Nigeria treats us like slaves’ – but is Biafra the answer?

Leader of Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) Nnamdi Kanu greets supporters in Umuahia

It is 50 years since Nigeria’s brutal civil war calling for the secession of Biafra started. By the time it ended in 1970 over one million people had perished. Now a new movement has emerged calling for independence. The BBC’s Tomi Oladipo explores its popularity.

Hidden high in the luscious, green hills of Enugu in south-east Nigeria, down a beaten track – under a sign that says leprosy colony – is the Biafran war veterans’ camp.

Like its location, residents there are verging on obscurity.

Four old men sitting on parallel wooden benches, propped up on metal crutches – swaying and chanting along to an old battle song.

They fought and were crippled in the bloody Biafran war.

“We went to that war with nothing, we went empty-handed,” says Francis Njoku. “Some held machetes, some had sticks. They [Nigerian forces] had machine guns.”

Mr Njoku, now 69, lost his kneecap in a gun battle.

It was a desperate fight for survival. But it ended in a ceasefire and Biafra became part of Nigeria again.

Biafra War veteran Francis Njoku

Biafra war veteran Francis Njoku: “Nigerians are maltreating us – like slaves”

 

At the end of the war, the Nigerian head of state General Yakubu Gowon declared there was “no victor, no vanquished” – this became the motto of reunification.

But for many people in the south-east, the reunion has been an uneasy one.

“If you come to Igbo-land you can see there is no development here,” says Mr Njoku.

It’s a common perception we heard many times here – that Igbo people are marginalised in a Nigeria that only serves the interests of the two other main ethnic groups – the Hausa and Yoruba.

Although government statistics show that poverty rates are far higher in the north than other regions, there are some genuine complaints.

In almost 30 years of democracy, Nigeria hasn’t had an Igbo president.

“We still need [Biafra],” says Mr Njoku. “Nigerians are maltreating us – like slaves.

It’s a strong sentiment and one that a new crop of activists is playing on. Among them a new leader has emerged.

Despite bail conditions saying he cannot speak to the press, Nnamdi Kanu invited us for an interview. He also invited his many supporters to greet us.

We were to meet in his father’s compound in the south-eastern town of Umuahia – the last bastion of the Biafran state before its surrender.

As we approached Umuahia it was clear that the crowds were there for our benefit.

We had arranged the interview the afternoon before and in that time he had gathered up to 1,000 people – they surrounded his father’s compound waving huge striped flags, carrying the Biafran symbol of a half-rising sun, and foghorns – chanting their support under the pouring rain.

Senior government and police officials live a few hundred metres away but no attention was paid to their presence.

The cheers escalated to roars as they spotted Mr Kanu emerge onto the balcony of the house with his fists raised.

Nnamdi Kanu with cheering crowd

He has gold and black cloth wrapped around his shoulders and a matching gold cap on his black suede designer loafers. “They’re calling for Biafra,” he says softly, with a smile.

All of this for a cause that has him facing treason-related charges in court.

“Basic human development, basic economic development, basic social development, can no longer be attained for the simple reason that there exists in the polity mutual suspicion, mutual hatred, mutual resentment,” he says.

“So the best thing to do is to separate.”


Biafra at a glance:

States claimed by Ipob for an independent Biafran state

IPOB claims these existing states would make up an independent Biafra

 

  • First republic of Biafra was declared by Nigerian military officer Odumegwu-Ojukwu in 1967
  • He led his mainly ethnic Igbo forces into a deadly three-year civil war that ended in 1970
  • More than one million people lost their lives, mostly because of hunger
  • Decades after Biafra uprising was quelled by the military, secessionist groups have attracted the support of many young people
  • They feel Nigeria’s central government is not investing in the region
  • But the government says their complaints are not particular to the south-east

Mr Kanu is calling for Biafran independence through a referendum.

“We just want to control our political destiny so we can build factories, [build] our roads, cities, bridges, not having to depend on somebody in [the capital city] Abuja.”

The Indigenous People of Biafra (Ipob) movement that he leads believes an independent region will resolve the issue of the marginalization of the Igbos but they also want to bring the non-Igbo, oil-rich Niger Delta into the breakaway state.

They insist it was part of the original Biafra.

“Should any other part of Nigeria wish to join Biafra they are welcome to do so, as long as they are Judeo-Christian… the value system that underpins Biafra.”

The movement for Biafra clearly has significant influence around the south-east of Nigeria.

plaques and portraits dedicated to Nnamdi Kanu the Igbo leader.

Nnamdi Kanu’s father’s house is full of plaques praising him

 

A recent stay-at-home protest ordered by Ipob was heeded in many towns. However it seems from many people we spoke to in the region that while they support the idea of Biafra, they are not clear as to where it may take them.

The generation that witnessed the war insists on pacifism, as the men at the veterans’ camp told us.

“We are talking about dialogue, not by fighting,” said Mr Njoku.

Some are profoundly afraid of where the current rhetoric could lead.

Reverend Moses Iloh is an Igbo but he grew up in the north and now lives in the south-western commercial hub of Lagos.

When the war broke out, he moved to the Biafran Republic to work with the Red Cross.

“The war was one of the crudest you can find,” he recalls. “Sometimes there would be more than 50 or 100 children – you would dig a big trench and pour their dead bodies in. I was there. I am not telling you a lie. The suffering was so bad.”

Like many Igbos, he supports their ethnic solidarity but sternly warns that any attempts to secede again would be catastrophic.

“Nigerians will not let them go, they will slaughter them – and the whole world will turn their heads and say it’s an internal affair.”

Pro-Biafra supporters in Nigeria - November 2015

In response to the recent pro-Biafra agitation, a group in northern Nigeria issued a threat, giving all Igbos in the region three months to leave.

