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The Sun Still Rises: Neo-Biafran Secessionism, Zionism, and the Question of Nigeria

In October of 1960, Nigeria gained independence, joining a growing group of fledgling, post-Colonial African states. In boundaries carved out by British colonizers, a new country began to take shape. The First Constitution divided Nigeria into Northern, Western, and Eastern regions, falling along the rough dividing lines of the three largest ethnic groups: the majority Muslim Hausa-Fulani, the mixed Muslim-Christian Yoruba, and the majority Christian Igbo.

The reality, however, was far more complicated than the traditional narratives of a tripart country. Many members of each group lived out of their associated region, especially in larger cities such as the former capital Lagos, located in the Western Region. Moreover, almost 400 minority ethnic groups make up a sizable portion of the Nigerian population. Interests are also not confined to borders, with many from other regions historically dependent on the East’s oil wealth. Less than a decade into independence, the already-precarious Nigerian federal unity began to crumble. In 1967, Igbo secessionists declared the state of Biafra, starting a bloody civil war that put Biafra on the world map. Radio Free Biafra fueled popular support for the war at home and abroad and is credited with uniting a nation. After three years of famine and massacre, the Nigerian federal government reclaimed Biafra. The war may have ended, but the ethnic-regional tensions responsible for it haven’t, leaving a scar on millions of patriotic Biafrans, many of whom are still alive today. In a new wave of secessionist identity, many Biafrans have begun to identify with both Judaism and more commonly, Zionism, while religious tensions between Christian and Muslims continue.

In the five decades since the war, Nigeria has seen both immense growth and violent tumult, never quite recovering from the violence of colonization and civil war. A country of many contradictions, Nigeria is Africa’s wealthiest country while still holding the world’s largest population of people in extreme poverty. It possesses both astounding oil wealth and chronic electricity shortages, and global literary luminaries among a half-illiterate population. Though civil war has yet to re-erupt in full force, coups, martial law, ethnic violence, and terrorism have dotted the country’s recent history.

In clashes extending beyond Biafra, growing sectarian violence, separatism, and rebellions have characterized the last two decades in particular. However, within the Western media, the rise of Boko Haram, an ISIS affiliate in Northern Nigerian, has overshadowed many of these conflicts. This focus reduces Nigeria’s long, complicated history of unity and disunity–one that began far before Biafra–to tropes of African poverty and Islamic extremism. While the world looks elsewhere, neo-Biafran secessionism has risen to prominence in Nigeria, presenting a growing threat to the federal government. This marks a stark contrast to the global frenzy surrounding the plight of Biafrans during the Nigerian Civil War and famine.

In recent years, the Nigerian government has cracked down on the rising Biafran secessionist groups. The factionalized movement has grown considerably in the past two decades, with the emergence of several leading fronts. The most prominent are the Movement for the Actualization of the Sovereign State of Biafra (MOSSAB, founded in 1999), the Biafran Zionist Front (BZF, splintered from MOSSAB in 2010), and the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB, founded in 2012). As a whole, the secessionist movement was sporadic in the early 2000’s, but gained steam by 2015-2016. Catalyzed in part by IPOB leader Nnamdi Kanu’s arrest, tens of thousands of people took to the streets. In a strong recognition of the threat and aggressive reassertion of their sovereignty, the Nigerian military embarked on a spree of massacres, killing upwards of 150 peaceful protestors in those two years alone.

Following the legacy of the 1960s, Radio Free Biafra once again fuels the contemporary secessionist movement. In 2009,  Kanu (though another Biafran leader, a former associate of his, claims responsibility) briefly resurrected it and in 2012, he relaunched it again. Harnessing digital media, Radio Free Biafra broadcasts news and rallying cries to the world. A dual British-Nigerian citizen, Kanu has mostly operated out of London while the Nigerian government pursues him. In late March, Nigerian courts ordered his arrest while his trial for treason proceeds in-absentia. With the cover of European laws and Interpol, he has refused to cooperate. However, with Igbo secessionist support developing rapidly, Kanu is by no means a lone wolf. He is the leader-in-exile of a movement that has been increasingly at odds with the Nigerian state. In recent months, the Nigerian state has allegedly kidnapped members of both IPOB and MASSOB. After an initial call to boycott the February federal elections, IPOB called on its supporters to vote for the opposition.

