Heightened pro-Biafra protests in Southeast Nigeria are largely a byproduct of the political insensitivity of the ruling APC in selecting a heavily divisive flag bearer- President Buhari. How can Buhari be more effective at addressing the ethnic and religious sentiments in the country?
They may be draped in its flag and chanting its songs of liberation, but Biafra is not what fires the protests in Southeast Nigeria. It is only the smoke. The fire is President Muhammadu Buhari. Apart from their hackneyed demand for secession and the racist diatribes of their leader Nnamdi Kanu, the pro-Biafra agitators in Nigeria’s Southeast are not propelled by any coherent ideology or comprehensive plan to form a sovereign Biafra. What they share is an intense loathing of the current President of Nigeria. It is this deep dislike for the man, the frustration with the fact that he became president and the wish to make the country ungovernable for him (as they believe “he and his people” did the Jonathan’s regime), that drives the pro-Biafra protesters.
While there has always been a strong sentimental attachment to the idea of a sovereign state of Biafra among the Igbo people of Nigeria’s Southeast, it has never been this vocal since the end of the Nigerian Civil War four decades ago. And while the infamous Nnamdi Kanu has been spewing his vitriol for several years now, it has only gained traction after president Buhari’s victory at the last presidential election. It is not hard to see why. President Muhammadu Buhari is not liked in the southeast, to put it mildly. He did not gain up to 10 percent of the region’s total votes in the polls that brought him to office. He didn’t also fare much better in his three previous unsuccessful attempts even though he ran twice with Igbo men as his running mates.
The reasons offered by the Igbos who dislike Buhari—and they are indeed in the majority as shown by the March 28 presidential election results—are as many as they are different and with varying levels of veracity. However, they can be grouped into two broad narratives: the first is that he is historically anti-Igbo, evident from his participation in the 1966 counter-coup in which Nigeria’s first military Head of State General Aguiyi Ironsi, an ethnic Igbo, and several other Igbo military officers were assassinated. This led to the anti-Igbo pogrom in the north that would eventually lead to the Nigerian Civil War in which an estimated 3 million Igbos died—and Buhari’s military rule two decades later during which he was accused of marginalizing the Igbos. The second narrative is that he is the ringleader of some sort of Hausa/Fulani Muslim-dominated northern political caucus hell-bent on seizing political power for their interests alone. For this, the cult-status he enjoys in the north is always pointed to, as is the several controversial statements that has been attributed to him—in support of violence and Islamic Fundamentalism—accusations which he denies. Both narratives are encased with half-truths, biased inferences and wild-eyed conspiracy theories, but at their foundation is the indisputable fact that Buhari’s public image is deeply divisive, and therein lies the contribution of his party, the All Progressives Congress (APC), and his presidency to the pro-Biafra protests.
The APC prides itself as a coalition of progressive forces across the country, and it did begin as such. But after it failed to generate significant grassroot excitement in the Southeast, it became anything but. While the party campaigned on a large banner of change, with political leaders from across the country as its bearers, it was perceived in the southeast as only a machinery for the actualization of a Buhari presidency. The Igbo political leaders whom the party had sought to help tone down these ethnic sentiments were only seen as conscripts to the Hausa/Fulani-led northern cause. The APC was of course not oblivious of this fact- its South-eastern members struggled to shed these negative and bigoted perceptions back home, but the party machinery did not care. It marched on tone-deaf with Buhari as its presidential flag bearer even when it was obvious that he had the most divisive image among all national politicians. In a country desperately in need of political gestures that weaken ethnic and religious sentiments, the APC’s choice of Buhari achieved the opposite as proven by the presidential election results in which the party won the election with an almost insignificant support from the Southeast. If the new President noticed from his victory that a whole region did not like him, he did not show it, and thus far he has not tried to address it.
Since his victory at the polls President Buhari has visited nearly a dozen countries to canvas support for his government but he is yet to set foot in the southeast whose support is even more crucial for the success of his tenure. His political appointments have in fact exacerbated the ethnic sentiments against him while his explanation of them (that constituencies that gave him 97% cannot be expected to be treated equally with those who gave him 5 percent) has only made things worse. It is this sense of political isolation, the perception that a northern hegemony has seized power with the collusion of the Yoruba-dominated Southwest (an allusion to their Nigerian Civil War coalition) and the desire to avenge the northern struggles of former President Goodluck Jonathan that incenses the pro-Biafra protesters on the streets. Of course their reasons are heavily bigoted and their campaign misguided, but they are largely fueled by the political insensitivity of the party in power. The APC selected a divisive flag bearer, and continues to remain silent as Buhari fails to attempt to address this alienation. Some might suggest the bridge is there for Buhari to walk and extend a hand, but it’s clear to see the President is thousands of miles away.