from Africa Program

What’s Behind Growing Separatism in Nigeria?

A Nigerian soldier looks on during a military patrol in a pro-Biafra zone in the southeastern city of Aba.
A Nigerian soldier looks on during a military patrol in a pro-Biafra zone in the southeastern city of Aba. Cristina Aldehuela/AFP/Getty Images

The resurgence of separatism in Nigeria—a consequence of the federal government’s failure to provide security in the face of multiple threats—is stirring memories of the country’s deadly civil war.

August 3, 2021 2:40 pm (EST)

A Nigerian soldier looks on during a military patrol in a pro-Biafra zone in the southeastern city of Aba.
A Nigerian soldier looks on during a military patrol in a pro-Biafra zone in the southeastern city of Aba. Cristina Aldehuela/AFP/Getty Images
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Current political and economic issues succinctly explained.

Who are the main separatist leaders in Nigeria?

While there are numerous advocates of separatism, the two most prominent are Nnamdi Kanu and Sunday Igboho. They share some goals—and an enemy in the federal government—but their ethnic bases are different.

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Kanu is the founder of the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB), which aims to establish an independent state of Biafra in southeastern Nigeria. IPOB, outlawed by the federal government in 2017, draws on memories of an independent Biafra defeated in the 1967–70 Nigerian Civil War, which killed up to two million people. Most supporters of Biafra are ethnically Igbo. In late 2020, IPOB formed an armed wing, the Eastern Security Network (ESN), ostensibly to protect the predominantly Christian Igbo from Fulani Muslim herders who the group claims—without much evidence—are supported by President Muhammadu Buhari’s government in a bid to Islamize the country.

Igboho is wealthy and well-connected with Yoruba establishment groups. He is not the leader of an organized separatist movement like Kanu, but he also rails against Fulani herders moving south.

Why have Kanu and Igboho been in the news recently?

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In June, Kanu was captured in an unnamed country—widely reported to be Kenya—and the government secured his extralegal rendition to Nigeria, where he is charged with treason. The recent arrest is likely connected to increasing separatist-linked violence in the South East. ESN has reportedly contributed to a 344 percent increase in killings in the South East, with more than twenty attacks against security-service personnel between January and April 2021. Following pitched battles, and animated by memories of the civil war, the federal government is seeking to destroy ESN. To Buhari and other top security officials, Biafra’s resurgence is anathema and its destruction justifies any means.

Igboho, meanwhile, is accused by the federal government of illegally stockpiling weapons, and he fled when federal agents raided his house. He was arrested in mid-July in Benin, where he has been charged with illegal entry. Any effort by the government to have Igboho extradited on weapons charges could fail for legal reasons, though no formal request has yet been made.

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Are there other signs of separatism?

IPOB is itself an offshoot of the more avowedly peaceful Movement for the Actualization of the Sovereign State of Biafra (MASSOB), and other groups have cropped up elsewhere. Some prominent Yoruba have called for the creation of a breakaway state known as the Oduduwa Republic, though support for it is less fervent and widespread than support for Biafra among the Igbo. Yoruba separatism is less memory-centered than that of Biafran separatism. (The Yoruba were on the winning side of the civil war.) However, it, too, is animated by ethnic identity, fear of Fulani herders, and the state’s inability to provide security for its people.

In early 2020, governments of six Yoruba states in the South West formed a regional security outfit dubbed Operation Amotekun. Ostensibly a supplement to the national police, it is in fact functioning as a locally managed police force with units that appear far better funded than those of the national police. The federal attorney general says Amotekun is illegal. Nevertheless, unlike the ESN, Amotekun has not been involved in violence against the security services.

The fourth-largest ethnic group, the Ijaw, are located predominantly in the Niger Delta. There is long-standing resentment among the Ijaw that most of the oil wealth goes elsewhere, while oil production has severely damaged the Delta environment and destroyed traditional livelihoods based on fishing and agriculture. The Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND), an umbrella of Delta militant groups, carries out attacks on oil infrastructure, but it is more criminal than separatist. Still, claims by Biafran separatists include Ijaw territory in the South South—including important oil fields—and the Ijaw and MEND would certainly resist subjugation in a Biafran state. Any balkanization of Nigeria would likely see an upsurge in Ijaw separatism.

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What’s behind this resurgence?

Separatism has bedeviled Nigerian governance since the colonial era. The Hausa-Fulani, Yoruba, and Igbo—sometimes collectively known as the Big Three—make up more than half of Nigeria’s population, while the rest is divided among more than three hundred ethnic groups. The British struggled with how to balance the Big Three among themselves and with the rest of the population of the artificial state they had created. Their solution was federalism, the ideals of which have shaped independent Nigeria. But federalism has never been implemented, and the state remains highly centralized yet weak. As a result, separatism is always just below the surface.

Insecurity and perceptions of discrimination by the federal government have caused it to bubble up once again. Harsh security-service tactics drive separatist sentiment, as does religion for the overwhelmingly Christian Igbo, some of whom believe the Buhari government cooperates with—or at least tolerates—jihadis and Muslim bandits. These are less prominent motivations for the Yoruba.

What is the likelihood that any of these separatist movements gains traction?

Only a minority of the Igbo and the Yoruba support separatism, but that could change. The federal government’s illegal rendition and ill-treatment of Kanu could further encourage support for Biafran separatism—likewise with Igboho’s potential extradition and Yoruba separatism. Several groups from Nigeria’s North, as well as former national political leaders, have said that keeping Biafra in the federation is not worth another civil war. Igbo separatism thrives among the diaspora, and Biafran separatist groups appear to receive some degree of financial or material support from it. Similarly, some opinion leaders in the Yoruba diaspora strongly support Igboho and Operation Amotekun.

Biafran cooperation with Anglophone separatists in Cameroon could bring Abuja and Yaounde—which already coordinate on counterterrorism efforts against Boko Haram—closer together. Meanwhile, Yoruba separatism, should it grow, could complicate Nigeria’s relations with Benin, which is predominantly Yoruba in population. Additionally, security services have been accused of human rights abuses in their efforts to crack down on separatism, which could further complicate Abuja’s bilateral relationships with Washington, London, and other Western capitals. Already, IPOB is suing the U.S. secretaries of state and defense to try to block sales of U.S. fighter jets to Nigeria’s air force. Separately, British politicians are demanding an explanation regarding the arrest of Kanu, who is a British subject, and Nigeria’s reluctance to accord him consular access.

Michael Bricknell created the maps for this article.

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