Several branches of the movement have taken up a surprising spiritual-political angle with ties to both Judaism and Zionism. Kanu, the face of the movement, is Jewish and Zionist. After fleeing the authorities and vanishing from the public eye, he resurfaced in Israel in the fall of 2018 with a Radio Free Biafra broadcast praising the country. He appeared praying at the Western Wall in a video livestreamed on social media. As an Igbo Jew, he believes that Igbos are descendants of the lost tribe of Israel. This theory rests on the dietary, circumcision, mourning, and wedding traditions shared between Igbos and Jews and is believed to be historically plausible. Kanu is not the only Biafran leader who ascribes to this theory–he is part of a growing movement of Igbo-Jewish and Zionist-inspired separatism. Many Biafran secessionist leaders admire Israel as a successful example of nation-building and see the state as a natural ally. The Biafran Zionist Front, which declared Biafran independence in Enugu State (one of the five states considered to be Biafra) in July 2018, explicitly ties its struggle to Zionism and claims the support of Israel and the United States without substantiation.

In the last several decades, Igbo Jews, who have long considered themselves Israelites, have had a religious resurgence with the beginning of rabbinical Jewish practice. Many support Biafra and are members of IPOB, which holds Shabbat services. In December 2018, 51 alleged IPOB members were arrested after a peaceful procession in which they wore religious attire and held Hebrew signs. By proclaiming Jewish identities, Igbo people assert not only their faith but their unique, anti-colonial, non-Nigerian identity–they are rejecting the Christianity of the colonizers that drew the borders of Nigeria to begin with.

Igbo Judaism, however, strikes out from a deeply religious society. Most Igbos are devout Christians and Nigeria as a whole is one of the most actively religious, church-going countries in the world. With Christianity and Islam each claiming about 49% of the population as of 2010, Nigeria is evenly divided between the two faiths with very few religious minorities. And while Judaism is popular among the Biafran leadership, it barely makes a dent in the Igbo population as a whole, with an estimated 30 thousand Jews out of 30 million Igbos.

However, while actual identification and practice of Judaism is relatively rare, identification as Israelites and parallels to the Holocaust are far more widespread. Many non-Jewish Igbos draw comparisons between the civil war’s famine and massacres and the Holocaust. Zionism also extends beyond faith lines dating back to the war. During the war, Israel flew in food and supplies, and by some accounts, arms. Many Igbos view Biafran secessionism and Zionism as two parallel, rightful expressions of nationalist self-determination. However, this popular comparison may be laced with Islamophobia, with both Biafra and Israel fighting majority-Muslim populations for land. Many Biafrans believe that Nigeria’s President Buhari, a Muslim, empowers Islamists to encroach on Igboland. In reality, Buhari has spent much of his presidential tenure fighting Boko Haram and has distanced himself from his 2001 call for the full implementation of Sharia law in Nigeria.

On the other side, the Northern Youth Groups movement issued a call giving Igbos living in the North to leave within three months in 2017. This darkly echoed the mob massacres Igbos outside of the Eastern Region faced leading up to the war. However, the young Northern radicals were quickly condemned and arrested by local authorities, but the call only further sparked ethno-religious tensions and calls for an independent Biafra.

With the revival of separatism over half of a century after a decimating war, Nigeria’s Biafra problem clearly is not going away any time soon. With secession seemingly always on the horizon, Nigeria needs to address this. Some call for a recommitment to the postwar 3Rs–Rehabilitation, Reconstruction, and Reintegration–policy, but others see Nigeria’s deep internal fractures as a failed experiment in nation-building. After all, Nigeria was carved up colonizers, and its borders today are a reminder of its colonial legacy.

Is Biafra a means of practical decolonization, or is it a dangerous threat to the peace and security of Igbos and non-Igbos alike in a growing country? The answer may be in between the two extremes, with a recognition that escalation would hurt everybody. A renegotiation of federal and regional sovereignty agreed upon by Nigeria and Igbo groups may be a practical solution to address legitimate concerns while maintaining the relative stability of the Nigerian state. Increased autonomy within, or independent association with, Nigeria may work well for both secessionist and non-secessionist Igbos. However, the tri-regional model has failed before, and a realistic solution would need to take into account the complexities beyond these borders. In order to address the situation, Nigeria needs to take a hard look at the roots of Igbo secessionism and ethnic discrimination in and outside of Biafra.

Photo: “Protest on Whitehall