During the opening match of the qualifying round for the 2018 World Cup, Chinedu Gabriel, 27, refused to stand in honor of Nigeria’s national soccer team.
“I’m not a Nigerian,” said Mr. Gabriel, a motorcycle parts dealer in a suburb of Nigeria’s capital, Abuja. “I’m a Biafran.”
Almost 50 years after Nigeria’s brutal civil war put down a secessionist movement among the nation’s Igbo community — one of Africa’s largest indigenous groups — sentiments such as those expressed by Mr. Gabriel remain common among the Igbo who crave a state of their own, known as Biafra.
And with the economy in crisis and the fight against the violent Islamist movement Boko Haram still being waged in the north, the cohesion of Africa’s largest nation is being stretched to the limit, say analysts.
“With the Nigerian military trying to contain Boko Haram insurgency in the northeast, opening another front in the southeast may prove expensive, particularly now that oil revenue has fallen sharply,” said Jeff Okoroafor, a political analyst in Abuja and head of Opinion Nigeria, a citizen’s rights group.
The Igbo of southeastern Nigeria first attempted to secede back in the mid-1960s, triggering a three-year civil war that ended in 1970 and killed more than 1 million people. A famine that struck the Igbo region attracted global attention and condemnation of the government’s handling of the conflict.
Beginning in the early 2000s, new secessionist calls ramped up again amid frustration over the handling of postwar reintegration efforts. But the new impetus for Igbo unrest comes from more recent grievances: The level of development and economic opportunity in Igbo strongholds mainly in the south pale in comparison to those in Nigeria’s north, say locals.
“The Igbo feel they are not part of the government, that government is too far away from them, and they are not getting the dividends of democracy,” said Mr. Okoroafor, who himself is Igbo. The Igbo are estimated to be almost 20 percent of Nigeria’s 186 million people.
Most of all, with a deteriorating economy that is hitting their strongholds hard, Igbo leaders say they are driven to fight due to the bleak future facing their children.
“Under the present Nigerian government, the Igbo are staring face to face with the brutal reality that the full energy and potential of their youth will never be realized in Nigeria but only in Biafra,” said Chief Ralph Uwazuruike, leader of Biafra Independence Movement.
The latest surge in pro-secession sentiment centers around Nnamdi Kanu, a Nigerian-Briton who in 2015 founded the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) to rally independence supporters. He was arrested soon after on charges of treason and spent 18 months in jail before being released on house arrest.
Despite his jail term, he continues to taunt the federal government from his stronghold in the south, inciting unrest, say military officials.
‘Operation Python Dance’
To quell the dissent, the Nigerian government has launched a string of military actions in the region over the past year — especially targeting Mr. Kanu. Authorities have imposed dusk-to-dawn curfews in Igbo strongholds following clashes involving the military and members of IPOB, as well as at his residence.
“Operation Python Dance,” as the military calls it the operations, are merely training exercises meant to “sharpen the skills of participating troops,” according to Army Chief of Training and Operations, Major General David Ahmadu.
But the Igbo disagree.
“The invasion of Nnamdi Kanu’s home was brazen show of military [highway robbery and plunder] and sheer prostitution of power without authority,” said Prince Uche Achi-Okpaga, spokesperson for Ohanaeze Ndigbo, a socio-cultural Igbo organization. “Operation Python Dance is a deliberate ploy to [tie up] the southeast like a conquered territory.”
Peter Okpara, director of internal conflict prevention and resolution at the Institute for Peace and Conflict Resolution in Abuja, says the government is just doing its job by quelling dissent and keeping the peace.
“If care is not taken, it may lead to something much more sinister,” said Mr. Okpara.
Some believe all this will come to a head as the country heads for elections in 2019. Mr. Buhari thwarted a boycott of local elections in Anambra state in the Igbo south in November. A candidate from the opposition All Progressive Grand Alliance was elected governor.
“After Anambra 2017, in 2019, there’ll be no elections on Biafra land,” Mr. Kanu warned in November. “My message is that there’ll be no elections in Biafra land ever again until they give us date for a referendum” on independence.
Some say that while the pro-independence fight is so far confined to Igbo lands, it is having an impact nationally.
“It was because of the IPOB agitation that the issue of restructuring Nigeria is now a national debate — people are now asking for resource control, that power should not be concentrated at the center but with the federal states,” said Mr. Okoroafor. “Politicians are now bringing up the issue of restructuring as part of campaign promises as they seek to win elections.”
He predicts that within the next two years there will be growing pressure to devolve power from the federal government in “a bid to make the states stronger.”
Meanwhile, people worry about the insurgency’s current impact on the country. Combined the struggle with Boko Haram, softness in global oil markets that has led to mass unemployment and a rise in crime and unrest, they say the government is falling behind.
“There are structural challenges that are leading to some of this,” said Mr. Okpara. “The hope is that the nation will address those structural problems and come up with solutions.”
Some believe there is a good chance that, unlike the debilitating Biafra civil war of a half-century ago, Nigeria will come out stronger from its current travails.
“At the end of the day, it is about leadership — I see a prosperous nation that has the capacity to advance, that has the ability to move ahead in terms of development,” said Mr. Okoroafor. “But we need leadership that can give the people that sense of belonging.”
On the street, though, the mood is less optimistic.
“The way things are going in Nigeria, I’m afraid we may experience another major conflict,” said Chukwudi Abel, a civil servant working in Abuja. “The government needs to act fast to stop the drift toward anarchy.”
By Ali Abare Abubakar. This article first appeared in The Washington Times.