IT HAS been a restive few days in south-east Nigeria, where separatist protests are beginning to pick up steam.
In recent days, marches by the Independent People of Biafra (IPOB) have elicited heavy responses from the police, particularly in Onitsha, Anambra state, which resulted in at least 11 deaths.
Last Tuesday, a large march by IPOB and a similar group called the Movement for the Actualisation of the Sovereign State of Biafra (MASSOB), called for the release of Nnamdi Kanu, the leader of IPOB and director of the separatist Radio Biafra, who had been arrested two months ago; the protesters blocked the main bridge in Onitsha across the Niger River.
“The blocking of the bridge – the only road across the Niger River for large distances upstream and downstream – was extremely disruptive to traffic and business,” said Francois Conradie, an analyst at NKC African Economics in the latest brief on Nigeria’s security situation. The state responded quickly, sending in the Joint Military Taskforce (JTF), combining men from the army, navy and police.
Mosque set on fire
They fired live ammunition at the crowd, reportedly killing 11 protesters and injuring dozens more.
Onitsha is in the Igbo heartland, and the message of Biafran independence resonates there; the killings thus drew an immediate response from locals. Hours after the deaths a new crowd formed, marched to the main mosque in Onitsha and set it on fire. Other crowds barricaded two main thoroughfares into Onitsha.
The police say they never opened fire on protesters, and instead that they lost two men in the violence. Inspector-General of Police Solomon Arase said that 137 protesters were been arrested.
The situation in Onitsha remains tense, and JTF has set up roadblocks at key points in the city. IPOB issued a statement blaming the government for the deaths on Wednesday, claiming that the government has deliberately inflamed the situation to justify Kanu’s continued detention and the increase in the security crackdown in the southeast.
MASSOB has somewhat distanced itself from IPOB’s more hard-line stance, but reiterated that it is “committed to the Biafra struggle.”
“We are very worried about the resurgence in Igbo nationalism, and its effects on stability in Nigeria,” said Conradie at NKC African Economics.
Old fault lines
Since the elections this year, in which the previously ruling People’s Democratic Party (PDP)‘s support became concentrated in the south-east, the old fault lines of the Biafra War have slowly been re-awakened, and increasingly look like they have the potential to spiral out of control.
“The JTF’s forceful response makes things worse, and fuels the separatist narrative – a very old one – that the State of Nigeria amounts to the exploitation of Igbos by Muslim northerners and their Yoruba fellow travellers,” said Conradie.
The security risk is compounded depending on the reaction of the former militants of the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND).
A presidential amnesty programme for the former militants is set to expire at the end of this month. While President Muhammadu Buhari said in May that his government will continue to invest in the projects that the programme has made possible, with oil revenues drying up, that may mean that less money will flow to the Delta.
In the current atmosphere, that means that kidnappings and pipeline sabotage “might well become widely prevalent in the south-south again.”
What makes it worse is the ongoing Boko Haram insurgency in the North, which is yet to be extinguished. Nigeria may soon find itself fighting battles on two fronts, a situation it can ill-afford given the country’s fiscal squeeze.
-UPDATE: This article has been amended to credit Francois Conradie, analyst at NKC African Economics who prepared the industry brief quoted here.