Nigeria: Biafra Is Burning Again


January 27, 2021: While the tribal feuds in northern and central Nigeria and Islamic terrorism in the northeast are the major cause of unnatural deaths, what worries most Nigerians is the state of the economy. The worldwide covid19 economic slowdown and recession, including a sharp global decline in oil sales, has hit the Nigerian economy hard. At the end of 2020 unemployment was nearly 30 percent and inflation nearly 15 percent. Because the economic damage was worldwide it has hurt Nigeria more than just a local recession would. Even with the recession Nigeria still has the largest economy in Africa and the 26 th largest worldwide. Post covid19 economic recovery depends on how effectively the government spends funds allocated for recovery and how well corruption is controlled. In the past, post-disaster recovery money has been a favorite, and vulnerable, target for corrupt politicians and other government officials.

The covid19 recession hit oil producing nations particularly hard because there was less demand during 2020 and lower oil prices. Worldwide oil income for OPEC members was about $600 billion in 2019 but declined over 40 percent in 2020. The oil income decline for Nigeria was closer to fifty percent in 2020. Oil income makes up most of the government budget because pervasive corruption makes collecting taxes, especially income taxes from the wealthy, impossible.

The Covid Conundrum

Coronavirus (covid19) has been much less of a problem than in the rest of the world, especially highly developed nations like the United States. So far So far Nigeria has had 595 confirmed cases per million people and seven deaths per million. This is important because Nigeria is the most populous nation in Africa, with about 206 million people and 2.64 percent of world population. Nigerian covid19 losses represent much less than one percent of the world total while the United States, with 4.25 percent of the world population has suffered 19.3 percent of global covid1 deaths. American covid19 losses are 1,311 dead per million population compared to the world average of 278 per million population and seven per million for Nigeria.

Neighboring Niger has had six deaths per million while Chad has had 7, Cameroon 17. For Nigeria, and most African nations, covid19 is more of a panic than a devastating pestilence. The panic has crippled economies and the side effects of that may end up killing more people than the virus. Covid19 has not been a major medical problem in Nigeria where there are far more deaths from tribal and Islamic terrorist violence, at least in the north. In central Nigeria, where the capital is, and the south, covid19 is more of a concern. The south has the oil and major port cities and more covid19 response among wealthy Nigerians and foreign workers.


In the southeast (Imo, Enugu and Anambra states) Igbo separatists are organizing armed militias and threatening to expel Moslems recently arrived from the north, by force if necessary. This is another escalation in Igbo efforts to gain autonomy, if not a separate state. This movement has been around for over half a century and is commemorated every May 30th by a growing number of Igbos who have not forgotten the 1967 war for Igbo independence. This is all about reminding the Nigerian government that the Igbo are still a force to reckon with. Biafra Day is increasingly visible, especially in in urban areas and major cities in the region like Port Harcourt. IPOB (Indigenous People of Biafra) is the main organizer of public, and sometimes violent, demonstrations in support of Biafra.

The Biafra separatist rebellion in the south is not only returned but is also resisting suppression. During 2017 there were several hundred arrests related to the Biafra demonstrations and other pro-independence activity. That simply made Igbos angrier. For 2018 police were ordered to deal with the protests and unrest carefully and avoid bloodshed. Someone in government apparently remembers that the original 1967 rebellion began because in 1966 over 40,000 Igbo in the north were murdered by Fulani groups after a much smaller number of Moslems were killed. The subsequent Biafra rebellion did not end until 1970 and left more than a million Igbo dead. Yet the Igbo remain a major force in Nigeria, comprising nearly a fifth of the population and dominating even more of the economy. This is particularly resented in the Moslem north, where the Igbo returned in greater numbers since 1970 and are now a key part of the northern economy and, as Christians, a favorite target of Boko Haram.

Partly in response to Boko Haram violence, the Igbo separatist movement was revived in 2015 and at first the government ordered police to crack down. By 2016 nearly 200 Igbo had been killed by police attacks on demonstrators and anyone suspected of separatist activity. The violent response was obviously making it worse and after 2018 a gentler approach was tried.

