50 years after devastating Biafran war, Igbo grievances resurface (again)

Tens of thousands protest against the arrest of an Igbo leader, demand secession from Nigeria · Regional governor admits complaints are not "completely outside the truth" · Hundreds of thousands were killed in the 1967-1970 Biafran conflict

Biafra (1967 borders) and main ethnic groups.
Biafra (1967 borders) and main ethnic groups.
After having lasted for weeks now, the Nigerian government is finally admitting that demonstrations held by tens of thousands of mainly Igbo protesters in the country's south-east could be turning into a major problem. Igbos are demonstrating for the independence of Biafra, nearly 50 years after a breakaway attempt in the area ended up in a war that killed at least hundreds of thousands.

The current wave of protests was sparked by the arrest, in October, of Nnamdi Kanu, director of Radio Biafra and leader of the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) political organization. Protesters and Igbo diaspora groups are blaming Nigerian president Muhammadu Buhari -a northerner- of having turned Kanu into the "first political prisoner" of his tenure.

However, Nigerian media reports are suggesting Kanu had been asking weapons to stage war against Nigeria at a conference held in the United States earlier in 2015.

Besides IPOB, another mainly Igbo group staging demonstrations these days is the Movement for the Actualization the Sovereign State of Biafra (MASSOB), which has no links to Kanu. MASSOB was founded in 1999 and has been ever since calling for the independence of Biafra. On several occasions, the Nigerian government has suppressed its activities and has arrested dozens of its activists.

The Nigerian presidency said it is now reaching south-eastern leaders in order to analyze some of the grievances voiced by the protesters. The Nigerian government is completely opposed to any kind of support to Biafran secession, but nevertheless some south-eastern governors are saying they, and Buhari, will jointly carry out a political initiative to resolve the conflict.

The governor of Ebonyi -a predominantly Igbo region- admitted it can not be said that the "complaints of the boys" are "completely outside the truth." But he claimed that differences should be solved through dialogue and without resort to secession.

Half-century long disagreement

Aside from this Kanu-linked episode, it is true that unrest among the Igbo is a longstanding issue in Nigeria. Various sectors of the Igbo people feel the Nigerian government has for decades marginalised them by systematically favouring the other major ethnic groups in the country: the Hausa and the Fulani in the north, and the Yoruba in the west.

Some Igbo believe as well that they see no benefits from the oil exploitation, mainly based in the Niger Delta region, which falls within the Biafran borders.

However, much of Niger Delta oil wells are found in areas not traditionally inhabited by the Igbo, but by other peoples such as the Ijaw and the Ogoni. Those peoples have their own political organizations.

The 1967-1970 Biafran war erupted after a series of coups and Igbo pogroms that took place in several Nigerian cities. Biafra proclaimed independence, which most countries did not recognize. The conflict lasted for two and a half years, and ended with the return of Biafra to Nigeria. The war caused an estimated 100,000 military deaths and 0.5 to 2 million civilian deaths.