Nigeria: Could Arrest of Nnamdi Kanu Lead to Civil War, Terrorism?

  • Experts fear that the movement led by Igbo secessionist Nnamdi Kanu could incite conflict and terrorism

By Rafiu Ajakaye; Anadolu Agency, Turkey

Lagos, Nigeria

The arrest of secessionist Biafra activist Nnamdi Kanu on Oct. 19 has been followed by a wave of popular agitation in the southeastern region of Nigeria, which is largely populated by the Igbo tribe.

Since the beginning of November, thousands of members of the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) have shut down markets in the Aba, Abia State, following a three-day protest march on Nov. 6.

Demonstrators called for the release of Kanu, whose broadcasts on his pirate Radio Biafra have rallied members of the Igbo tribe in southeastern Nigeria.

Ryan Cummings, chief Africa analyst for Red24, a crisis management assistance firm, told Anadolu Agency on Monday that the agitation could well go out of control if the country does not handle it properly and within legal boundaries.

Long identified as a security threat by the Nigerian state, secessionist Biafra activist Nnamdi Kanu was picked up by the secret police on October 19 on his arrival from the U.K. Security agents are holding him for alleged offenses ranging from sedition, running of an illegal radio station,  ethnic incitement and treasonable felony. If found guilty,  Kanu risks the maximum penalty of a death sentence or a long jail term.

The 48-year old Kanu spearheads the movement to rally the country’s ethnic Igbo people to the idea of a separate Biafra republic, a reawakening of the secessionist bid that was crushed in the country’s 30-month civil war of 1967.

Nnamdi Kanu with suspected Radio Biafra terrorists
Nnamdi Kanu with suspected Radio Biafra terrorists

But much more alarming is his sanctioning violence against ethnic Hausa Fulani people and to an extent the Yoruba. He posits that both tribes conspire to put down the Igbo people.

Although Kanu had been granted bail, the government says he has yet to fulfill the conditions for release.  He remains in detention.

Analysts say mass unemployment, poverty and perceived injustice and political alienation of the Igbo from political power in Nigeria have helped to build an army of supporters for Kanu and his ideas.

The Nigerian army last week issued a reviewed rule of engagement in which it threatened a crackdown on any activities that target stability in the country.  It also warned officers against siding with the secessionists.

Cummings said that the Igbo agitation could turn into terrorist violence of the type perpetrated by the savage Boko Haram group.

“There are indeed parallels which can be drawn here,” Cummings said.

“The attempts to silence Kanu would seem to be outside the rule of law. This will only deepen anti-government sentiment among his support base and could have violent ramifications for a part of Nigeria which is still healing from the Biafran civil war,” he warned.

Kanu has indeed said that he would achieve independence for Biafra even if it meant going to war.

He was once caught soliciting for weapons to prosecute his struggle. For much of this year, Kanu has been traveling around the world galvanizing support for Biafran agitation.

Last year however, he supported the then ruling Peoples Democratic Party ahead of 2015 general election. He campaigned for then incumbent president Goodluck Jonathan, a Christian from the south, against opposition candidate Muhammadu Buhari, a Hausa Fulani Muslim from the northern region.

The relationship between Nigeria and IPOB officially went sour after the election of Buhari this year. Kanu started using his Radio Biafra to  broadcast hate messages against the government of Buhari and to incite violence against other tribes.

The Biafran conflict was the result of two military coups, the first January 15, 1966, which ousted the country’s first civilian leaders, and installed a pro-Igbo regime. In July 1966, a counter coup led by northern military officers ousted the Igbo group and killed top Igbo officers. This was followed by a pogrom against the Igbo.

On May 30, 1967, Igbo army officer Emeka Ojukwu declared the landmass comprising the entire old Eastern Region independent of Nigeria. The Nigerian state almost immediately declared war against the region in which 2 million Igbo died.

The war came to an end on January 15, 1970 after the Biafran troops conceded defeat.

Since the return of the Nigerian democracy in 1999, no Igbo has been elected president.  No Igbo has held strategic military positions like the chief of army staff until Jonathan picked Lt Gen Azubuike Ihejirika as the army chief in 2012.

To be sure, in the current Buhari government, a number of Igbo politicians have now been appointed into key ministerial positions. But frustration from perceived disenfranchisement  still abounds in the southeast.

Kanu’s secessionist movement seems to have benefited from this frustration. While a large segment of the Igbo community appears lukewarm to the latest agitation, Kanu seems to have gained a good following across the region – at least as confirmed by the size of the protest.

Dr. Peregrino Brimah
Dr. Peregrino Brimah

Perreregno Brimah, a public affairs commentator, told Anadolu Agency on Friday that  Kanu is a dangerous political activist whose antics he said threaten public peace.

While Brimah concedes that Nigeria had mismanaged the Boko Haram crisis, he does not think that Kanu’s IPOB should be tolerated.

“While people may think that, because in the past terrorism arose when we clamped down on agitation, I am not of this opinion,” he said.

Asking not to be named, a top security analyst and publisher of Nigeria’s most respected blog on security and military matters, BeegEaglesblog, told Anadolu Agency: “What is worrisome about these protests is the fervor and refusal to back down on the part of the agitators. This had not not been characteristic of pro-Biafra agitations until now,” he said.

“The likelihood that the Southeast in particular could become a theatre of armed conflict in the not-too-distant future has never seemed so imminent since the end of the Nigerian Civil War in 1970,” he added.

But the security analyst said Nigeria cannot afford another insurgency at the moment, citing the Boko Haram crisis, ongoing containment of the militants in the oil rich Niger delta, and a struggling economy.

“It might be expedient for Nigeria to seek non-coercive measures aimed at defusing the tense situation engendered by the agitation of the IPOB across parts of the Southeast and Niger Delta,” according to the analyst.