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Thursday, 3 March 2016

Biafra, Buhari’s New Headache-Newsweek -pointblanknews

Dressed all in white, Nnamdi Kanu took his seat in the Federal High Court
in Abuja, Nigeria, on February 9. Though he had been in detention for
almost four months, the 48-year-old activist initially declined requests
from court officers to agree to have his handcuffs removed. In an act of
defiance, he raised his cuffed hands to the television cameras. It was
hard to divine his intention, but the act and his angry expression
suggested that he barely recognized the authority of the court he found
himself in.
Kanu, a dual British-Nigerian citizen, was arrested in Lagos in October by
Nigerian intelligence agents during a visit from his home in London. Kanu
leads the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB), a separatist movement
calling for the independence of the southeastern territories that made up
Biafra in the late 1960s. He denies all six of the charges against him,
which include treasonable felony, a charge that carries a possible life
sentence. The authorities essentially accuse Kanu of trying to overthrow
the Nigerian head of state by broadcasting secessionist propaganda on
Radio Biafra, the underground radio station he runs from London.
An oil-rich region about the size of the island of Ireland, the former
Republic of Biafra has a history of turmoil and civil unrest. It existed
as an independent republic for just two and a half years in the late
1960s, after millions of people—mainly from the southern Igbo ethnic
group—led a movement to secede from the newly independent Nigeria,
sparking the civil war of 1967 to 1970, which claimed more than 1 million
lives.
Forty-six years after that war ended, Nigeria is again facing a potential
uprising in the southeast. Since Kanu’s arrest in October, a protest
movement has sprung up in Nigeria, with thousands of people identifying as
Biafrans demonstrating in the streets across the southeast and as far
north as Abuja to demand the release of their leader. The demonstrations
began peacefully but turned bloody in December: According to Associated
Press reports, at least 22 protesters and two police officers have been
killed in clashes at pro-Biafra rallies. The Nigerian government has not
provided an official death toll, but Uchenna Asiegbu, a senior IPOB
official, tells Newsweek that more than 100 civilians have died.
The rise in tensions between pro-Biafra activists and the Nigerian
government comes at a time when Nigeria—Africa’s biggest economy and most
populous nation—is grappling with serious challenges. In recent years, the
country has struggled to quell an insurgency mounted by Boko Haram, a
militant group that has killed an estimated 20,000 people since 2009 as it
attempts to establish an Islamic state in northeast Nigeria. Although
President Muhammadu Buhari said in December that Boko Haram had been
“technically” defeated, the group continues to attack civilians and
security forces in Nigeria’s northeast.
Meanwhile, militant groups in the oil-rich Niger Delta have been linked to
a series of recent attacks on oil and gas facilities in the area, which
was wracked by conflict in the mid-2000s. A Nigerian Cabinet minister said
in January that the attacks were costing the country $2.4 million a day.
This instability in both the northeast and the south, combined with
plummeting oil prices, has hammered Nigeria’s economy. (Oil revenue
constitutes 35 percent of Nigeria’s gross domestic product, and 90 percent
of the country’s export revenue comes from oil.) In December, Buhari said
he expected the country’s budget deficit to double in 2016 and capital
expenditures to triple, as the government tries to revive growth.
Now, as pro-Biafra groups step up their demands for a breakaway state, the
Nigerian government has yet another challenge on its hands. Today’s
pro-Biafra secessionist movement, led mainly by young people with no
direct memory of the civil war, nevertheless shares some of the same
concerns that sparked the original calls for independence. Nigeria was
forged in 1914, when British colonialists cobbled together two
territories, hoping to subsidize the poorer north with the resources of
the oil-rich south. The borders of modern-day Nigeria did not reflect the
ethnic boundaries of different rival kingdoms: the Igbos in the southeast,
the Hausa-Fulani in the north and the Yoruba in the southwest.

After Nigeria declared itself independent of British colonial rule in
1960, regional and ethnic tensions erupted in a vicious power struggle. A
coup against the northern-led government in January 1966—seen by the
leaders and many people from the north of the country as a plot led by the
Igbos—prompted the northerners to seize back power. Mobs from communities
in the north of the country then killed tens of thousands of Igbos; many
Igbos living in various parts of Nigeria fled to their eastern homeland.
The following year, military officer Odumegwu Ojukwu annexed the southeast
and declared the independent Republic of Biafra. That marked the start of
Nigeria’s bloody civil war, which ended in 1970 after Nigeria blockaded
Biafra’s border and hundreds of thousands of people starved to death. The
Biafran troops surrendered.
Nearly half a century later, many of the same rivalries and fears of
persecution that set off the war still linger. After Nigeria returned to
democratic rule in 1999 after decades of rule by military juntas—excluding
one four-year stretch that began in 1979—the Movement for the
Actualization of the Sovereign State of Biafra was founded with the aim of
restoring the state of Biafra. But the IPOB, established 10 years later,
has since become the premier pro-Biafra movement; it claims to have some
20 million members and 95 branches across the world. It has even opened
its first Biafran embassy in northern Spain’s Basque country, chosen
because of the region’s historic struggle for independence.
Kanu, who was elected IPOB leader in September 2015, has been hailed as
the restorer of the Biafran nation. “Nnamdi Kanu is ordained to take us to
the Biafran promised land,” says Asiegbu. “He is the chosen one.” Kanu’s
critics say that the secessionist leader is a promoter of hate speech and
propaganda. At an event in May 2014 to commemorate the 1967 declaration of
the Republic of Biafra, Kanu reportedly told a group of IPOB members and
civil war veterans: “We shall fight until we get Biafra. If they don’t
give us Biafra, no human being will remain alive in Nigeria by that time.”
Nigeria’s president has said relatively little on the subject of Kanu’s
arrest or the Biafran issue. I n December, Buhari told journalists that
Kanu had entered the country without a passport—a claim Kanu disputes.
“There’s a treasonable felony against him, and I hope the court will
listen to the case,” Buhari said. Since then, the president has kept
silent, and the government has declined repeated requests from Newsweek
for further comment.
With pro-Biafra protesters rallying around Kanu’s arrest, the outcome of
the trial could heighten tensions between the activists and the
government. “The significance of Kanu’s trial can only be determined by
what follows after,” says Manji Cheto, an Africa analyst at U.K.-based
risk consultancy Teneo Intelligence. “Should IPOB react violently, it
could potentially be a tipping point for the Biafra agitation.”

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