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The security services haul in militant separatist Nnamdi Kanu then narrowly miss Sunday Igboho in Ibadan
The Department of State Services (DSS) emerged from the shadows at the end of last month with all guns blazing, literally. Its targets were two hyper-populists from the south, both of whom officials linked to insurrectionary movements against Abuja.
The twin operations sent a message of sorts. Despite the insurgency, banditry and communal clashes across the north – the latest being an abduction of over 150 schoolchildren in Kaduna state on 4 July – the government can still come down hard on separatists in the south.
Its first scalp was Nnamdi Kanu, the founder of the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB), who had fled the country in 2017 but took credit for a growing separatist sentiment in the south-east. The victim of what appears to be extraordinary rendition, Kanu surfaced in Abuja on 29 June, handcuffed and escorted by DSS officers (AC Vol 62 No 12, Nnamdi Kanu celebrates).
Two days later, the DSS raided the compound in Ibadan of Sunday Igboho, also known as Sunday Adeyemo, a Yoruba separatist leader whose followers have threatened to expel Fulani herders grazing their cattle in the south-west of the country. Like the Kanu rendition, there was a strong element of theatre.
A heavily armed band of DSS officers led the raid, getting into a long gun battle with his guards, two of whom were shot dead. Igboho escaped in the melée. They also shot up all the vehicles in the compound, arrested 13 people at the house, including Igboho's wife. The detainees complained that the officers took all of Igboho's cats, prompting wild speculation about his supernatural powers. Within hours, Nigerian social media activists posted a meme of a cat in a police identity parade, bearing an Igboho name tag.
That day Igboho was on the BBC pidgin service, insisting the midnight raid was an assassination attempt. His lawyer announced he would be suing the federal government for 500 million naira (US$1.21m). That prompted the DSS to release its version: that it had been tipped off that Igboho was stockpiling weapons. Then it produced arms and ammunition, which it claimed had been seized from his house.
Whatever the intent of the raid, it led to Igboho calling off a planned 'Yoruba Nation' rally in Lagos state on 3 July. He has since gone underground. But another Yoruba nationalist group, Ilana Omo Oodua, went ahead with rallies in Lagos coming up against a heavy police presence and despite a banning order by Lagos state government. As police fired tear gas canisters and live rounds to disperse the demonstrators, a teenage girl was killed.
Having led rallies in Ibadan, Osogbo, Akure, Abeokuta and Ado-Ekiti, Igboho focuses his campaign on two interlocking issues: driving out Fulani herders from the south-west and taking Yorubaland out of the federation. Banging the drum for identity politics, Igboho is trying to fire up a culture war in the south-west. He has surrounded himself with political thugs to amplify the message; he has also been linked to attacks on rival politicians as well as some well-hidden ties to more establishment names.
Some see Igboho as a spoiler emerging just as the south sees the prospect of a power-shift. His aggressive populism and identity politics threatens mainstream politicians in the south-west used to cutting deals in Abuja while appeasing their local constituencies. Those politicians are caught between the targeting, by Igboho and his regional allies, of Fulani herders taking over pastures in the south (although some herders have been based in the south-west for generations and speak fluent Yoruba) and the federal government in Abuja alarmed as the rising tide of anti-Fulani sentiment (AC Vol 62 No 10, A country at war with itself).
Senior politicians in the south cite the country's deepening security crisis as a reason to restructure the federation, starting with the establishment of state police forces, and then continuing with the devolution of more political powers and revenue-raising rights to the states.
Until recently, this restructuring agenda was the prerogative of governors in the south with governors in the north worrying that they would lose revenues, given their lower tax bases, and political influence at the centre.
At its meeting on 5 July, the Southern Governors' Forum, chaired by Ondo State's Rotimi Akeredolu, reaffirmed its commitment to the unity of Nigerian, then argued this should be consolidated by federal restructuring and devolution of more powers to the state. That won consensus support from the 17 governors at the meeting as did the resolution that the presidency should alternate between the northern and the southern states, and the next president should emerge from the southern region.
