Get more Mail & Guardian
Subscribe or Login

Mystery of the missing Biafran separatist

NEWS ANALYSIS

Where is Nnamdi Kanu?

Nigeria’s future — and its territorial integrity — may be determined by the answer to this question.

The 50-year-old politician has been missing for nearly three weeks, with both his allies and his enemies denying knowledge of his whereabouts. The longer he’s gone, the more unstable southeast Nigeria risks becoming.

Kanu is the leader of the Indigenous People of Biafra (Ipob), which is agitating for the secession of the southeast from the rest of the country. He wants to declare a new Republic of Biafra — to repeat that ill-fated experiment in independence that lasted from 1967 to 1970 before being destroyed in brutal fashion by the Nigerian state.

Last month, a Nigerian court declared that Ipob was a terrorist group, even though it has yet to be implicated in any violent acts.

Despite this, Kanu and Ipob, along with other pro-secession groups, have plenty of support. Memories of the civil war are fresh in this part of the country, as is the sentiment that the Igbo ethnic group — one of Nigeria’s largest by population, and native to the region — is still discriminated against.

But for the Nigerian government, resistance to any talk of secession runs just as deep. In September, the army launched a massive military exercise across the five states that make up the southeast. Code-named Operation Python Dance II, the deployment was ostensibly a field training exercise that was “not targeted at any individual or group”.

Kanu and his supporters didn’t accept the official explanation. “Perceptions are that the deployment could be a preamble for a harsh military crackdown, which will play out via ethnic lines,” said Ryan Cummings, director of Signal Risk.

On September 14, shortly after the military exercise began, Kanu disappeared. Here, accounts differ.

His brother, Kingsley Kanu, says they were together at their family home in Umuahia, Abia state, when soldiers attacked. “They were shooting everything they saw,” he told Reuters. “They came here just to kill everybody.” He said at least 20 Ipob members were shot dead that night, and that he has not seen his brother since. The bullet holes that riddle the house lend credence to his account.

The military, on the other hand, denies any knowledge of the attack on the Kanu family home. Nor, it says, does it have any idea where Nnamdi Kanu is.

But the Nigerian military is not exactly a credible source of information — especially about the fate of opposition leaders. After all, this is the same military that has repeatedly claimed to have killed Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau, only for him to appear days or weeks later in another of his infamous online videos. And this is the same military that claimed to have shot Boko Haram founder Mohammed Yusuf as he was trying to escape during a 2009 raid on his compound, only for it to emerge later that he had been executed in cold blood.

The parallels between Kanu’s disappearance from his home and Yusuf’s death at his compound are ominous. Instead of halting Boko Haram in its tracks, the death of its leader created a martyr and added fuel to a fire that continues to wreak havoc in northern Nigeria and neighbouring countries.

“The parallels between Yusuf and Kanu are most certainly there, particularly now after Ipob’s designation as a terrorist organisation and the state’s justification to employ violence against the group and treat its membership, including Kanu, as terrorists,” said Cummings.

He added, however, that the parallels are not absolute: unlike Boko Haram, Ipob does not espouse an ideology centred on violence.

Nonetheless, if Kanu really is dead and enough people believe that Nigerian security forces did it, the renascent Biafra movement will have a powerful martyr around which to rally, making it an even greater threat to the Nigerian state. To avoid that outcome, Nigeria is going to have to solve the mystery of Kanu’s disappearance — and fast.

Subscribe to the M&G

Thanks for enjoying the Mail & Guardian, we’re proud of our 36 year history, throughout which we have delivered to readers the most important, unbiased stories in South Africa. Good journalism costs, though, and right from our very first edition we’ve relied on reader subscriptions to protect our independence.

Digital subscribers get access to all of our award-winning journalism, including premium features, as well as exclusive events, newsletters, webinars and the cryptic crossword. Click here to find out how to join them and receive a 40% discount on our annual rate..

Simon Allison
Simon Allison
Simon Allison is the Africa editor of the Mail & Guardian, and the founding editor-in-chief of The Continent. He is a 2021 Young Africa Leadership Initiative fellow.

Related stories

Advertising

Subscribers only

Q&A Sessions: Zanele Mbuyisa — For the love of people-centred...

She’s worked on one of the biggest class-action cases in South Africa and she’s taken on Uber: Zanele Mbuyisa speaks to Athandiwe Saba about advocating for the underrepresented, getting ‘old’ and transformation in the law fraternity

Update: Standard Bank rejects climate proposal

Climate considerations are pressing Standard Bank shareholders to push for the recusal of those with fossil fuel ties.

More top stories

Wildlife farming vs Creecy’s panel

The departments of environment and agriculture legislation are at odds over modifying the genes of wild animals

Drugs and alcohol abuse rage in crime stats

Substance abuse has emerged as a reason for the spike in crimes during the first quarter of 2021.

UPDATE: Magashule tries to tip the scales on Ramaphosa in...

The suspended secretary general argues that the rules the party relied on to sideline him are invalid but those informing his attempt to suspend the president are lawful

Modack charged with Kinnear murder

Nafiz Modack is the second person to be charged with killing Charl Kinnear and five others are accused of conspiracy to commit murder, among 61 other charges
Advertising

press releases

Loading latest Press Releases…
×