Protests for

Protests for

The Igbo
  in Nigeria

Jan Sändig

Gandhi, the US civil rights movement, Berlin 1989, and ‘Tahrir’ – non-violent protest movements can be found throughout history and the world. Sub-Saharan Africa, however, is rarely considered in this context. Africa still stands for poverty, hunger, and warfare. Yet, this view overlooks many positive developments across the African continent since the beginning of the 21st century – including the striking occurrence of non-violent protest under adverse circumstances.

Image: Demonstration for independence in Lagos

Poor prospects for independence

As a prominent example, since 1999 the Igbo in Nigeria have demonstrated peacefully for an independent state of Biafra. At roughly 32 million, they have a larger population than many existing countries. Still, their chances of gaining independence are extremely poor. In Nigeria’s Civil War (1967-1970), the federal government already suppressed Biafra’s secession and demonstrated its intention to maintain ‘One Nigeria’ at any cost. Moreover, there are strong reservations in the international system against the creation of new states. So why, despite the low prospects, are the Igbo again striving for an independent Biafra – and why are they protesting non-violently?

Photo: Starving child in the Biafra War (Dr. Lyle Conrad)

What threatens us?

The Igbo see themselves as severely disadvantaged and threatened by the federal government. In their view, the federal government has been controlled by the primarily Muslim Hausa-Fulani from northern Nigeria ever since Nigeria’s foundation in 1960. They believe the Hausa-Fulani secretly conspire to keep them from power or even eradicate them. Allegedly, the goal is to control Nigeria’s oil wealth and convert the Igbo from Christianity to Islam.

In this vein, Igbos consider the Biafran War of the 1960s a defensive battle against the Muslim North to protect their people from genocide. Since the end of the war, they feel oppressed mostly in being “marginalized” politically and economically. Beyond that, Igbos were repeatedly attacked and killed by Boko Haram, the police, and the military. However, many Igbos and the movement with its inciting calls and frequent warnings of alleged new massacres have exaggerated the actual threat.

Who are we?

The Igbo are unified by a common language, strong Christian belief, and shared experiences since the early 20th century. Many Igbos hold that they are a great people and belong to the camp of western and industrialized nations, but have been unable to seize their potential due to historical circumstances: The Muslim North and the Yoruba in the West allegedly need to dominate the Igbo to retain political power. Therefore, they have oppressed the Igbo into a miserable situation.

These images have been nurtured by the new Biafra movement. It emerged around the organization “Movement for the Actualization of the Sovereign State of Biafra” (MASSOB), but now encompasses many other groups. The movement has continually praised the Igbo for their resourcefulness and ingenuity, and thus claimed that an independent Biafra would prosper on its own. These arguments have strongly resonated among the Igbo, partly because the catastrophic Biafran War has been kept silent about by the Nigerian public and no reconciliation efforts were ever undertaken.

Chief Ralph Uwazuruike, 27.11.2014
Having studied Gandhi, I know the potency of non-violence. Because at the end of the day, even when you fight in a battlefield and kill so many, you must still come to the roundtable and discuss. (…) You cannot solve the problems by fighting, you have to sit together and talk, discuss the issues. That is why I cherish non-violence. Why should you fight in the first place and waste human lives? quotes

Nachdem ich Gandhi studiert habe, kenne ich die Macht der Gewaltlosigkeit. Denn selbst wenn man auf dem Schlachtfeld kämpft und viele tötet, muss man immer noch zum Verhandlungstisch kommen und diskutieren. (...) Du kannst die Probleme nicht durch Kämpfe lösen, man muss sich zusammensetzen und die Probleme diskutieren. Darum schätze ich die Gewaltlosigkeit. Warum sollte man überhaupt kämpfen und Menschenleben verschwenden?

Interview with MASSOB-Founder und -Leader Chief Ralph
Uwazuruike, Owerri, 27.11.2014

What do we need?

The new Biafra movement has a clear strategy: not another war, but only peaceful protests will lead the Igbo to independence. The war experience and defeat of Biafra has certainly contributed to this strategic choice, but renunciation of violence has not been self-evident; despite the defeat, some Igbos see the Biafran War as proof of their extraordinary military capacities. These views could be exploited to generate support for a renewed armed contestation.

The leaders of the movement have opposed this, however. They have argued that independence can only be achieved through non-violent protest, as this is the preferred strategy of the international community and the United Nations. Appealing to the latter, the movement’s leaders have proposed that an internationally-organized referendum can allow Biafra to peacefully break away from Nigeria, following the examples of South Sudan, Kosovo, and East Timor. In addition, they have invoked Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and Nelson Mandela to illustrate the power of non-violence.

Illustration: Jamil Mohamed
COMPARISON The role of violence in
threatened social orders

What should we do?

To win attention and international support, the Biafra movement has organized numerous protest actions, including demonstrations, boycotts, hoisting the Biafran flag, and petitions to the United Nations. The federal government, however, has responded by violent means to the demand for secession, as it threatens the unity of the multi-ethnic country. Thousands of activists and all of the movement’s leaders were temporarily imprisoned, and hundreds of supporters were even killed in crackdowns by the security forces.

Under such circumstances, liberation movements typically take up arms. Indeed, many supporters of the Biafran cause have turned increasingly radical. Yet, their leaders have continuously called for non-violence and patience, arguing that a violent struggle would only worsen their situation. At the same time, the movement has also been waiting for support from the Igbo’s political elite. In contrast to the impoverished masses of the population, Igbo politicians have opposed the demand for independence. They have declared Biafra as unrealistic and a dream, while the Igbo’s future lies in Nigeria.

Demonstration in Lagos
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