The forum didn't suggest a road map for that. For now, the southern states are divided, not just between the south-west, south-south and south-east, but on partisan lines within those geo-political zones. And according to the disputed census numbers the southern states have far fewer voters than their northern counterparts.
They also have differing political objectives. South-east politicians, while eschewing Kanu's secessionism, are calling more stridently for a federal restructuring and they are under mounting pressure to tackle rising levels of criminality and political violence in the region.
In the south-south, frustrations with corrupt control of institutions such as the Niger Delta Development Commission could tip the region back into insurgent mode. Militant leader Government Ekpemupolo aka Tompolo is threatening to make the oil-producing areas ungovernable if Minister for Niger Delta Godswill Akpabio fails to reconstitute the board of the NDDC.
Another militant leader in the south-south, Asari Dokubo, complicated matters further when he pledged support to Kanu and the Biafran separatists. The spectre of oil-region militants collaborating with Biafran separatists, together with the human and economic toll they could wreak, concentrated the minds of the security chiefs.
The highest stakes are in the south-west. where about half a dozen contenders are vying for the national presidency. But the south-west also has a history of low turn-outs when voters are unimpressed by the candidates on offer. The biggest voting block, Lagos, is the country's richest and most cosmopolitan state. With a GDP of over $40 billion a year, it has an economy bigger than many medium-sized African countries.
For the last two decades, the shadow of the Jagaban, Bola Ahmed Tinubu, has loomed large in the state, first as governor in his own right, then as sponsor of governors, and now as national leader of the ruling All Progressives Congress. He is by far the wealthiest of the contenders, with the widest political network outside the south-west.
But Tinubu, like all the other leading candidates from the south-west, will have to navigate between canvassing in the northern and middle-belt chapters of the party while convincing his base in the south-west that he can pursue their interests as the federal government cracks down hard on the likes of Igboho and Kanu.
Kanu come home
Attorney-General Abubakar Malami announced on 29 June that Nnamdi Kanu, the leader of the separatist Indigenous People of Biafra movement had been brought before the Abuja courts to answer terror charges for which he had skipped bail in 2017. Kanu's lawyer Ifeanyi Ejifor says that his client was arrested by police at Kenya's Jomo Kenyatta International Airport where he was held before being handed over to Nigerian security officials.
His whereabouts for the last four years have been mysterious but are believed to have included sojourns in several European countries, Israel and the United States (AC Vol 58 No 23, Militants turn the screw). Throughout he has maintained an active and often incendiary presence on social media, wooing the religious right and accusing the Nigerian government of genocidal attacks on Christians. Kanu also appears to have rich backers, enough to pay for a US$80,000 a month lobbying campaign against President Muhammadu Buhari's government, firstly with Mercury Public Affairs until March, and then with the BW Global Group of partners Jeffrey Birrell and Alan White.
In turn, Buhari and his officials accused Kanu and IPOB of running a violent campaign against federal officials and institutions in south-east Nigeria, blowing up police stations, breaking into prisons and targeting electoral offices. It was Buhari's references to the Biafran war and statements that the security forces would treat the militants in a 'language they understood' that prompted Twitter to delete one of his tweets. Then, the federal government retaliated by suspending Twitter.
Malami provided few clues as to how it was that Kanu, photographed in handcuffs, had appeared. He said only that Kanu was 'intercepted through the collaborative efforts of Nigerian intelligence and Security Services'. The Nigerian Intelligence Agency, which runs external espionage, and the Department of State Security, its domestic counterpart were characteristically quiet.
Social media quickly generated a bewildering range of extravagant claims: Kanu had been extradited from the United Kingdom, where has dual nationality (denied by the British); that he had been lifted from Brazil, or East Africa, lured either by money or women or both. Supporters, including Kelechi Madu, the Solicitor-General of the Alberta Provincial Government in Canada, blamed Kenya. One report suggested a bribe of a billion dollars had been paid, a claim greeted with some hilarity by underpaid security officials in Abuja.
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