Slouching Toward Secession in Nigeria

Apathetic voters are planning to boycott this weekend’s election—and may inadvertently boost the country’s most fervent separatists.

Pro-Biafra supporters shout slogans in Aba, southeastern Nigeria, during a protest calling for the release of a key activist on Nov. 18, 2015. (Pius Utomi Ekepi/AFP/Getty Images)
Pro-Biafra supporters shout slogans in Aba, southeastern Nigeria, during a protest calling for the release of a key activist on Nov. 18, 2015. (Pius Utomi Ekepi/AFP/Getty Images)

ENUGU, Nigeria—As Emeka Udeze recently counted the 1,200 naira ($3.32) he made from the sale of a generator set, he turned on the radio in his store. Nearby shopkeepers began to troop into Udeze’s shop, which also doubled as a warehouse in this town in the area of eastern Nigeria that was once part of the independent state of Biafra. Every evening during the radio broadcasts, they all gather in Udeze’s shop to listen and debate.

The radio was tuned to the unlicensed radio station Radio Biafra. Mazi Alphonsus Uche Okafor-Mefor—the deputy leader of the separatist group Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB)—was speaking, urging eligible voters to sit out the Nigerian general election scheduled for Feb. 16.

In the shop, an argument ensued: to vote or not to vote. Udeze thought voting was a terrible idea. Ikenna, his fellow shopkeeper in the area, argued against the IPOB’s proposed boycott: Given the IPOB’s separatist agenda, to participate would be treasonous.

Emmanuel Okezie, Udeze’s shop assistant, was certain he would not be voting. It was a decision he made with his mother and siblings after the oil companies in his home village of Owaza in Abia state polluted the land, making it impossible for local farmers to farm and fish. Okezie and a few other people in the community protested—but within a few weeks, the community was fortified with a military presence, presumably dispatched by the Nigerian government, effectively stifling any future protests.

As Nigeria’s general election approaches this weekend, Okezie is one of many registered voters based in the former independent state of Biafra who are choosing not to participate. But most don’t support the separatism advocated by Okafor-Mefor. They are simply tired of the Nigerian government’s negative impact on their lives. Biafran separatism, however, stands most to benefit.

Owaza, Okezie’s village, is home to more than 100 oil wells, with at least 80 controlled by the Shell Petroleum Development Company of Nigeria, but has only one public medical center. Members of the community have bemoaned a lack of social amenities despite the huge amounts of money that have been made from the natural resources there. “My mother might have cancer now because of the oil companies, but the government has not done anything about providing health care or holding the oil companies accountable,” Okezie said.

IPOB has long used Radio Biafra to spread precisely this message: that Nigeria’s central government has chronically neglected the region. Of course, the party isn’t interested in persuading the government to provide better services. Its goal is to secede from Nigeria to become an independent country, and it believes that a general boycott in the region will force the Nigerian government to give in to its independence demands.

The idea of an independent Biafra dates back to 1967. That year, the premier of Nigeria’s Eastern region, Odumegwu Ojukwu, announced an independent republic. What followed was a 30-month war that led to the deaths of more than 2 million Nigerians and the reabsorption of the region back into Nigeria.

Dreams of a separate Biafran state had largely disappeared in the intervening years. But the region’s grievances never entirely went away. Many residents of eastern Nigeria still feel marginalized from the rest of the country—not least because to quell subsequent talk of secession, the Nigerian Army stationed a permanent presence in the region, which has led to occasional human rights abuses. The central government has only grudgingly invested in the region.

The push for an independent Biafra is now newly resurgent. It is spearheaded by the Nigerian-British activist Nnamdi Kanu, who founded IPOB. Previously arrested by the Nigerian government on charges of treason and now presumed to be living abroad, Kanu communicates primarily via Radio Biafra. His message is that Biafrans must commit to “civil disobedience” by not participating in the election. Kanu is a divisive figure, including among residents of the region he would like to lead to independence. Some are swept up in his vision of secession; others distrust him for courting another potential war. Older Nigerian men in the region, some of whom still remember the region’s brief independence, tend to fall in the former camp.

But younger Nigerians, though equally discontent, are less interested in secession than more constructive solutions. That’s why some analysts predict turnout will be high in the region. “Nigerians know that not coming out to vote will leave their communities and region in the same position as it is right now,” said Stanley Ikechukwu, the head of data at SBM Intelligence, a geopolitical intelligence firm. “While eastern Nigeria did not necessarily come out as much to vote in 2015, this time, because there is an Igbo candidate on the ballot, they will show up to vote.”

IPOB spokesman Comrade Emma Powerful, for his part, believes the region’s polling stations will be empty on the day of the elections. “The actions and inactions of the government in the Eastern region [have] made the people believe our message. Through civil disobedience, we are going to cripple the government and the politicians,” he said. But the decision of many voters to abstain will likely be motivated as a protest against the choices offered by the existing establishment, rather than as a vote of support for the secessionists of IPOB.

That could spoil the hopes of the opposition Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), which is hoping to channel widespread discontent in southeastern Nigeria to fuel its own rise to power. The PDP, in the final days of the election campaign, has been urging all Nigerians to show up to vote out the incumbent. In that sense, the existing government and the separatists may share an interest in voters staying home. That has made it difficult to determine who might be behind several incidents of arson at election offices in the Biafra region.

Okezie is one of the potential discontented voters that the PDP would like to motivate to go to the polls. But that seems unlikely—he doesn’t seem to care enough about the future of Biafra or Nigeria. Right now, he is plotting a future that involves leaving the region, and the country, entirely. “Nigeria will never be great. My mother is the only person keeping me here,” he said. “I’m saving money to take us abroad. She has suffered enough. She deserves to be happy too.”

Oluwatosin Adeshokan is a freelance writer based in Lagos, Nigeria. Twitter: @theOluwatosin