Identity politics are flaring up in an big way in Africa’s most populous country. The BBC reports that Nigerian security forces opened fire on protesters backing Biafran secession—a decades-old nationalist cause that has been staging a comeback in recent months:
Five people have been killed in south-eastern Nigeria after police opened fire on supporters of an activist who backs the creation of a breakaway state of Biafra, campaigners say.An Abuja high court on Thursday ordered the release of Nnamdi Kanu, which prompted celebrations on the streets.The police in Onitsha city said shots were fired after officers were attacked and three people were “feared dead”.Mr Kanu was arrested by the authorities in October, accused of treason.He is the director of the banned Radio Biafra and heads the separatist Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) group.Biafran secessionists fought a three-year civil war in which more than one million people lost their lives. The uprising was eventually quelled by the military in 1970.
This escalating conflict poses a serious dilemma for policymakers in Nigeria, and for Africa watchers around the world. On the one hand, if the Igbo people claim and win the right to independence, other ethnic groups across the continent could follow. As we have seen throughout European history—and as we are seeing in the blood-soaked Middle East today—such independence movements can and do give rise to horrific civil wars. On the other hand, nobody in the West would doubt that the Igbo people are entitled to a state under modern Western ideas of self-determination. Moreover, states built around the culture and language of a smaller ethnic group may be more cohesive and peaceful in the long run than cosmopolitan, multi-ethnic federations.Keep an eye on Biafra. The Igbo independence movement will have real consequences for the future of Africa, and for nations across the developing world.