ENUGU, Nigeria – Located at the centre of Umuahia, is Afara Ukwu, the home of Nnamdi Kanu, the leader of the Indigenous People of Biafra [IPOB] who is currently on self-imposed exile in the United Kingdom after government-backed security forces launched a military operation in 2017 and invaded his home.
More than 20 people were killed after the military invasion and the IPOB, a separatist movement formed by Kanu in 2012 which is agitating for an independent state of Biafra, was declared a terrorist organization by the federal government.
IPOB has refuted the terror tag and insists it does not carry arms. The US government has backed this claim and says it does not consider IPOB as a terror group.
The group is calling for a referendum to decide its future in Nigeria. “IPOB members are demanding one thing and that is the right for referendum,” Elochukwu Ohaji, an activist says. “The right to live as free people. Asylum is not in any way related to any of these demands. The UK should rather advice Nigeria government to give Biafra agitators the Scotland treatment,” he said, referring to the Scottish referendum of 2014.
In recent weeks, tension has escalated between IPOB and the federal government especially with the recent formation of the ESN which authorities and the police say is the arm wing of the group.
In April, the UK government announced plans to grant asylum to “persecuted” IPOB members and pro-Biafra groups.
The plans were reversed and are currently being reviewed following protests by the Nigerian government.
IPOB has also rejected plans for asylum and insisted on a referendum. Ohaji tells YNaija that the growing agitation and tension across the country can only be solved when each region is given a referendum to “choose where they want to belong.”
IPOB has also forged an alliance with other separatist movements in the country including the Oduduwa in the Southwest and the Anglophone Ambazonia in neighbouring Cameroon which has been in an all-out war with the Paul Biya-led Francophone central government.
Ohaji says “Alliance is very important, especially when seeking freedom” and adds that the growing alliance is more reason the government should “embrace referendum because it is the safest route to peace.”
The former Biafran region which launched a secessionist move during the war, still feels alienated from the central government. But there is more to the perceived alienation. More than 50 years after the Biafra war ended, there has never been a Memorial Day or national conversation to address the sense of injustice in the region as a way of healing the scars of the war.
Experts say this is one of the post-war tragedies of the country. Teniola Tayo, a researcher and conflict analyst said she has advocated for a national conversation but adds that “I am however not certain that this will be enough to satisfy IPOB. But I’m also not sure IPOB represents the interests of the entire southeastern population.”
Killing unarmed protestors is exacerbating tensions
In August 2020, 21 unarmed pro-IPOB supporters were killed in Enugu, the former capital of Biafra during the war. The victims, mostly young people, were having a meeting when security agents stormed the venue and opened fire.
Tensions were high in the region as IPOB promised retaliation and urged its members to practice self-defense.
This case is not isolated. The targeted attacks and killing of pro-Biafra protestors are a common trend. Back in 2016, more than 150 IPOB protestors were killed by security forces during a May 30 Biafra Day celebration, according to Amnesty International.
An investigation by the human rights group revealed that the Nigerian security forces embarked on a “chilling campaign of extrajudicial executions and violence” which led to the death of peaceful protestors.
Many Biafran veterans who fought during the war say the solution to ending the separatist agitation is for an “honest discussion on the future of the country” whether it would remain united or for different regions to go their separate ways.
This sentiment is shared by a majority of residents in the region who have supported IPOB’s calls for a separate nation.
“The solution to the current problem is the peaceful dissolution of Nigerian into a confederate state,” said Anthony Ihuoma, a 76-year-old war veteran. “Let each region be on their own. The current formula is like joining red oil with water because it will never mix. Let there be a constitutional amendment to let each state be on their own.”
Ohaji says despite the marginalization of the region, security forces have continued to kill unarmed protestors and added that while peaceful pro-Biafra protestors are killed, armed cattle herders who frequently invade and attack communities have been protected by the federal government.
“I think that the federal government needs to listen to the concerns of Southeasterners and take appropriate action where necessary,” Tayo said. “We are a federation of states and it is critical that no part of our population feel they are marginalised.”
Tayo said although some of the concerns of people in the Southeast also apply to other ethnic groups, “the unique history of the civil war and the post-war events is something that should never be taken for granted. I do think that it is very important to listen to these grievances and take action as much as possible.”
She, however, said that Nigerians are united in the dissatisfaction they feel on the affairs of the country and that is “manifesting itself in different ways including the growing separatist movements and regional security outfits.”
Things need to change and we need to find a way to do this, she said. “But we also have to do the hard work of figuring out exactly what needs to change and how we can achieve this.”
Patrick Egwu is a reporter with YNaija. He covers conflict, technology, health, education and other development issues in Nigeria. A 2nd place winner of the Haller Prize for Development Journalism in Kenya in 2016 and 3rd place winner of the Ameenah Gurib-Fakim Science and Technology prize in the 2017 Zimeo Excellence in Media Awards in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, Patrick is passionate about giving voice to voiceless, marginalized and disadvantaged communities through his stories.