The arrest of Nigerian separatist leader Nnamdi Kanu has dealt a heavy blow to his group, and could even spell the end of his movement.
The leader of the indigenous peoples of Biafra (Ipob), a group that wants a breakaway state in southeastern Nigeria, remains a cult hero to his hundreds of thousands of followers.
For more than a decade, its fiery radio shows and social media posts have been thorns in the side of the Nigerian government, but its transition to armed struggle in 2020 has been seen as a step too far.
Ipob’s armed wing – Eastern Security Network – has been accused of killing at least 60 people in recent months, mostly police officers, though the group denies the allegations.
Mr. Kanu’s arrest on Sunday is seen as the final act of a government determined to quell the uprising.
The images of his arrest, more than anything else, would have seriously shaken the confidence of his most loyal supporters.
It wasn’t the first time the 53-year-old Jewish convert had been shown in handcuffs, but unlike on previous occasions, his usual challenge was missing. His several-day-old gray beard made him look disheveled that even his Fendi-branded clothes couldn’t hide.
Mr. Kanu is said to have turned the organization into a one-man show, alienating some of his most trusted supporters, and so there is now a leadership vacuum.
“The financial disputes and accusations that he failed to consult with key stakeholders on forming an armed wing were not welcomed by many,” said Chiagozie Nwonwu of BBC Igbo, who interviewed Mr.
One of those who fell out with Mr. Kanu and left the organization last year was his former deputy, Uche Mefor, a respected member of the group who took over when the leader was previously incarcerated.
Allegations of embezzlement of donated funds have also led to the exit of loyal supporters in the United States and the United Kingdom.
Locally, the backbone of the movement has also disappeared, as seasoned members have been killed or arrested by Nigerian security forces.
Deep-rooted feelings remain
Mr. Kanu was considered by many to be a dangerous propagandist, but he was also seen as a lightning rod for the discontent that many Igbos still feel with Nigeria, decades after a three-year civil war between 1967 and 1970.
Many Igbos feel left out of Nigerian politics and there are cries of marginalization.
Nigeria’s third largest ethnic group, they have not produced a president since the 1960s and accuse the federal government of neglecting their region.
These feelings have intensified since President Muhammadu Buhari took office in 2015, and his rhetoric has not helped.
He recently referred to the Civil War while vowing to crush Ipob, ask Twitter to delete their tweet, and in the past have said that those who gave him 5% of the vote [such as the south-east] shouldn’t expect to be treated the same as those who gave it 95%.
Such comments helped propel Mr. Kanu, a largely obscure figure despite his radio broadcasts, to fame.
Any other president could have ignored it, but not Mr Buhari, a stoic former military general famous for suffering no indiscipline even from civilians when he reigned in the 1980s.
Mr. Kanu was arrested in 2015 upon his return to Nigeria, but this only strengthened his profile.
The man who had been dismissed as a scum agitator by many Nigerians, even within his ethnic group, has become the most talked about Igbo person.
Those who know him say it was the kind of attention he was looking for and once released on bail in 2017 he never looked back.
He formed the Biafra Security Services (BSS), a fake militia that dressed in black and staged parades in the eastern town of Abia, his home state.
His diatribes escalated, accusing the president of fueling Nigeria’s Islamization plans and claiming that President Buhari had been replaced by an impostor – Jubril of Sudan.
Mr Buhari felt he had seen enough and after a court banned Ipob as a terrorist organization, the military intervened and attacked Mr Kanu’s home in September 2017.
He mysteriously escaped.
Many thought it was the end, but it reappeared in Europe in 2018 and radio broadcasts resumed, this time clinging to The farmer-pastoralist crisis in Nigeria fuel ethnic tensions in the country.
Last year, Mr. Kanu saw an opening in the #EndSars protests against police brutality but many believe it was actually the start of his downfall.
As thugs hijacked protests across Nigeria, Mr. Kanu ordered his supporters to attack police stations.
For someone who openly opposed an armed struggle at the start of Ipob, it’s hard to know what has changed.
Many suspect that the 2017 attack on his home and the deaths of members influenced his decision to arm the group.
At the end of 2020, it resurrected the BSS and renamed it Eastern Security Network (ESN).
While BSS was a fictitious militia, the ESN was closer to the real deal.
The members, dressed in black clothes and red berets, were trained in the forests of the southeast, there was a chain of command, and more importantly, they had AK-47 rifles that had been stolen from the posts. from police.
Between September 2020 and May 2021, there was a wave of attacks on police stations and other public facilities in the southeast, which authorities blamed on Ipob.
In March, the army entered and began to eliminate camps and ESN commanders, disrupting the region.
For most people, especially young supporters of the Ipob cause, the military operation was a revelation of what war looked like.
Businesses were closed, curfews imposed, and people marched with their hands above their heads as they approached army checkpoints.
At this point, feelings started to turn against Ipob and his leader and with his arrest he joined other Igbo separatists who lost to the Nigerian state.
But it is unlikely to be the last until the root causes of the grievances felt by many living in south-eastern Nigeria are resolved.