from Africa in Transition and Africa Program

Nnamdi Kanu’s Trial Turns Up Pressure on Nigerian Government

The trial of Mazi Nnamdi Kanu, the leader of the Indigenous People of Biafra, could have important implications for the security of Nigeria.
Nnamdi Kanu, the leader of the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) separatist group.
Nnamdi Kanu, the leader of the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) separatist group. Adachineke/Wikimedia Commons

Nigerian security agencies failed on Monday to produce Mazi Nnamdi Kanu, leader of the increasingly radical secessionist group Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB), in Federal High Court for his arraignment. While government lawyers cited “logistical problems” for Kanu’s absence, his lawyer told the court that he had been unable to access his client in ten days and that he believed his client’s life was in danger.

Nigeria’s government cannot afford any more mishandlings of Nnamdi Kanu. The safety and security of the country depends on it.

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Nnamdi Kanu was relatively unknown until 2009 when he started Radio Biafra, a station that called for an independent state of Biafra for the Igbo people in the southeastern parts of the country. In 2014, he founded IPOB and was arrested the following year. Charged with treason, Kanu was incarcerated for over a year despite court orders that ruled for his release. At the time many IPOB supporters were of the belief that the government had “given Biafrans a perfect excuse to increase the agitation for freedom.”

Since then, Nnamdi Kanu and IPOB have done just that.

Until recently, IPOB had been mostly on the receiving end of violence perpetrated by Nigeria’s security forces. However, following the establishment of the Eastern Security Network (ESN)—IPOB’s armed wing—late last year, attacks against Nigerian security personnel by members of IPOB have increased rapidly. Following ESN’s launch, the South East saw a 59 percent increase in attacks and a 344 percent increase in deaths. From January to April, gunmen carried out more than twenty attacks on security personnel in the South East, leading to dozens of security personnel being killed. This includes an attack on a correctional facility that freed nearly two thousand inmates.

The government, for its part, continues to respond to the attacks in its usual way—fighting fire with fire and painting everyone in the South East, whether supporters of IPOB or not, with the same brush. This penchant to try to outgun every problem was also at the root of Boko Haram’s transformation: the government’s violent clampdown on a relatively harmless Islamic sect led to its radicalization, sparking an insurgency that is now in its second decade.

The government’s rhetoric further reinforces its reliance on violence and intimidation to respond to perceived threats. This was most notably on display last month when President Buhari wrote, in a now deleted tweet: “Many of those misbehaving today are too young to be aware of the destruction and loss of lives that occurred during the Nigerian Civil War. Those of us in the fields for 30 months who went through the war, will treat them in the language they understand.” The tweet was a callback to the country’s 1967-70 civil war—which led to the deaths of over two million people—in which Biafran separatists fought the Nigerian federal government in a quest for independence. Nigeria’s Chief of Police Usman Baba was even blunter than Buhari. Shortly after the government launched Operation Restore Peace to stabilize the South East, Baba reportedly gave orders to his men to kill Biafran “criminals,” referring to followers and sympathizers of IPOB, and encouraged them to disregard any human rights considerations in doing their job.

More on:

Nigeria

Secession and Independence Movements

Violent Nonstate Actors

Radicalization and Extremism

Political Movements

These tactics are dangerous, inaccurate, and only further play into the hands of IPOB.

IPOB relies on sowing divisions and taking advantage of increasing disenchantment of Nigerians in the South East, where unemployment and poverty continue to rise, especially among the youth population. According to Nigeria’s Bureau of Statistics unemployment report [PDF], at the end of last year, four of the five states in the South East had unemployment rates above 40 percent, well above the national average of 33.3 percent; this includes Imo State, which had the country’s highest unemployment rate at 56.6 percent. (Enugu State, the best performer in the South East, came in just below the national average at a still-high 31.6 percent.)

IPOB offers people hope and paints an illusion of how an eventual Republic of Biafra will be prosperous and peaceful. In the face of hardships, these messages resonate well. The group’s divisive rhetoric becomes even more appealing in the face of Buhari’s hardline stance against IPOB, which many Igbos feel is not reciprocated in the government’s handling of armed herdsmen and bandits causing havoc in the North—the part of the country where the president and most of his support come from—that subsequently spreads further south.

Nnamdi Kanu’s trial is an opportunity for the Nigerian government to counter IPOB’s divisive tactics. Many observers are watching to see whether the government will stick to its position and, in doing so, reinforce IPOB propaganda that Igbos will never be treated fairly in a united Nigeria. The manner in which Kanu appears to have been abducted abroad already put pressure on the government to show it will not mishandle the situation in such a way that further radicalizes separatists and bolsters their ranks. The IPOB leader’s disappearance only adds to that pressure.

To be sure, the president as commander-in-chief has a responsibility to discourage dissident agitations and to keep the country secure. But the government’s ongoing mishandling of IPOB and the trial of its leader will not serve those aims. A more effective approach is to separate out the grievances of the Igbo people from the agitations of Nnamdi Kanu’s separatist group. There are many Igbos who detest IPOB and do not support its agenda. The government should look to play the long game by delegitimizing IPOB in the eyes of Igbo people. It should also show the majority of Igbos that it represents their interests by providing space for dialogue and meaningful conversations about the strategic importance of the South East to the nation as a whole. The best way to do this is to start with Nnamdi Kanu’s trial and to prosecute him in a way that is considered fair and equitable.

Nkasi Wodu, a New Voices Fellow at the Aspen Institute, is a lawyer, peacebuilding practitioner, and development expert based in Port Harcourt, Nigeria.