Biafra: the independence movement once again calling Nigeria’s unity into question

Biafran protest in London, 2017.
Biafran protest in London, 2017. Author: David Holt
The arrest of a Biafran independence leader in June has sparked protests against the Nigerian government, both within the country and among the Biafran diaspora, and has put the question of Nigeria’s unity —contested since the country’s birth— back on the table. The arrest comes amidst the recent deterioration of the situation in Biafra and, more generally, amidst a situation of serious structural violence in Nigeria.

In this article we explain what is going on in Biafra; after that, we feature an interview with John Campbell, Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) and US Ambassador to Nigeria from 2004 to 2007.

Biafra and the 1967 war

Biafra is the name given by independence supporters to the south-eastern part of Nigeria, where the Niger River flows into the Atlantic Ocean. It occupies 8% of Nigerian territory and is inhabited by several peoples, the most numerous of whom are the Igbo, the Ijaw, and the Ibibio. Its coastal area is oil-rich. In 1967, Biafra was the scene of a secessionist attempt that led to a two-and-a-half-year war. The Nigerian army eventually defeated the pro-independence forces. It is estimated that up to 2 million Biafran civilians died of starvation during the conflict.

Biafra was forcibly reintegrated into Nigeria and successively divided into nine federated states with little room for autonomy. The various dictatorial regimes that ruled Nigeria until 1999 centralised power, which subsequent civilian governments have not reversed.

The grievances of south-eastern Nigeria

A widespread sense of unease with the Nigerian central government exists, particularly —but not only— among the Igbos. The perception among many Igbos —not only those supporting independence— is that, during the decades of military rule, Nigerian northern politicians gradually occupied the most important seats of power in Nigeria, draining economic resources from the south into their pockets and patronage networks, marginalising the southern peoples and especially the Igbos, and allowing the emergence of a discriminatory sentiment towards them. Added to all this are several endemic problems in Nigeria, such as state authoritarianism —despite civilian governments being in place since 1999—, the outbreak of several ecological crises, and the persistence of a situation of widespread violence —armed groups, kidnappings, ordinary crime...— which the Nigerian security forces do not stop, if not directly encourage.

What is going on now in Biafra?

Since 1999, with the founding of the Movement for the Actualisation of the Sovereign State of Biafra (MASSOB), several groups have emerged in defence of the collective rights of the Igbo people. Some are pro-secession, such as MASSOB itself, while others call for the implementation of a true federal system that gives more power to the federating units, such as Ohanaeze Ndigbo or, in the diaspora, the World Igbo Congress. Other peoples’ organisations have also emerged, such as among the Ijaw, who demand their own self-government separately from the Igbo, or the Ogoni.

Tensions have been rising since 2015, when Nigerian central authorities began to persecute members of a new pro-independence group, the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB), led by activist and radio broadcaster Nnamdi Kanu, who was arrested that same year and later released. In public statements, Kanu has swung between calls for civil disobedience to achieve a referendum on independence and the need for the Igbos to arm themselves.

The Biafran independence movement has gained prominence, both online and on the streets, where it has staged mass protests and strikes in Igbo-majority areas, some of which have been suppressed by the army and police. According to an Amnesty International research, Nigerian security forces killed in 2015 and 2016 at least 150 Biafran activists, after peacefully protesting.

The conflict escalated at the end of 2020, when Kanu announced that IPOB —the group had already been outlawed in Nigeria— had established an armed branch, the Eastern Security Network (ESN), as a self-defence organisation. The Nigerian army launched an offensive against the ESN. On 27 June, Kanu was arrested for the second time, under unclear circumstances, possibly in Kenya. He is now imprisoned in Nigeria, pending trial. His lawyer has alleged that Kanu has been tortured.

Meanwhile, Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari added fuel to the fire on 1 June when he posted a tweet in which, after referring to the 1967 war, he threatened “those misbehaving today” to “treat them in the language they understand”. Twitter deleted the post and blocked Buhari’s account. In response, the government suspended Twitter in Nigeria.

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We talk to John Campbell, Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) and US Ambassador to Nigeria from 2004 to 2007, on the situation in the country and the secessionist demands of the Biafran movement.

Nationalia: Do you think it is right to consider that Nigeria’s unity is at stake, not only because of developments in Biafra but also because of protests in Yorubaland and other places?

