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As their central governments fight secessionists this week, Nigeria and Spain discover they have a few things in common
Proponents of Biafra as an independent state in south-east Nigeria have seized upon the Spanish government's mishandling of the Catalonian secessionists to score propaganda points against President Muhammadu Buhari's government in Abuja. The clashes on 1 October when the Catalonian government organised a referendum on secession – in the face of opposition by Madrid and the Guardia Civil – highlighted the cause and boosted identity politics internationally, a south-eastern activist told Africa Confidential.
Biafra supporters and Catalans were using the same tactics, he argued. Calling for a referendum on independence was a way of putting the issue on the national agenda, forcing the pace on discussions. He doubted that there was significant support for a revival of the secessionist cause but said there was deep frustration with the status quo. 'People across the country – not just in the south-east – want us to look again at the federation, give more powers to regional blocs, leaving the centre with powers on security and foreign policy.'
He drew parallels between Spanish prime minister Mariano Rajoy's refusal to open discussions with the Catalans and the Buhari government's attitude to demands for change from the south-east. That is unfair, according to a senior security official in Abuja, who said that Vice-President Yemi Osinbajo had begun preliminary talks with south-eastern activists but that these had been put on hold by President Buhari's policy team in Aso Rock.
Information and Culture Minister Lai Mohammed, stopping over in London, said outsiders should take developments in the south-east much more seriously. Officials are probing the sources of finance for advocates of secession and the companies which are managing their online media campaigns.
Mohammed, the former publicity secretary for the governing All Progressives' Congress, says opposition politicians are exploiting ructions in the south-east to help them ahead of national elections in 2019. Other officials point to recent seizures of weapons in Lagos, ostensibly routed from Turkey and Iran, suggesting the crisis risks spinning out of control.
There is a nightmare scenario under which south-east secessionists link up with Niger Delta militants and try to stall the economy. Some officials speculate about the risks of militants from the Delta and the south-east teaming up with campaigners from Anglophone south-west Cameroon who are demanding an independent state, known as Ambazonia.
Secessionist movements, led by the Catalans, Kurds as well as the Biafran militants, use social media to great effect. This sounds warning bells in the Buhari government, many of whose officials either fought in or grew up during Nigeria's civil war (1966-70) over Biafra's attempted secession.
Biafra was the first big conflict to be reported thoroughly on television news. The Federal side, consisting of northern and south-west Nigeria, lost the propaganda battle as television footage of starving children in the south-east was beamed around the world.
It was British, United States and Soviet support for the Federal side, wielding a wrestler's grip on the rich oil fields of the Niger Delta, that countered Biafra's wooing of international opinion. France, was the only major power to back Biafra.
At first sight, any comparison between the civil war and today's situation looks absurd. The main south-east Nigeria secessionist movement, the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB), has extremely limited local political backing and there is no sign of any supportive faction in the military.
Civic activists in the south-east say the biggest risk is the government's 'mishandling of IPOB' (AC Vol 57 No 24, Army's 'Biafra' overreaction). One activist said the government's insistence on prosecuting Nwannekaenyi Kenny Okwu 'Nnamdi' Kanu, IPOB's flamboyant leader, for treason gave him a prominence that he didn't merit (AC Vol 58 No 14, Polarisation politics). 'There were many ways to shut down a rabble-rouser like Kanu,' said the activist. 'Charging him with defamation or hate speech would have allowed them to detain him, and cool him down. By over-reacting they have given him a much bigger audience.'
The latest clash between Kanu's supporters came on 8 September when soldiers surrounded his house as part of the military's ominously-named Python Dance II. IPOB accused the military of crass over-reaction after they were filmed patrolling Abia state, Kanu's political base, in mine-resistant armoured vehicles.
That could prove embarrassing for the military commanders who had been supplied the armoured cars by the US last year on condition that they were not used for domestic repression.
Activists want to petition the US to stop delivery of the 12 Super Tucano ground attack aircraft sold to Abuja in a deal finalised at the end of August. Abuja officials say it hasn't been raised as a problem yet and that the Trump administration is keen to sell Nigeria weapons to use against the Islamist insurgents Boko Haram.
After a spate of clashes between the military and IPOB supporters in Abia and Rivers state, tensions ratcheted up. Army commanders accused IPOB of creating a Biafra Secret Service, a National Guard, setting up road blocks and attacking a military patrol
South-eastern state governors – such as Dave Umahi, Okezie Ikpeazu and Willie Obiano – have formally banned IPOB and pledged loyalty to Buhari. Biafran militants call them stooges of the 'Hausa-Fulani ruling clique'.
Although, there has been plenty of ethnic hate-speech between Igbo activists from the south-east and Hausa-Fulani activists from the north, there have been few instances of mass violence along those dividing lines.
Among the worst so far were the clashes between the Hausa and Igbo communities in Jos, the capital of Plateau State, in mid-September which prompted Governor Simon Lalong to impose a dawn-to-dusk curfew and organise grassroots meetings to discuss the tensions. Plateau and neighbouring Benue state have also been hit by fights between pastoralists from the north and the settled farmers and traders, many of whom are Igbo. Views on the south-east's secession didn't appear to play a direct role in the clashes.
Social media propagandists on both sides of the divide, however, eagerly seized on footage and eye-witness reports of murderous attacks to stoke the fire. But there have strong shows of pan-ethnic solidarity, for example, in Kano. There local Hausa youths put on Igbo traditional dress to visit traders from the south-east and assured them that they would be protected from any attackers. The Emir of Kano, Sanusi Lamido Aminu Sanusi, used a sermon on 15 September to call on communities to work together (AC Vol 55 No 13, Sanusi's political throne).
Demands in the south-east should be set against the conditions there and the north, Sanusi, the former Governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria, told Africa Confidential. The north lags well behind the south-east in the United Nations Human Development Index in terms of income per head, unemployment, availability of electricity, literacy and modern health services. Under President Olusegun Obasanjo's government, most of the economy was under the control of appointees from the south-east, he added.
There are, in his view, far bigger socio-economic problems in the north, where many of the old factories and processing plants have closed. The insurgency in the north-east has displaced some three million people.
Voices like Sanusi's and circumspect officials seem to be in the minority for now. There is a sense that some in Nigeria's security establishment have found a cause celebre, noting the 50th anniversary of the outbreak of the civil war. Government officials accuse opposition politicians linked to former President Goodluck Jonathan, his wife, and former oil minister Diezani Allison-Madueke, of using local secessionist groups to derail anti-corruption investigations.
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