Introduction

The Nigerian civil war ended on January 15, 1970, following the surrender of Biafra to the federal government. The arrowhead of the Biafran secession attempt, the Igbo ethnic group of Southeast Nigeria, were subsequently reintegrated into the Nigerian federation. Despite the official rhetoric of the victorious federal side, which stated “No victor, no vanquished” and “Rehabilitation, Reconstruction, and Reintegration,” subtle measures were put in place to ensure that the Igbo of Southeast Nigeria remained weakened and subordinate to federal hegemony. Such measures included the Bank Moratorium (Eastern States) decree of 1970 and Banking Obligations (Eastern States) decree No. 56 of 1970 that further pauperized the Igbo in the three Eastern states as they were allowed access to a flat rate of 20 Nigerian pounds at the end of the war in May 1970, no matter the amount of money deposited in their personal bank accounts before the war. Monies in such accounts were forfeited after the war. Furthermore, the Public Officers (Special Provisions) decree No. 46 of 1970 detained senior Igbo military officers that defected to the Biafran side for allegedly aiding the rebels’ cause. Many suspected of aiding the rebel cause were dismissed or subsequently retired after the war without recourse.

Another vexatious issue was the role of the federal government of Nigeria in tacitly encouraging the ethnic minority population in Rivers and Cross River states to expropriate Igbo-owned properties in Port Harcourt and Calabar by claiming that such properties were “abandoned” during the civil war, justifying their takeover by indigenes of those states. In this regard, Igbo people that owned properties in Port Harcourt and Calabar lost ownership of their assets after the civil war.1Obi-Ani, P, Post-Civil War Political and Economic Reconstruction of Igboland, 1970-1983, Enugu: Great AP Express Publishers Ltd, 2009. The Igbo elite also lost out in relation to the post-war indigenization policy based on the Nigerian Enterprises Promotion decree No. 4 of 1972 (amended in 1977), granting equity participation in foreign companies to Nigerians and transferring ownership of certain enterprises from foreigners to Nigerians. Having lost properties and assets during the war and lacking the resources to acquire such companies, many Igbo business people were excluded from the economic opportunities and had to struggle to rebuild their businesses from scratch.

Memories of such losses and other perceived injustices, such as the lopsided application of the quota system and discriminatory federal appointments and projects, alienated the Igbo in post-war Nigeria. Over the years, such grievances became more pronounced among younger Igbo, particularly those born after the war, who did not witness or experience its horrors. This post-war generation was much unlike those who fought the war that ended fifty years ago and resigned themselves to their defeat with equanimity. Since Nigeria’s return to democracy in 1999, anger among Igbo youths against their continued marginalization within the Nigerian federation contributed to a resurgence of agitation for Biafra. The Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) was founded in 2012, following the decline of the Movement for the Actualization of the Sovereign State of Biafra (MASSOB), partly to protest Igbo marginalization and address long-standing grievances.2Obi-Ani, N.A, Okwuchukwu, J.N & Obi-Ani, P, “Indigenous Peoples of Biafra (IPOB) and the Renewed Quest for Biafra,” Cogito –Multidisciplinary Research Journal, vol. xii, no.3, September 2020,97-119. See also Okechukwu Ibeanu, Nwachukwu Orji and Chijioke K. Amadi, Biafra Separatism: Causes, Consequences and Remedies, Enugu: Institute For innovations In Development, 2016. However, its initial use of peaceful protest gradually gave way to a more confrontational approach. This article addresses issues related to the marginalization suffered by the Igbo of Southeast East Nigeria within the context of a highly centralized post-war Nigerian federation. Of note is the resurgence of separatist agitation led by IPOB. The article reviews the separatist turn in IPOB’s campaign and makes a case for a less militant and more peaceful approach by those agitating for Igbo self-determination.

The resurgence of Neo-Biafran movements, particularly IPOB, has its roots in feelings of marginalization, alienation, and injustices experienced by the Igbo people since the end of the Nigerian civil war. Some of these grievances are fueled by the belief that certain principles of the federal revenue allocation formula, particularly the emphasis on the equality of states and landmass in revenue, were designed to favor the northern and western parts of the federation that won the civil war and dominate federal power, to the disadvantage of the Igbo. In terms of landmass, a few states in the north had more space than the entire Igboland, where population density is rather high. The Igbo were also constrained by the “quota system” adopted for recruitment into the nation’s armed forces and police, which meant the exclusion and frustration of many qualified candidates. In Nigeria, the practice of the quota system appears more like a distortion of the United States affirmative action program, propounded to assist the African-American community, which has historically been oppressed through slavery and disenfranchisement, in winning representation in highly competitive educational and employment sectors. The quota system is designed to achieve representation based on state of origin, without regard for merit or competence. Thus, majority ethnic groups dominate every sector, thereby undermining the competitive spirit among various groups in Nigeria. The quota system was believed to limit merit-based access by Igbo to other federal institutions such as public service and parastatals, educational institutions, the military, police, and security agencies.  Most Igbo youths viewed such exclusion as unjust and discriminatory, particularly after seeing those from other parts of the country they had out-performed in competitive examinations being admitted to federal universities and agencies, while they were left out. Many of their parents were also aggrieved by their perceived exclusion from lucrative federal positions and economic opportunities and the insufficient federal government infrastructural projects in the region.

