Nolan Quinn contributed to this post.
Fighting between government forces and an Igbo separatist group risks adding yet another challenge for the Buhari administration. The emergence of an Igbo paramilitary force highlights the growing breakdown of any federal government monopoly on the use of force in the face of multiple security challenges.
Even in good times, security is fragile in the former Biafra. Insecurity has multiple dimensions. The Igbo people are Nigeria’s third largest ethnic group. They were the losers in the 1967–70 civil war in which they tried to establish a separate, Igbo-dominated state, Biafra. Many Igbo continue to believe that they are disadvantaged in Nigeria, and there continues to be residual support for Biafran independence, though not among the Igbo “establishment.” Conflict over land and water, once largely restricted to the Middle Belt, is spreading to the south, where it frequently acquires ethnic and religious overtones. Many Igbo—mostly Christian—believe they are targeted by the Muslim Fulani herdsmen bringing their flocks south in search of better pastures. Criminal activity is widespread and often the Igbo attribute it to the Fulani.
Many residents of the former Biafra are alienated from the federal government and see the Buhari administration as Muslim-dominated and as enabling Fulani atrocities. Added to this mix is Nnamdi Kanu’s Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB), a separatist movement that reflects and facilitates popular discontent. The federal government, recalling the civil war, is bitterly opposed to Igbo separatism, as is most of the Igbo establishment. The government has long sought to defang the IPOB and silence Kanu, sometimes through illegal or quasi-legal methods. He, in turn, has used alleged Fulani depredations as a means of attacking the Buhari administration.
Starting in August 2020, violence between IPOB and the federal police and the army has escalated. In that month, the Nigerian police killed up to twenty-one civilians at an IPOB meeting in Enugu State. In response, the IPOB promised retaliation and urged its members to practice self-defense. In December, Kanu announced the establishment of a paramilitary wing, the Eastern Security Network (ESN), allegedly to protect the Igbo against the Fulani.
For the federal government, a non-state sanctioned, paramilitary organization in the old Biafran heartland was unacceptable, and it moved against ESN camps. In late January 2021, serious fighting broke out in the town of Orlu in Imo State, leading to significant numbers of displaced persons. Fighting stopped when Kanu declared a cease-fire, saying that he was redirecting ESN efforts against “Fulani raiders.” (He also claimed that the federal forces had withdrawn from Orlu.)
Supporters of the ESN, including in the Igbo diaspora, justify it as being like Miyetti Allah in the north and Amotekun in Yorubaland in the west. Both are paramilitary operations outside the federal government’s legal purview but with some ambiguous level of government approval. The north and the west were on the winning side in the civil war, and that may help account for the federal government’s greater tolerance for their paramilitary organizations than for one associated with the Igbo.
The escalating fighting in IPOB strongholds carries the risk of radicalizing the population and building support for the IPOB. Credible evidence suggests police assaulted residents in Orlu, and some police perpetrators have been arrested. The commissioner of police for Imo State has apologized. But as recently as December 2020, IPOB was saying that ESN forces were merely a “vigilante” group protecting the Igbo against the Fulani. Now Kanu has an organized wing, the ESN, and believes he has the authority to order a cease-fire in a fight with federal forces. Violence is escalating, and the outcome is unpredictable.