What is Biafra and Why are Some Nigerians Calling for Independence?

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A supporter of Nnamdi Kanu, leader of the Indigenous People of Biafra, holds a Biafra flag during a rally calling for the activist's release in Abuja, Nigeria, December 1. Afolabi Sotunde/Reuters

More than 45 years ago, Nigeria was nearly divided by a bloody civil war that led to the deaths of over a million people. Now, a revival in secessionist sentiment in southeastern Nigeria, among supporters of the historical state of Biafra, threatens to undermine President Muhammadu Buhari's vision of a united Nigeria and spill over into regional violence.

Thousands of protesters have taken to the streets of southern Nigeria in recent weeks following the arrest of a prominent pro-Biafran activist, who has been accused by Nigerian authorities of hate speech and treason. As well as demanding their colleague's release, some protesters are calling for the establishment of an independent Biafra once again.

The protests have resulted in several deaths and Nigerian authorities have warned that anyone sowing discontent or inciting public disorder will be dealt with firmly. As tensions continue to flare, Newsweek looks at the demands of the protesters and the response of the Nigerian government.

What is Biafra?

In 1967, Nigerian military officer Odumegwu Ojukwu declared the republic of Biafra, an area mainly populated by the Igbo ethnic group, as independent in southeastern Nigeria. The Nigerian military consequently entered into civil war with the Biafrans, encircling the region and blockading supplies from reaching the population. As a result, more than one million people died, many due to starvation.

What has led to the recent protests?

Nigeria's Department of State Services arrested Nnamdi Kanu, a prominent Biafran spokesperson and activist, on October 19, according to the International Crisis Group (ICG). Kanu lives in London but often travels to Nigeria and was reportedly apprehended in Lagos. He is the leader of the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB), a secessionist group supporting the revival of the Biafran state and independence from Nigeria. Kanu is also the director of Radio Biafra, it broadcasts pro-Biafran material from London but the Nigerian government seek to ban it. Since his arrest, pro-Biafran protesters have conducted marches in southeastern Nigeria, demanding Kanu's release. On December 2, eight protesters and two policemen were killed in clashes during a protest at the Niger Bridge in Onitsha, Anambra state, according to the ICG.

Nic Cheeseman, associate professor in African politics at the African Studies Centre at the University of Oxford, says Kanu's arrest has acted as a "short-term trigger" to the resurgence in pro-Biafran sentiment. Cheeseman adds that the protests are a result of similar factors that led to the original Biafran uprising, in particular, a sense of political disenfranchisement among the Igbo people. "Some of the wounds of the civil war have not healed," says Cheeseman.

What do pro-Biafran protesters want?

As well as the release of Kanu and other Biafran activists, pro-Biafrans want the Nigerian government to put a date on an independence referendum, according to Nnabuike Nnadede, editor of pro-Biafran media outlet Voice of Biafra. "We want them to release all the Biafran activists first. Then...we want them to debate about the time for a referendum," says Nnadede, who is based in London and is part of a disparate pro-Biafran group.

Nnadede says that the Igbo people of the region that was previously Biafra still suffer from a lack of resources and investment by the central government. He claims there is a dearth of hospitals and that women are forced to give birth in the streets. "The suffering is too much, and that is why we've decided to say, 'Look, we cannot continue to be in Nigeria. We have suffered enough, we want the opportunity to vote to have an independence referendum,'" says Nnadede. He claims that the movement is entirely peaceful, however, and says that if the Igbo people voted against the secession of Biafra, he and his colleagues would accept the result and be "proud Nigerian citizens."

Other activists, including Kanu, are not known to be as peaceful. At a meeting of the World Igbo Congress in Los Angeles in September, Kanu presented his audience with a call for arms. "We need guns and bullets from you people in America," he said, according to the BBC, adding that the occurrence of a blood moon in September was a sign of the liberation of Biafra. During pro-Biafran marches in support of Kanu, protesters have also been seen to carry flags with threatening messages such as "Biafra or death."

How has the Nigerian government responded?

Nigeria's security forces have told protesters they will be uncompromising in dealing with acts of rebellion. Major-General Hassan Umaru, a Nigerian Army officer, said that the army "would like to send an unequivocal warning to all those threatening and agitating for the dismemberment of the country, committing treasonable felony and arson as well as wanton destruction of lives and property." Umaru warned that soldiers would fulfil their obligation to "ensure the enforcement of law and order… to avoid a breakdown in peace and stability," making it clear that this could include the use of armed force. Governors of Nigeria's northern states have also said it is "really sad that any Nigerian can contemplate violence" in light of the Boko Haram insurgency in northeast Nigeria. "We thought that the existence of Boko Haram should have been enough to make all Nigerians fuse into one and fight a common enemy," the governors said.

Cheeseman says that the Nigerian government tends to deal with such protests in "fairly heavy handed ways" and fears that an escalation in tensions between both sides could lead to further bloodshed. "There genuinely is a possibility that, if both sides mishandle it and both sides exacerbate and ratchet up rather than ratcheting down, the situation could get significantly worse," says Cheeseman.

What does the future hold for pro-Biafrans?

According to Manji Cheto, sub-Saharan Africa political risk analyst at global consultancy Teneo Intelligence, the protests are at risk of escalating into full-blown militancy in southern Nigeria if the government continues to not listen to the grievances of the Igbo people. Cheto says that Igbos remain isolated from powerful positions in government, "2015 looks like 1960s Nigeria from the Biafran perspective. If you're looking at the political map and political dominance, nothing's changed."

Nnadede, however, maintains that the protests will remain peaceful, and that the pro-Biafran movement is simply requesting a degree of self-determination that its supporters believe is currently being denied to the Igbo people. "Our movement has remained peaceful. Over 99 percent of our people are peaceful," says Nnadede. "We want a Biafra where we will choose our own leaders, not somebody from Sokoto or Kano imposing people on us."