On 30 May 2017, major cities in South-East Nigeria, including Onitsha, Enugu and Aba, as well as some towns in the South-South, were locked down as business activities came to a standstill in remembrance and celebration of the heroes of the secessionist Republic of Biafra.
The struggle for the Republic of Biafra dates back to 30 May 1967, when General Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu, then the military governor of the Eastern Region, declared the secession of the region from the Federal Republic of Nigeria. The move was in response to the killing of members of the Igbo ethnic group who were living in the northern and western parts of Nigeria.
After the defeat of the Biafra secessionists on 11 January 1970, many pro-Biafra groups in the country set aside 30 May as a day of celebration and to remember these who lost their lives fighting in the struggle.
Activities of these pro-Biafra groups have been drawing a growing number of sympathisers from all around the country, especially among young people from the South-East and South-South. Recently even individuals from the South-West region, who joined the Nigerian Army in opposition to the secessionists during the Civil War, have expressed support for these groups.
The insurgence of these groups led to the arrest of Nnamdi Kanu, the British-Nigerian leader of the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB), a modern pro-Biafran group, in 2015. Kanu was jailed for his activities as the director of Radio Biafra, a controversial pro-Biafra radio station, but was released in April 2017 on stringent bail terms.
Empty streets as pro-Biafra struggle gains ground
On 30 May 2017, Kanu declared a sit-at-home protest to mark the declaration of Biafra’s independence and affirm IPOB’s resolve to continue the struggle for the independent Republic of Biafra.
IPOB has since joined with another pro-Biafran group, the Movement for the Actualisation of the Sovereign State of Biafra (MASSOB), to hold protests, ignoring the warnings of the Nigeria police against any move that would breach the peace and security of the country.
Unlike such previous protest exercises, which received lukewarm participation, this year’s call received ‘total compliance’, according to an article published on 3 June 2017.
Cities across the South-East were in total shutdown and roads were deserted as shops, banks, and schools remained closed. Enugu, Anambra and Abia, states which constitute the economic hub of the region, were shadows of their normal selves. Sympathisers across the South-East and South-South regions of the country clearly sent a serious message of growing support for Biafra’s resurrection.
Pressure grows on Nigerian government
The protest drew the presence of military personnel and the police, who moved around the affected cities in armoured vehicles and guns to ensure the maintenance of law and order in the region. However, according to a report by the Imo State Commissioner of police, Chris Ezike, no arrests were made as there was neither a protest nor people to arrest.
“The fact that the struggle for the restoration of Biafra has resurfaced is a warning that the Nigerian government has done little or nothing to show that the South-Easterners are Nigerians rather than a defeated people,” said Chidubem, a 36-year-old business owner who resides in Asaba but owns a shop in Onitsha. “Besides, the sit-at-home order is to celebrate 50 years of Biafra independence and to remember our heroes who fought during [the] Nigeria-Biafra war to preserve and protect the Biafrans.”
According to one youth in Onitsha who was rejoicing in the total compliance and shutdown of the region, “We are tired of being treated like second-hand citizens. They push us away to feed from the crumbs that fall off the table.”
“We are ready to die. The fight to restore our country continues. They should know by now that killing us will not stop our resolve until we are all dead,” another said. “We are hard-core Biafrans; it is either Biafra or nothing, and Biafra is my home.”