By Mitterrand Okorie
Among the Igbo, Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu is respected for many reasons. He is seen by most as the father of the Igbo nation, the man who fought to lead them out of a failing experiment and into a nation of their own, what would become the ill-fated Republic of Biafra.
For the few surviving soldiers who fought under his hand in the war that followed, he was a father and a leader.
For the generation that came after, those who saw him in documentaries and read of him in books, he is the symbol of lost values, a throwback to what the ideal Igbo man should be: strong, informed, industrious, fearless.
Perhaps more than anything, Ojukwu’s defiance is what has made him a deity of sorts among his people.
When he declared the Republic of Biafra, Eastern Nigeria was in the disadvantage in population, finance, military power and everything that would matter in the months to come.
Looking back now, 50 years later, Ojukwu was well aware that the odds were not in his favor, but it is clear that the decision was made in spite of the circumstances, not because of them.
It was in an attempt to draw from this sentiment that a certain London-based radio broadcaster from Abia re-created Radio Biafra and began a campaign to whip up the undead desire for secession.
Nnamdi Kanu was born ‘Nwannekaenyi “Nnamdi” Kenny Okwu Kanu in Isiama Afara, a town in the area of Umuahia, the capital of Abia State. The exact date of his birth is not public knowledge, most claims put it at some time in 1970.
He attended Liberty Avenue Primary School, Umuahia before stepping up to the town’s Government Secondary School to continue his education.
Whenever there is a conversation about most of the world’s most iconic rebel leaders, it is easy to see their influences as well as the formative steps; Castro’s first speech, Kagame’s first battle, the baby steps that helped them grow into the roles that they assumed in later years.
Kanu spent his formative years in the Igbo hinterland; by default, he must have been exposed to a more emotionally-influenced interpretation of the war, and the circumstances that surrounded it, from older soldiers and superiors.
Beyond that, there is enough to suggest that he was born close to the nucleus of the war, both in location and ideology.
His father, Eze Israel Okwu Kanu, an Igbo chief, conveyed much-needed aid to soldiers and civilians during the civil war. Not far from the Kanu family home is what is left of what used to be headquarters of the Biafran army, where his family claims Ojukwu once spent a couple of nights.
Kanu was also born at a time when the war was a very recent memory and like many of his peers, the perspective he was afforded would have been fresh and relatively untouched by time.
Kanu would go on to study at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka after secondary school, but after a series of strikes, he crossed the seas to London where he claims he finished his tertiary education.
There is no information on what university he attended or what course he studied.
According to The Telegraph, he made his home in Sandlings Close, Peckham, an area in London that is also known as ‘Little Lagos’ for the large number of Nigerians who live there.
The self-proclaimed leader of Biafra holds a British passport that guarantees his entry into the United Kingdom at any point that he wishes.
It is not clear how Kanu spent most of his time in London, but what we do know is that it was while he was here that he first became involved in the fight for Biafra.
This is where things get interesting.
There are reports that he joined the Movement for the Actualisation of the Sovereign State of Biafra (MASSOB), the major face of Biafra at the time and became a favorite of its leader, Ralph Uwazurike.
At the time, Uwazurike was a marked man in the face of the Obasanjo administration. After several ‘excursions’ with his newest friends, the Department of State Services (DSS), starting in 2003, he was aware that he could only find success with a new approach.
That new approach was Radio Biafra.
Radio Biafra has its origins as a pirate radio station that broadcast propaganda during the civil war from a studio mounted on a jeep; a measure that the war and hovering warplanes made necessary.
Uwazuruike’s brainchild was intended for a similar purpose; a medium of spreading the message and ideals of the secessionist country to Igbo people and apologists across the world.
The station was to broadcast from a location outside Nigeria that the federal government would have no control over; because of Kanu’s residence in London, his eloquence and his relationship with MASSOB’s leader, he seemed the obvious choice for the role.
But Kanu had other ideas, in the weeks that followed, he took charge of Radio Biafra and from his council flat in Peckham, went rogue on MASSOB.
The year was 2009.
This decision would also have implications when he, alongside other disgruntled members of MASSOB formed a splinter group, what we now know as IPOB, short for the Indigenous People of Biafra.
