On 30 May 1967, Colonel Odumegwu Ojukwu, the then governor of East Central State, tried to secede from Nigeria and create an independent Republic of Biafra. This move was prompted by the massacre of more than 30 000 members of the Igbo ethnic group who had been living in the northern part of the country. This followed the 1966 military coupled by General Yakubu Gowon.
After a bloody three-year-long civil war that claimed more than 3 million lives, the people of Biafra were re-annexed into Nigeria. General Gowon declared an enforced peace under the slogan ‘No victor, no vanquished’.
The agitation for an independent state by the Igbo seemed to have died off – until 2009, when Nnamdi Kanu, a graduate of economics and politics from London Metropolitan University, founded the controversial underground radio station Radio Biafra in London. He renewed calls for Biafra’s independence. Kanu also formed the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) in 2012.
Radio Biafra’s broadcasts were an agitation that received acceptance among many easterners and re-opened the old wounds of the bloody Nigerian Civil War.
Arrest of Kanu and Protests
Not happy with the wave of renewed agitation for an independent state, the Nigerian government under President Muhammadu Buhari told pro-Biafra agitators to perish the thought of a separate Biafra, given that the country has remained united since independence.
On 14 October 2015, on his arrival from the United Kingdom, where he resides, Kanu was arrested in Lagos by the State Security Service (SSS), also known as the Department of State Services (DSS). He was subsequently charged with terrorism and treasonable felony.
Some experts have argued that Kanu played along with the federal government for a larger purpose: “Nnamdi Kanu is a clever man. He intentionally followed a script he and his team had already written in London,” said Toye Balogun, a public affairs analyst based in Ogun State, southwestern Nigeria. “He knows that his arrest will place his agitation on the front burner. The international community will be more interested, and the people of the eastern region will agitate more for his release – and for the restoration of Biafra.”
Immediately after his arrest, protests by pro-Biafra agitators erupted. In the eastern commercial cities of Aba and Onitsha, more than 80 000 protesters took to the streets, hoisting Biafran flags and Kanu’s picture, demanding his unconditional release. Protests were also staged abroad. In Europe, protesters carrying Biafra’s flag and emblem stormed the headquarters of the European Union parliament in Brussels, Belgium, to demand the release of Kanu. Many of these pro-Biafra protesters also reminded those foreign governments of how they aided the Nigerian forces during the civil war.
Pro-Biafra groups also wrote and sent petitions, asking the international community to intervene in the prolonged detention of Kanu. Many human rights groups have branded Kanu a ‘prisoner of conscience’.
Jonah Onuoha, a professor of political science and the director of the Center for American Studies at the University of Nigeria, told This is Africa that the agitation was an attempt to draw attention to the issue of the marginalization of Igbo people in the country.
“Since after the civil war, power has not moved to the southeast,” said Professor Onuoha. “If power comes to the southeast, the agitation for Biafra will die. You will not hear about Biafra again because the perceived issue of marginalisation would have been addressed.”
Bail Conditions and Release
Following the pressure mounted by pro-Biafra agitators and civil society organisations, Kanu was granted bail on 25 April 2017, by Justice Binta Nyako of the Federal High Court in Abuja. However, the bail came with stringent conditions. These included that a highly respected Jewish leader had to deposit N100 million. Two highly placed persons of Igbo extraction, such as a senator or a highly respected person, who resided and owned property in Abuja also had to deposit N100 million. In addition, Kanu was banned from being in a crowd that exceeded more than 10 persons. The conditions were condemned by many Nigerians and described as unconstitutional in a democracy.
“The bail conditions were very strange to us. Why are you imposing on Kanu to bring a Jewish religious leader to come and bail out a citizen of this country?” said Barr Olu Omotayo, a human rights activist and the president of the Civil Rights Realisation and Advancement Network (CRRAN). “And the talk about a ‘senator from the southeast’ – it breeds ethnicity and division.”
Despite Kanu’s release, IPOB has vowed to continue agitating for the independence of Biafra from Nigeria. “We face injustice and inequality in Nigeria,” said Emma Powerful, a spokesperson for the IPOB. “Our lives and properties are not secure; we want to live on our own.”