by Festus Iyorah
Fifty years after the Nigerian civil war, Nigeria is facing another wave of agitation for the independence of a Biafran state. At the forefront of this struggle is Nnamdi Kanu, the man who heads the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB). Festus Iyorah in this special report profiles Kanu, his antecedents and ambition.
Tucked between Ojukwu bunker and Aba road, a nondescript road leads straight to the palace of His Royal Majesty, Eze Israel Okwu Kanu. As tiny as the road seems, vehicular movement never ceases as everyone is headed towards the same direction to see one man: Nnamdi Kanu.
“Ever since he returned [the cell] the road is always busy,” says a tricycle driver who takes passengers to the palace often.
Since he was released on bail in April, the IPOB leader has turned to a political celebrity hosting IPOB members and dignitaries from every part of the world, including a German Journalist who traveled to Nigeria just to have a chat with him on the Biafran struggle.
Defying his bail conditions, which include not speaking to the press and addressing crowds of not more than 10 persons, Kanu has not only granted interviews to journalists, he has also addressed legion of IPOB members in his father’s compound.
When asked if he was worried that he will get in trouble with the Nigerian authority for speaking to the press. Kanu said, “I don’t care.”
“I can’t go outside to call for a press conference. I can’t go Biafra radio to broadcast. I can’t allow large group of people to basically congregate outside to see me. It’s like asking me not to breathe,” Kanu told Al jazeera.
Who’s Nnamdi Kanu: A messiah, “opportunist” ?
Nnamdi Kanu Nwannekaenyi Kenneth Okwu-Kanu hails from Isiama Afara, Umuahia in the southeastern state of Abia. He holds a dual citizenship – British and Nigerian. He’s married to Rose Okwu-Kanu who also holds a dual citizenship.
His real age is not disclosed publicly. But Nnamdi didn’t witness the civil war. He was born in the 70s after the civil war.
Also the director of Radio Biafra, Kanu professes Judaism; he’s an Igbo Jew even though Igbos are not taken as Jews by the mainstream Jewish community. Kanu still holds the belief that Igbo are descendants of the lost tribe of Israel who settled in Nigeria. Kanu is a practicing Jew — who has been performing the Jewish special religious programs, including the observance of Shabbat which he marked in his father’s compound before dozens of IPOB members.
The separatist group leader is steeped in the Jewish history, culture and doctrines. He does not only wield political power, he has spiritual authority and control over a good number of IPOB members who seemed to have followed his religious belief. At his father’s compound where he marked the observance of Shabbat, the first of its kind among IPOB family.
“This congregation (IPOB) is special to me, and this is the very first observance of Shabbat in this very family (IPOB),” he told the cheering IPOB members.
When YNaija visited Kanu father’s compound in Umuahia, few IPOB members, were draped in the Jewish Orthodox attire including the Yarmulke also known as Kippah.
“When Biafra is actualised, Judaism will be widely practiced among Igbo people,” Ben Chikadibia, an IPOB member boasted.
Back in Umuahia, his hometown, Kanu is seen as a messiah. “He’s a God sent, a saviour sent to deliver men from the bondage of darkness called Nigeria” says Sopuru Amah, a staunch IPOB member.
Linus Unah, a freelance journalist with the Guardian (UK) and IRIN news was among the select journalist who interviewed Kanu in preparation of the May 30th Biafra Remembrance Day. He paints a portrait of Kanu.
“Mr. Kanu cuts a figure of a determined man whose mission to restore Biafra is as strong as a rock, if that description fits. He told us that he loves “Biafra more than I love my wife” It goes without saying that he might not easily back out. Biafra is, he said, is his calling,” Unah told YNaija.
A 2017 survey by SBM intelligence showed what Igbos from South East and South-South think about Nnamdi Kanu. In total, 35.8% of respondents see Kanu as a freedom fighter, while the second-largest proportion, 21.7% see him as a saviour for all of Southern Nigeria, while 18% of the respondents see him as a noise maker.
Those (mostly IPOB members) who see him as a saviour have at a point compared him to Jesus Christ, the saviour God has sent, like Jesus Christ to save the Igbo race from “the zoo called Nigeria”. The word “zoo” is the byword Kanu deployed to fuel his evangelism of secession. He compares Nigeria to an animal kingdom and like opium: a vast majority of Biafrans have been intoxicated with some of these provocative messages, leaving them to follow Kanu religiously. But to many others like Cheta Nwanze, a political analyst who has done extensive research on the pro-Biafra movement, Kanu is an “opportunist whose arrest was a mistake because it played into his hands.”
An opportunist because Kanu was seen in a video speaking about the need to protect Nigeria from breaking apart at an anti-Boko Haram rally in London few months before he established IPOB.
“When the 2015 election happened, there was a slowdown in the popularity of his radio station and that’s when he decided to come to Nigeria to get arrested,” he adds.
