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Nigeria’s Northern Elders Forum – Keeping Igbos Not Worth Civil War

On June 9, following a closed-door meeting, the Northern Elders Forum (NEF) issued a public statement that the Igbo-dominated southeast should be allowed to secede from the Federal Republic of Nigeria if it was necessary to avoid a civil war. NEF spokesman Hakeem Baba-Ahmed said “the Forum has arrived at the difficult conclusion that if support for secession among the Igbo is as widespread as it is being made to look, and Igbo leadership appears to be in support of it, then the country should be advised not to stand in the way.” His statement continued that secession was not in the best interest of the Igbos or of Nigerians. Rather, all should work to rebuild Nigeria. But, blocking secession “will not help a country already burdened with failures on its knees to fight another war to keep the Igbo in Nigeria.” The statement also suggested that northerners subject to harassment in the southeast should return to the north. There was no reference to secessionist sentiment in Yorubaland, in southwest Nigeria, to which former President Olusegun Obasanjo has referred. The former president said that Yoruba secession, too, would be unwise, but that maintaining unity should not come “at any cost.”

Though there is no specific reference to it, clearly animating the NEF statement is the memory of Nigeria’s 1967-70 civil war, successfully fought by Nigerian nationalists to keep Igbo-dominated Biafra in the federation; it left up to two million dead. It, too, involved massive population movements, with Igbos fleeing to the south a northern pogrom and fewer northerners leaving the southeast. In the civil war, northern elites strongly supported the nationalists. Current Igbo disgruntlement has its roots in defeat in the civil war and the belief that they are marginalized from the upper reaches of the Nigerian state. (There has never been an Igbo president of Nigeria.) Such feelings of marginalization are exacerbated by Nigeria’s nationwide epidemic of violence and economic malaise. The NEF, for its part, has responded to rising insecurity in Nigeria by calling for President Buhari to resign or to be impeached. Resignation or impeachment is a reversal of the NEF’s support of Muhammadu Buhari’s presidential candidacy in 2015.

It should be noted that the NEF statement in support of allowing secession had two caveats: that there be widespread support for it among the Igbo but also among their “leadership” (not further defined). While secessionist advocates will argue to the contrary, prima facie evidence for both either way is thin.

Do the views of the NEF matter? How representative is it of northern elite opinion? Buhari’s Special Adviser on Media Femi Adesina responded to its June 9 statement by dismissing the NEF as “a mere irritant” that hardly exists beyond its convener, Ango Abdullahi—a distinguished, former vice chancellor (president) of Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria. According to Adesina, the former vice chancellor is a general with no troops. Indeed, the influence of the NEF is hard to judge. But, its public statements attract widespread media attention. As with former President Obasanjo’s comments on Yoruba separatism, at the very least the NEF statements is an indication that rising insecurity is leading at least some of Nigeria’s elites to rethink the basis of the Nigerian state—and of the consequences of its civil war.

Nigerian Minister of Justice Abubakar Malami announced yesterday that Nnamdi Kanu, leader of the separatist Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB), was apprehended abroad on June 27 and has been returned to Nigeria for trial. Kanu poses a challenge to the administration of President Muhammadu Buhari and, indeed, to the unity of Nigeria. Separatist sentiment in the South East—the heart of the former Biafra—has been growing, and Kanu appears to have some degree of popular support. If the government botches Kanu’s trial and the atmospherics around it, it risks further inflaming separatism. Initial signs are not good.

The government has not announced where abroad or how Kanu was apprehended, except to say that it was with the assistance of Interpol. Kanu is a British citizen and his headquarters has been in London. One source says that he was apprehended in the United Kingdom, but British authorities deny it. It seems inevitable that social media will include claims that he was kidnapped. For his initial court appearance, the security services allegedly blindfolded him, handcuffed him, chained his legs, and smuggled him in through the back door. He made no statement.

Kanu was arrested in 2015 on numerous charges, including treason; he was released on bail in 2017 and then fled abroad. Since then, he has been a thorn in the side of the Buhari government, and his Radio Biafra, based in the United Kingdom, continues to advocate for Biafran independence. He is the leader of the IPOB which the Nigerian government has designated a terrorist organization. He also helped establish IPOB’s armed wing, the Eastern Security Network, which has attacked police stations. In addition to pushing for Biafran independence, Kanu’s rhetoric is bitterly hostile to Hausa-Fulani Muslims, especially herders moving south in search of pasture. He and other Biafra separatists denounce the Buhari government as Muslim and Fulani dominated. 

For its part, President Buhari’s government has long reacted viscerally to Biafran separatism. Buhari and his generation fought in the 1967-70 civil war against Biafran separatism. They were successful, but up to two million died in the conflict, mostly of disease and starvation. Biafra was quickly reincorporated into Nigeria, but many Igbos retain a sense of grievance.

In the face of current rampant insecurity in Nigeria and a stalled or declining economy, separatist sentiment has been growing in the South East (Biafra) but also in Yorubaland. Removing Kanu from the picture is unlikely to set back Biafran separatism, just as the death of warlord Abubakar Shekau does not appear to have set back jihadi terrorism in the North East. Indeed, Kanu’s jailing could provide the space for other Biafran separatist leaders to emerge.

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