Nnamdi Kanu, Ojukwu, Simon Ekpa and Peter Obi
By Chinagorom Ugwu
Since 1999, some groups have been seeking the secession of the South-east region from Nigeria to become the independent Republic of Biafra.
Although the South-east is not the only region with separatist agitators, these groups have been most vocal and consistent in their quest.
The agitators said they are driven by feelings of marginalisation of the region in the power-sharing formulae of Nigeria and the distribution of resources by successive governments.
Also, alleged lopsided appointments by President Muhammadu Buhari to the disfavour of the South-east have been linked to the resurgence of the pro-Biafran agitation in the region lately.
People in the region grew increasingly frustrated by their inability to produce Nigeria’s president since the return of democracy in 1999, despite some of the other regions producing at different times.
The region, which had largely supported the main opposition Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), was disappointed that the party, in May, picked its 2023 presidential candidate outside the region.
This was despite the clamour by South-east leaders that the region should be given a chance to produce the president in 2023.
Like the PDP, the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) also picked its presidential candidate outside the region.
The first attempt by the region to secede from Nigeria precipitated a 30-month civil war between 1967 and 1970, with the number of dead from fighting, disease and starvation estimated at between one and three million, according to a report by Cable News Network.
Odumegwu Ojukwu, as the then military governor Eastern Region, had declared the independence of the Sovereign State of Biafra on 30 May, 1967, drawing the ire of the then Military Government of Nigeria under Yakubu Gowon. The secessionists eventually surrendered after Mr Ojukwu fled into exile in January 1970.
More than 52 years after, the agitation for separation from Nigeria continues to flare.
Many believe this is due to the feeling of marginalisation as well as historical grievances of the Igbos, who accused the Nigerian government of genocide during the civil war.
Between 1999 and 2022, several separatist groups emerged in the South-east agitating for an independent state of Biafra to be carved out from the South-east and some parts of the South-south region.
The Movement for the Actualisation of the Sovereign State of Biafra (MASSOB) was the first pro-Biafra group to emerge in 1999 to push for the secession of the region.
MASSOB was founded by Indian-trained lawyer Ralph Uwazurike, after the defeat of a former vice president, Alex Ekwueme, by Olusegun Obasanjo in the presidential primaries of the PDP. But the group failed to gain traction and virtually disappeared until President Goodluck Jonathan, who was massively supported by the Igbos, lost his reelection bid in 2015.
Nnamdi Kanu, a supporter of Mr Jonathan, later floated the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB).
IPOB appears to be more organised and vocal than other pro-Biafra groups that emerged later, some of which have fizzled out.
Since Peter Obi emerged as the presidential candidate of the Labour Party (LP), he has been enjoying growing support across the country.
Mr Obi, who hails from the South-east, also enjoys a large following in the region.
Although the former governor of Anambra State is not the only presidential candidate from the South-east, many residents of the region believe that he is a potent instrument for the realisation of the Igbo presidency dream.
The Igbos rely on the swelling support for Mr Obi to take a shot at the Nigerian presidency for the first time in 2023, according to many residents of the South East who spoke with this reporter.
Since his emergence as the LP candidate, IPOB has been less active in the South East, fueling speculations that Mr Obi’s victory at the 2023 poll could end the agitation for Biafra.
However, there are indications that such speculations may be misplaced.
A leading Igbo socio-cultural organisation,Ohanaeze Ndigbo, and other Igbo leaders have consistently backed the Igbo presidency bid, arguing that the South-east is the only region yet to produce Nigeria’s president.
Since the Fourth Republic started in 1999, four persons from three of Nigeria’s six regions have been elected president. They are Mr Obasanjo from the South-west, Umar Yar’adua and Mr Buhari from the North-west and Mr Jonathan from the South-south.
“Ndigbo are prepared and look forward to Igbo presidency as a national priority. It is also indeed reasonable and logical that before any other zone in the country goes for a second turn of occupying the office of the presidency, that Ndigbo should at least have their first turn,” the President-General of Ohanaeze, George Obiozor, saidin January.
