The leader of the Igbos demands the independence of that territory of Nigeria where, half a century ago, a war of extreme brutality broke out that shook the world.
The country where Nnamdi Kanu was born no longer exists. Biafra only had a fragile entity between the years 1967 and 1970 and, nevertheless, that brief history caused more than two million deaths, most of them children who perished victims of malnutrition in the middle of a devastating conflict. This political leader has taken up that project to endow the Igbo ethnic group with a homeland and, now, he faces a trial that could lead to a long sentence. But this judicial process can also fuel the desire for independence in Southeastern Nigeria.
The one 50 years ago was not just another war. Despite its fleetingness, the memory of that failed initiative in the area of the Niger River Delta has remained in the collective imagination of the West. The conflict revealed the image of the little ones with bloated bellies, a questioned hallmark of the poorest Africa, and had such an impact around the world that it gave rise to a humanitarian organization such as Doctors Without Borders.
In time, humanity recovered from that horror that competed on television with the drama of Vietnam. But not so those who were affected by that brief conflict, who suffered a long naval blockade, aerial bombardments and postwar repression. The tribal community that was trying to break away, the Igbos, felt persecuted by the central government and after the defeat, suffered the confiscation of properties and a predatory policy by the occupying military forces. Three million were forced to leave their homes.
The environment that Nnamdi Kanu had to grow up was marked by that hatred, the looting of the rich oil fields, the destruction of the environment and coercion, circumstances that persist until today, half a century later. Before finishing his university studies, Kanu went to England. There he conveyed his protest ideology through Radio Biafra, a station that has assumed over the years the legacy of the separatist guerrillas.
The fame of that speaker grew so much that he was invited to the Igbo World Congress, held in 2015 in the North American metropolis of Los Angeles. This group, with more than 30 million members, mostly farmers and Christians, feels discriminated against by other groups, of Muslim faith, such as the Fulani and Hausa shepherds, habitual holders of civil and military power in the African power. His address at that conclave was direct. The journalist had already created the Indigenous People of Biafra organization (IPOB), a self-defined democratic movement that appealed to civil disobedience to achieve a referendum that would decide the fate of the region. But when he got to the stand, he asked for guns and bullets.
The Nigerian government reacted quickly and on October 18, 2015, he was arrested by the secret police in the city of Lagos. The news served to make visible a conflict that remained hidden from the world, much more concerned about the jihadist insurgency. The southeastern states responded with widespread protests. His release on bail attempted to appease the heated spirits on the continent.
But the spiral of violence no longer stopped in this area around the Niger River Delta. Two years later, the army raided the leader’s house in an assault in which 28 IPOB militants perished. Kanu disappeared. In December 2020, the man who declared himself a follower of Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King announced the formation of the Eastern Security Network, a paramilitary organization aimed at protecting Igbo peasants from incursions by Fulani cattle ranchers. In January of this year there were already clashes between the security forces and this militia. The IPOB was outlawed.
The fugitive appeared in a video in front of the Wailing Wall as he professes the Jewish religion and, on June 21, he was finally arrested in Kenya and extradited. His capture has started the prosecution for “terrorism, treason, participation in a prohibited separatist movement, incitement to public violence through radio programs and defamation of the Nigerian authorities”.
The trial, postponed until next January, turns the prisoner into a hook for a frustrated population. The former territory of Biafra, with 14 million inhabitants, suffers from all possible scourges, from maritime piracy to inter-tribal fighting and out-of-control criminality. The war against Boko Haram has concealed the resurgence of separatist tendencies and counter-insurgency efforts carried out by the central government. Amnesty International assures that there are indications of massive extrajudicial executions.
The key lies in Nnamdi Kanu and his ability to rouse the masses. His conviction would unleash an unprecedented wave of violence in a state riddled with seams, mired in a major economic crisis and with very high rates of public corruption. It is the opportune setting for the new Igbo messiah to encourage his followers to detach themselves from Nigeria, a country that he has labeled a ‘zoo’. It has also considered ‘baboons’ to the ethnic groups that dominate it. The Delta, once again, may explode.