NIGERIA: The Case Of Biafra
On Tuesday, June 29, 2021, Nnamdi Kanu, an Igbo Nigerian with British citizenship who can perhaps best be described as an “agitator,” was arrested. No one can agree on where it happened since reports range from Kenya to Ethiopia to the Netherlands. The people who do know are keeping quiet. No one knows precisely who arrested Kanu either; Kenya is denying involvement and the United Kingdom is still requesting further information. The best information so far suggests a collaboration between Nigerian security forces and Interpol. The setup and circumstances to the arrest of Kanu in June resemble a well-thought-out whodunit, with twists and turns and a slightly sinister edge.
Why was Kanu arrested? That depends on who you ask. According to Nigeria’s Attorney General Abubakar Malami, he was extradited back to his homeland to stand trial for the 11 felony charges from back in 2015. He will also stand trial for charges incurred by escaping custody while on bail in 2017 and inciting insurrectionist activity in the southeast of the country.
If you ask others, however, the answer might be more direct. Nnamdi Kanu was arrested and will stand trial for his repeated attempts to revive and reimagine a separatist movement that many in the West have likely never heard of, at least not since the 1960s: Biafra.
Coup, Counter-Coup, & Conflict.
One could be forgiven for forgetting what Biafra was. Its existence as an idea is a remnant of the reprehensible colonial withdrawal of the British state from Nigeria in 1960. Without the British empire, Nigeria was left with a struggling government unaccustomed to tackling the issues that plague independent nations; now, this government would be tasked with ruling more ethnic groups and languages than there are states in the United Nations. To put it mildly, it was not the best of times.
Trouble increased when some in the military became disillusioned by perceived government corruption. 1966 saw two overthrows of power: one that appeared to be led by Igbo officers and a counter-coup led by the North. During and after the second coup, numerous massacres were launched in the North against Igbos, resulting in the murder and displacement of almost a million Igbo people, an event which some have declared a genocide. After these massacres and counter-massacres against Northern Nigerians within Igbo territory, Biafra, a state that would take up a significant portion of southeastern Nigeria, declared independence in 1967. The Nigerian Civil War had begun.
After 4 long years, Biafra surrendered in 1970. The Head of State at the time, Yakubu Gowon — whose dual status as both a Northerner and a Christian made him seem like a symbol of unity — gave his now-famous decree: “No Victor, No Vanquished.” At first, it seemed like Nigeria would march, hobbled but hopeful, to the beat of a reconciliatory drum.
You Can’t Kill an Idea
Yet the same social issues that faced potential Biafrans before the war continue today. Many Igbo people still feel like they are seen as second-class citizens, despite the fact that much of the Nigerian oil export complex, and thus much the country’s wealth, is based in traditionally Igbo land. There is a persistent belief that, despite attempts to the contrary, the political system is still based on Hausa-Fulani hegemony. Truly, not a single Igbo person has been head of state since Johnson Aguiyi-Ironsi’s military regime in 1966.
It is in this context that Kanu attempts to revive the Biafran dream using more democratic means than before. A referendum on Biafran independence, similar to those enacted for Québec in 1995 and for Scotland in 2014, would go a long way to easing the concerns of Biafran separatists, even if it was not legally binding. Votes can’t solve everything, especially in a nation where a free and fair election is more fantasy than fact, but it would be a start.
However, the current President of Nigeria, Muhammadu Buhari, himself a veteran of the Civil War on the Nigerian side, does not seem interested in hearing such calls for self-determination. In his defense, he is following the letter and spirit of the law. The Nigerian Constitution of 1999 states that the country is to be “one indivisible and indissoluble sovereign state.” Buhari appears dead set on honoring that notion by any means necessary, even if that means deploying the military to quell Kanu’s paramilitary forces. Furthermore, the state has a vested interest in keeping the oil fields within Nigeria, considering oil and related exports amount to one-tenth of Nigeria’s gross domestic product. Losing any part of them would cause problems for the economically struggling nation.
Yet even by the standard of the law, some of Buhari’s actions appear unusual. His government’s actions surrounding Kanu’s arrest, such as not letting his lawyer see him and preventing many news sources from covering the court proceedings, do not suggest a conciliatory mood towards those arguing for Igbo sovereignty. Furthermore, some have suggested that Buhari shows signs of regional and ethnic favoritism when it comes to governance. While he has been willing to crack down on actions committed by fellow Fulani people against potential Biafrans, some have suggested it simply is not enough.
This is not to portray Nnamdi Kanu in a totally positive light, either; Nigerian politics are not a clear-cut morality play. Kanu’s propensity for death threats and ethnic and religious hate speech, which Facebook banned him for, are at best morally indefensible and at worst a reason to give extreme pause to those who agitate for Biafran independence while he still leads the movement.
In addition, one must be careful not to oversell Kanu’s influence: A number of Igbos in power disagree with him. There is no guarantee that a referendum, even a totally fair one, would pass. On one hand, the attempts at forcing a referendum through election disruption failed. On the other, recent polling suggests support for independence, though the turnout for those polls was so low that one must question their viability. There are somewhat clear reasons as to why a potential Biafran would vote for independence. What’s less clear is whether or not they would.
To ask whether a state deserves to exist is an odd question. The criteria for coming up with an answer are unclear and vague, and it is almost certainly easier to name states that should not exist — the Confederate States of America, for one — than to name states that should exist. As such, saying Biafra deserves to be independent, or even saying the opposite, is a bit like saying that the world deserves to keep spinning: How do you even begin to justify why?
Despite that, there are only two options before Nigeria today. Either the government must do more to ease the concerns of the Southeastern population, or the government must allow that population to have the right to autonomy or self-determination. It is necessary for Buhari to either make the nation better for everyone or call a referendum on Biafran independence with international election monitors. Doing anything less or anything else is only repeating the mistakes Nigeria has made before.