However, the group has also repeatedly maintained that the Igbos will remain in Nigeria, although it has shown considerable sympathy and clandestine support for IPOB and their agitation.
But IPOB has repeatedly insisted that Biafra Republic, not Igbo presidency, is its demand.
A faction of the IPOB, led by a Nigerian-Finnish citizen, Simon Ekpa, for instance, has been threatening to disrupt elections in the South-east, maintaining that the Igbo presidency cannot assuage the quest for Biafra.
“There will be no election in Biafraland until there is a possibility for a referendum,” Mr Ekpa reiterated in aTwitter post on Thursday.
Another faction of the IPOB led by Nnamdi Kanu has also been calling for a referendum in the region.
In 2018, Emma Powerful, spokesperson of Mr Kanu’s IPOB faction, was asked byTheCable if an Igbo presidency would make the group back down from its agitation. He responded:
“Nothing can make IPOB back down from this divine quest to restore the lost Sovereign State of Biafra. Only the will of the people clearly expressed during a referendum (can do that). If we lose in a referendum, we (will) stop the agitation for Biafra the same day.”
In August 2022, when the group was accused by a Fulani group, Miyetti Allah, of backing Mr Obi’s presidential bid, Mr Powerful responded: “IPOB is not interested in Igbo president or a Nigeria president from Biafra extraction. The Igbo people rallying behind Peter Obi are not IPOB members because IPOB doesn’t want the contraption called Nigeria to continue to exist and we must break away from Nigeria enterprise irrespective of whether Peter Obi or anyone from the Biafran geographic space is contesting in the Nigerian farce of an election.”
Again, some gunmen said to be part of the Biafra agitation in the South-east, have been attacking and killing officials of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), maintaining that there would be no election in the region in 2023.
The hoodlums, in a viral video clip, threatened to disrupt elections in the region if a referendum was not held by the government.
While the government may work hard to ensure that the 2023 general elections are held in the region, the threats and attacks by the pro-Biafran gunmen against INEC officials, indicate that they are not in support of Mr Obi’s presidency bid and are not swayed by his prospect of victory at the poll.
Many residents who spoke with PREMIUM TIMES corroborated IPOB’s position that Mr Obi’s presidency cannot end the agitation for Biafra in the South East.
However, they conceded that the LP candidate’s victory at the poll may douse the agitation as it would give the region a feeling of belonging to the Nigerian project.
“Peter Obi’s election is quite different from the agitation (for Biafra). On that (election) day, I will go and vote, but agitation continues,” said Augustus Ike, a resident of Enugu State.
This also implies that Mr Obi’s defeat at the 2023 poll could intensify the Biafra agitation in the South-east, given the widespread belief among residents of the region that only rigging can stop him.
His defeat will thus be interpreted by many residents as part of the suspected conspiracy to deny the South-east the presidency.
Observers highlight a major reason why the Biafra agitation will continue even if Mr Obi wins the presidential election.
“The feeling of marginalization (of South-east) over the years has created the feeling among the youths, particularly those who didn’t witness the civil war, that there is no way, a Southeasterner will get a fair treatment under the structure called Nigeria,” Onyebuchi Ezeani, a professor of political science, told PREMIUM TIMES.
Mr Ezeani, who lectures at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, stressed that IPOB’s insistence on Biafra must have been informed by the group’s belief that “even if Peter Obi wins, he will just be a mere stooge in the hands of those who have been putting up the posture of being owners of Nigeria.”
The political scientist said the separatists believe that Mr Obi’s presidency can only last for two terms of eight years at most, after which the “injustice (against the South-east) will continue.”
“Their position is that the Nigerian state, as it is considered today, does not and will never serve the interest of Igbos. That’s why they have continued to show no interest in any Igbo man who is contesting for any political position in Nigeria.”
Source: Premium Times