History has proved that it is near impossible to instigate widespread rebellion or upheaval without some sort of propaganda machine or media. In Nazi Germany, radio was the tool of choice for Hitler and Goebbels and Kanu put it to similar use.
Kanu used Radio Biafra to spread a deeply sectarian and militant message, as he put it “… Biafra or Death”, often referring to Nigeria as a ‘zoo’ that was destined to go up in flames.
In a video that has since gone viral on social media, he said of spiritual leaders from the South-West’s Yoruba tribe, “It’s always Yoruba people, head of Pentecostal, head of Catholic, head of Anglican. Hausas are killing us, Yorubas are sucking our blood”.
“If you’re attending a Yoruba church, you should be ashamed of yourself”, he continued. “Anybody attending a pentecostal church with a Yoruba pastor is an idiot, a complete fool, an imbecile. They are worse than Boko Haram. If your pastor is Yoruba, you are not fit to be a human being”.
These speaks on Radio Biafra sparked a new conversation among its listeners; one where violence was often mentioned and war was an inevitable means to the desired end.
Among the Igbos, the desire for separation may have become understated to a large degree in the years that followed the war, but like all ideas that have gained a romantic appeal, it has always been a constant.
As such, pro-Biafra rhetoric is not a strange concept, either to the Igbo or Nigerians of other tribes.
What set Kanu apart and grabbed attention in those early years is also the reason why among more nuanced spectators, he is not taken seriously.
Unlike other pro-Biafra groups, Kanu has made little attempt to appeal to reason in achieving his goals.
His version of the struggle for Biafra has been defined by an excessively crude and one dimensional method.
While the most prominent of these groups, MASSOB believes that Biafra can be achieved by negotiation and its detailed 25-step plan, Kanu, on the other hand, believes that the only solution is war, and every other Nigerian is the enemy.
On 19 October 2015, Ralph Uwazuruike cleared the air about Kanu’s membership, disclosing that he does not belong to the movement and was sacked for indiscipline and for inciting violence among members.
Broadcasting in over 100 countries around the world, Radio Biafra had such massive reach that it spread quickly, its nightly broadcasts heard at home in Nigeria and by supporters in far-flung places like Australia.
In hindsight, it would appear the most pivotal tool in Kanu’s rise, even if that success came with its own thorns.
In 2014, the station’s existence became public knowledge and in the months before the presidential elections, Nigeria’s primary broadcasting agencies tried to pull down its transmission, with little success.
Arrests were made in 2015; three members of IPOB, David Nwawusi, Benjamin Madubugwu and Chidiebere Onwudiwe were detained at various times during the year for connecting Radio Biafra transmitters to Ericsson masts in eastern states.
More than a decade after he left the country, Radio Biafra put Nnamdi Kanu in the national conversation, but only to a degree.
At the height of the station’s popularity, Kanu was little more than a faceless monster, a largely unknown entity. While his message had found willing listeners, many agreed that he would have to leave London for Nigeria to be taken seriously.
Yet, absurdly, even after his return, it is this air of mystery cultivated over time, that has created an image that is seen as untouchable by most of his followers.
Nnamdi Kanu is a walking, breathing conundrum.
Where the integrity of his peers has come under question at one point or the other, he has branded himself as the outlier.
He portrays himself as the quintessential Igbo man, first and above anything else. In his tirades, he preaches that the Igbo are a subset of the jewish people and identifies as a Jew, referring to the regular idea of the Christian God as a sham, like the rest of Nigeria.
In place of this, he says the Igbo will practice Judaism in the new country and offers obeisance to a new god of Biafra, Chukwu Okike Abhiama.
When he makes public appearances, it is full regalia, with a Jewish cap, a handfan with the rising sun of the Biafran flag printed on it, and a Jewish prayer shawl; often appearing like something between a Jewish priest with an apprentice stylist and a hippy Igbo traditional ruler.
His appearance is no mistake; Kanu makes concerted efforts to keep it up, enhancing it as much as the circumstances allow.
When he was released from jail in April 2017, he wasted no time in visiting Enugu to ‘pray’ at the Cenotaph erected in memory of the soldiers who lost their lives in the civil war.
“Whenever Nnamdi Kanu enters Biafraland, he would first go to Hill Top Ngwo to pray at the Cenotaph before proceeding to his home to see his parents and his people”, a source told Nigerian newspaper, Daily Post. “He has paid his customary homage to the memory of our fallen heroes”.
