How Kenya’s Failure to Contain an Islamist Insurgency is Threatening Regional Prosperity

Andrew McGregor

October 27, 2017

Life in parts of Kenya’s traditionally Muslim coastal region has become a nightmare of beheadings and midnight raids by masked assailants, compounded by the ineptitude of local security forces. In Lamu County, an historic center of Swahili culture, growing ethnic and religious tensions have proved fertile ground for the spread of a Kenyan offshoot of Somalia’s al-Shabaab terrorist group. The struggle for Lamu is not an unfortunate but obscure episode in the war on terror however; it is a battleground for the economic prosperity of East Africa.

Lamu County (Somaliupdate.com)

Lamu County is the planned site of one of the most ambitious economic initiatives attempted in Africa – the Lamu Port-South Sudan-Ethiopia-Transport Corridor (LAPSSET), a $24.5 billion project creating a network of roads, rail-lines and pipelines connecting South Sudan, Uganda, Ethiopia and Kenya, with the additional construction of three resort cities and a modern port and refinery at Lamu.

The county faces the Indian Ocean. It is culturally and religiously distinct from most of inland Kenya and traditionally Sunni Muslim, with an emphasis on Sufism. The county is divided into two parts – the mainland sector, and a region of 65 islands once prosperous from the trade in slaves and other products of the African interior. The largest economic activity is tourism, mostly restricted to the centuries-old Swahili trading ports on the islands. On the mainland, locals rely on agriculture, fishing and mining.

The local population consists of Swahilis, the dominant culture formed by a mixture of Bantu peoples with Arab and Persian traders that began in the 9th century; Orma, related to the Oromo of Ethiopia, Somalia and northern Kenya; Bajuni islanders; and the Aweer and Watta, both traditional hunter-gatherer groups.

Politically uninfluential and subject to ethnic and political violence in recent years, the region has been designated an operational security area since September 15, 2015. Social services such as healthcare and education are lacking, fresh water is scarce, food supplies are insecure and unemployment is high. [1]

Much of the region’s violence is the result of a strategy by al-Shabaab to punish Kenya on its own soil for initiating an operation by the Kenya Defense Force (KDF) – named Linda Nichi (Swahili for “Protect the Country”) – against al-Shabaab within Somalia in October 2011. The operation’s declared intent was to stifle cross-border incursions by Somali militants. In practice, however, the deployment has created a Kenyan-controlled buffer zone known as Jubaland in southern Somalia.

The Mpeketoni Massacre

On June 15, 2014 al-Shabaab struck Lamu County, massacring 65 men, mostly Kikuyu Christian migrants from inland Kenya. The local police station offered no resistance and was quickly overrun, the police fleeing, leaving behind their weapons, which were collected by the attackers. Despite the presence of nearby police and military installations, the attack continued for ten hours without interference from security forces, who were apparently watching a broadcast of a FIFA World Cup soccer match.

Al-Shabaab claimed the massacre was in response to the “Kenyan government’s brutal oppression of Muslims in Kenya through coercion, intimidation and extrajudicial killings of Muslim scholars” (Daily Nation [Nairobi], June 16, 2014).

Rather than address the al-Shabaab threat, Kenyan president Uhuru Kenyatta, a Kikiyu, attempted to shift blame for the attack to opposition politicians, claiming the massacre had nothing to do with al-Shabaab, despite al-Shabaab claiming responsibility for the attack on its official Twitter account earlier the same day (Reuters, June 16, 2014; Daily Nation [Nairobi], June 16, 2014). Kenyatta also claimed that local police had received advance warning of the attack but ignored the warning (BBC, June 18, 2014).

Ethnicity is a relevant factor here. During the 1952-1960 colonial-era Mau Mau rebellion, British administrators used the Mpeketoni region for the resettlement of Kikiyu from Kenya’s Central Highlands where the rebellion was concentrated. Mpeketoni was later used as a resettlement site for Kikiyu farmers who had returned to Kenya from Tanzania in the 1970s. These transfers of members of Kenya’s largest and most powerful ethnic group created a lasting turbulence over land ownership issues and turned the Muslim Swahili community into a religious and ethnic minority in their traditional homeland. [2]

Typical of more recent attacks in Lamu County was one conducted on the evening of September 5-6, when terrorists in military gear struck two villages in the Hindi district of Lamu. Calling residents out by name, the gunmen beheaded four individuals in front of their wives and children before fleeing into the Boni Forest. Protests the next day over the security forces’ inefficiency were broken up by riot police (The Standard [Nairobi], September 6). The Hindi police chief was later suspended for sleeping on the job (Daily Nation [Nairobi], September 11).