John Campbell: Nigeria’s unity at present is challenged by the revival of the secessionist movement in former Biafra and also by these relatively new developments in Yorubaland. It is also interesting that former president Obasanjo and others —the Northern Elders Forum— have in effect said that maintaining the unity of Nigeria is not something worth fighting a war over.

N: So would you say that maybe there is some way to change the current structure of Nigeria? Igbo civil society groups such as Ohanaeze Ndigbo who say that, while they champion self-determination, they do not support secession. They advocate for a renewed system that allows for true federalism and decentralization. Is this a plausible path?

J. C.: Yes, [that is] the view that a longer-term solution in Nigeria is the creation of a genuine federal system, as opposed to, what shall we call it?, a fake federal system that is in place now. Large numbers of Nigerians talk about the need for a kind of sovereign national conference in which representatives of a wide range of stakeholders would come together and look at restructuring the Nigerian state, essentially from the bottom up, as a way to try to meet two goals: genuine federalism, but also genuine democracy.

N: Is it plausible that we witness some sort of move like that?

J. C.: I think this is the fundamental question: is there the political will amongst the people who control Nigeria at present to embark on a wholesale restructuring of the state? The fact about elites is that very often they are most reluctant to give up power or advantage. It is only if they conclude that the current system is unsustainable that I think they might move in that direction. I am not sure that this has happened yet, though it may be be happening, particularly with this raft of kidnapping all over the country.

N: As regards the situation in the territory that Igbo secessionists call Biafra, where would you assess that the level of support for recreating Biafra is now?

J. C.: Very, very hard to know. [IPOB leader Nnamdi] Kanu and his movement appear to have some support amongst the mass of the population. What I have not seen is much support amongst elite Igbo. Now: if in fact, elite Igbo moved for support for some kind of Biafra, that can be a game changer. What the government does is extremely important. If the government uses the hammer to try to smash support for Biafra; if it is very heavy handed; if it rounds up and arrests large numbers of people; if it uses military methods, then it risks alienating these Igbo elites.

N: You have referred to Nnamdi Kanu and his Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) movement. They have set up this kind of military wing, the Eastern Security Network: is it meant to last and enjoy continued support, or rather it will disappear once Kanu has been arrested?

J. C.: Kanu was arrested under circumstances that are extremely murky. There was no judicial process involved —I mean there was no sort of formal extradition. In fact it is not even clear where he was captured, or who captured him. That whole aspect is shrouded —apparently— in illegality. What I am hearing is that the Eastern Security Network’s chain of command continues. What I am not seeing is much popular response in the former Biafra to Kanu’s arrest. Again, by analogy, when [Boko Haram founder] Mohammed Yusuf in the northeast was murdered by the police, his supporters went underground, and it took 10 years before they reemerged. So there may be more there than appears. And one of the things that hampers all of us is our lack of underground knowledge of what is going on.

N: So you mean it is difficult to assess the whole picture.

J. C.: That’s right. Nigeria as a whole is really quite stressed: there is covid-19, there is the massive kidnappings, there is conflict over water and land use in the Middle Belt, there are cattle herders pushing further south where they collide with farmers —in part because of climate change—, there is periodic drought... And on top of this, you add the fact that the population is growing very fast. While it has 215 million people now, by 2050 Nigeria will have a larger population than the United States. Nigeria will be the 3rd largest country in the world by population.

N: As regards the Biafran pro-independence movement, does it have any kind of external support —from other countries, the diaspora or other movements?

J. C.: I don’t see evidence of support from other countries. I suspect —but could not prove— that they do enjoy support from various diaspora groups in the United States, the UK and other places where there is a large Nigerian community. I say that I suspect that because those diaspora populations in the first place often have their origin in the aftermath of the Biafra war.

N: So they preserve those memories.

J. C.: That’s right, or their fathers and grandfathers do. I will point out that the Nigerian diaspora in the United States has been extremely successful. For example, it has higher education levels and higher annual incomes than native born Americans.

N: In Biafra, besides the Igbo, many other peoples live: the Ijaw, the Ibibio... Would you say that those peoples would support the quest for Biafran independence?

J. C.: I don’t think so. If anything, what they would tend to do is that they would want to establish their own separate state. But no, I can’t see them willing to support an Igbo-dominated Biafra. And, of course, they did not support Biafra in the civil war.

N: In the short term, can we expect some kind of action from the Nigerian government or president to address Biafran secessionism not only by military means, but by other means?

J. C.: No, and that is so regrettable. I don’t see a political underway process that might address some of these issues in the former Biafra.