It is here that our failure to properly examine the history and educate ourselves on the Biafran war has played straight into his lap.
His core audience is a new generation that only saw the war in books and stories and he is able to sell them his own idea of the country of their dreams, re-imagined to suit his inclinations.
For them, Nnamdi Kanu is the new Biafra in flesh.
It is no mistake that this pristine image has amassed followers in the tens and hundreds of thousands, young men who in recent months have begun to refer to him as ‘our father’, ‘the leader of Biafra’.
An IPOB press release from 2015 even goes further to refer to him as ‘Prophet Nnamdi Kanu’
This image is often re-enforced by his closest friends and family members.
“My brother was singled out by God for this mission” Kanu’s brother and fellow Biafra agitator, Prince Kanu told the Telegraph in January. When he was further prodded, he claimed his brother was led by a vision he had in 2006 in Croydon, a fair distance from Nigeria and Igbo land, if we are to put it lightly.
The success of this ‘re-branding’ has reduced the pro-Biafra struggle into a personality cult of sorts, with reports of supporters kneeling down before him and kissing his feet upon his release from detention.
In reality, what Kanu has created is an illusion; a representation of the fallacious history that he invokes and the promise of the future he seems so willing to fight for.
It is an image that is as convenient as it is effective.
But for all that Nnamdi Kanu has done to put himself in the frontlines of the struggle for Biafra, no-one has done more to help his cause than the Nigerian government.
While Radio Biafra put him in the list of pro-biafra agitators, a vast majority of the people he hoped to lead still viewed his message at arms’ length, with a certain degree of skepticism.
What they said was pretty simple; here was a man, calling on them to defend themselves and their sovereignty and prepare for war with the rest of Nigeria, yet he was miles away in a flat in London, speaking into a microphone from an undisclosed location.
It only made sense that whoever sought to lead them would lead from the front.
In the final months of 2015, Kanu decided to pay a visit to Nigeria, taking up temporary residence in Lagos’ Golden Tulip Hotel. Barely days after, he was nowhere to be found.
On October 18, 2015, reports made the rounds that Kanu had been arrested by the dreaded Department of State Services.
He told his lawyers that he had been held in secret for four days.
In the weeks that followed, the IPOB leader was charged with treasonable felony for a speech he delivered at the World Igbo Congress in 2015 where he asked the bewildered audience for ‘guns and bullets’ to fight the war for Biafra. Alonside him were the three IPOB members arrested for planting Radio Biafra transmission equipment early in that year.
Political analyst Cheta Nwanze describes his arrest as “a mistake because it played into his hands”.
As Nwanze told the BBC in May, “When the 2015 election happened, there was a slowdown in the popularity of his radio station and that’s when he decided to come to Nigeria to get arrested”
Nnamdi Kanu had spent months accusing the government of a conspiracy against the Igbo people and moonlighting as the patron saint of information and freedom from oppression; if his supporters suspected that his ‘truth’ was a threat to the government, his arrest gave credence and credibility to those claims.
Even after the courts ruled that he should be released in November 2015, President Muhammadu Buhari’s federal government pulled a rabbit out of the hat, and ensured that he was re-arrested and held again. The DSS presented a court order that gave it license to keep him custody for an extra three months for ‘questioning’.
As one commentator put it, this authoritarian approach inspired the feeling that “perhaps, this guy is not totally wrong”
Kanu would spend go on to spend months in and out of Kuje Prisons, often falling victim to the crippling judicial system and the DSS’ underhanded tactics to hold him for as long as possible.
The news of his arrest and detention spurred protests across the east and in other countries where his message had struck a nerve and earned him followers.
When he was finally arraigned before the Wuse Zone 2 Magistrate Court in Abuja in November 2015, IPOB members and sympathizers travelled in luxury buses and gathered en masse outside the court to demand his immediate release.
As the trial and detention continued, so did the calls for his freedom.
If Nnamdi Kanu was a loud mouth rebel-at-large before October 2015, his incarceration upon his arrival in Nigeria elevated him to the status of a martyr among his followers.
After months within those prison walls in Abuja, Nnamdi Kanu has been regained his freedom, released on bail on April 28, 2017. His detention has served the direct opposite of its purpose; making him the face of the renewed struggle for separation.