Operation Linda Boni: Security Failure in Lamu County

Kenya’s counter-insurgency effort in the region, Operation Linda Boni, began in September 2015 and was expected to last 90 days (Daily Nation [Nairobi], November 16, 2015). Operation Linda Boni is now in its third year, despite repeated pronouncements that all its objectives have been achieved. The operation involves a number of security agencies, including the KDF, the National Police Service, the Administration Police and the National Intelligence Service (NIS). Agents of the latter infiltrate the villages to identify supposed terrorist collaborators.

Despite the operation’s massive expense, the Boni Forest, used as a base by Islamist militants, is still far from secured even though US special forces reportedly provide logistical and training support to Kenyan troops operating there (The Star [Nairobi], February 10; Daily Beast, August 2). The multi-agency operation suffers from infighting, poor coordination and inappropriate equipment. Mounting casualties have demoralized police and soldiers who have little to show for their efforts, and the increasing tempo of attacks in Lamu County has alarmed Kenyan security officials.

Coast regional coordinator Nelson Marwa, an outspoken security hardliner, made some pointed criticisms of the Operation Linda Boni: “We have the Operation Linda Boni in place. It is now almost two years and the way things are, it’s like we haven’t achieved the objective of flushing out criminals inside the forest… How do al-Shabaab find their way past our forces … to get into villages, kill people and go back into the same forest or cross the same borders where our KDF soldiers are? We have enough airplanes and I wonder why most of them are just lying in the bases instead of being put out there to patrol these places. People must be [held] responsible…” (The Nation [Nairobi], September 10).

Lamu County Commissioner Gilbert Kitiyo responded by claiming, without documentation, that the operation had reduced al-Shabaab’s capacity to mount attacks by 80 percent (Daily Nation [Nairobi],

September 20). On October 5, Operation Linda Boni director Joseph Kanyiri announced the al-Shabaab presence in Lamu County was “almost at zero level” (The Star [Nairobi], October 6).

LAPSSET: East Africa’s Economic Hope

In a region already beset by land ownership disputes, the LAPSSET project has led to rampant speculation and fraudulent land transactions. The project is being implemented without consultation with the local community and is expected to bring an influx of one million migrants to the region, few if any of them Muslims. It will be a massive and irreversible demographic shift that al-Shabab’s Jaysh Ayman unit is already exploiting to recruit local Muslims.

Despite government promises, local benefits of LAPSSET are already proving illusory. A presidential directive to LAPSSET to provide 1,000 scholarships worth $550,000 to train local youth on the technical aspects of port operations was ignored by the agency, which provided only ten scholarships worth $17,000 to non-locals (Business Daily [Nairobi], September 17).

The construction of Kenya’s pipeline to Lamu from the oilfields in Turkana County is also now in jeopardy after its budget was cut by 70 percent to help pay for a court-ordered repeat of the fraud-plagued presidential election on October 26, and the failure to pass the 2015 Petroleum Bill after President Kenyatta attempted to cut local communities’ revenue shares in half (Business Daily [Nairobi], October 8).

Al-Shabaab’s Kenyan Affiliate

Though directed by Somalia’s al-Shabaab movement, Jaysh Ayman (“Army of the Faithful”) presents itself as a local movement defending Swahili Muslims while fighting a corrupt Kenyan government and pursuing the creation of a caliphate on the Kenyan coast. As well as night attacks on settlements, Jaysh Ayman has struck power infrastructure and frequently ambushes cars, passenger buses and trucks on highways running through Lamu County (The Star [Nairobi], August 8; Standard [Nairobi], August 2; The Star [Nairobi], August 7). Security on the main roads has grown so bad that vehicles can only move safely in police-escorted convoys.

Mallik Alim Jones (il Giournale.it)

As well as hundreds of Kenyan Muslims, Jaysh Ayman includes foreign fighters. Maalik Alim Jones, a Maryland native and Jaysh Ayman volunteer, was arrested in December 2015 while trying to board a boat from Somalia to Yemen. A convicted child abuser who abandoned his family in the US to join al-Shabaab, Jones pleaded guilty to various terrorism-related charges on September 8 (Baltimore Sun, January 18, 2016; September 8).

