Until recently, one overarching question dominated Nigerian political discourse: will the February 2023 general elections hold as scheduled? Underpinning this question was a legitimate concern over security—the insurgency in the northeast, sporadic banditry in the northwest, rampant abductions across the entire southern belt, and recurrent violence linked to the activities of the self-determination group, the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) in the southeast.
Of these, violence ostensibly involving IPOB seemed to be the most clearly politically marked, and if there was general anxiety about the turn of events in the country at large, there was even more specific disquiet over the scope and impact of the group’s mobilization across the Igbo heartland. In the first place, suspected members of the group have been involved in coordinated attacks intended to disrupt voter registration in various southeastern locations. In October of last year, National Security Adviser Babagana Monguno specifically warned the group not to test the Federal Government's resolve to ensure that last November’s gubernatorial election in Anambra State was conducted peacefully. In April, suspected members of the group attacked a voter registration center in Ihitte-Uboma Local Government Area in Imo State, killing a security guard on duty.
Furthermore, since August 2021, IPOB has been enforcing a weekly sit-at-home order across the southeast aimed at putting pressure on the Federal Government to release its leader, Nnamdi Kanu. Repatriated from Kenya to Nigeria in July 2021, Kanu is currently standing trial before the Federal High Court, Abuja, on charges of treason and terrorism. The group’s military wing, the Eastern Security Network (ESN), has been accused of involvement in attacks on state targets in the southeastern part of the country. During the #EndSARS protests against police brutality in October 2020, Justice Minister Abubakar Malami accused ESN of instigating violence in Lagos and other parts of the country. In March of last year, sixteen members of the security network were detained by the police in connection with a series of violent attacks on state security operatives. IPOB continues to deny the allegations, accusing the government of spreading falsehood about the organization.
Such, at any rate, was IPOB’s overall notoriety that many, perhaps understandably, expected it to have a say in the conduct of next year’s election, if only as an obstacle to its smooth conduct in the southeastern region.
Peter Obi’s emergence as a viable presidential candidate on the ticket of the Labour Party appears to have upended the political calculus. With support for Obi’s candidacy steadily increasing among a cross section of young Nigerians, there is less incentive for IPOB to disrupt an election that could potentially see an Igbo elected as president of the country for the first time since the inauguration of the Fourth Republic in 1999. Whereas Atiku Abubakar’s emergence as the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) presidential candidate appeared to block the most realistic path to the presidency for an Igbo candidate, Obi’s defection to the Labour Party and his subsequent rise has rallied rank and file Igbo, who are frustrated in equal measure by the PDP’s snub of the southeast and the All Progressives Congress’ (APC) embrace of a Muslim-Muslim ticket.
This is not to say that Obi is an ethnic candidate (if anything, he has been silent on the subject of Igbo self-determination), or that he is comfortable being categorized as one. On the contrary, his rhetoric has been resolutely nationalistic, and the apparent advantage of being a Christian candidate amid real disgruntlement with a Muslim-Muslim ticket has been pressed in the most tactful manner. Still, he cannot deny that his growing popularity, albeit mostly among a section of the social media-savvy youthful demographic, has restored pride and real belief among the Igbo.
All of which leaves IPOB in a pickle: should it, regardless of Obi’s rise, continue its divisive pursuit of Igbo self-determination, risking the disapproval of ordinary Igbo who are enthused by their son’s unexpected viability? Or should it jump on the bandwagon hoping that an Obi presidency will be a case of half a loaf being better than none? In the meantime, popular sentiment seems to have shifted, if not decidedly against IPOB, but at least in favor of Obi, and IPOB leader Nnamdi Kanu is a far lonelier figure than he was this time last year.
IPOB’s quandary recalls the fate of other self-determination groups over the course of the Fourth Republic. The Oodua People’s Congress (OPC), a Yoruba self-determination and vigilante group was nearly paralyzed by internal squabbles before Gani Adams, leader of its dominant faction, was absorbed into the Yoruba cultural and political mainstream. As Aare Ona Kakanfo (generalissimo) of Yorubaland, he is as far from a political warrior as anyone can be, while his old position in the pecking order seems to have been taken over by Sunday “Igboho” Adeyemo. A combination of the amnesty program during the Musa Yar’Adua administration (2007- 2010) and the financial pacification of its leaders neutralized the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) as a serious force. A state pipeline surveillance contract appears to be keeping Government “Tompolo” Ekpemupolo on a leash. More important, Yoruba (OPC) and Ijaw (MEND) agitation for political inclusion was rendered moot by the presidencies of Olusegun Obasanjo (1999- 2007) and Goodluck Jonathan (2010- 2015) respectively.
By the same token, a Peter Obi presidency (still highly unlikely, all things considered) may well spell the end of IPOB, if not of Igbo separatist agitation. At the very least, it will put the IPOB leadership in the same situation as its OPC and MEND counterparts following unexpected mainstream political success. Contrariwise, a defeat for Obi (a greater probability at this point in the race) may intensify Igbo agitation for self-determination and garner more sympathy for IPOB.
Whether for the Igbo at large, or for those who are betting it all on Igbo self-determination, there is a lot riding on Obi’s candidacy.
This publication is part of the Diamonstein-Spielvogel Project on the Future of Democracy.