And like a trap, Nigeria, through the secret police, Department of State Services (DSS) arrested and incarcerated on treason charges for two years. This increased the agitations among the IPOB, thus, turning Kanu into a prisoner of conscience, a hero of political liberation.
“Whoever ordered Nnamdi Kanu’s arrest and prosecution did this country a bad turn. Kanu is a character that could have been ignored. His trials and travails have turned him into a hero and a living martyr among Igbos,” says Reuben Abati, a former spokesman for the former President Goodluck Jonathan.
Abati was right. Kanu was in Kuje prison even after a Federal High Court ordered the Nigeria’s Department for State Security Services (DSS) to grant him unconditional bail after his detention was deemed unlawful. But he was kept in custody for two years on the directive of the Federal government of Nigeria.
For Kanu, Radio Biafra was a means to an end
The Radio Biafra director was relatively not popular until 2012 when he re-launched Radio Biafra, a propaganda station that reignited a call for the freedom of Igbo people and broadcast every night to a legion of Nigerian listeners and Igbo across the globe — from Peckham in the United Kingdom.
Before 2012, Nnamdi Kanu and Ralph Uwazurike, the leader of Movement for the Actualization of Biafra (MASSOB), Uche Mefor, Taboh Umeh, Chukwuma Egemba and Kingsley Kanu were the pioneering crew of Radio Biafra in 2009, although media reports showed that Uwazurike had provided the initial fund for its establishment in 2009. But as the relationship between Kanu and Uwazurike turned sour, the station stopped operations.
By 2013, Radio Biafra and Television were registered as nonprofit under the address 30 Sandlings Close, Pilkington Road, London SE15 3SY GB with sponsorship basically from donations from unnamed Igbos in Nigeria and Diaspora.
These donations have ruffled feathers lately; Nnamdi has been accused of fraud and embezzlements of huge funds he has received from wealthy Igbo men to establish and manage the station. Since Radio Biafra deploys short wave frequency to air broadcast, coupled with the fact that the organization was registered as non-profit the station’s expenditure isn’t as much as what a standard radio station spends to operate daily. His critics are quick to ask: where are all the donations going to? who oversees the financial engine room of Radio Biafra?
Chioma Amaryllis, Kanu’s ex-girlfriend and former Public relations coordinator for Radio Biafra provided few answers. She accused Kanu of being in total control of the money, spending it to sustain himself.
Amaryllis said, “There’s actually no structure in radio Biafra, one person is the leader, director, the accountant, the money holder. When Nnamdi Kanu asked for $8 million to start in 2014, I took a step back knowing Ojukwu used his own money for Biafra. I am unhappy people are being tricked to donate money using Biafra as a cover. Money was being collected by Nnamdi Kanu, huge money from genuine people and misappropriate.”
Amaryllis left Radio Biafra because she “wasn’t going to be part of a team that is exploiting the ignorance of the people”
In 2014, Radio Biafra bounced back to action, with Kanu functioning as both the director and presenter of the radio station from 2012 until 2015 when he was arrested by the DSS.
During most of his programs, Kanu is mostly seen with earmuffs glued to his ears, eyes fixed on his laptop—welcoming mostly Igbo callers from European countries down to Nigeria. In most of his programs discussions swing from mostly issues bothering on the marginalization of the Igbo tribe in Nigeria to the need for Biafra and why the message must be shared among Biafrans home and abroad.
Although in some of his radio programs, Kanu disseminated highly provocative messages laced with hate speech and anti-Nigeria derision.
“What’s your mechanism towards actualizing the dream of Biafra,” a caller asked Kanu during one of his programs.
“The mission of Biafra is very simple: To get Biafra by every means necessary and possible. By every means, including war. Big violence that no one has ever seen before,” he responded in a deep harsh tone.
As if that wasn’t enough, Kanu launched another salvo, “We said we’ll burn the zoo (referring to Nigeria) down and we’ll do it. Nigeria will be burnt down, completely burnt to the ground. We are prepared for them (Nigeria) in every way possible. We are not here to beg anybody to support us. If you like you support us, if you don’t like you leave; it doesn’t matter anyway because we are marching forward.”
Kanu’s Radio Biafra was a means to an end. Through Radio Biafra, he succeeded in setting an agenda for public discourse among the Igbo tribe, especially the younger generation who did not experience the civil war. The agenda is: to achieve Biafra by all means, including war. With this strategy, he recruited a legion of agitators scattered across South East Nigeria under the aegis of IPOB — which he formed in 2014.
In 2014, Kanu was interviewed on Sahara Television on his stance on achieving Biafra by any means was stripped bare on television.
“If they fail to give us Biafra, Somalia will look like a paradise compared to what will happen to that zoo. It’s a promise, it is a pledge and it is also a threat to them. If they do not give us Biafra, they’ll be nothing left in that zoo called Nigeria, Nothing will survive there, I can assure you.