Andreas Martin Muller (left) and Thomas Evans

Jones was a suspect in the Mpeketoni massacre and appeared in an al-Shabaab propaganda video before joining an unsuccessful June 14, 2015 attack on a KDF camp in Lamu County (Daily Nation [Nairobi], January 12, 2016). Also prominent in the video was a 25-year-old English al-Shabaab volunteer and convert to Islam, Thomas Evans (aka Abd al-Hakim, or “the White Beast”), who was killed in the attack. [3] Evans, who married a 13-year-old Somali girl and gained a reputation for beheading Christians, is seen in the video greeting a German fellow convert and al-Shabaab fighter, Andreas Martin Muller, (aka Abu Nusaybah, or Ahmad Khalid) (Express [London], June 25, 2015; Telegraph, October 11, 2015). Eleven other Jaysh Ayman members were killed in the firefight, including Luqman Osman Issa (aka Shirwa), who is believed to have directed the Mpeketoni massacre (Reuters [Nairobi], June 15, 2015).

Weak Security Response

A particularly effective al-Shabaab tactic involves ambushing rescuers after a poorly protected armored personnel carrier (APC) has struck a mine. As anger over poor equipment grows in the ranks, the government has promised to purchase and deploy mine-resistant ambush protected (MRAP) APCs.

The militants make extensive use of roadside improvised explosive devices (IEDs) to dissuade security forces from patrolling. The bombs take a steady toll on security personnel who remain helpless against an invisible enemy. The Chinese-made VN-4 “Rhinoceros” multi-role light APCs, in use by government forces, protect only against small arms fire. In addition, they are poorly ventilated, making them unsuitable for use in the hot and humid conditions of the coast. The only other export customer for the VN-4 is Venezuela, which has used them extensively against civilian protesters but not in combat situations.

Thirty of the VN-4 APCs were purchased in February 2016 after widespread criticism of the capabilities of Serbian, Chinese and South African-made APCs obtained through a corruption-plagued procurement system (The Standard [Nairobi], June 1, 2017; Defence Web, June 26, 2014). The VN-4s are deployed by the General Service Unit (GSU), a paramilitary unit within Kenya’s national police that dates back to the Mau Mau uprising. Many GSU members have received Israeli training, while some officers have been trained in the UK.

In partial fulfillment of the government’s promise, 35 CS/VP3 “Bigfoot” APCs were delivered to the government by China’s Poly Technologies in January 2017 (Daily Nation [Nairobi], June 11). Classed as MRAP and already in use in Nigeria and Uganda, the APCs were sent to the Rural Border Patrol Unit, established in 2008 after multiple disturbances along the Somali border. The border patrol unit is part of the Administration Police (AP), a paramilitary police force responsible for guarding public buildings and providing a rapid deployment unit for emergency use.

Kenyan officials and security experts have suggested al-Shabaab is being provided with local intelligence by elements within Kenya (Sunday Nation [Nairobi], June 4). This gives the militants an edge over police forces, which are often drawn from Christian inland communities and view the Muslim communities of the Coast with suspicion and distrust at best. The heavy hand of the KDF and other security forces in terms of torture, disappearances and the unsolved murders of dozens of Kenyan Muslim leaders in recent years continues to work against the development of an effective intelligence network in Lamu County. [4]

Sacrificing Boni Forest

An investigation by a Nairobi daily found a number of security agents asserting that intelligence reports from 2012 that described how al-Shabaab was establishing bases in the 517 square mile Boni National Reserve were ignored. The reports detailed how al-Shabaab was bringing in equipment including GPS trackers and night-vision goggles. According to one agent: “We alerted local police to be aware and watch over these dense forests. No one cared” (Daily Nation [Nairobi], July 20).

The Boni Forest canopy is dense, restricting aerial surveillance, and roads are few, limiting the mobility of security forces. Al-Shabaab’s strategic placement of mines and IEDs complicates the efforts of security forces to infiltrate the forest.