Such bottled–up anger exploded in the late 1990s and early 2000s in the form of renewed agitation for secession, mainly by those born after the Nigerian civil war. They found the political and economic choices facing them insufferable. As Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson noted in Why Nations Fail…

“Political and economic institutions, which are ultimately the choice of society, can be inclusive and encourage economic growth. Or they can be extractive and become impediments to economic growth. Nations fail when they have extractive economic institutions that impede and even block economic growth.”3Acemoglu, D & Robinson, J.A. Why Nations Fail: The origins of power, Prosperity and poverty. London: Profile Books, Ltd, 2020.

The republican nature of Igbo society and the mobility of its people suggests that they would thrive better in a more liberal and egalitarian society. Unfortunately, the political and economic institutions in Nigeria are characterized by corruption, patronage, and cronyism.4Obi-Ani, N.A &Obi-Ani, P,” Pan-Africanism and the Rising Ethnic Distrust in Nigeria,” Ianna Journal of Interdisciplinary Studies, vol.1, Issue 1, Oct.2019, 65-75. See also, Obi-Ani, N.A & Obi-Ani, P, “Political Parties in Nigeria’s Fourth Republic:  A Case of Peoples’ Democratic Party, PDP 1999 – 2007,” International Journal of Humanities, Social Sciences and Global Affairs, 1 (1), 2019. This has led to the exclusion of a majority of Nigerians from accessing or benefiting from national resources and development. With the centralization of revenue collection and allocation in the federal government and the perceived domination of the most lucrative positions of federal power by those from non-Igbo parts of the country, Igbo youths have mobilized themselves to agitate for the reform of a system they see as structured against them. Sensing that their agitation is not attracting any response to their grievances, some are demanding to opt out of a federal arrangement that is perceived as unfair.

IPOB Confrontational Stance and Government Response

The emergence of IPOB and its mass following among Igbo youths is indicative of poor government response to the economic and political exclusion of the Igbo in Nigeria.5Amamnabu, U E, A Critical Reflection on the Biafran Agitation and the questions of Nigeria Amalgamation in 1914,” Igwebuike: An African Journal of Arts and Humanities, vol. 3 no 5, July 2017. O. Ibeanu, N. Orji, and C. Amadi, Biafra Separatism: Causes, Consequences and Remedies, Enugu: Institute For innovations In Development, 2016. Obi-Ani, N.A, Okwuchukwu, J.N &Obi-Ani, P, “The Resurgence of Biafra: Another Perspective”, Journal of History and Military Studies, (JHMS), vol.5 (1), Dec. 2019, 108-124. Obi-Ani, N.A, Okwuchukwu, J.N & Obi-Ani, P, “Indigenous Peoples of Biafra (IPOB) and the Renewed Quest for Biafra,” Cogito –Multidisciplinary Research Journal, vol.xii, no.3, September 2020,97-119. The army of unemployed graduates and school dropouts in Igboland and those forced to emigrate to Europe and the Americas due to economic difficulties have seen a new messiah in Nnamdi Kanu, due to his recognition of their marginalization, and rekindled  hope for the rebirth of Biafra. My fieldwork indicates that many Igbo youths who enlisted in IPOB and its organizational cadre, ranging from the ward to the state level, had been promised certain positions in government as soon as the Biafra Republic is actualized. Despite IPOB’s claims of non-violence, its radio broadcasts from London have been both inciteful and provocative.6Radio Biafra Online, www.liveonlineradio.net , see also Nwafor, Gideon and Omeovah, Blessing. “Analysis of Radio Biafra Effectiveness on the Renewed Agitation for the Restoration of Biafra Republic among Listeners in Onitsha Metropolis,” 1, www.researchgate.net, accessed February 21, 2019. Many Igbo people have been worried about the confrontational approach of IPOB and the possibility of plunging Igboland into another war. While some Igbo people sympathize with the group and wish for a negotiated approach to Igbo marginalization, many abhor the rhetoric of war. The situation became more worrisome when IPOB kitted its members in uniform and organized public demonstrations in major cities like Aba, Umuahia, Onitsha, Port Harcourt, and Abakaliki, waving Biafran flags and distributing leaflets. Despite repeated calls by the police to stop such demonstrations, they only intensified, leading to the police and the army being called to disperse them.