“I do not believe in peaceful actualization or whatever rubbish it is called. I have never seen where you become free by peaceful means, if you see, you tell me. I am a student of contemporary history. I have never come across where you get freedom in a peaceful process,” he told Sahara television.
From war to referendum: Kanu sought for attention
But his stance on actualizing Biafra, by all means, changed after he was incarcerated and bailed after two years. It changed from war to referendum and recent signs have shown that Kanu has changed his tone and approach. As he gets more attention, he stopped spewing malicious comments against Nigeria and other ethnic groups in Nigeria.
Could this be a strategy?
Amah answered in the affirmative. “It’s one of his mobilisation strategies for the task ahead,” Amah told YNaija. “We that are close to him know that he’s a pacifist who loves God and regard humanity. He never asks us to kill anyone.”
Nwanze gave a damning verdict, It’s not “sudden”. I don’t think he believes in violence, especially the kind of violence that will lead to the loss of his life. His rhetoric was largely to gain attention, which he now has.”
“We could say that it is a form of rebirth, a realisation that war doesn’t solve problems,” Unah said, adding that Kanu seems to be taking a new stance on his cause to push for a referendum.
Unah told YNaija Kanu’s exact words, “I don’t believe in war because I have a more potent weapon than war and that’s the truth. Truth will destroy them not weapons.”
Kanu’s Motivation, critics’ reaction
Like Odimegwu Ojukwu, the Nigerian military officer who proclaimed the Republic of Biafra in 1967, Kanu’s motivation for secession is tied to many things: the Igbo tribe has been marginalized politically and economically, including the unabated high rate of unemployment and incessant killings of Igbos in the 50s, 60s and 70s and recently, the protesting IPOB members killed by the Nigeria Military on Biafra Remembrance day in Anambra state.
“My motivation is very simple: I hate suffering, I don’t like people suffering, I despise injustice with a passion. I hate to see people wallowing in poverty; I hate to see people suffer and die out of ignorance. So, anything we can do to alleviate the suffering of the people, I will endeavour to do and that is what we are trying to do with Biafra,” Nnamdi Kanu told Linus in an interview.
However, critics have also pointed his attention to the fact that the state governments under the leadership of each state governors piloting the affairs of the southeastern states have not done enough, too. They say it’s a general problem of bad governance that has plagued every region, not only south-east.
Since Nigeria’s return to democratic rule in 1999, these states (southeastern states) have had no less than three governors who have presided over the affairs of each state — flanked by hundreds of lawmakers (Senators and Honourables)who had represented different constituencies in the southeastern region. But none of these set of elected public officers have done enough to solve these problems. The same problem of governance affecting people in the northern part of the country (a region with the highest rate of poverty) is affecting the south.
Bad governance in the southeastern region is a major factor and one of the arguments is that Kanu has not confronted those (public officers) in the east for the problem plaguing south-east.
Moreover, Kanu’s secession approached has been greeted by deafened silence from some south-east politicians. Rochas Okorocha, the Imo state governor, including the Igbo socio-cultural group, Eze Ndi Igbo have publicly criticized the Biafran movement labeling it “scam”. However, other political stalwarts in the east are still keeping mum concerning the movement.
Chidoka Osita, a former Minister of Aviation comes to mind in this regard. Osita was the man who drove Kanu out of Kuje prison when Kanu was granted bail, and is one of the governorship aspirants in of the upcoming election in Anambra state, an election Nnamdi Kanu has vowed will not hold until a date for referendum is fixed in south-east. He’s yet to speak against the Biafra movement neither has Kanu criticised the intention to run for governorship election in Anambra.
Kanu reacted by saying, “He (Chidoka) came to pick me up from the prison because he is a consensus Biafran and a respected Igbo man.”
Nwanze believes politicians are opportunists. “They’ve seen someone who apparently has a lot of support, so they want to turn it into political capital.”
Like Lt.Col. Emeka Ojukwu, Kanu may resort to war
The supreme leader of IPOB, Nnamdi had resorted to war earlier; through Radio Biafra, he had promised to achieve the Biafran state through violent means but that changed after he was arrested. Instead, he strove for referendum — not war. However, this might change especially after a footage showing Kanu inspecting the Biafra Secret Service emerged. Just as Lt.Col. Emeka Ojukwu, the former leader of the breakaway Republic of Biafra from 1967-1970 had inspected the Biafran soldiers before the civil war, the Radio Biafran director is seen walking around and in between, them, inspecting what can be described as a guard of honour. The Secret Service is made up of mostly youth, draped in black shirts and trousers with a red beret.
After making a complaint about the Federal Government refusal to grant its call for referendum, this show of militancy under a new Biafra Secret Service was followed with a sound declaration from Kanu’s IPOB: We want war, too.