The pro-Biafra separatists have been around and increasingly active since the 1990s. Back in the 1960s the Igbo (or Ibo) people of southeastern Nigeria considered establishing a separate Igbo state called Biafra. A brutal war followed before the separatist movement was crushed and the Igbo were warned not to try it again. Separatist attitudes were silenced but not extinguished. Pro-Biafra groups began to appear again in the late 1990s, trying to revive the separatist movement. Since then, over a thousand separatists have been killed, and many more imprisoned, while the government continues to insist that Biafra is gone forever. But as details of the extent of government corruption during the last few decades came out, Biafra again seemed like something worth fighting for. Senior government officials, including president Buhari, are paying attention and seeking to work out a compromise with the Igbos. The Fulani are less amenable to any compromise, especially since the Fulani are Moslem and consider themselves defenders of Islam against non-believers like the Christian Igbo.

In response IPOB has formed an armed security component, the ESN (Eastern Security Network), to defend Igbos in Imo State from Fulani and government violence. The government has responded by sending a battalion of infantry to an area thought to be a base for ESN members. This was unpopular with the locals as Nigerian soldiers are notorious for their violent behavior. These troops had been ordered to behave but that proved difficult for them to so in the face of Igbo contempt and hostility.

January 26, 2021: President Buhari, responding to growing calls for better performance from the military, replaced the four most senior military commanders, including the heads of the army, navy and air force. Buhari, himself a retired general, has for several years kept replacing senior commanders in the north until he found officers who could be innovative and competent enough to reorganize the troops and reverse the string of defeats the soldiers were suffering. That was not enough because most of the military leadership remained riddled with corruption and incompetence. Fixing that was considered a long-term project and it was not assured that future presidents will keep it up. That led to the call for replacing the most senior commanders until ones could be found who would do what needed to be done. The new top commanders have been ordered to find and replace senior subordinates and Buhari will be watching how that is done to determine if his new service heads are what he expected.

In the southwest (Oyo state) a local Yoruba militia seized a truck containing 25 homemade shotguns and a dozen Fulani tribesmen from another state. The militia handed the Fulani and weapons to police, who were earlier alerted about local Fulani boasting that armed Fulani from other states were coming to help fight Oyo farmers who try to prevent their farmland being taken over by Fulani herders.

January 25, 2021: In the southeast (Imo state) police and soldiers are accused killing ten Igbo during raids to avenge the recent death of a soldiers, allegedly by members of ESN. Police fired into crowds of angry, but unarmed Igbo civilians, killing at least ten and wounding many more.

January 23, 2021: In central Nigeria (Nasarawa state) local officials report that many Boko Haram have fled from the northeast and are trying to establish themselves in Nasarawa. What attracts Boko Haram to this is area is the presence of Moslem herders who have been fighting Christian farmers who refuse to allow herders to graze their animals on farmland and seize control of water supplies. Nasarawa is just north of Plateau state where such violence between Moslem herders and Christian farmers is more common and been around a lot longer. A decade ago, that violence began showing up in Nasarawa and that kept getting worse. Early in 2014 the army deployed a task force to Benue, Nasarawa and Plateau states to deal with the growing activity of armed groups. The army reduced violence but did not eliminate and the Christians accuse some army commanders of giving in to threats, or bribes, by herders to leave the armed herders alone or even assist them in their attacks on farmers. Boko Haram has had some success in recruiting Fulani because Boko Haram prefers to attack Christians. Nasarawa leaders, tribal and political, have united in supporting opposition to armed tribesmen, especially groups from other states. This recently led to a major army/police offensive against these groups which resulted in dozens of armed tribesmen killed and over 900 arrested. Dozens of the dead or arrested turned out to be Boko Haram members.

In the south, in waters between Nigeria and the island nation of Sao Tome and Principe, Nigerian pirates attacked a Turkish cargo ship that was on its way from Lagos Nigeria to South Africa. The nineteen-man crew got off a distress call and fled to the safe room they maintained for such situations. The ship was too far at sea (160 kilometers off the coast) for any help to arrive quickly and the pirates realized this. It took six hours, but the pirates managed to get into the safe room, killing one crew member and wounding others in the process. The pirates had already collected portable valuables but knew that foreign hostages were much more valuable. The pirates left three of the crew behind to get the ship to a port and took the other fifteen as hostages for ransom. Turkey is sending commandos and other troops to assist in finding where the pirates are holding the hostages.

