In January 2017, a rally in south Nigeria attracted the attention, and mild confusion, of international media, when an ethnic separatist movement held a rally in support of Donald Trump’s inauguration as POTUS. The Igbo people of southern Nigeria have long agitated for greater autonomy within, or if not outright independence from, Nigeria. Within the wider movement, the largest is IPOB, the Indigenous Peoples of Biafra, whose leader, political activist Nnamdi Kanu, was arrested in 2015 on terrorism charges and released on bail in April, 2017.
Nnamdi Kanu, whose home in Umuahia, Abia, sported a statue of himself, started his activism with Radio Biafra, launching and operating out of London. Holding both British and Nigerian passports, he operated between both countries, and in Nigeria held rallies and even mobilised a small private security militia, which Kanu named the Biafra Secret Service and others calling it the foundation of a Biafran separatist army.
IPOB have claimed the proposed state would potentially take a population of 70 million people from Nigeria’s total of over 186 million. This new state would have a Christian majority; modern Nigeria has a balance between Muslims and Christians. As a result, most non-Igbo Christians have not supported the Biafra project, as the demographic change would leave Nigeria with an overwhelmingly Muslim majority. IPOB’s estimate takes in a diaspora of returning “Biafran” Igbos from across Nigeria, who would make up only half of this projected population, at most.
The community of self-professed Igbo Jews, which includes their high priest Nnamdi Kanu, have even courted Israeli support for their state.
The Biafran movement have used claims of government killings of their supporters at rallies to lend legitimacy to their struggle. This fell apart, however, after their January 2017 rally attracted the eyes and cameras of international media, which failed to capture the claimed massacre of more than 20.
The rest of 2017 has seen the unravelling of IPOB, whose claims of progress towards independence became increasingly exaggerated. This included their claim to have been invited by Donald Trump to meet at the White House and discuss Biafran independence, as well as that he’d publicly stated support for the cause. This was apparently at the behest of US congressman Matt Gaetz, who never responded to this claim. Eventually this boiled down to IPOB activists announcing they would attempt to “storm the White House”, apparently contradicting their claimed invitation.
Pro-Biafra accounts and websites regularly claimed Trump’s endorsement for Biafran aspirations. This is, however, based entirely on Trump’s response to Brexit, which can be only loosely interpreted to apply to the aspirations of all: “The people of the United Kingdom have exercised the sacred right of all free peoples.”
Candy Stallworth, IPOB’s leading activist in the US, claimed to have met with US lawmakers, walking the halls of power in Washington D.C. IPOB claimed they would livestream their meeting with President Trump in the White House; instead, Stallworth released a video afterwards outlining the success of their meeting, and Trump’s support for a referendum for Biafran independence on September 12, 2017.
However, this was later debunked as a fraudulent stunt, with Biafra supporters and IPOB condemning her activities in the US.
After rumours emerged in September 2017 that Nnamdi Kanu had gone into hiding a month before his trial resumed, IPOB released a scathing condemnation of these reports, adopting Trump-style boasting:
“IPOB is till today the most vibrant, indomitable and intelligent mass movement in the world. IPOB and Nnamdi Kanu cannot be intimidated by anybody or group no matter how highly placed they think of themselves. Our mission is to restore Biafra and nothing under the sun can stop us.”
A month later, Nnamdi Kanu had disappeared, with supporters claiming he was arrested by the military in Operation Python Dance, with his house raided, statue dismembered and 28 others murdered. Even more presumed he had simply fled the country.
Although he has officially disappeared, IPOB has recently removed him as leader, as of November 2017. Their new leader, Ezenachukwu Okwudili, has since clarified that Nnamdi Kanu had fled back to London on his British passport, and revealed Kanu had embezzled up to 36 million British pounds from the movement and its supporters.
What IPOB plans to do in the future is uncertain, as numerous online outlets, some continuing to support Nnamdi Kanu, claim to speak on IPOB’s behalf. As of this week, however, IPOB have declared they will drop agitation for independence if a referendum is held and negotiations conducted through a third-party with the federal government. This includes that if the vote result shows a rejection for independence, their campaign would come to an end.
Amidst all of this fallout, why did the Biafran movement attach itself to President Donald Trump in the first place? Notably, Trump’s campaign of Alternative Facts and Islamophobia may have inspired Nnamdi Kanu to adopt a similar strategy. By using a network of pro-Biafra websites and social media accounts, advocates spread fake news that exaggerated the progress of the movement, such as claims of Trump’s personal endorsement, meetings with the US Senate, and UN support for a referendum.
While Biafra is mostly an ethnic regionalist movement, it is less explicitly a religious one, as both Igbo Jews and Christians support it and call it their own. Supporters of both persuasions have claimed Biafra as a God-ordained mission, however, against a federal government enemy that IPOB has referred to as a “caliphate” and a “Hausa Fulani Islamic hegemony”, under Nigeria’s presently Muslim President, Muhammadu Buhari. This anti-Muslim sentiment has been fostered amidst reports of persecution against Christians and Jews by the military, and has resulted in reprisal attacks against Muslims, including the destruction of a Yoruba mosque by alleged IPOB members, in the southeast state of Abia.
These tactics may have increased Kanu’s following during 2017; however this began to unravel when results failed to materialise, funds went missing, and the reality of conducting an armed insurrection against the government. When the Nigerian government listed IPOB as a terrorist organisation and seized illegal firearms, Kanu’s flight back to the UK can be seen as inevitable.
No better summary of this downfall, and the real heartfelt aspirations of Igbo Nigerians, can be found than in the words of Churchill Okonkwo, a former IPOB member, who left their organisation and wrote a scathing attack against their agenda in Nigeria:
“IPOB crumbled like a cookie because it was anchored on deceit. Fiction is a deceit. IPOB’s promise of an independent state of Biafra is a fiction. My promise to Igbos who do not understand the political realities of Nigeria that Biafra is about to be actualized “now” was a deceit. Biafra that contemplates actualization through the derogation of every ethnicity in Nigeria in the 21st century is a deceit.”
In his absence, Nigerians of all persuasions may turn to see Kanu for who he was: like Trump, an unstable fraudster whose greed finally outweighed his ambitions. He might have thought that, in Trump, he had found gold, but in reality found only lead.