On a sunny afternoon in July 2013, as Hilary Okeke drove around the city of Enugu with his friends on their way back from scouting for girls at the Polo Park Mall, he turned on the radio. As he fiddled with the knob, an Igbo version of American superstar Jay Z’s Forever Young came on, on a random frequency.
Initially stunned for a few seconds, the youngsters listened to the new version complete with Igbo lyrics and a new theme of freedom. It was the voice of Nnamdi ‘Director’ Kanu on Radio Biafra, official medium of advocates for the breakaway state of Biafra and a fixture in the Igbo-dominated South East of Nigeria.
“It was like a comic relief for me and my friends,” Okeke reminisces. “So we listened to nothing else but Radio Biafra on our way home.” As they soon found out, the joke was only on them as many of their neighbours and family friends had been listening for days and even weeks before.
As a man on a mission to change perceived neglect of the South-East, a belief that is at the heart of the agitation, Kanu’s tool of trade is the pirate radio station whose unique brand of ethnic propaganda is primarily targeted at Nigerians within the region.
Even after Yakubu Gowon’s ‘no victor, no vanquished’ speech at the end of the war, a new fiscal policy where a uniform bank balance of 20 pounds was assigned to all Easterners, followed. Activists from the region have been crying for years about the dearth of federal-sponsored infrastructure in the East – and leadership too.
“Since the death of Dim Odumegwu Ojukwu, there has been a leadership vacuum among the Igbos”, says a senior lecturer at the Enugu State University of Technology (ESUT) under condition of anonymity. “Igbos have been suffering an identity crisis since the end of the civil war and we have been like sheep without shepherd”, he points out. “So these boys have simply filled that vacuum.”
“Some of them have joined this small boy to begin to wish for the State of Biafra”, lamented Joe Igbokwe, spokesperson for the Lagos state chapter of the ruling All Progressives Congress. “Suddenly the so-called Radio Biafra has created a momentum for them…. Woe betides a nation whose leaders are children.”
A Call to Arms
For many of Kanu’s followers, there is a lingering hope that the time has come for Biafra to emerge as a new nation and a seeming readiness for a war to force the liberation. Enoch Okerekeocha, a Lagos-based clergyman who led troops to battle as a combatant on the side of Biafra during the civil war, dismisses the yearnings for war. “There is still hope in some quarters that Biafra will rise again“, he says. “But I don’t know how old this Kanu is or if he was alive during the war. Anyone that fought in the war might not entertain such thoughts because the suffering was too much.”
Says Igbokwe, ““It is now 45 years after the Nigeria-Biafra Civil War and I think that Igbos must rise up to stop this small boy who never saw the 1967-1970 Civil War and who may not know the implications of what he is doing.”
Rather than stop him, many have joined the movement. Its broadcasts have fueled protests across Aba, Awka, Asaba, Owerri, Enugu and Onitsha, hotspots of the Eastern region that was geographically Biafran territory. Unfortunately, most have been violent; a mosque was burnt down in the commercial town of Onitsha on December 2, 2015.
In October 2015, as a guest speaker at the World Igbo Congress in Los Angeles, Kanu himself solicited for aid in acquiring ammunition to wage war against Nigeria in a charge that signaled his intention to go violent.
For some of his sympathizers and those watching, it caused a rethink about his true motives. What really was the method to the man’s madness?
‘Teacher, Don’t Teach Me Nonsense’
Born Nnamdi Nwannekaenyi Kenneth Okwu-Kanu over forty years ago in Isiama Afara, Abia State, he hails from Umuahia and holds both British and Nigerian nationalities. Married to Rose who is also a dual citizen, they both run the station out of their apartment in the Peckham district of south London, a neighbourhood that is home to a large Nigerian community. While his religious affiliation is in doubt, he believes in a deity he refers to as ‘Chukwu Okike Abiama’.
Almost like Teacher in Ayi Kwei Armah’s classic, The Beautiful Ones are Not Yet Born, Nnamdi Kanu is eloquent and has the concomitant conceitedness of the well read. Authoritative, persuasive and an unrepentant tribalist, he is the undisputed biggest rallying voice for pro-Biafra Igbos around the world today. Fluent in Igbo and English, he has a well-equipped insult lexicon in both languages – he calls Buhari ‘a paedophile Almajiri’ and refers to Nigeria as a zoo, “the Zoological Republic of Nigeria”.