Coast Regional Coordinator Nelson Marwa (left) with Coast Regional Police Commandant Larry Kieng (Kevin Odit/Nation Media Group)

Marwa, the Coast regional coordinator, has insisted on the necessity of bombing “that forest completely,” adding in bombastic fashion that he “will enter the forest if others fear going there … I am ready to die while fighting al-Shabaab in the forefront as the commander” (The Star [Nairobi], June 29).

Bombing the Boni Forest, however, poses a risk to its native inhabitants, the Aweer (or Boni), a group of 3,000 indigenous hunter-gatherers whose traditional lifestyle has already been challenged by forced resettlement and a government ban on hunting. The Aweer are now forbidden to enter the forest during military operations, but have not been provided with food aid since last year (Standard [Nairobi], June 18). The forest is also home to several rare endangered species.

Joseph Kanyiri, the director of Operation Linda Boni, has struck back at environmentalist critics of the bombing: “I cannot comprehend why someone feels this way when a number of trees are destroyed in order to save a thousand lives … This is serious business and that’s why I am asking activists and conservationists to stick their necks elsewhere. We are here to protect lives and end terrorism and that will happen at any cost. The Aweer community remains intact and their lives go on. After all, the bombing is happening thousands of miles away from their habitats” (The Star [Nairobi], August 25).

In reality, the Boni Forest measures roughly 25 miles by 25 miles and the bombing has made it impossible for the Aweer to forage for food or to obtain food from traders who are now afraid to venture into the region.

Putting Pressure on the Government

Al-Shabaab and its Jaysh Ayman offshoot share a determination to expose the weaknesses of Kenya’s security forces, terrorize Christian migrants to the region and inhibit the tourism industry. It seeks to put pressure on the government by creating a general state of insecurity in a part of the country where, as a result of LAPSSET, the administration now has a substantial interest.

On the government side, there is a pattern of corruption constraining action by the security forces, while intelligence is being collected but not acted on. This appears to be a result of lassitude on the part of the security forces and a belief among government officials that the blame for poor performance can be quickly and easily shifted to others.

Even though al-Shabaab’s radical Salafism has little appeal in a region traditionally influenced by Sufist Sunni Islam, the movement is trying to exploit Muslim alienation from the central government and the bitter land issues that are at the core of much of the violence in Lamu County. It is unlikely that al-Shabaab actually believes there is an opportunity to create a caliphate on the Kenyan coast. Instead their real goal is to hold the LAPSSET development hostage and encourage local and regional pressure on Nairobi to abandon the KDF’s deployment in southern Somalia.

Notes

  1. M. Bradbury and M. Kleinman, “Winning Hearts and Minds? Examining the Relationship between Aid and Security in Kenya,” Feinstein International Center, 2010, http://fic.tufts.edu/assets/WinningHearts-in-Kenya.pdf
  2. Herman Butime, “Unpacking the Anatomy of the Mpeketoni Attacks in Kenya,” Small Wars Journal, September 23, 2014, http://smallwarsjournal.com/jrnl/art/unpacking-the-anatomy-of-the-mpeketoni-attacks-in-kenya
  3. Captured al-Shabaab video of the dawn firefight is available here.
  4. Michael Nyongesa, “Are Land Disputes Responsible for Terrorism in Kenya? Evidence from Mpeketoni Attacks,” Journal of African Democracy and Development 1(2), pp. 33-51

This article first appeared in the October 27, 2017 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor

 

Why the Janjaweed Legacy Prevents Khartoum from Disarming Darfur

Andrew McGregor

AIS Special Report, October 15, 2017

Ten thousand members of Sudan’s Rapid Support Forces (RSF – al-Quwat al-Da’m al-Sari) have been transferred from Kordofan to North Darfur to help implement a mandatory disarmament campaign in the region. Almost exclusively Arab in composition, the RSF will attempt to disarm not only non-Arab rebel forces still in the field, but also Arab elements of the government’s Border Guard Force (BGF) that are in near rebellion and nomadic tribesmen who rely on their weapons to protect their herds from thieves and predators.

