Possibly unknown to US President Donald Trump when he was a candidate for president, he had a near-religious following among many Igbos from Southeastern Nigeria who were in favour of their region seceding from the rest of the country as a new Republic of Biafra.
The leader of the the main Biafran separatist movement, the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB), Nnamdi Kanu, wrote to Trump after his election win last year stating that the victory placed on Trump a “historic and moral burden … to liberate the enslaved nations in Africa.” Kanu, who has been in detention since October 2015, and his followers fiercely believe that Biafra is trapped in the “artificial” country of Nigeria created by British colonisers.
IPOB and many other pro-Biafrans hoped fervently that a Trump presidency would be sympathetic towards the Biafran cause and this hope was mainly based on comments the billionaire property developer made in relation to the British vote in last year’s referendum to leave the European Union – Brexit. Trump tweeted after the vote:
Self-determination is the sacred right of all free people's, and the people of the UK have exercised that right for all the world to see.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 24, 2016
Pro-Biafrans clung to this as evidence that he would support a referendum for “Biafrexit” from Nigeria. Some of the separatists used the hashtag #BiafraForTrump to celebrate the Republican’s victory, which they thought had given them renewed hope in their bid to exit from Nigeria. Nnamdi Kanu’s wife told Newsweek magazine: “With Trump coming into power, even though not everyone is happy about it, we are [happy] because hopefully Trump will uphold the self-determination rights of the indigenous people of Biafra.”
Other “Trumpisms” like the plans to ban Muslims from certain countries from visiting the US also endeared him to pro-Biafrans, who view Nigeria and its current president Muhammadu Buhari as an Islamic state that kills and oppresses Biafran Christians. Former US president Barack Obama, and by extension, Hillary Clinton, Trump’s opponent in the election, were seen by pro-Biafrans to have endorsed Buhari’s Biafran oppression, making Trump even more popular with them than he was with the typical rednecks that were chanting the “Make America Great Again” slogan at his rallies.
The first warning sign that Trump had no interest in the Biafran cause came when the killing by Nigerian police of 11 pro-Biafrans celebrating Trump’s inauguration on 20 January in the southern city of Port Harcourt was ignored by “their man” in the White House. Despite his Twitter account being bombarded with tweets and pictures of the shooting, there was not a word from Trump. This was hardly surprising since the man had shown little interest in sub-Saharan Africa during his campaign.
The next disappointment for Biafran separatists came in February when Trump called Buhari in his sick bed in London. The White House readout of the conversation stated: “President Donald J. Trump spoke this week with President Muhammadu Buhari of Nigeria to discuss the strong cooperation between the United States and Nigeria, including on shared security, economic, and governance priorities.
“President Trump underscored the importance the United States places on its relationship with Nigeria, and he expressed interest in working with President Buhari to expand the strong partnership. The leaders agreed to continue close coordination and cooperation in the fight against terrorism in Nigeria and worldwide.
President Trump expressed support for the sale of aircraft from the United States to support Nigeria’s fight against Boko Haram. President Trump thanked President Buhari for the leadership he has exercised in the region and emphasized the importance of a strong, secure, and prosperous Nigeria that continues to lead in the region and in international forums”.
No mention of Biafran right to self-determination, the release of Nnamdi Kanu, or the killing of hundreds of pro-Biafrans by the security agencies. This could well have been Obama talking to Buhari. However, even Obama had reservations about selling arms to Nigeria due to the military’s long record of human rights violations. There were no such qualms with Trump. It was announced this week that the US was going ahead with the sale of attack aircraft to Nigeria, despite the protestations of US Senator Ben Cardin.
This must have been a “wake up and smell the coffee” moment for Biafran separatists. The reality, that they refused to see all along, is that Trump is and will be no different from any other US president. Their interest in Nigeria is in relation to the billions of dollars made by US corporate interests in the country, especially in the oil and gas industry. Stuff like self determination and human rights must not get in the way of the business of making money. Nobody knows this more than the billionaire president, whose bungled attempts to ban visitors to the US from several Muslim countries were careful not to include Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Turkey and Azerbaijan where he has business interests.