While those of us who love Nigeria have been fixated on Boko Haram and the discontents of the North, the Ibo-dominated parts of the south have been heating up. Separatists that invoke the defeated Biafra in the 1967-70 civil war are increasingly visible. On December 2, at least 8,000 pro-separatist Ibo youth demonstrated at the Niger Bridge at Onitsha, Anambra state, the link between Nigeria’s south east and the west. At least eight demonstrators and two policeman were killed. The demonstrators burned the city’s central mosque and attacked trucks belonging to the Dangote Group, owned by northern billionaire Aliko Dangote.
Meanwhile, the amnesty that reduced violence in the adjacent, largely non-Ibo, riverine, oil-producing parts of the country is scheduled to end in December. President Muhammadu Buhari has said that it will not be renewed, but that there will be enhanced state investment in the region—at a time when government revenue is falling because of the decline in international oil prices.
To help sort through developments, especially in Iboland, the International Crisis Group (ICG) has published a quick summary of events in question-answer form. It provides a good, quick summary of the Biafra episode and identifies the larger groups active on behalf of current Biafra separatism, including an introduction to their intricate politics. The ICG concludes that at present there is little Ibo sentiment for a repeat of the 19670-70 war of secession. But, it also warns that in the aftermath of December 2, the risk of violence could escalate, especially if the federal government and the security services mishandle the situation.
The ICG warning is well placed. The flash point of the current round of demonstrations was the government’s October 19 arrest of Nnamdi Kanu. He is the leader of the separatist Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) and the director of Radio Biafra, an unlicensed radio station that on occasion urges a violent struggle for an independent Biafra. The charges against him could lead to long jail terms and even a death sentence. Ostensibly, the demonstrators are demanding his release.
Ever since the civil war, the Federal government has denounced any form of separatism. President Buhari recently reiterated that Nigeria is indivisible. On occasion the security services have responded badly to separatist demonstrations. It should be recalled that it was the 2009 murder of Mohammed Yussuf while in police custody that led to the transformation of Boko Haram into the organization it is today. The Abacha military government’s 1995 execution – a judicial murder – of Ken Saro-Wiwa, leader of the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People led to Nigeria’s international pariah status and the Commonwealth’s suspension of Abuja for three years. Judicious security service behavior and the government’s restrained use of its prosecutorial authority will be crucial to the successful management of the current round of separatist demonstrations.