Sudan Armed Forces Armor in Darfur (Nuba Reports)

Both the RSF and the BGF are products of Khartoum’s efforts to make the infamous and internationally reviled “Janjaweed” disappear. Absorbing these ill-disciplined Arab militias into better defined government formations helped support a government narrative that the Janjaweed were not government-backed marauders, but rather unaffiliated bandits that had been removed from Darfur through the efforts of the Sudan Armed Forces (SAF). In theory, transforming these militias into salaried employees of the state would bring them under tighter state control at a time when many Janjaweed and their commanders were beginning to have second thoughts about having sacrificed their reputation in return for empty promises from Khartoum. In practice, the RSF has transformed itself into a border control force reducing migration flows to Europe with ample funding from the European Union, while the BGF has evolved into a new formation, the Sudanese Revolutionary Awakening (“Sahwa”) Council (SRAC), which has slipped from government control with the help of enormous profits from its domination of artisanal gold mining in northwestern Darfur.

Both RSF and BGF are composed of members of the semi-nomadic Abbala (camel-raising) tribes of northern Darfur, the main source of Janjaweed manpower after the ongoing Darfur rebellion began in 2003. Some of the Abbala tribes, including the northern Rizayqat, had not been allotted specific lands for their use by the old Fur Sultanate (c. 1600-1916) or the Anglo-Egyptian Condominium administration (1916-1956).

Darfur (Human Rights Watch)

While customary arrangements between the semi-nomadic Arabs and sedentary non-Arab groups regarding land-use and migration routes continued into the independence period, these accommodations began to fall apart in the 1980s as drought and an encroaching desert placed new pressures on traditional systems. Possessing useful pastures became essential for the pastoralist Arabs, but after centuries of land allotments by Fur Sultans (the feudal hakura system) and their colonial successors, there was no unclaimed land to be had; dispossessing others was the only means of establishing a new dar, or tribal homeland.

The Baqqara (cattle-raising) Arabs of southern Darfur, whose dar-s were legally and traditionally defined, had little involvement with the depredations of the Janjaweed. Unfortunately for the Baqqara, this distinction is little understood outside of Sudan. It is also important to note that not all the Abbala tribes were involved with the Janjaweed; the Janjaweed was primarily drawn from sections of the northern Rizayqat (who were much affected by lack of land-title) and elements of Arab groups from Chad and Niger who had migrated to Darfur with the encouragement of the Khartoum regime, which suggested they carve out their own land-holdings from territory belonging to non-Arab tribes the regime viewed as supporters of the rebellion.

The progress of Khartoum’s disarmament campaign will have important consequences for the future of the Darfur rebellion, the regime’s continuing efforts to centralize power in Sudan and even the European Union’s campaign to reduce illegal migration into Europe.

Musa Hilal: From Janjaweed to Border Guard

With the possible exception of Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir, who is wanted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) for war crimes in Darfur, no individual is more closely associated with the deeds of the Janjaweed than Shaykh Musa Hilal Abdalla, a member of the Um Jalul clan of the Mahamid Arabs.

Sudan President Omar al-Bashir (center) with Musa Hilal (right of of al-Bashir)      (al-Jazeera)

Hilal is the nazir (chief) of the Mahamid, a branch of the northern Rizayqat tribal group (the northern Rizayqat includes the Mahamid, Mahariya, and Ireiqat groups. The southern Rizayqat are baqqara with little involvement in the Janjaweed). From his home village of Misteriya, Hilal became involved in the 1990s with the Arab Gathering (Tajamu al-Arabi), an Arab supremacist group following an ideology developed by Mu’ammar Qaddafi and the leaders of Libya’s Islamic Legion (Failaq al-Islamiya) in the 1980s. The Um Jalul began to clash with non-Arab Fur and Zaghawa tribesmen in the 1990s, leading to Hilal’s eventual arrest and imprisonment in Port Sudan in 2002 on charges of inciting ethnic violence.

Hilal’s prison term was brought to an abrupt end by the shocking April 2003 raid on Darfur’s al-Fashir military airbase by Fur and Zaghawa rebels retaliating against growing waves of government backed Arab violence against non-Arab communities. An unnerved government realized the SAF might not be capable of containing the mobile hit-and-run tactics of the rebels developed during fighting in Chad in the 1980s. After deciding to turn to local tribal militias to carry the counterinsurgency campaign, suddenly Shaykh Musa was just what the regime needed. Consequently, Hilal was released in June 2003 to organize a counterinsurgent force infused with pro-Arab ideology and armed, supplied and directed by SAF intelligence units. This was the “Janjaweed.” [1]

