For more than five decades, many have battled to infuse a state’s soul into the shifting geographical boundaries defined variously as Biafra. Col. Odumegwu Ojukwu originally crafted the name but failed to realize it despite over three million lives lost. Biafra of that era consisted of today’s south-eastern Nigeria and substantial parts of South-South Nigeria, namely Bayelsa, Rivers, Akwa Ibom, and Cross River. Over the decades, the geographical boundaries of the prospective Republic seemed to have narrowed down to the Igbo-speaking states of the country. Historically, the perceived continued marginalization of the Igbo ethnic group in Nigeria despite the so-called post-war reconciliations and reintegration feeds the secessionist grouse. Three decades after the civil war, with not much changing in that regard, the Movement for the Actualization of the Sovereign State of Biafra (MASSOB) renewed the agitations for the Republic of Biafra in 1999. Since then, many groups with similar goals have emerged with their unique approaches. One of them currently dominant is the Indigenous People of Biafra [IPOB].
Marginalization of Igbo people comprises serial affronts on their rights to live in freedom and dignity. Aside from denying them the opportunity to lead the country as other ethnic groups have done politically, the Igbos are also brazenly excluded from critical economic entitlements enjoyed by different ethnic groups. On the flipside, enhanced access to political authority will also facilitate policy environments that support their leadership in entrepreneurial acumen. Their deliberate denial of these rights and the increasingly attendant loss of economic security and peace have sustained their agitations. In effect, the Biafran struggle, all things being equal, is to regain its erstwhile security in characteristics and levels necessary for its sustained enterprise and development. The champions of these agitations demand that the Igbos receive the same treatment as other ethnic groups achievable through a political restructuring that guarantees some independence for constituent or federating units or otherwise be allowed to secede. The federal government has not consented to either option.
Various Biafran secessionist groups have deployed differing approaches in pursuing the independent Republic objective. But the use of the name Biafra always draws the ire of the federal government regardless of whether the group’s strategy constitutes only nonviolent civil disobedience. Yet Biafra seems to have become the symbolic country destination of the Igbo people. For instance, the Movement for the Actualization of the Sovereign State of Biafra [MASSOB], which started as a peaceful movement, faced several confrontations with the government and ended up with stains of violence in its hands. The Indigenous Peoples of Biafra [IPOB] started the same way but proscribed virtually at birth. And in recent times, the latter, by its words and actions, is progressing fast to receiving the tag of an ultraviolent separatist group. Aside from its online radio’s verbal virulence and threats of violence and murder, it recently established a military wing – the Eastern Security Network – to enforce compliance with its proposals. The ESN appeared to have lived up to its billing almost immediately after its birth, as several viral videos of its alleged attacks on Fulani herders seemed to indicate. But pronouncements from its radio station also encouraged such attacks. More recently, scare techniques combined with severe violence have served to compel the population of southeast Nigeria to sit at home and do no work on Mondays and every other day that their leader appears in court. Despite its attempts to reverse it, some of its loyalists have continued to enforce it violently.
Many expected the Ohanaeze Ndigbo and other southeast leaders to draw the attention of the IPOB on its heightening tendency to violence instead of its initial stance on peaceful secessionist agitation. But they have remained silent, and understandably so. Speaking out against the group might attract unwarranted, violent retribution. A few years ago, the Deputy Senate President was physically assaulted in Germany by the same group. Elites who speak against the group no doubt might face possible public misjudgement as sabotaging the interests of the Igbos. Fortunately, this support base is quite huge. As a result of that, many have adopted a non-belligerent and non-condemning wait-and-see attitude. This category hopes that over time the true colours of the group will manifest.
There is also no doubt that IPOB enjoys tremendous support at home from the Igbo people at the lowest rungs of the socio-economic ladder, who also constitute the undisputed majority. It equally commands massive diaspora support, which significantly reinforces its following at home. The home support base considers the IPOB to be a messianic group determined to deliver them from the impoverishment machinery of the Nigerian government. This substantial following gained prominence with the military attack and humiliation of the group and the consequent death of 28 of its members in their leader’s home town reinforcing sympathies for his 2015 conditional bail, disappearance and resurgence in Israel. It was that action by the military that further accredited the group as genuinely standing in defence of the Igbos militarily and otherwise. Touching them, therefore, was like touching the ordinary Igbo man in the street.