In an interview in Malaysia, he described the North as the “Mohammedan empire of the North’. “Can you imagine amalgamating Saudi Arabia and the US side by side?”, he asked rhetorically. Before his arrest and subsequent detention in October 2015 on charges of treason, the itinerant Kanu would travel all over Europe and Asia to spread the gospel of the indigenous People of Biafra, through interactive sessions hosted by Radio Biafra. The audience? The large Igbo communities spread across every single country in the globe.
His right-hand man, Alphonsus Uche Okafor-Mefor, formerly Director of Communications, Biafra Liberation League who has been supervising the activities of Radio Biafra in Kanu’s absence, has been well primed for his job. He claimed asylum in the UK in April 2005, maintaining that the Federal Government sought to prosecute him for actively participating in MASSOB-organized protests in Nigeria and abroad.
One of these was the infamous disruption of the Heart of Africa conference at the Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre in Westminster on November 20, 2006 – with eight government ministers including Frank Nweke Jr., in attendance – by six protesters including him (and Kanu, who an unconfirmed report places on the scene). Consequently, Mefor was almost deported on March 1, 2007, with the Home Office reversing its decision only an hour before he was to fly back to Nigeria.
Vox populi, vox dei?
Long before Ojukwu announced the secession of the breakaway republic, Radio Biafra was already operating in the ‘60s and it merely consolidated its position as the voice of the underdog during the war that followed.
Kanu resurrected it first in 2009, broadcasting for six months before going off air, after funding problems. It returned in 2012, evolving into a well-oiled machinery and is the strongest arm of the IPOB. The station has an app with versions for every major platform – Windows, iOS and Android. For Symbian and Blackberry users, there is the Tune-In app.
There are terrestrial radio frequencies, with at least one peculiar to each major city in the South East. Kanu supervises the recording of all the songs being played on the radio, with him singing parts, including the aforementioned cover of Jay Z’s song. The Federal Government jammed the signals frequently but in what reinforces the famed resilience of the Igbos, the station has appeared on the radar almost immediately after, with new frequencies.
“Our technology is superior to that of the zoo”, Kanu wrote on Facebook, mocking a police chief who admitted in an interview that the law enforcement agency does not have the ability to jam its signals.
On social media, it also has strength in numbers; an excess of 112, 000 fans on Facebook – the social network for the demography that most of the agitators belong to – for its page and over 600,000 more in a closed group ‘Radio Biafra London’. The number of people at each of the serial protests across the Eastern region and the calls by believers in his ideology from places as far-flung as Vietnam and Czech Republic also prove that on ground or in the cloud, one man from faraway London has successfully sired a mega-movement.
“First the reggae, then the blues…”
To do this, stepping on a few toes was necessary; the means to a ‘justifiable’ end. In a July 2013 rant on Facebook, he pointed accusing fingers at Chief Ralph Uwazuruike, leader of MASSOB, claiming the latter masterminded his kidnap and beating on the 19th of December 2009, for calling out the older man as a traitor.
“In your stupidity, you made a video tape of the whole torture and kidnapping in the hope of using it to blackmail me into silence. You threatened to release the video if I criticized MASSOB criminal activities again. You have sowed the wind, now you will reap the whirlwind”, he threatens.
A war of words followed in the comments section between supporters of both men in the virtual manifestation of the battle for superiority that both men have been long enmeshed in.
The ‘kidnap’ was actually payback for Kanu hijacking the structure of Radio Biafra from Uwazuruike who provided the initial funds for its setup in 2009. The station’s pioneering crew included Uwazuruike and a few others including Mefor, one Taboh Umeh, Chukwuma Egemba and Kingsley, Kanu’s brother.
Umeh and Kanu were the presenters on the radio until the latter began broadcasting hate messages against MASSOB and accusing his erstwhile mentor of being a tool of national politicians and using the Biafra struggle for financial gains. The older man withdrew financial support and the station closed temporarily, reopening in 2012 with Kanu fully in charge with only his brother and Egemba – both on the sidelines – sticking with him.
Uwazuruike’s own supporters, who have always accused Kanu of being a usurper seeking fame and fortune, have since turned on their idol. In December 2015, he was expelled from MASSOB by a splinter group within its ranks for the misappropriation of over N100m realized from the sales of the fictitious Biafran passport. For years, rumours of his floating a selfish political agenda have continued unabated. It is a path that Kanu seems likely to follow.