The move received widespread condemnation, even in the north, but reflected the delicate nature of Nigeria, a country created when hundreds of different ethnic groups were brought together by the British colonial powers.

While the Igbos comprise one of the three largest ethnic groups, they have fewer states than the Hausas in the north and the Yorubas in the south-west, and subsequently get a smaller budget allocation.

This, some feel, puts them behind the other regions. The south-east has not been at the forefront of Nigeria’s development and none of its cities are major economic hubs.

Path of uncertainty?

Over the years the Nigerian government has always ruled out the possibility of the country’s fragmentation. Acting President Yemi Osinbajo recently addressed the Biafra issue:

“Clearly our strength is in our diversity, that we are greater together than apart,” he said. “Brotherhood across tribes and faiths is possible”.

Top Igbo politicians recently rejected calls for Biafra but stressed the need for fairness and equality.

Though for some, these leaders are the problem, entrenched in the corruption that plagues Nigerian politics.

Mr Kanu has called on his followers to boycott upcoming local and national elections.

The people of the south-east are left with a choice: Stick with their current leaders – and Nigeria – or choose a much less certain path.

CREDITS: This article is written by Tomi Oladipo, and was culled from http://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-40506251

Nigeria: A country still desirous of a conversation

nigeria.jpg

Nigeria has a history of cycles of conflicts and this consistency in violence keeps affecting the ability of governments at all levels to provide stable social, political and economic environments for the development of the country. No matter what policies are introduced, government keeps being forced to modify itself to manage the conflicts and this includes shifting revenues that would hitherto have been used for development to cope with these crises.

Why do we continue to see these Conflicts? The simple answer would be that these are ‘a struggle over values and claims to scarce status, power, and resources’ which are currently limited in the country and further compounded by the mismanagement and corruption that have reached alarming levels and have become entrenched in the country. Conflicts are not inherently violent but some have gradually taken on a violent approach with the idea being that violence would help bring about a conversation between the parties involved to reach some kind of resolution on the contentious issues.  So, the increased level of violence has sometimes been seen as the beginning of a conversation between two parties as a way of engaging in a conversation between the parties either deliberately or accidentally. On the flip side, it has been argued that violence might not be the beginning of a conversation, but rather its end. This might be due to the inability of the disputing parties to reach any form of agreement resulting in the commencement of violence, which might later force them to resume some form of conversation.

I am particularly concerned about the idea of the conversation being the foundation for either the beginning or end of violence especially in the context of the violence in Nigeria. A conversation as defined by the Cambridge Dictionary is a ‘talk between two or more people in which thoughts, feelings and ideas are expressed, questions are asked and answered’. While this might be the case, it is important to understand the existence of power dynamics within conversations, because without acknowledging this we cannot appreciate that in every conversation between conflicting parties, there will be an uneven distribution of either economic, political or social power at some level. This will mean that conversations will always be seen as unfair

So, if power dynamics exist within conversations will that still be a conversation or would that then be considered a negotiation or a ‘negotiated conversation’? It can be argued then that if we look at violence as being a form of a conversation, then we must assume that at least one of the parties taking part in this conversation is at a disadvantage and thus sees violence as the best way for them to be heard.

Taking the case of the continuing violence in the Niger Delta, the Boko Haram inspired violence in the North East of Nigeria or the conflict in southern Kaduna, can we see these as conversations and how can we approach them to change the way in which this ‘conversation’ is playing out? There were initial calls by certain sections of the country for the government to engage all violent groups in a conversation, while some other sections of the Nigerian state believed that engaging them in a conversation would only legitimize such group and create the risk of other groups with grievances taking up violence as the only way to get attention.

The Niger Delta ‘militants’ or ‘activists’ depending in what side of the fence you are on, see the government as having used its power to abuse the region and feel that, after several attempts at some peaceful resolution, violence was the only option because it hits the government where it hurts most; oil production and revenue. But the government has so far not taken the need for conversation seriously, or if it has we are unaware of its efforts. With Boko Haram, conversation really did not seem like an option even though it was suggested and the starting point of their demands would have made any conversation with the group, very uncomfortable to say the least. We now have the Indigenous People Of Biafra (IPOB) and government has used its power to curtail any attempts at a conversation believing that force was the best option. In southern Kaduna, the conflict keeps recurring after a period of lull and raises the same issues regarding why groups resort to violence as a way of bringing issues to the table.

So, has not conversing with the likes of IPOB reduced their legitimacy or should government really be talking to them? I am not sure if a conversation with any such groups legitimises their cause anymore than such groups already feel. However, the emergence of these groups indicates a problem in the Nigerian state. Whether our leaders wish to admit it or not, we must recognize that the Nigerian state has fundamental cracks that need fixing so that we can avoid a situation where the aggrieved feel that the only way to be heard is to take up arms that will force government to engage them in some form of ‘negotiated conversation’.

The question now becomes, how do we begin this process? I believe that the best option will be a national conversation between all groups in the country. I know we have had several such ‘conversations’ in the form of national conferences. However, we must admit that these were largely a talk shop for the boys and girls and a way of pushing predetermined agendas.

What is required now is an all-inclusive conversation portal that will allow every group, ethnic, religious or otherwise no matter how small to table its grievances. Of course, this takes us back to the issue of power dynamics and whether the voices of the small and powerless will be considered. I believe that this kind of conversation portal will enable the voices of everyone irrespective of size or power to be heard and documented. We can then use this as a building block for what should be a multi layered conversation ladder that will help us reach the level of stability that will ensure some meaningful development. This is because the current instability in the country distracts government from focusing on creating or implementing policies that will raise standards of living by reducing poverty, unemployment and existing inequalities around the country.

 

Credits: Dr. Bala Mohammed Liman wrote this piece from Kaduna.