JOHANNESBURG, September 27 – Nigeria’s Senate has declared that the country’s unity is not negotiable following a two-hour closed-door session on Tuesday which addressed calls by the House of Representatives to investigate calls for restricting some sections of the country, Vanguard newspaper reported on Wednesday.
The House added that it would also establish a committee to study issues raised by agitators towards addressing the demand for restructuring of the country, as well as revisit aspects of the constitution, dealing with power devolution.
But in an article for the Institute of Security Studies (ISS), Ndubuisi Christian Ani, an ISS researcher in Ethiopia, accused Nigeria’s military of heavy-handedness in response to a growing separatist swell in the south-east among organisations claiming to be the successors of the failed late-1960s Biafra secessionist movement.
His comments came as Nigeria this month embarked on “Operation Python Dance”, a show of force to try to quell the Biafra agitation.
The exercise targeted the supporters of the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) and its leader Nnamdi Kanu, who has been central to the Biafra agitation since 2015.
Several pro-Biafrans have been arrested and the military has been accused of brutality, arbitrary killings and torture. More than 150 IPOB supporters were killed on last year’s Biafran Remembrance Day, human rights group Amnesty International reported.
“While the Nigerian military has labelled IPOB a terrorist organisation, opinions in the country differ on the response to the pro-Biafra movement,” said Ani.
“Some say the separatist activism must end, but many analysts agree that the government’s military response – as it was with Boko Haram – could further popularise the movement. It could also lessen the opportunities for dialogue and foster militancy in the region.”
The latest moves for independence follow an attempt by Dim Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu, a former colonel of the Nigerian Army, to establish the State of Biafra.
Ojukwu’s declaration of secession in 1967 led to the bloody Nigerian civil war that lasted until 1970. After Biafra again became part of Nigeria in 1970, the agitation lingered in various degrees.
However, some observers say the recent call for Biafran independence is an attempt to undermine the administration of President Muhammadu Buhari, a northerner.
According to professor Ufo Okeke-Uzodike, executive director of the African Heritage Institution in Nigeria, separation activism has been fuelled by perceptions of unfairness, discrimination and marginalisation.
Calls for an Oduduwa Republic in the south-west have come from the Yoruba Liberation Command in addition to calls for a Niger Delta Republic in the south.
“Even in the north, there is a growing quest to liberate the Hausa from perceived Fulani hegemony. The Boko Haram insurgency that has exhibited extreme violence in its fight for an independent Islamic state counts among Nigeria’s secession challenges,” said Ani.
But the secessionist call is strongest in Biafra and the grievances that led to the Biafra declaration of independence and the civil war remain.
IPOB regularly cites perceptions that Igbos are marginalised by the federal government in terms of infrastructure and appointments in state institutions.
Yet repeated strong responses by the Nigerian authorities have only further stoked the conflict.
The Boko Haram insurgency has been blamed partly on the government’s killing of former leader Mohammed Yusuf in 2009 – a time when the group mainly exhibited radical views without violence.
“The recent killings of members of the Islamic Movement in Nigeria, a Shiite group in the north, also raise fears of potential unrest in the region,” said Ani.
Ani says the AU, Ecowas (Economic Community of West African States) and the United Nations should urge the government to pursue a peaceful solution to the conflict.