Arresting Nnamdi Kanu; Solution or Catalyst?

The arrest, detention and extradition of the titular head of the Independent People of Biafra (IPOB), Nnamdi Kanu, has focussed the minds of Nigerians, and to a lesser extent the international community on the issue of partition in Nigeria.  The arrest was allegedly carried out by Kenyan security operatives at the behest of the Nigerian government.  He was subsequently flown on a private jet to Abuja where he was taken into detention by the Department of State Security.  Kanu has been characterised as a terrorist by the Nigerian Government and remains in detention in Nigeria.

Since his trial was delayed on 26 July, the flow of rhetoric from his supporters has increased in volume and its tone has become more threatening.  Kanu’s status as a British citizen has also drawn the UK High Commission into the issue.  A large UK law firm has also been commissioned to represent him as it has been alleged that his removal from Kenya to Nigeria amounts to an extraordinary rendition, which is illegal under British law, the protection of which Kanu enjoys.

Ndigbo commentators have been busy, with the Association of South-East Towns Union (ASETU) issuing a long statement on 27 July to the effect that the arrest and detention of Kanu will not address the driver behind the movement for independence as Kanu is only a representative of the anger felt by the Ndigbo.  It claims that the Ndigbo people are discriminated against, and the discrimination has deepened under the present government.  The following day, another statement was issued by a Kuwait based spokesperson for the IPOB calling on the Federal Government to released Kanu immediately without further charge.  It gave a deadline of 08 August, following which, if Kanu remains in detention, the South-East political region of Nigeria will face a total shutdown every Monday from 06:00 am until 18:00 pm with effect from 09 August until such time as Kanu is released.

Street-level chatter among ordinary Igbo people is somewhat more ambiguous, with popular opinion seemingly divided.  Many feel that Kanu is a troublemaker who has brought an unwelcome surge of security forces activity into their homeland.  They point out the impact that has on personal freedoms and the ability to trade in the established manner.  Some feel that he is nothing more than a gangster who is seeking to empower himself.  Others, however, are vociferously supportive of Kanu and the secessionist aims of IPOB.

In the short term, it is likely that the shut-down protests will happen and be largely supported, albeit reluctantly in many cases.  People must earn money to feed and educate their children and any regular or protracted interruption to commerce will divide opinion quite quickly.  There is likely to be an increase in the activity of the so-called ‘unknown gunmen’, which will see security forces, and police stations, in particular, being targeted.  This could trigger a very strong reaction from the security forces, leading to further recriminations among the chatterati and an increase in support for IPOB.

The knock-on effects for business are likely to be indirect.  However, workers being absent from their positions on Mondays will also have an impact on most commercial operations.  Additionally, the heavy presence of security forces will likely render movement on the region’s roads more challenging and time-consuming, with an attendant risk of travellers being caught up in attacks on security forces.

In the long term, it is certain that the arrest, detention and trial of Kanu will not force IPOB to disband and abandon its ambitions.  If anything, it is likely that the movement will gain strength and support, with international attention becoming more focussed on those centrifugal forces that are also driving separatist movements in other parts of the country.