The Federal Government’s shoddy handling of the issue has been blamed for the escalation of the situation and an increased sympathy for the protagonist. In a media chat on December 30, 2015, President Muhammadu Buhari defended the detention of Kanu without trial, saying” ”If you see the atrocities these people committed against this country, we can’t allow them to jump bail.” His government has since kept Kanu in detention despite a court ruling to the contrary. More than a week earlier, members of the Joint Task Force (JTF), the coalition of the army and police shot dead four protesters who were jubilating after the court ruling.
“The government’s attitude is to throw them a bone to lick and assume that they will go back to their regular businesses soon enough when they tire” says the ESUT lecturer. “The whole scheme is to arrogate political power to himself at some point and since the Nigerian government is handling this badly, he will get it sooner or later. Kanu’s ambition is hard to disguise.”
‘Cash and carry’
Both radio and TV (incorporated as Biafra Television Limited in December 2013) are registered under the address 30 Sandlings Close, Pilkington Road, London SE15 3SY GB.[EE1] The Biafran Embassy in Spain, located at 16 Calle Peru, 01012 Victoria Spain seems to be an IPOB office annex. As the only directors of the company, he and Mefor are the only legal beneficiaries of its profits and donations.
BTL is exempt from taxation as its financial statements for 2013 and 2014 – obtainable online – show, because it was registered as a nonprofit and is dormant.
The sponsors of the station are not publicly known but donations pour in steadily from across all corners of the globe, from unnamed rich Igbo businessmen at home and in Diaspora. It has been speculated in some quarters that it enjoys the backing of influential Southern politicians including former President Goodluck Jonathan, in the event of the statesman’s loss at the 2015 polls.
“It is disingenuous to say Biafra agitation is as a result of Buhari’s victory. It was under GEJ that Biafra agitators attacked Government House, Enugu”, the journalist Cheta Nwanze points out.
“I don’t know if any politician is sponsoring him”, admits Okeke “but it can’t be Jonathan. The low turnout of people in the East during the polls is attributed to Director’s instruction to Igbos not to vote ‘in the zoo’. If it was Jonathan that was behind this, Kanu would have asked them to turn out en masse, especially as Father Mbaka was supporting Buhari and talking nonsense.”
For one with an apparent apathy for partisanship, political power may not be the inspiration – or perhaps not the only one – for Kanu.
While the going was good, pretty Chioma Amarrylis Ahaghotu, a Maryland-based clothier was PR coordinator for Radio Biafra and one of Kanu’s trusted lieutenants, even dating him for a short period. During that time, she posted pictorial evidence of both of them all over Facebook and throwing subliminals at his ex, an unknown white woman. Naturally, they have all been deleted.
In October 2015, she declared sensationally in an interview that went viral, that he was using funding for the organization to fund his ‘playboy lifestyle’ and lying about the existence of an underground ‘Biafran army’ in the heart of Igboland, for which he was seeking $8m to revitalize.
Miss Ahaghotu refused to talk to this reporter on the actualization of Biafra, the possibility of the organization being a front for money laundering and more. “I have said all [that] needed to be said on the matter and will not add unto it”, she responded with a note of finality, to a Facebook message.
Her enforced silence may have been because Kanu’s horde of followers unsurprisingly attacked her on the Internet, accusing her of being on drugs and acting like a true gold-digger. In the comments section of YouTube, one Ogbu Chukwu in an inspired act of unbridled philosophy, urged her to cover her shame saying “We don’t give a damn about your gossip; go and pick your pant where you shower.”
It may also be because Ahaghotu knows him in and out, even literally.
For IPOB faithful like Emeka Gift, a volunteer with the radio, Biafra is a dream edging closer to reality everyday. “Biafra has a spiritual undertone; many will not understand what is going on”, he stresses. “The Nigerian government is just wasting their time because Biafra is an ideology whose time has come.”
Not even narratives by government or former colleagues can sway their perception of their leader if it turns out that his mission is one of self-aggrandizement.
“Our minds have been made up and the illegal detention of Nnamdi Kanu has motivated us more”, says Gift, with a note of finality. “Death cannot stop us. We are hated so much in Nigeria, and it is time for us to go home.”
Eromo Egbejule is a Nigerian writer and journalist. In 2014, he was a recipient of the Prince Claus grant for culture and development. Follow him on Twitter @EromoEgbejule