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Igbos Defy Call to Leave Northern Nigeria


FILE - A man holds a Biafra flag during a rally in Abuja, Nigeria, Dec. 1, 2015.

Eze Joseph Emmanuel Chukwudimma Obilome sits on a velvet-covered throne in what he calls "the palace," which is actually a bungalow — a sturdy single-story home with a heavy iron gate and some wooden and copper statues.

Obilome is a traditional leader, known as an eze, of the Igbo community in Plateau state, one of the 19 states that make up northern Nigeria. From his throne, he raises his right arm and speaks in a strong voice.

"We should ignore the declaration. We are not going anywhere," he said, peering over the thick, black rim of his glasses.

The "declaration" is a demand that the Igbo people leave northern Nigeria. It was issued recently as an open letter to acting President Yemi Osinbajo, signed by a coalition of leaders from northern youth groups.

In the letter, which the Nigerian media has tagged as the Igbo Quit Notice, the youth leaders insisted the Igbos leave the north by October 1 and return to their ancestral homeland in the southeast. They also called on the government to allow the southeast to peacefully secede and revive the long-dormant Republic of Biafra.

Eze Joseph Emmanuel Obilome, a traditional Igbo leader in the northern Nigerian state of Plateau, says that the Igbo people should not secede to form the Republic of Biafra, but should rather remain in Nigeria and help create a more fair nation. (C. Oduah/VOA)
Eze Joseph Emmanuel Obilome, a traditional Igbo leader in the northern Nigerian state of Plateau, says that the Igbo people should not secede to form the Republic of Biafra, but should rather remain in Nigeria and help create a more fair nation. (C. Oduah/VOA)

"If … the Biafran agitators want Biafra, let them go; the federal government should allow them to go," Gambo Gujungu, the president of the Arewa Youth Forum, one of the northern Nigerian youth organizations, told VOA. "Let them have their own republic. That is exactly the view of all the northern part of the country, people in the northern part of the country."

'True Nigerians'

The Igbos, who are predominantly Christian, are said to be the most widely dispersed ethnic group in Nigeria. Millions live in the Muslim-majority northern states. Many own businesses like hotels, internet cafes, schools, mechanic shops and restaurants.

"It is only the Igbos you can find in any nook and cranny all over Nigeria. We are the true Nigerians," Obilome said.

Obilome and 19 other Igbo leaders in northern Nigeria met last week to formally respond to the Igbo Quit Notice. Obilome says it was a unanimous decision to remain in the north as long as the state and federal governments will guarantee their security.

Nasir El-Rufai, the governor of the northern state of Kaduna, has assured Igbos in his state of their safety and called for the arrest of the people behind the Igbo Quit Notice. But it's been more than two weeks and no arrests have been made.

The Igbo Quit Notice has sparked fears of a possible repeat of Nigeria's brutal 1967 to 1970 civil war.

In 1966, thousands of Igbo people and other minorities from the south were killed across northern Nigeria. The killings were a response to a January 1966 coup d'etat in which Nigerian army officers, some of whom were Igbo, killed some prominent northern leaders.

The Igbos said the federal government failed to protect them, and Muslims from northern Nigeria were trying to dominate national politics.

FILE - A man walks through an empty market in Old Market Road in Onitsha on May 30, 2017, during a shutdown in commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the Nigerian Civil War.
FILE - A man walks through an empty market in Old Market Road in Onitsha on May 30, 2017, during a shutdown in commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the Nigerian Civil War.

This led to a declaration in May 1967 by an Igbo leader that southeastern Nigeria would break away and form the Republic of Biafra. The name comes from a body of water just off the West African coast known as the Bight of Biafra.

Biafra war nightmares

The declaration triggered a three-year war in which British-backed Nigerian soldiers fought against ill-equipped Biafran fighters. More than one million people died, mostly of malnutrition-related illnesses after the Nigerian government blocked aid from entering Biafra.

The memory of the Biafran war hangs over Nigeria, and secessionist leaders use that in an effort to win supporters.

"We are a people singled out for total destruction. Millions of people were massacred," said Uche Mefor, the deputy leader of a popular pro-Biafran group called the Indigenous People of Biafra, or IPOB.

Mefor says the struggle for the creation of the Republic of Biafra continues.

"We have our right to self-existence and it does not matter what anybody thinks about it. It is too late for Nigeria," Mefor told VOA.

The pro-Biafran movement has resurged in the past three years. Osinbajo, filling in for ailing President Muhammadu Buhari, has called for calm and unity. But the tensions have provoked various regional ethnic organizations to post propaganda messages on social media, calling for Nigeria to divide.

While many Igbo people, like Mefor, say they want to make a new attempt to create the nation of Biafra, others like Obilome say they want to remain in Nigeria and help create a fairer country where they will not be discriminated against.

"Those people calling for Biafra are doing so because they were not alive to see the horrors of the war. I saw it and I do not want to see war again," said Obilome.

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