Piracy off the Nigerian coast has been getting worse over the last decade and has developed into two kinds of attacks. One just robs the crew and ship of portable valuables. The more ambitious gangs also kidnap the captain and other officers from large ships, and hold them for ransom. This requires more teamwork and resources. But apparently some existing criminal gangs have organized for more of these kidnapping attacks by setting up hideouts deep in the swamps and arranging for middlemen to handle the negotiations and money transfer. The Nigerian army, navy and air force has cooperated to make pirate attacks on large ships close to the shore too risky for the professional pirates. Like most nations, the Nigerian maritime border only extends 22 kilometers from shore. The security forces can act far out at sea, but it takes a lot longer to get there and pirates are now taking advantage of this, as was the case with the Turkish ship that was far out to sea when attacked.

Less organized pirates attack passenger boats operating off the coast or along inland waterways of the Niger River Delta. These pirates rob the passengers and flee, occasionally taking prosperous looking passengers with them in the hope of getting a large ransom. Sometimes these captives are sold to larger gangs better equipped to handle hiding the hostages and arranging ransom. In the north some kidnappers are doing this as well, selling captives to Boko Haram.

January 22, 2021: In the southwest (Oyo state) Yoruba and Fulani tribesmen clashed over unresolved disputes about Fulani efforts to displace Yoruba farmers. At least one Yoruba man was killed and two wounded. The Fulani need grazing areas and access to water. Police have been trying to halt the violence for years but are hampered by the Fulani tendency to open fire whenever the see police approaching.

January 17, 2021: In the northeast (Borno state) there was a two-day battle between a combined force of Boko Haram and ISWAP (Islamic State West Africa Province) gunmen and the army. It began when Islamic terrorists attacked an army base at Marte, on the western coast of Lake Chad. The defenders called in reinforcements and held off the attackers. This involved retreating from their base to avoid being surrounded. The armed helicopters and additional ground forces arrived to drive the Islamic terrorist force away. The attackers suffered heavy casualties, including seven “technicals” (gun-trucks) used by the base attack force and another six gun trucks an ISWAP reinforcement force that was spotted by the army and in turn ambushed and hit with an airstrike.

January 15, 2021: The army proclaimed that the ability of Boko Haram and ISWAP to carry out attacks, especially large-scale efforts, had been seriously diminished in the last year. There was a lot of truth to that because other northern states and neighboring countries like Niger and Cameroon, report that more Boko Haram are showing up in their areas. The key problem here is that the pervasive corruption, and resulting poverty and sense of injustice, provides a steady supply of new recruits and supporters for Boko Haram and other groups who promise to cure corruption using violence. That hasn’t worked but it has given national and state leaders an incentive to at least try to look like they are against corruption. Corrupt national leaders and governors have long been the main cause of crippling corruption.

December 25, 2020: Boko Haram carried out its usual attacks on Christians during Christmas celebrations, which peak from the 24th to the 26th. There were fewer attacks this year. Northern communities that still have Christian residents have assisted in providing security during the Christian holidays. Boko Haram violence has, in the last decade, driven about half of the local Christians out of the Moslem north. This cause problems for the north because Christians settled in the north for the commercial opportunities and with so many of them now gone the damage to the local economies became very evident. Moreover, all that anti-Christian violence led to many Nigerian Christians, who are half the population and control most of the economy and nearly all the oil, were again talking of partition and cutting the Moslem north loose, even if it required a civil war. Most Nigerians want no part of this but it has long been seen as a possibility of the Moslem north spun out of control. Before the British colonialists showed up in the 19th century there was no Nigeria, just Moslem (in the north) and non-Moslem (in the south) tribes constantly at war with each over because of Moslem tribes trying to impose Islam on the non-believers. It was the Moslem tribes that kept slavery going into the early 20th century because they considered it a religious duty to enslave non-believers. That concept is still practiced by Boko Haram.


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