The strategy employed to hobble the militarily powerful insurgent forces was to cripple their support base and supply system through the destruction of defenseless Fur and Zaghawa villages. Tactics typically involved an initial bombardment by the Sudanese Air Force (usually crude “barrel-bombs” rolled out from Russian-built Antonov transport aircraft), followed by waves of horse and camel-borne Janjaweed and a final “mopping-up” force of Sudanese regulars and intelligence agents. Murder, torture, rape and looting were all part of a process intended to punish relatives of insurgents and even those with no connection to the rebels other than a shared ethnic or tribal background. Incitement of ethnic hatred, promises of immunity and a license to loot freely helped give free rein to the basest instincts of the Janjaweed; those reluctant to join in such activities were subject to imprisonment and the collective punishment of their families.

One of Hilal’s leading lieutenants during the 2003-2005 period of the worst Janjaweed abuses was Muhammad Hamdan Daglo “Hemetti,” from the Awlad Mansur clan of the Mahariya branch of the northern Rizayqat, though by this time the Awlad Mansur were resident in South Darfur, having moved there in the 1980s where they seized Fur lands in the southern Jabal Marra region.

Hilal’s notoriety brought largely meaningless sanctions from the UN Security Council in April 2006. Instead of ostracism, Hilal was brought to Khartoum, where he was integrated into the government as a special advisor to the Ministry of Federal Affairs and a member of parliament in the ruling National Congress Party (Hilal later repudiated his membership in the NCP).

By 2005 the government’s campaign in Darfur had begun to attract unwanted international attention, including ill-informed but nonetheless damaging accusations of “genocide” from various media sources and celebrity activists. However useful to the regime, the “Janjaweed” had to go. The solution was integration into the Border Guards, previously a small and little known camel-mounted unit. Arab tribesmen serving in the Janjaweed for loot were now given salaries and government ID cards which helped shield the new Border Guards from prosecution for war crimes while bringing them under tighter regime control. Musa Hilal was made a top commander in the expanded BGF.

The Return of Musa Hilal

Following a dispute with the government, Musa Hilal returned to northwest Darfur in January 2014, where, despite remaining commander of the BFG, he established the 8,000 strong Sudanese Revolutionary Awakening (Sahwa) Council (SRAC) as a vehicle for his personal and tribal political agenda. By March 2014 he had brought the northwestern Darfur districts of, Kutum, Kebkabiya, al-Waha and Saraf Omra under SRAC’s administrative control by the exclusion of government forces. Clashes between Hilal’s mostly Mahamid followers and government security forces began to occur with regularity.

Musa Hilal’s SRAC is also involved in a struggle with the RSF over control of Jabal Amer (northwest of Kabkabiya), where gold was discovered in 2012. The SAF withdrew from the area in 2013 under pressure from Hilal’s forces, which then defeated the rival Bani Hussein Arabs in a bloody struggle for control of the region. In 2016, the UN Panel of Experts on Sudan reported that Hilal was making approximately $54 million per year from SRAC’s control of the artisanal gold mining at Jabal Amer, though the report was not publicly released due to Russian objections. Gold is now the largest source of revenue in Sudan since South Sudan and its oil fields separated in 2011, though much of it is smuggled out of the country to markets in the Gulf States (Radio Tamazuj, April 27, 2016; Radio Dabanga, April 5, 2016).

In May 2017, SRAC spokesman Ahmad Muhammad Abakr called for “all Arab tribes in Darfur, Kordofan, and Blue Nile state to disobey the government’s military orders and refrain from participating in its war convoys.” Suggesting their cause had been “stolen by the government,” Abakr declared:

The ongoing wars are now fabricated for the purpose of a divide-and-rule policy of which the ruling elite in Khartoum is the ultimate beneficiary rather than the people of Sudan… If there is a need for war, we ask you to point weapons against those who employ you to fight on their behalf in order to take your political, economic and military rights instead of fighting a proxy war (Radio Dabanga, May 31, 2017).