Since his release, he has kept a relatively low profile. Besides closed door meetings with Igbo leaders and his visit to the Enugu Cenotaph, he has only made the news for relatively bland reasons, such as his interaction with two of Nigeria’s most divisive political figures, Ekiti governor Ayo Fayose and former Aviation Minister Femi Fani-Kayode.
His careful treading has been a factor, not of choice, but of his stringent bail conditions, including a ban from addressing a gathering of more than 10 people.
In a Nigeria where the adverse standard of life and its many manifestations dominate the headlines and cover stories, Biafra has re-entered the mix with a sense of urgency that does not feel familiar.
The Igbo’s struggle for secession is as valid as it was 50 years ago. Ojukwu’s reasons for pulling out are still very present; a political system that is tailored to suit the North and its large population, the perpetuity of the northern cabal and its stranglehold on federal power, absurd levels of corruption and nepotism at various levels of government, and a level of insecurity that suggests that the government can only do so much to protect its citizens.
Many point to examples such as the spread of the government’s infrastructure projects, and in particular, the rail network that is supposed to cover the whole of the country. Despite the presence of commercial hubs in Onitsha and Aba, much of the South-East is not covered in the plans that have been released by Transport Minister, Rotimi Amaechi.
Ethnic and tribal tensions are also as high as ever; on June 6, 2016, a group of Northern leaders gathered at the iconic Arewa House to sign what is now known as the Kaduna Declaration, giving Igbos in the North a three-month ultimatum to leave the region.
Yet, it remains to be seen if Biafra is really the answer. Despite the resurgence of the campaign for secession and the emergence of new characters like Nnamdi Kanu, a good number of Igbos remain skeptical about the prospect.
They cite the lack of political unity and harmony among the Igbos as well as the absence of the elaborate structures to support an active economy that the new nation will need to survive.
Mitterrand Okorie, a social commentator, and lecturer at the Michael Okpara University of Agriculture, Umudike in Umuahia thinks that while the campaign for Biafra holds water, a lack of consultation has made the struggle one-dimensional.
“I think the agitation for Biafra is valid, the whole marginalisation of the Igbos has taken another dimension, the level is almost criminal.”, he told Pulse in a phone interview. There is a bit of sort of trying to punish the South-east for their sins and it doesn’t give us a sense of belonging in Nigeria”,
“There is a lack of consultation in how IPOB is trying to navigate. You don’t just suppose everyone is part of the struggle. Some are new federalists, they want a restructured union. They don’t want separation for various reasons. This category of Igbo people have never had to sit down in a consultative way to know how this struggle is going to happen”
There are also important preliminary questions that have been left unanswered, such as the borders of the proposed country and the inclusion of the South-South states, to the effect that what obtains now feels like a case of pulling the cart before the horse.
“But we have to ask where does the map of Biafra start? Somebody may say it is the right time for Biafra to arise, but I don’t think it should include non-Igbos state. That’s the conversation we ought to have”, Okorie added.
Nnamdi Kanu and IPOB’s call for Biafra does not incorporate these questions, or even pay them any attention. While it is important to recognise the nature of his role in bringing the conversation about Biafra to the frontlines, what he offers is overtly inflexible; a myopic approach that has portrayed the struggle as little more than a rebel movement.
As the days pass, the shallow extent of his ideals continues to come across, just a few weeks after his release, he conferred honorary Biafran citizenship on Ayo Fayose, a political figure whose credibility wanes with each visit to Ado-Ekiti’s pepper sellers.
The press releases may imply a sense of direction and coherence but his actions suggest a man who is swinging wildly with a blindfold in the hope that he will hit a bag full of validation, instead of one with the comprehensive strategy and intellectual consideration that the agitation for Biafra requires.
As Okorie put it in simpler terms, “you cannot achieve self-actualization by referring to your country as a Zoo”
The agitation of millions of Igbo people across Nigeria represents more than such simplistic logic.
In recent times, they have presented different facets of the case for separation. There have been calls to go back to the drawing board, including demands for a true sovereign national conference and a referendum to determine the pulse of the Nigerian people.
50 years after the first shots were fired, it is clear that the Igbo desire for a single homogeneous state is still as strong as ever. In the last two years, it has gone from a by-line and the stuff of aggressive folklore to a dream that seems realer with each day.