Nnamdi Nwannekaenyi Okwu Kanu is currently one of the most controversial figures in Nigeria. He is the leader of the Indigenous People of Biafra, one of the Biafra separatist organisations, as well as the director of Radio Biafra.
He was born in 1967 in present-day Abia state, South-East Nigeria, to parents from a family of royalty.
Kanu was an alumnus of the prestigious Government College Umuahia. He later enrolled to study geography at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka. Two years later he moved to the UK where he studied politics and economics at the London Metropolitan University.
Kanu was a relatively unknown figure in politics before 2009. That year he was enlisted by Ralph Uwazuruike, leader of the Movement for the Actualisation of the Sovereign State of Biafra, as a Radio Biafra anchor and broadcaster.
The Nigerian government has previously claimed to be jamming Radio Biafra transmission signals. But the station continues to broadcast unhindered, mainly via the internet and shortwave.
The station is very popular among many Nigerians of southern origin. This is mainly because of its no-holds-barred and bellicose dissection of the major ills bedevilling the Nigerian state. In October 2018 over 200,000 people were reported to have downloaded the station’s app to listen to Kanu make a broadcast from Israel. This was after a year of silence following his disappearance from Nigeria the year before.
Kanu’s views are echoed by other Biafran separatist groups. Their grievances are rooted in the failure of the Nigerian state to implement the 3-Rs (reconciliation, rehabilitation and reconstruction) post-war peacebuilding initiatives in the country.
The war was ended on the principle of ‘no victor, no vanquished’. But several policies have been introduced in the intervening years that have stoked Igbo resentment against the Nigerian state.
removing jurisdiction of state and regional governments from strategic resources like crude oil,
confiscating so-called ‘abandoned property’ of the Igbo after the war,
the indigenisation policy of the 1970s,
the transfer of mineral-rich areas of Igboland to neighbouring Rivers and Cross River (now Akwa Ibom) states.
There are indeed major problems in the region. The area has become highly militarised over the past 20 years. The result has been an unusually high number of cases of extortion and other human rights abuses. For example, in 2016 Amnesty International accused the Nigerian military of embarking on a campaign of extrajudicial executions and violence. It said the actions had resulted in the death of at least 150 peaceful pro-Biafra protesters over the course of a year.
Kanu’s idea of Igbo nationalism is mainly underpinned by radical separatism. He represents the radical faction of the Igbo nationalists, which is largely confrontational.
For their part, conservative Igbo nationalists prefer a gradual diplomatic negotiation over their desired outcomes. These include the equitable inclusion of the Igbo in Nigeria’s economic and political landscape.
Populist organisations that support the Biafran cause have, for the most part, been founded on the doctrine of non-violence. Although inspired by the Biafra secessionist movement led by Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu between 1967 and 1970, separatist agitators are more inclined to civil disobedience than armed struggle.
The Indigenous People of Biafra is the most recent manifestation of Biafran separatism. It represents the militant wing of post-war Igbo nationalism. The organisation espouses the exit of the Igbo and other ethnic minorities from the defunct Eastern Region into an alternative political arrangement.
The Indigenous People of Biafra and other pro-Biafra organisations are considered militant relative to conservative Igbo nationalists.
Separatist agitators from the various organisations all agree on secession. But they differ on the operational strategies.
Kanu’s Indigenous People of Biafra has set out three possible routes to sovereignty. The first is the threat of armed secession. The second is civil disobedience and the third a referendum. (The last two are not mutually exclusive.)
The option of armed struggle was first mooted in 2014. During the 2014 National Conference in Nigeria, Kanu threatened that war-torn Somalia would look like paradise should Igbo delegates to the conference fail to secure a secession.
A year later at a Convention of the World Igbo Congress in Los Angeles, California, Kanu stated:
Kanu’s confrontational rhetoric and call for armed struggle were the reasons for his arrest in 2015 in Lagos. He was charged with sedition, ethnic incitement, terrorism and treasonable felony. His arrest was met with protests by the Indigenous People of Biafra members in different parts of Nigeria. Areas particularly affected were Abia, Anambra, Cross River, Delta, Enugu, Imo and Rivers States. The protests heightened tension in Igboland, especially the southeast region of Nigeria. They also put pressure on the Nigerian government to act.
In September 2017 President Muhammadu Buhari launched Operation Python Dance II in the southeast. The operation was putatively deployed to combat crimes. But it later turned into a repressive tool against unarmed members of the Indigenous People of Biafra.
That same month the Nigerian government declared the Indigenous People of Biafra a proscribed organisation. But its activities have not abated.
In December 2020, the organisation founded its paramilitary wing, known as the Eastern Security Network. According to the media and publicity secretary of the Indigenous People of Biafra, Comrade Emma Powerful, the network was mandated to defend what he described as Biafraland by counteracting the activities of suspected armed Fulani herdsmen against peasant farmers and local communities.
The way forward
The agitation for Biafra separatism has grown in frequency, intensity and geographical spread during Buhari’s presidency.
Two factors might be responsible for this.
The first is the alleged lopsidedness of Buhari’s key appointments, which leaves southern Nigeria, particularly the Igbo, with the shorter end of the stick.
A second factor has been the siting of physical infrastructure across the country. One example is the construction of a rail line in which the Port Harcourt-Maiduguri rail project was completely neglected. Another was the National Assembly approving a massive infrastructural development plan without allocating a single project to the South-East zone.
In my view only inclusive governance that reflects Nigeria’s federal character and multinational composition will stem Biafra separatism in the country.