The Rapid Support Forces

Prior to Hilal’s return to Darfur, Khartoum had detached the BGF’s Fut-8 Battalion (based in Nyala, South Darfur and commanded by Muhammad Hamdan Daglo) from the rest of the force and used it as the core of a new paramilitary, the Rapid Support Forces (RSF). The move was partly a response to internal tensions in the BGF between Fut-8 and the Hilal-commanded Fut-7 Battalion, which claimed Fut-8 was favored by Khartoum in terms of supplies of weaponry, vehicles and supplies. [2] At the same time, Daglo and his followers complained that Hilal was not distributing BGF resources fairly, especially the all-important Land Cruisers. [3]

RSF Troops, Darfur

The RSF came under the direct authority of the National Security and Intelligence Service (NISS – Jihaz al-Amn al-Watani wa’l-Mukhabarat) and continues to enjoy the patronage of Second Vice President Hassabo Muhammad Abd al-Rahman, a Rizayqat. [4]

The RSF was integrated into the SAF in 2016, but with an unusual semi-autonomous status under the direct command of President Bashir (a Nile Valley or “riverine” Ja’alin Arab). Saying that the establishment of the RSF was the best decision he had ever made as president, Bashir recently told a graduating group of 1450 RSF recruits in Khartoum that their aim must be to “show force and terrorize the enemies” (Sudan Tribune, May 14, 2017).

Despite government claims that Darfur was stabilized, the RSF took a leading role in May 2017 alongside the SAF in a bitter four day battle around Ayn Siro in the Kutum district of North Darfur last May against the Zaghawa-led Sudan Liberation Movement – Minni Minawi (SLM-MM) and the allied Sudan Liberation Movement/Army – Transitional Council (SLM/A-TC), led by Nimr Abd al-Rahman. [5]

Several leading prisoners, including veteran rebel Muhammad Abd al-Salim “Tarada,” military commander of the Sudan Liberation Movement – Abd al-Wahid (SLM-AW) until June 2014 and then a commander in the SLM/A-TC, were reported to have been killed by NISS agents following their capture. The defeated rebels fled westward along the Upper Wadi Howar into Chad, though they later issued a joint communiqué making an unlikely claim to have driven off the government forces. The heavy losses suffered by the SLM/A-MM marked a disappointing return to Darfur after the movement had spent nearly two years fighting as mercenaries in Libya (Sudan Tribune, May 29, 2017; May 23, 2017; Sudan Vision, May 22, 2017; Radio Dabanga, May 23, 2017; IRIN, August 2, 2017).

RSF Commander Muhammad Hamdan Daglo “Hemetti”

RSF commander Daglo claimed the Darfur rebels were aided at Ayn Siro and Wadi Howar by Chadian opposition fighters (who have also been fighting as mercenaries in Libya) [6] and insinuated that the Chadians were harbored and supported logistically by Musa Hilal, though he did not elaborate on the reasons for this new support by Hilal for Darfur’s non-Arab rebels (Sudan Tribune, June 4, 2017).

By January 8, 2017, the RSF announced the capture of over 1500 illegal migrants in the last seven months following the interception of 115 migrants several days earlier (Sudan Tribune, January 9, 2017). RSF activity along the Libyan border is intended to intercept traffickers in humans and narcotics and to demonstrate Sudan’s commitment to reducing flows of illegal migrants after the European Union made a grant to Sudan of €100 million to deal with the issue.

Most of the illegal migrants making their way through Sudan to Libya and on into Europe hail from Eritrea, Ethiopia and Yemen. The EU is funding the construction of two RSF camps equipped with modern surveillance equipment and electronics for intercepting and detaining illegal migrants. [7]

Rejecting Integration

Defence Minister Lieutenant General Ahmad Awad Bin Auf announced a reorganization of the SAF’s “supporting forces” on July 19, 2017. A central part of the reorganization was the planned integration of the BGF into the RSF. Within days, SRAC spokesman Haroun Medeikher announced the BGF would refuse to allow its integration, saying the decision was “ill-considered and unwise” and had been taken without consulting the BGF leadership (Radio Dabanga, July 23, 2017).

On news of the refusal, one of Hilal’s old opponents, Abd al-Wahid al-Nur (leader of the largely Fur SLM-AW), used radio to reach out to the Arab militia leader, stating that while Musa Hilal’s “awakening conscience may be belated,” it was “time for all the Sudanese people to stand united against the regime” (Radio Afia Darfur, via Sudan Tribune, August 20, 2017). Abd al-Wahid has always been the rebel commander most likely to seek terms with Darfur’s Arab community, recognizing the symbiotic relationship between pastoralists and farmers as well as the existence of a common enemy in the Khartoum regime.

