Is Nigeria Sliding Inexorably Towards Civil War?
(Originally published in Village Magazine on 4 March 2017)
Rumours of his death may be greatly exaggerated, but Nigerian president Muhammadu Buhari’s extended “medical vacation” in London is another cause for concern in the already crisis-wracked West African country.
The 74-year-old president was due back in Nigeria on Feb 6 following what was meant to be a 10-day holiday to the UK during which he would undergo a routine medical check-up. But with that date come and gone, Buhari’s government, now in the hands of Vice President Yemi Osinbajo, offers a bundle of mixed messages when asked about the president’s return date, ranging from imminent to indefinite — depending on the spokesperson. The president’s absence due to an undisclosed illness has brought on a nauseating sense of déjà vu in a country where just seven years ago a nearly identical situation unfolded. On that occasion, President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua spent two months in Saudi Arabia being treated for pericarditis, only to die in office three months after returning to Nigeria. It’s no surprise then that many Nigerians were so easily taken in by fabricated reports on fake news websites announcing the death of the current president, Muhammadu Buhari. However, whereas Yar’Adua never formally handed over power to his vice president, which resulted in a power vacuum during his incapacitation, Buhari was careful to avoid such a constitutional crisis by promoting Osinbajo to acting president in his absence.
While that particular crisis may have been avoided, the president’s illness only adds to the uncertainty in a country already beset by a multitude of problems. Dependent on oil for 90 percent of its export revenue and 35 percent of GDP, the Nigerian economy has been battered by low oil prices, falling into recession in 2016 for the first time in 25 years. Renewed attacks on the country’s pipeline infrastructure by militant groups in the oil-rich Niger Delta resulted in an output decline of 1 million barrels per day and $100 billion in lost revenue last year. Inflation is running at nearly 16 percent, putting the price of everyday goods beyond the reach of the millions of people who eke out a hardscrabble existence on a few dollars a day.
Beyond Nigeria’s economic fortunes, which rise and fall with the price of oil, there is a deeper, existential crisis threatening to rend apart the very fabric of the state. Recurrent intercommunal violence, especially in the middle belt states that mark the fault line between the largely Muslim north and predominantly Christian south has been intensifying in both frequency and destructiveness over the past two decades. This is partly because of worsening desertification in the northern Sahel region pushing nomadic Muslim herdsmen further south in search of pastures to graze their cattle and bringing them into violent conflict with Christian farmers who accuse the herdsmen of destroying their crops. Human Rights Watch reports that since 1992 more than 10,000 people have been killed in these clashes, routinely involving acts of almost inconceivable brutality — the hacking and bludgeoning to death of unarmed villagers, including, in some cases, the unborn babies of pregnant women. Entire villages are razed to the ground; those too slow to escape, burnt alive in their homes. A combination of inept security forces and an under-resourced judiciary mean the attackers are never brought to justice, encouraging victims to take the law into their own hands.
To students of Nigerian history the current situation is alarmingly similar to the conditions that led to the exceptionally destructive civil war which broke out 50 years ago this year. Aggrieved by the perceived dominance of northern Muslims in the newly independent state, Christian Igbo officers from the east of the country staged a coup d’état which was quickly quelled. In the aftermath of the failed coup, tens of thousands of Igbos living in the north were slaughtered over a four-month period. In May of the following year, 1967, the military governor of the eastern region declared independence from Nigeria in the name of Biafra. In the ensuing civil war and blockade more than two million Igbos died, mostly from starvation. After suffering so resounding a defeat in the war, Biafran independence, as a concept worth fighting for, was seen as dead and buried for decades.
This still holds true for the vast majority of Igbos, who have chosen for the sake of peace, to reconcile themselves with the Nigerian state. In the past decade, however, a resurgent Biafran independence movement has been gathering apace. The arrival of Boko Haram and their attacks against Christian churches and marketplaces, alongside the those of the Fulani herdsmen has seen renewed calls for Nigeria to be dismembered along ethnic or religious lines. And now a figurehead for the movement has emerged, further galvanising supporters. Nnamdi Kanu rose from obscurity as a firebrand radio broadcaster to being hailed in some quarters as a prodigal son sent to deliver his people from the failed state of Nigeria to the promised land of Biafra. This transformation took place in 2015 when Kanu, who is based in London, was arrested in a Lagos hotel room on conspiracy and terrorism charges during a visit to Nigeria. These charges were later dropped but he continues to face charges of treasonable felony relating to a speech he gave to the World Igbo Convention in Los Angeles where he called for weapons and ammunition to be sent to Nigeria to support an armed struggle for independence. While Kanu denies all the charges, one only need listen to Radio Biafra, the London radio station he founded and through which he broadcasts his pro-Biafran message, to see why the Nigerian authorities are so riled. Regularly referring to Nigeria as The Zoo, a place inhabited by “wild animals” and President Buhari as a paedophile because of the age difference between him and wife, Aisha, Kanu often employs pungent, apocalyptic language to get his point across. One memorable — and incriminating — passage from an interview with SaharaTV is worth quoting “…the only language that people in The Zoo (Nigeria) understand is the language of violence and force … and the killing of people to disintegrate The Zoo shouldn’t come to anybody as a surprise. Our promise is very simple: if they fail to give us Biafra, Somalia will look like a paradise compared to what will happen to that zoo.”
Although a magistrate’s court struck out the case against Kanu and ordered his release, the government has refused to do so on the grounds that he is being investigated for treason and poses a flight risk given his dual British/Nigerian nationality. Kanu has now been held for more than a year without trial following repeated deferments of the trial date and the removal of judges assigned to the case. The Nigerian government’s failure to ensure due process has seen it come in for international criticism and further inflamed Kanu’s supporters who have held several demonstrations against his detention. These protests have met with the usual heavy-handed response from Nigerian security forces who stand accused of killing dozens of unarmed protesters at demonstrations last year. So long as Kanu remains in prison and religious strife in the north continues, the Biafran secessionist movement is only likely to grow, and the longer President Buhari remains on medical vacation, the more the country looks to be slipping out for his control.