and the federal government has labeled it a terrorist organization. Following a security service raid on his house, Kanu has gone missing, either into hiding or, as his lawyer speculates, he has been killed by the security services. He is due in court to face treason charges on October 17. As he is a British subject as well as a Nigerian citizen, the British government has asked the Buhari administration for Kanu’s whereabouts, but it denied any knowledge of them.

Former Abia state governor Orji Kalu is claiming that Kanu fled to the United Kingdom via Malaysia, but this is strenuously denied by IPOB spokespersons. Mr. Emma Powerful, the IPOB’s media and publicity secretary, characterized the United Kingdom as being better organized and less corrupt than Nigeria. Further, it is “an island nation surrounded by water and it is near impossible to enter without being documented.” Accordingly, Mr. Powerful continued, the British government would know whether Kanu was in the country. The fact that the British government is asking the Nigerian government for Kanu’s where about is “proof” that he is not in Britain.

Perhaps more central to the IPOB’s outlook are Emma Powerful‘s comments about the threat posed by the “Fulani caliphate.” He accuses Kalu and other Igbo political figures who criticize Kanu as “Hausa-Fulani errand boys.” Among the Igbo errand boys, there is “an ongoing battle as to who will emerge the anointed son of the Fulani caliphate.” Fear of northern, Muslim domination of Nigeria is a long-standing theme in Igboland and other parts of the south. Some current Biafra supporters characterize the 1967-70 Nigerian civil war as a struggle between Christians and Muslims, in which the latter were victorious because of the “betrayal” of Yorubaland (a western, religiously mixed region of Nigeria), which allied with the Muslims of the north to destroy Biafra. The fact that the current president, Muhammadu Buhari, is a Fulani Muslim encourages this way of thinking. If fear of Fulani domination is one of Emma Powerful’s themes, another is bad governance. He states, “Our leader, Mazi Nnamdi Kanu before his abduction by Nigerian Army has brought an end to the era of cash and carry politics of subservience to Hausa-Fulani to the detriment of Biafra.”

Other pro-Biafra organizations are expressing support for Kanu. Uchenna Madu, the leader of the Movement for the Actualization of the Sovereign State of Biafra (MASSOB), issued a statement that Kanu is a “true hero of Biafra either dead or alive.” Madu’s statement also raises the northern specter, if perhaps with more subtlety than Mr. Powerful: “This artificial entity called Nigeria will never be united or exist as one nation as long as these [sic] established mentality of a section of the country seeing themselves as the lords of Nigeria.” His statement denounced a military operation underway in the southeast called Operation Python Dance II, as well as government opposition to the fundamental restructuring of the Nigerian state. He criticized the “acceptance of deadly Fulani herdsmen as common criminals" by the Buhari administration, arguing that, in total, these actions have prompted the “eastern, western, and Middle Belt regions of Nigeria towards self-determination for survival.”

It is to be hoped that the Nigerian federal government will respond to the upsurge of Biafra sentiment with subtlety and political skill. Southeastern leaders are in fact meeting with Buhari today, reportedly to discuss the “alleged marginalization” of the region. It is also to be hoped that Kanu is alive and well. Were he to be made a martyr, it could very well lead to further unrest and the possibility of violence.