There were noticeable short-term gains with establishing a military wing of the Indigenous Peoples of Biafra called the Easton Security Network. The most crucial advantage was the nuisance value of the group. The immediate counter-assault actions of the ESN at birth sent messages of its capacity to inflict pain, create harm and injury against those who oppress the Igbos. Its establishment overlapped with the crescendo of the AK-47 wielding herders’ criminality in the southeast geopolitical zone, which served as a warning that a balancing force was on the ground. Several viral videos showed the ESN targeting, engaging with, and chasing away herders from farmlands and forests within the geopolitical zone. Those actions have had more pronounced results on the ground than the recent ban on open grazing, which may eventually strengthen it. It immediately curbed the magnitude of criminal harassment of natives by these herdsmen, gave some momentary relief to farmers and revved the importance of the group among Igbo people. ESN’s successful preliminary routing of criminal herders might have also put a wedge on the potential immigration of bandits and terrorists from the country’s northern parts to the southeast. Without any equivocation, the group appears to have done an excellent job in cleaning out unneeded threats from South-eastern forests upon its formation.
Unfortunately, these immediate security and attendant economic gains brought about by the IPOB inopportunely appear to be drowning in the face of the emergent insecurity situation within the geopolitical zone. Following the alleged extradition of the group’s leader to Nigeria from Kenya and his subsequent arrest and detention, IPOB’s immediate response was the promulgation of a sit-at-home order across entire Southeast Nigeria every Monday, and each time their leader appears in court. The order, albeit structured to be a peaceful pushback, is also severely economy-destabilizing as the entire working population of the southeast political zone observes a compulsory work-free holiday. Markets, businesses, and government offices face mandatory closure and are under lock and key on the first workday of the week. The IPOB used its members and other sympathizers spread out across the zone to enforce compliance with the order. Those who dared to disobey were either mercilessly beaten or had their properties destroyed.
On the first Monday of experimentation, many commercial bus drivers who came out had their vehicles burnt to ashes. Some also allegedly lost their lives. They also demolished many people’s businesses for daring to disobey the order. There were painful instances of burning a trailer load of new motorcycles and the scripts of students writing NECO examinations for daring to come out on Monday. Several vehicles also suffered the same fate for disobeying. While many Igbos condemned the strategy of forcing people to abandon their businesses and sit at home, they had no way of resisting it. Consequent to that feedback capable of affecting their home rating and acceptance, IPOB officially modified the implementation of the sit-at-home order to be only on the days that their leader appears in court. However, many of its members disregarded the modification and stubbornly enforced compliance on Mondays. Business, social and economic activities in the region are already painfully paying for it.
A category of sympathizers consisting of young artisans and unemployed persons played substantial roles in vigorously enforcing compliance with the order at least on the first day. However, that all-comer participation in order enforcement automatically created opportunities for hoodlums in its implementation space. These hoodlums took advantage of the flaws in the control structure at the lower rungs of the group organizational ladder to continue to criminally enforce the sit at home order so that they could easily prey on a few victims that might want to come out. Unfortunately, this unintended destruction of the economy of the southeast geopolitical zone by hoodlums seems to have spun outside of the control of the secessionist group. The emergence of the Unknown Gunmen Men and their senseless killings and destruction of properties within the region also exacerbated the horrors. It became part of the downsides of the struggle. While the Unknown Gunmen’s heritage is not evident, some statements and WhatsApp audio messages allegedly released by the IPOB seem to have put them in the same family alongside the ESN. Such open claims [if it is true] mean that the UGM may be part of the operational arrangements of the group. However, the IPOB has persistently denied responsibility for many of the heinous criminal devastations the UGM allegedly perpetrated in the southeast.
So far, it appears that the original goal and attendant efforts of the IPOB to create a politically and economically secure Biafra is increasingly resulting in social, political, and economic insecurity in the same geopolitical zone. While it is apparent that secessionist agitations may always result in some physical confrontations, it still depends very much on the operational modalities of those championing it. A delicate balance is always required to minimize the magnitude of consequential insecurities. We are currently experiencing the case. Undisputedly, many Igbo people desire equity in Nigeria, political freedom, and the accompanying security, consistent with the goals pursued by the agitation groups. Yet, one key concern from the current trend of insecurity resulting from these secessionist efforts is whether alternative approaches can deliver the same expected results. There may be a need for IPOB to revisit some of its current strategies and initiatives.