What’s Behind Growing Separatism in Nigeria? Article by John Campbell and Nolan Quinn

A Nigerian soldier looks on during a military patrol in a pro-Biafra zone in the southeastern city of Aba.
A Nigerian soldier looks on during a military patrol in a pro-Biafra zone in the southeastern city of Aba. Cristina Aldehuela/AFP/Getty Images

The resurgence of separatism in Nigeria—a consequence of the federal government’s failure to provide security in the face of multiple threats—is stirring memories of the country’s deadly civil war.

Who are the main separatist leaders in Nigeria?

While there are numerous advocates of separatism, the two most prominent are Nnamdi Kanu and Sunday Igboho. They share some goals—and an enemy in the federal government—but their ethnic bases are different.

Kanu is the founder of the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB), which aims to establish an independent state of Biafra in southeastern Nigeria. IPOB, outlawed by the federal government in 2017, draws on memories of an independent Biafra defeated in the 1967–70 Nigerian Civil War, which killed up to two million people. Most supporters of Biafra are ethnically Igbo. In late 2020, IPOB formed an armed wing, the Eastern Security Network (ESN), ostensibly to protect the predominantly Christian Igbo from Fulani Muslim herders who the group claims—without much evidence—are supported by President Muhammadu Buhari’s government in a bid to Islamize the country.Nigeria’s Major Ethnic Groups

Igboho is wealthy and well-connected with Yoruba establishment groups. He is not the leader of an organized separatist movement like Kanu, but he also rails against Fulani herders moving south.

Why have Kanu and Igboho been in the news recently?

In June, Kanu was captured in an unnamed country—widely reported to be Kenya—and the government secured his extralegal rendition to Nigeria, where he is charged with treason. The recent arrest is likely connected to increasing separatist-linked violence in the South East. ESN has reportedly contributed to a 344 percent increase in killings in the South East, with more than twenty attacks against security-service personnel between January and April 2021. Following pitched battles, and animated by memories of the civil war, the federal government is seeking to destroy ESN. To Buhari and other top security officials, Biafra’s resurgence is anathema and its destruction justifies any means.

Igboho, meanwhile, is accused by the federal government of illegally stockpiling weapons, and he fled when federal agents raided his house. He was arrested in mid-July in Benin, where he has been charged with illegal entry. Any effort by the government to have Igboho extradited on weapons charges could fail for legal reasons, though no formal request has yet been made.

Are there other signs of separatism?

IPOB is itself an offshoot of the more avowedly peaceful Movement for the Actualization of the Sovereign State of Biafra (MASSOB), and other groups have cropped up elsewhere. Some prominent Yoruba have called for the creation of a breakaway state known as the Oduduwa Republic, though support for it is less fervent and widespread than support for Biafra among the Igbo. Yoruba separatism is less memory-centered than that of Biafran separatism. (The Yoruba were on the winning side of the civil war.) However, it, too, is animated by ethnic identity, fear of Fulani herders, and the state’s inability to provide security for its people.Nigeria’s Geopolitical ZonesThe country’s thirty-six states and Federal Capital Territory are commonly grouped into six zones

In early 2020, governments of six Yoruba states in the South West formed a regional security outfit dubbed Operation Amotekun. Ostensibly a supplement to the national police, it is in fact functioning as a locally managed police force with units that appear far better funded than those of the national police. The federal attorney general says Amotekun is illegal. Nevertheless, unlike the ESN, Amotekun has not been involved in violence against the security services.


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