As the push and pull between government and IPOB intensified, tensions escalated. In 2015, when the leader of IPOB, Nnamdi Kanu, arrived in Lagos from London, Nigerian security operatives swiftly arrested him and charged him with treason.7“Asomba, Ikenna Radio Biafra Director, Nnamdi Kanu reportedly arrested,” Vanguard, October 18, 2016. https://www.vanguardngr.com/2015/10/breaking-radio-biafra-director-nnamdi-kanu-reportedly-arrested/. Accessed on 7 May 2020. Many commentators claimed that his ordeal was because he is Igbo and his crime was political, with some painting him as a freedom fighter. Prominent Igbo leaders later intervened to secure his bail in court. Nnamdi Kanu’s release from detention did not deter his campaign and contributed to the growth of his stature to one of a hero. His followers went as far as weaving many myths around him, claiming that a handshake with him was curative. He went on to defy bail conditions restraining him from speaking to more than ten people at a time or addressing mass rallies. A turning point was when he issued a stay-at-home order for all Igbo on May 30, 2017 to commemorate those killed during the Biafran civil war. The order was largely followed by the Igbo business class and traders not only in Igboland, but across the major cities in Nigeria.

The success of his call for a day to mourn those killed during the war further emboldened him and contributed to the confrontation between IPOB members and the Nigerian army in Umuahia during a military operation in the Southeast codenamed Operation Python Dance.8Ujumadu, V & Okoli, A, “Operation Python Dance 11: One Week After,” Vanguard, September 23, 2017. See also, “MUST WATCH! Nigerian Soldiers Torture IPOB Members, Force Them to Sleep in And Drink Dirty Water,” www.youtube.com, accessed March 27, 2019. See also, V. Ujumadu, “Biafra: The other side of Operation Python Dance,” Vanguard, September 19, 2017, see also C. Gabriel et al, “Operation Python Dance II: Abia Govt Slams 3-Day Curfew, Soldiers Apologize”, Vanguard, September 13, 2017. Prior to the confrontation, Nnamdi Kanu had inaugurated a group called the Biafran Secret Service (BSS).  According to him, the BSS was established to put a stop to the menace of Fulani herdsmen ravaging rural communities and farms in Southeast Nigeria. He claimed that the herdsmen, who had become bandits, were just like the Hisbah in the state of Kano, Sharia police, and other vigilante outfits in the country.9Alaribe,  U, “Why we set up Biafra Secret Service,”  Vanguard, August 23, 2017,  https://www.vanguardngr.com/2017/08/set-biafra-secret-service-protect-people-nnamdi-kanu/, accessed January 10, 2022. This appeared to be the last straw as the federal government decided to take decisive action against IPOB. The military moved against IPOB members and Nnamdi Kanu fled the country, while IPOB continued with its campaign, leading to several bloody encounters between its followers, the military, security operatives, and police between 2017 and 2021. But in a twist of events, Nnamdi Kanu was arrested outside the country, forcibly returned to Nigeria in June 2021, and is currently in detention while he stands trial on charges of terrorism. His repatriation, detention, and trial have sparked protests and weekly sit-at-home demonstrations in Southeast Nigeria.

So far, the failure to address the grievances of Igbo youths and the continued incarceration of Kanu has fed the radicalization of some IPOB members, leading to the emergence of a militia faction, the Eastern Security Network (ESN), which has claimed responsibility for attacks on police stations, federal prisons, homes of pro-federal politicians, and law enforcement officials. Though Igbo marginalization remains palpable, there are some in Igboland who feel that IPOB rhetoric should not be allowed to push angry and largely uninformed Igbo youths into confrontation with the Nigerian army, as this will likely lead to additional suffering by an already long-suffering and traumatized people. On the other hand, some have criticized the proscription of IPOB as a terrorist organization, arguing that it is further evidence of discrimination against the Igbo while ignoring violent agitation by other groups based in the western, central, and northeastern parts of the country.

Conclusion

It is unlikely that the use of federal power through military operations and court action is capable of addressing the grievances and sense of discrimination and injustice felt by the people, particularly the youth population in Igboland. In this regard, the article proposes several nonviolent options for protesting both Igbo marginalization and the federal government’s scant response to the agitation for self-determination. It proposes that the Nigerian government adopt responsiveness, peaceful dialogue, and confidence-building mechanisms to engage all stakeholders in the Igbo states of Southeast Nigeria, particularly the youth and women.

This essay establishes that, although the Nigerian civil war officially ended in 1970, the unresolved tensions and the failure to provide reconciliation and restitution continue to haunt the country. This study suggests that armed struggle is not a panacea to the problem of ethnic marginalization. It notes that the emergence of IPOB and other secessionist groups in different parts are indicative of the deep crisis of post-war Nigerian federalism, but the federal government should view this as an opportunity to engage in much-needed reforms and conflict prevention strategies. As such, it can be readily surmised that, although the military’s defeat of the Biafran secessionist attempt led to the winning of a war, much more needs to be done to win the peace. There is a need for devolution of powers to component units of the federation to allay the fears of marginalization and domination. Furthermore, initiatives like revenue allocation based on derivation, state police, autonomy over certain spheres of local governance, and the creation of inclusive political and economic institutions would largely assuage the concerns of those clamoring for separatism.

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