Nigeria’s government and pro-Biafra activists are increasingly trading accusations of deadly violence, threatening to aggravate a tense stand-off prompted by the detention of the group’s leader.
Earlier this month, Nigerian intelligence accused the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) movement of abducting and killing five ethnic Fulani people and burying them shallow graves.
The Department of State Services (DSS) claimed the murders were proof of the group’s “true divisive colour and objectives”, as it sought to “ignite ethnic terrorism and mistrust”.
The escalating rhetoric has fanned animosity between the predominantly-Christian Igbo people of the southeast and the Fulani that dates back decades.
Igbos have long accused ethnic Fulani political leaders in federal government posts of marginalising them by denying them senior positions and funding for infrastructure and development.
Many in the region see it as a “punishment” for declaring independence in May 1967, which sparked a brutal civil war that lasted until 1970.
The significance of the DSS accusation is not lost on Nigerians because of violence before secession against Igbos living in the mainly Muslim north, where Hausa-speaking Fulani are dominant.
Igbo resentment towards the federal government has not abated since the end of the conflict but is growing because of President Muhammadu Buhari’s tough response to IPOB.
Feelings of alienation have been exacerbated at a desperate time when Nigeria is experiencing its slowest growth in more than a decade, inflation is at a four-year high, and chronic fuel shortages.
Now, it is feared alleged Fulani attacks in the southeast — common in the religiously-mixed central states — are stoking ethnic grievances and drawing people to the separatist cause.
– ‘Incessant killings’ –
For weeks, Fulani herdsmen — nomadic Muslim cattle raisers — have been accused of killing farmers in Nigeria’s agricultural heartland, according to local media.
But on Tuesday, police said at least seven farmers in the southeast state of Enugu were killed in a Fulani raid that IPOB said could spark a “second genocide”.
“I can assure you more people are coming to Indigenous People of Biafra,” said Prince Emmanuel Kanu, whose brother Nnamdi is the group’s leader and is facing treason charges for “propagating a secessionist agenda”.
“IPOB is conducting serious meetings all over Biafraland to find a solution,” he told AFP. “For how long to you want to continue killing us and for how long do you want us to remain quiet?”
Despite being jailed since October, Nnamdi Kanu’s trial has yet to get under way, a delay his lawyers attribute to the state’s inability to bring a strong case against him.
Meanwhile, mass protests calling for his release in the southeast cities of Aba and Owerri have been halted as a result of what Prince said were “the incessant killings” by security forces.
According to human rights lawyer Onkere Kingdom Nnamdi, the police and military have killed more than 50 protesters between October and February this year.
He is filing a lawsuit against the government for damages on behalf of the injured protestors and families of the deceased.
“There are over 200 people in detention,” the lawyer said, adding: “Do you know the worst aspect of it? There are those that are missing, their whereabouts cannot be traced.”
– ‘Need for empathy’ –
Kanu’s detention and the fate of his supporters echo that of Shiite Muslim cleric Ibrahim Zakzaky, who has been in custody since December after his followers clashed with the military.
Amnesty International has accused the army of “unlawfully” and “deliberately” killing more than 350 of Zakzaky’s followers and has criticised Buhari, who is ethnic Hausa-Fulani and a Sunni Muslim.
Buhari, elected last year on a pledge to tackle internal security threats, has seen successes against Boko Haram Islamists, whose insurgency has left some 20,000 people dead since 2009.
But the more amorphous threats emerging across the country demand more diplomacy than force, suggested Nnamdi Obasi, Nigeria analyst for the International Crisis Group.
“The continued detention of Kanu doesn’t serve the purpose it was intended to serve, if the purpose was to put down the agitation,” he said.
“The heavy-handed response is totally unnecessary, it risks radicalising the group.
“There is a desperate need for dialogue, there is a great need for empathy but the government is not showing that at the moment, so things are getting worse.”