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Secession talk leads to rising tensions in Nigeria

Sam Olukoya (AFP)January 22, 2016

The songs of protesters calling for an independent state of Biafra are growing louder by the day in southeastern Nigeria. As the volume increases, so do the tensions within the region.

Demonstration for Nwannekaenyi Nnamdi Kenny Okwu Kanu in Nigeria
Image: Getty Images/AFP/P.U. Ekpei

Agitation for the Biafra region to become an independent state has been growing. In the late 1960s, an attempt by the region to secede from Nigeria to form an independent state led to the Nigerian civil war which lasted for 30 months.

Some estimates put the death toll at two million. People fear that the renewed Biafran agitation could potentially lead to yet another crisis.

Residents of the region, like Ima Umoh, now see themselves as Biafran and not Nigerian.

"I cannot belong to Nigeria. I am a real Biafran woman. I am a Biafran person, come sun, come rain, even if they point a gun to me," she said.

It was this same Biafran dream that led to the Nigerian civil war in 1967. The Biafram lost the war and remained a part of Nigeria. Many, like John Njoku, say they are prepared to take up arms again to make Biafra a reality.

"There must be arm twisting and the flexing of muscles to ensure that Biafrans get their pride of place,” said Njoku. “I want the Nigerian state to understand, we will do our very best to claim our right whether they like it or not."

Leader arrested

The Indigenous People of Biafra is one the groups leading the struggle for their own homeland. The continued detention since last October of its leader, Nnamdi Kanu, has led to a number of protests. Five people were killed in December as Biafra people celebrated the court announcement to free Kanu. But the authorities refused to release him leading to increased protests.

Kanu last month refused to enter a plea in court when he was first charged with a "treasonable felony," stating that he had no confidence in the trial judge.

On Wednesday, Kanu denied the charges at a hearing in front of a new judge in the federal high court of Abuja. He is facing a six-count indictment and was remanded to custody until a bail application on January 25.

Political activist Nwannekaenyi Nnamdi Kenny Okwu Kanu in Abuja
The main leader of the Biafra people is sitting in a Nigerian jail charged with treasonImage: Reuters/A. Sotunde

Ten of Kanu's supporters were also recently arrested and charged with criminal conspiracy and treason.

Uzodinma Nwaogbe, a civil society activist from southeastern Nigeria, said that the government has to carefully handle the wish of the Biafra to secede in order to stop an escalation of the crisis.

"So if we are not careful, if this thing is not handled maturely in a very professional way, I foresee danger in the future. If you push them to the wall there is no doubt that they may resort to violence one day," he said.

Government reacts

The danger is even more so given that many of the ethnic people clamoring for a Biafran state are doing so more out of frustration resulting from poverty. Growing poverty in Nigeria is forcing the poor to express their anger whenever they have the opportunity to do.

The reaction of the police to the protests has also come into question. Usman Gwari, the assistant inspector general of police responsible for the area, said that any efforts to succeed from Nigeria is a treasonable offence and will be treated accordingly.

"We the security forces, will not simply sit back and watch someone breaking the law and allow him to continue what we know is wrong," he said. "We will not let them do what they want."