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Nigeria is coming apart at the seams

Crowds of Igbo-speaking people barricade streets across southeastern Nigeria, bringing traffic to a standstill. They wave black, green, and red secessionist flags; distribute their own currency and passports; and demand the creation of a new independent country called Biafra. It could be 1967 — or 2016.

Nearly 50 years after the same region of Nigeria seceded, sparking a devastating civil war, separatists are once again threatening the fragile national unity of Africa’s most populous country. Back in 1967, the federal government deployed a quarter million troops to quash the secessionist movement, while also imposing a land and sea blockade. Over a million civilians died in the nearly three years of fighting that followed, mostly from starvation.

Why is the southeast once again considering secession when the region’s last attempt resulted in such horrendous suffering? Part of the answer is that many Igbos, who form the majority in Nigeria’s southeast but a minority in the country as a whole, view the failure of their previous attempt at secession as the great missed opportunity of their time. For three decades after the war, military dictatorships suppressed all secessionist talk, leaving Igbos to wonder silently about what might have been. But after the country transitioned to democracy in 1999, latent separatist inclinations began to resurface once again.

The resurgence of the Biafran secessionist movement is symptomatic of a much deeper problem with the Nigerian state. The federal government’s chokehold on states and ethnic groups is fueling multiple demands for autonomy and the right to manage resources at a local level — demands that could ultimately lead to a fracturing of the country. The latent insurgency in the oil-producing Niger Delta is one example of this trend, as is the emergence of the Oodua Peoples Congress (OPC), which has acted both as a violent vigilante group and as an advocate for the autonomy of the Yoruba people of southwestern Nigeria.

A deep disillusionment with the Nigerian government also lies at the heart of the Biafran dream of independence. Igbos have long felt marginalized and excluded from economic and political power by the Hausa-Fulani and Yoruba ethnic groups, which have dominated national politics and the bureaucracy since 1970. Many Igbos believe that the federal government (and their fellow Nigerians) have never forgiven them for seceding in 1967, and have discriminated against them ever since. They believe that in Biafra they will find all the things that Nigeria has failed to provide: good leadership, jobs, infrastructure, regular electricity, economic and physical security.

“Nigeria is a mess…with bad and corrupt leaders,” a Biafra supporter in her mid-20s told me recently. “We want freedom.”

Yet not everyone is willing to risk a war for independence. Younger Igbos born after the civil war tend to be more militant about Biafra in 2016 than their parents and grandparents, whose memories bear scars from the previous attempt at secession. One 72-year-old Igbo man, who was wounded during the 1967-1970 civil war and left bleeding and without food or drink for days, told me, “No one who experienced what happened last time will ever advocate Biafra again.”

But roughly two-thirds of Nigeria’s population is under 30 years old, making them too young to remember the suffering that accompanied the last civil war. These youngsters have plenty of reasons to resent the central government: Nigeria’s youth unemployment rate stands at approximately 50 percent. In the southeast, the feeling of marginalization only deepened after last year’s presidential election. Igbos voted heavily for the former president, the southerner Goodluck Jonathan, who lost to Muhammadu Buhari, a Muslim from the north. As an army officer, Buhari had fought to crush the first Biafran independence movement; the most powerful jobs in his new government went to the Yoruba and to northern ethnic groups.

Nearly 50 years after the same region of Nigeria seceded, sparking a devastating civil war, separatists are once again threatening the fragile national unity of Africa’s most populous country. Back in 1967, the federal government deployed a quarter million troops to quash the secessionist movement, while also imposing a land and sea blockade. Over a million civilians died in the nearly three years of fighting that followed, mostly from starvation.

Why is the southeast once again considering secession when the region’s last attempt resulted in such horrendous suffering? Part of the answer is that many Igbos, who form the majority in Nigeria’s southeast but a minority in the country as a whole, view the failure of their previous attempt at secession as the great missed opportunity of their time. For three decades after the war, military dictatorships suppressed all secessionist talk, leaving Igbos to wonder silently about what might have been. But after the country transitioned to democracy in 1999, latent separatist inclinations began to resurface once again.

The resurgence of the Biafran secessionist movement is symptomatic of a much deeper problem with the Nigerian state. The federal government’s chokehold on states and ethnic groups is fueling multiple demands for autonomy and the right to manage resources at a local level — demands that could ultimately lead to a fracturing of the country. The latent insurgency in the oil-producing Niger Delta is one example of this trend, as is the emergence of the Oodua Peoples Congress (OPC), which has acted both as a violent vigilante group and as an advocate for the autonomy of the Yoruba people of southwestern Nigeria.

A deep disillusionment with the Nigerian government also lies at the heart of the Biafran dream of independence. Igbos have long felt marginalized and excluded from economic and political power by the Hausa-Fulani and Yoruba ethnic groups, which have dominated national politics and the bureaucracy since 1970. Many Igbos believe that the federal government (and their fellow Nigerians) have never forgiven them for seceding in 1967, and have discriminated against them ever since. They believe that in Biafra they will find all the things that Nigeria has failed to provide: good leadership, jobs, infrastructure, regular electricity, economic and physical security.

“Nigeria is a mess…with bad and corrupt leaders,” a Biafra supporter in her mid-20s told me recently. “We want freedom.”

Yet not everyone is willing to risk a war for independence. Younger Igbos born after the civil war tend to be more militant about Biafra in 2016 than their parents and grandparents, whose memories bear scars from the previous attempt at secession. One 72-year-old Igbo man, who was wounded during the 1967-1970 civil war and left bleeding and without food or drink for days, told me, “No one who experienced what happened last time will ever advocate Biafra again.”

But roughly two-thirds of Nigeria’s population is under 30 years old, making them too young to remember the suffering that accompanied the last civil war. These youngsters have plenty of reasons to resent the central government: Nigeria’s youth unemployment rate stands at approximately 50 percent. In the southeast, the feeling of marginalization only deepened after last year’s presidential election. Igbos voted heavily for the former president, the southerner Goodluck Jonathan, who lost to Muhammadu Buhari, a Muslim from the north. As an army officer, Buhari had fought to crush the first Biafran independence movement; the most powerful jobs in his new government went to the Yoruba and to northern ethnic groups.

Source: Foreign Policy

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