Of Martyrs and Men: Inside the Nigerian Government’s Designation of Indigenous People Of Biafra as a “Terrorist Organization”


Who is Nnamdi Kanu?

Nnamdi Kanu sprung onto the national stage in October of 2015, after the Nigerian Department of State Services (“DSS”) detained and charged him with numerous crimes, including “treasonable felonies.” Since then his name has flooded the headlines of Nigeria’s press. But who is he?

Kanu is the boisterous Igbo leader of the Indigenous People of Biafra (“IPOB”)—a separatist organization calling for a referendum on Biafran independence in South-East states. The Nigerian government recently designated IPOB a “terrorist organization.” Kanu is a divisive character, one who some regard an activist, and others a racist threatening Nigeria’s very existence by fanning ethnic tensions.

On his London-based radio station Radio Biafra, Kanu has made several incendiary remarks, repeatedly referring to Nigeria as a “zoo,” Muslim and Hausa peoples as “wild animals,” and Yorubas as “criminals and fools.” Kanu has also solicited funds for guns and bullets, most notably at the 2015 World Igbo Convention in Los Angeles, presumably for the IPOB’s two security outfits: the Biafra Secret Service and Biafra National Guard.

Such attempts to solicit funds for arms are believed to have led to Kanu’s detention. However, the fact remains that his calls for secession from the Union speaks to decades of public distrust over government resource mismanagement, corruption, and impunity.

Despite its vast resources, leading economy, and massive industrious and educated population, Nigeria has failed to reach its full potential. Youth unemployment is a staggering 25%. The naira has failed to recover from a steep decline in value since 2015. Hundreds of thousands of Nigerians have emigrated from the country since the 1980s. Though federal in name, the bulk of political power remains in the central government. Thus, while few resort to calls for violence or war, it is unsurprising that many Igbo youth continue to aspire to the actualization of Biafra.


The beginning of Biafra

In 1966, six junior military officers, five of whom were Igbo, staged a military coup in Nigeria and killed most of the elected political leaders of from the Northern and Western regions. A counter-coup, led largely by Northerners, occurred that same year. Ethnic tensions continued to rise, pogroms of Igbos living in the North followed. Subsequent maneuvers, including the inequitable division of the three major regions into smaller states, led Lt. Col. Ojukwu to declare an independent state of “Biafra” in the South-East in 1967. Civil war ensued.

Since the end of the Nigerian Civil War—also known as the Biafran War—the specter of disunion has loomed over Nigeria. While the country managed to stave off dissolution in 1970, it came at a cost. Over 1 million people died during the war, and many more continued to harbor reservations about the nation, its policies, and its leaders. To this day, Nigeria has not fully recovered.


What has been the government’s response?

Kanu’s arrest prompted several members and supporters of IPOB to take to the streets in protest, to which the military reacted with deadly force. Amnesty International estimates nearly 150 pro-Biafra supporters were killed and summarily executed by Nigerian security forces between August 2015 and August 2016.

Kanu remained in detention for nearly two years—despite numerous court orders that he be released, until a coalition of governors, South-East activists, and members of President Buhari’s government completed negotiations for his release on bail. The Federal High Court of Abuja then conditioned his release on stringent terms, including that he not grant interviews, hold rallies, or be in gatherings of more than 10 people.

Since his release, Kanu has repeatedly flouted these conditions and has even continued to threaten to prevent federal government elections, slated for November 18th, 2017 from taking place in Anambra State.

On September 10, 2017, Nnamdi Kanu accused the Nigerian Army of attempting to raid the leader’s home and shooting at IPOB members, killing three and injuring 20 others. The Army denied any attacks on Kanu’s residence and accused IPOB members of blocking the road and pelting bottles and rocks at an armored security outfit passing by Kanu’s home in Abia state. In response to rumored attacks on their leader, alleged IPOB members ransacked a mosque in the state, prompting the state government to institute a curfew for three days. Kanu has since gone missing.

On September 15, 2017, the Nigerian Army proclaimed the IPOB a terrorist organization. A coalition of South-East governors proscribed all activities relating to IPOB the same day. Soon after, many came out to denounce the Army and governors’ proclamations as unconstitutional and in direct contravention of the Terrorism (Prevention) Act 2011/Terrorism Prevention (Amendment) Act 2013 (“TPAA”), including the president of Nigeria’s Senate Senator Bukola Saraki as well as prominent human rights lawyer and activist Femi Falana.

