In early 2021, the Eastern Security Network, an armed group linked to Igbo separatism, clashed with government security forces resulting in the deaths of more than 20 police officers. The federal government replied with excessive force, killing at least 115 people, some of whom were likely civilians. These tensions, however, are nothing new. Animosity between separatist and governmental groups in Nigeria trace back to ethnic divisions cemented by colonial policy and conflicting public narratives on the post-independence Nigeria-Biafran war.
Ethnic divisions in Nigeria today have deep historical roots, extending back to the Berlin Conference of 1884 and British colonization. The British invented the country of Nigeria by imposing borders that ignored pre-existing boundaries between peoples, creating a place that contained three dominant ethnic groups, the Hausa-Fulani, Igbo, and Yoruba, along with hundreds of micro-minorities.
Britain capitalized on these divisions through indirect colonial rule, using competing interests and existing rivalries between the three dominant groups as negotiating tools. The colonial administration was able to “divide-and-rule” in this manner until Nigerian independence in 1960. However, the enflamed rivalries between different groups in Nigeria did not disappear after independence. In many ways, British colonialism set the stage for the next major event in Nigerian history—the Nigeria-Biafran War lasting from 1967-1970.
Two military coups in the same year (1966) aggravated ethnic tensions and led to the targeted killings of Igbos in Northern Nigeria. Following these events, the Southeast region and parts of Eastern Nigeria, with a majority Igbo population, attempted to secede and called their breakaway region Biafra. The fact that the East/Biafra had the majority of Nigeria’s oil reserves meant both that the breakaway region was economically viable, and that the federal government would undoubtedly resist Biafra’s secession.
While some scholars believe that ethnic divisions were the leading cause of the war, others argue that oil played the most important role in Biafra’s attempt to secede. The oil hypothesis is useful because it reinforces Britain’s role in the conflict—they supported a “One Nigeria” solution primarily to protect British oil interests. Indeed, oil is often referred to in the Nigerian context as a “resource curse” because multinational companies like Shell play an outsized role in Nigeria’s politics and environmental degradation. Yet, irrespective of whether ethnic divisions or oil resources played a larger causal role, the attempt to create an independent Biafra has a direct link to Igbo separatist goals today.
After a protracted and bloody conflict that led to a highly-publicized humanitarian crisis in Biafra, the federal government curbed the region’s attempt to secede. After the war there was a proliferation of narratives about the war, dominated by the federal government’s hegemonic narrative.
The official state narrative is that the war was one of national unity, but Igbo people perceive the conflict as a war of Igbo national liberation. It is crucial to note that even today, the federal government’s notion of “nation” and the Igbo people’s notion of “nation” is not yet congruent. Furthermore, non-Igbo minority groups within Biafra experienced atrocities committed by both federal and Biafran troops during the conflict. Their narratives have not yet been incorporated into official discourses on the war.
There are also problems with how the memory of the war has been institutionalized or ignored in schools and universities across the country. An emblematic example of the discursive competition primarily between Igbo people and the federal government is how the war is named. School textbooks usually call it the Nigerian Civil War or the War of National Unity, while groups sympathetic to the Biafran side refer to the war as the Nigeria-Biafra War or simply the Biafran War. The word “Biafra” has also been purged from state documents and discourse, and the Bight of Biafra, the southern part of Nigeria’s Atlantic coast, was renamed the Bight of Bonny.
Despite the federal government’s attempts to erase or obscure public memory of the war, Igbo separatism has survived until today. The main separatist group currently is the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) headed by Nnamdi Kanu, which is an offshoot of The Movement for the Actualization of the Sovereign State of Biafra (MASSOB). IPOB has its own security force called the Eastern Security Network (ESN) which ostensibly exists to protect the Igbo people from Fulani herders.
IPOB believes that the federal government supports Muslim Fulani herders against the primarily Christian Igbo people in an attempt to Islamize the country. Even though there is no evidence for the federal government’s support of Islamization, the fact remains that IPOB does not trust the federal government to provide security for Igbo people in the East and opts to provide security for themselves.
Recent conflicts between IPOB and the federal government indicates that genuine reconciliation between the Igbo people and the federal government never happened after the Nigeria-Biafran War. However, they do not explain the attitudes of other groups within Nigeria. The Yoruba, for example, were on the federal government’s side during the Nigeria-Biafran War, but there are still calls for the establishment of the Yoruba Oduduwa Republic. Additionally, there are calls in the north for an Arewa Republic made up of Hausa-Fulani. Even in the Niger Delta there are demands for a Niger Delta Republic. The proliferation of separatist attitudes in the present speaks to a constant need to assess the lasting effects of colonialism in modern Nigeria and the inability of the federal government to provide security for Nigerian people or create any sense of national unity.
It is difficult to make value judgements on the separatist aspirations of Igbo groups given the historical persecution of Igbo people. Still, in conflicts between the federal government and separatists, it is often the micro-minorities outside of the dominating Hausa-Fulani, Igbo, and Yoruba that suffer the most. During the Nigeria-Biafran War, it was these groups of people—including Ijaw, Edo, and Ogoni—who were caught in-between federal and Biafran forces and endured atrocities at the hands of both. The solution to separatism in Nigeria cannot be the redrawing of borders, as this would likely lead to bloody, protracted conflict. Instead, the Nigerian state needs to actively reckon with its past, particularly the events of the Nigeria-Biafran War, and most importantly center the accounts of micro-minority groups. The federal government’s sanitization and censorship of the war cannot be the answer, but neither can unbridled Igbo nostalgia for Biafra. Both ideologies harm the people in the middle, which is why any serious attempt at reconciliation should begin with their stories.