Nigerian separatist movement fueled from home in suburban London
By Stéphanie Busari and Sebastian Shukla, CNN
Tucked away on a quiet, leafy street in Peckham, south-east London, is the registered address of a movement seeking to break up Nigeria.
This suburban spot is the unlikely location of Radio Biafra, a network of internet amateur radio stations broadcasting a separatist program to Nigerian listeners.
Radio Biafra is operated by Nnamdi Kanu, a British citizen who called for the revival of the former Republic of Biafra through an organization he founded, the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB).
The group was banned by the Nigerian government in 2017, and Kanu has been arrested on several occasions for treason and incitement to violence.
He was first arrested in October 2015 on charges of treason, among other charges. He was released on bail in 2017 and fled to the UK.
Prior to his last arrest in Kenya in June, Kanu’s supporters were using the Peckham House for Radio Biafra broadcasts, according to Darlington Imoh, who opened the door during CNN’s visit in August.
He describes himself as “the exit officer from the Biafra campaign”.
The International Crisis Group, an organization working for the prevention of war, described Radio Biafra in 2015 as “an unlicensed station urging a violent struggle for independence for Biafra” with broadcasts that are “highly provocative messages mixed with disinformation, hate speech and anti-Nigeria derision”.
Imoh says all IPOB asks for is the right to self-determination. He compares it to the decentralization votes held in Scotland and Wales in 1997, and more recently to Brexit.
“We want a referendum, which is a civilized thing to ask for, just like Britain did with Europe,” he said.
But analysts say this is highly unlikely.
“The Nigerian government will be afraid to allow a referendum to be held. And the fact that it is afraid to allow a referendum to be held shows how deep the problem is,” said Remi Adekoya, political analyst and master. of lectures associated with the University. of York in the United Kingdom.
A movement for the independence of Biafra vis-à-vis Nigeria in the 1960s led to a bloody civil war. In 1966, a coup led by army officers, mostly from the Igbo tribe, overthrew the Nigerian government.
Six months later there was another coup and riots in the north, mostly Hausa, left thousands dead in Igbo. About a million Igbo, mostly Christians, fled to the country’s southeastern district, which unilaterally seceded from Nigeria in 1967 and declared themselves Biafra.
The government has declared war and it is estimated that over a million people have died in fighting or starvation as a result of the conflict.
The war ended in 1970 after Biafran soldiers surrendered and were reinstated in Nigeria under its “no winner, no loser” policy.
Now the separation agitation is back and it is not just the IPOB calling for Nigerian independence.
Another group, led by Sunday Adeyemo, also known as Sunday Igboho, is calling for the separation of the southwestern part of the country, which is largely populated by the Yoruba tribe.
Igboho fled the country in July after a security raid on his home. He has been detained in the neighboring country of Benin and awaits a hearing for his extradition to Nigeria.
A failed Nigerian project?
What is driving these calls to break up Africa’s most populous nation? Political experts say Kanu, Igboho and others like them are filling a void left by the government’s multiple failures.
“The growing popularity of these appeals is a direct consequence of the failures of the Nigerian state, or, more broadly, even of the Nigerian project,” said Adekoya, associate professor at York University.
“Nigeria does not work for the vast majority of its people, and the separatists insist very strongly on this point,” Adekoya said.
“That’s the reason it rings with a lot of people.”
Along with the threats posed by terrorism and insecurity, Nigeria faces large-scale poverty with one of the largest numbers of people living in extreme poverty.
Nigeria also has a problem of mass unemployment – government figures quoted by Bloomberg show that 33% of the population was unemployed in January of this year.
With over 10 million children outside of schoolNigeria has one of the highest proportions of out-of-school children in the world – a problem exacerbated by the growing number of school kidnappings in northwest Nigeria, according to UNICEF.
And Adekoya says that the country’s endemic corruption only adds to the frustration felt by ordinary Nigerians: “There is enormous corruption in the country … in 60 years of independence, the Nigerian state has failed. not been able to figure out how to provide basic electricity services to its citizens.
President Muhammadu Buhari was one of the soldiers who fought on the Nigerian side during the Biafran War and is determined to keep the country united.
The former military general wasted no time in quelling independence agitations, and a spokesperson for the Department of State Services told CNN in a statement that “Nigeria is indissoluble and indivisible,” adding that they will continue their “detection and prevention” methods. crimes against the internal security of Nigeria. “
Kanu was able to tap into a long-standing resentment and marginalization felt by the Igbo tribe of Nigeria, especially in the aftermath of the Biafran war.
There were demonstrations and marches in support of Kanu and his most recent arrest has sparked even more outrage from his supporters, who say he was kidnapped and returned from Kenya and returned to Nigeria, where he is being held pending a court hearing.
His lawyer Aloy Ejimakor told CNN he has filed a lawsuit against the Nigerian security forces and government, seeking damages against what he calls Kanu’s illegal detention.
In response, an assistant to the Attorney General and Minister of Justice told CNN: “The right to sue is guaranteed by the Constitution and the right to a fair hearing of a defendant is also tolerated by the Constitution. . presented by the disputing parties is the exclusive responsibility of the judiciary.
The UK government says it is monitoring the situation and has asked Nigeria to explain the circumstances that led to Kanu’s detention.
Twitter gaiters and repressions
In addition to his radio network, which his lawyers say also operates in Dubai and New York City, Kanu’s sometimes confrontational rhetoric and propaganda is often disseminated through social media platforms, including Twitter.
Buhari Twitter banned in Nigeria earlier this year, days after the platform deleted a tweet from the president in which he warned separatists: “Those of us in the fields for 30 months, who have been through the war, will deal with them in the language they understand. “
Buhari’s decision won praise from former US President Donald Trump, but drew widespread criticism from free speech activists.
The Nigerian government has charged Twitter with double standards for suppressing Buhari’s tweet, but failed to bring down Kanu’s inflammatory messages on the platform, although one of its own tweets also reported. been deleted.
At the time, citizens were threatened with prosecution to tweet, but most Nigerians largely ignored the ban and used the platform with abandon through VPNs that mask their location. The Nigerian government has said the ban will likely be lifted soon, following discussions with Twitter.
Streets in places such as Imo State, Abia and other parts of the southeast are frequently shown in local media as deserted, with accusations that the IPOB is forcefully implementing these orders. A lawyer for the group denies that the action is carried out.
But Adekoya acknowledges that Buhari faces an uphill battle over the issue of separatism.
“You can sit down and let the separatists gain popularity – which of course threatens the existence of the Nigerian state – or you can crack down on them,” Adekoya said.
In the face of this dilemma, Nigeria appears to be at an impasse, and Adekoya has said the country’s future looks bleak ahead of the crucial presidential elections slated for 2023.
“The worst case (…) is that the country is essentially disintegrating, perhaps not in a full-fledged civil war, but in a lot of violence,” he said.
Nigeria is betting on stifling the voices of leaders like Kanu to silence any attempted break-up.
However, Imoh, the Peckham-based IPOB supporter, told CNN that the Biafra independence movement would not die – even if Kanu was not there – because “if you kill a general, another general takes his square”.
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