In response, the Attorney General moved the Federal High Court in Abuja to grant the following orders ex parte: (1) declaring the activities of IPOB in Nigeria acts of terror and illegal; (2) proscribing the continued existence of the IPOB, in group or as individuals; and (3) proscribing participation of any individual in any activities in furtherance of the IPOB’s collective intent. The Court granted the injunctions. The IPOB has since challenged the injunction.

In the meantime, the Nigerian government has sought international help in banning IPOB and its activities, declaring it a terrorist organization, and blocking accounts associated with the organization. The U.S. has declined to do so, with the spokesman for the American Embassy in Nigeria stating that the U.S. does not consider IPOB to be a terrorist organization.


What is terrorism?

The situation begs questions, which strike at the heart of the government’s place in a federalist state and its limits in maintaining peace and security. The international war on terror has only further muddled the matter, largely because there is no clear definition of terrorism.

Section 1 of Nigeria’s TPAA defines an “act of terrorism” broadly, including acts carried out with “malice afore thought,” intended to compel government to perform or abstain from an act, and which involves activities such as (1) kidnapping, (2) destruction of public property, and (3) “manufacture, possession, acquisition, transport, supply or use of weapons.”

It also includes “an act or omission which constitutes an offense within the scope of counter terrorism protocols and conventions duly ratified by Nigeria” and acts which disrupt a service, “committed in pursuance of a protest”—though the law carves out an exception for demonstrations and strikes. Still, under this definition, several acts of civil disobedience could be considered an “act of terrorism,” e.g. blocking a public highway.

The U.S. more clearly delineates acts of domestic and foreign terrorism. §1189 of the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (“AEDPA”) requires that the Secretary of State find that an organization is (1) foreign, (2) engages in terrorist activity, and (3) threatens the security of the U.S. or U.S. nationals before designating it a “foreign terrorist organization.”

On the other hand, the definition of domestic terrorist activity is covered under §802 of the USA PATRIOT Act, merely requiring that an organization commit an act “dangerous to human life,” in violation of U.S. or a state’s criminal laws, intended to (1) intimidate or coerce a civilian population; (2) influence government policy by intimidation or coercion; or (3) affect the conduct of a government by mass destruction, assassination or kidnapping. The ACLU has argued that this definition of terrorism is overly broad and could encompass groups such as Greenpeace and the Environmental Liberation Front.

Classifying IPOB under each of the three regimes bears different results. Under the TPAA, IPOB could well qualify as a terrorist organization, assuming the government properly proves that the IPOB destroyed public property, procured weapons, and/or otherwise seriously intimidated people in order to coerce the Nigerian government to meet its demands. Based on news reports, it seems the IPOB did some of these things.

Under the AEDPA, the classification falls apart, as it remains to be seen whether the IPOB poses a threat to the security of the U.S. or U.S. nationals. This likely explains the U.S. government’s position. However, were the IPOB to operate within U.S. territory—which it clearly does not—the PATRIOT Act appears broad enough to encompass its activities.


The path forward, or away from here

Regardless of the legal technicalities implicated, the designation and the Nigerian government’s current course appear politically imprudent and surely provides IPOB an international platform and legitimacy it may not have otherwise had.

The State has every right to maintain peace and security within the bounds of the law. However, the use of military personnel within Nigeria—absent a declaration of a state of emergency, excessive force and illegal detention procedures, refusal to enforce court orders, and other illegal actions provide the IPOB legitimate grievances against the government. Worse still, in flouting its own laws, the government’s prosecution resembles persecution and may provide marginalized masses across South-East Nigeria a martyr.

Rather, Nigeria’s government should adhere to the laws on its books and guarantee Kanu a fair trial, so as to increase the legitimacy of the outcome. Such a guarantee cautions against trying him in absentia. At the same time, the nation, including lay citizens, civil society organizations, and political elites, should reimagine Nigeria’s structure.

We should seek means of redistributing power from the center, democratizing access to halls of power, and increasing the youth’s political buy-in. This process should be transparent and take time: for the best laid schemes of mice and men, often go awry.


Oyinkan Muraina is a second-year law student at Columbia. She grew up in Macon, GA and is of Nigerian origin. She is interested in business and human rights, particularly in the extractive industry sector. Before entering law school, she served as a Fulbright Research Fellow in Ilorin, Nigeria, where she studied the administration of the Shari’ah in Ilorin’s area court system.