On April 5, gunmen attacked a prison in Owerri, Nigeria, freeing 1,844 inmates. (Owerri, the capital of Imo State, is a major trading center with more than one million residents.) On April 6, “bandits” stormed a police station in Ehime Mbano, also in Imo State, freeing detainees. No group has claimed responsibility, but police say the likely perpetrators are the Eastern Security Network, the armed wing of the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB).
President Buhari, in London for medical reasons, characterized the perpetrators as “terrorists”; the army pledged to “flush out the miscreants” from the region. Vice President Yemi Osinbajo arrived in Imo State yesterday to assess the damage in Owerri.
Imo is mostly Igbo and Christian in population. It was the heartland of support for an independent Biafra during the 1967-70 civil war. Since then, successive federal governments have taken a hard line on separatism. Since 2015, when Buhari, a northern Muslim, was elected president, separatist sentiment has been growing. The movement of Muslim, ethnically Fulani herdsmen into the region looking for pasture has exacerbated the situation, as has the influx of mostly Muslim internally displaced persons fleeing Boko Haram in the North East. Some advocates for renewed Biafran separatism claim an Islamic plot, abetted by the Buhari government, to place all of Nigeria under the crescent.
The jailbreaks will likely increase violence and insecurity in Imo State. It should be noted, however, that pro-Biafra sentiment is not widespread in the adjacent oil patch in the Niger Delta, specifically Bayelsa and Rivers States. The low-level insurrection in the Niger Delta has different drivers.