Hilal has also stepped up his anti-government rhetoric, urging his tribesmen not to volunteer for the SAF’s campaign in Yemen, claiming Vice-President Abd al-Rahman and General Daglo have stolen millions of dollars given to Sudan by Saudi Arabia and the UAE in return for their participation in the intervention against the Zaydi Shiite Houthis in Yemen’s ongoing civil war (al-Jazeera, September 10, 2017).

Turmoil on the Libyan Border

On September 22, 2017 the RSF claimed to have killed 17 human traffickers a day earlier with a loss of two RSF men. The encounter took place in the Jabal ‘Uwaynat region where the Sudanese, Libyan and Egyptian borders meet. [8] An RSF field commander, Lieutenant Colonel Hassan Abdallah, described the intercepted group as “the largest armed gang operating in human trafficking and illegal immigration” on the Libyan-Sudanese border. The RSF also claimed to have detained 48 illegal migrants being shipped to Libya (Radio Dabanga, September 24, 2017).

A SRAC spokesman insisted those killed were SRAC members involved in trading but not trafficking, adding that the men had initially only been detained by the RSF, but were killed after three days of negotiations failed to reach an agreement on a ransom  (Radio Dabanga, September 25, 2017). One of those killed was a Hilal bodyguard, Sulayman Daoud. Leading SRAC member Ali Majok al-Momin counter-charged the RSF with “trading and smuggling vehicles over the borders with Chad and Libya” (Radio Dabanga, September 25, 2017).

The incident was not the first involving the RSF and SRAC on the Libyan border. Seven SRAC members, including leading member Omar Saga and Muhammad al-Rayes, another of Musa Hilal’s bodyguards, were arrested near the border by the RSF on their return from Libya on August 11, 2017.

Behind the RSF’s vigilance against Hilal supporters on the Libyan border is Khartoum’s fear that Hilal is establishing cross-border contacts with “Field Marshal” Khalifa Haftar, leader of the Libyan National Army (LNA – actually a strong coalition of militias under Haftar’s command that oppose the internationally recognized Libyan government in Tripoli). Hilal also has important ties to militarily powerful Chad, whose president, Idriss Déby Itno (a Zaghawa), is Hilal’s son-in-law. Further complicating matters for the government is the high probability that many Mahamid and other Arab members of the RSF could defect to the BGF in the event of a full-scale conflict between the two.

Musa Hilal reportedly sent 200 vehicles full of armed fighters to besiege the RSF camp until those RSF members involved in the September 22 killings were turned over to the BGF (Sudan Tribune, September 26, 2017). A battle between the BGF and the RSF was averted when the two sides agreed to third-party mediation. The process favored the BGF, with the RSF making concessions over control of the gold workings at Jabal Amer and handing over vehicles, military equipment and BGF members detained in the attack (Radio Dabanga, September 29, 2017).

SRAC claimed on October 7, 2017 that two columns of armed RSF Land Cruisers, one from Ayn Siro and one from Kabkabiya, had been sent to “punish Hilal” by defeating his forces and bringing him in to Khartoum “dead or alive” (Radio Dabanga, October 9, 2017; Sudan Tribune, October 8, 2017). The accusation was not new; Shaykh Musa has claimed for years that Khartoum is intent on his assassination.

Conclusion

According to SRAC spokesman Haroun Medeikhir, Musa Hilal met in August with BGF commanders and traditional leaders across Darfur to discuss what he termed Khartoum’s attempt to “dismantle the Arab tribes” (Sudan Tribune, August 14, 2017). Key to bringing the Arab tribes to heel would be disarmament. It was no surprise then that the tribes were alarmed when Vice-President Abd al-Rahman announced a new six-month campaign to disarm Darfur’s militias beginning on October 15.

The SAF and RSF are also taking over 11 military bases being abandoned by the United Nations/African Union Mission in Darfur (UNAMID). [9] The world’s second-largest peacekeeping force is in the first phase of a withdrawal prompted largely by international exhaustion with the complex Darfur issue and UNAMID’s annual budget of $1.35 billion. Khartoum, which never wanted the mission in the first place, began to push for an early UNAMID exit after the mission called for an investigation of the mass rape of 221 women and underage girls by SAF troops in the Fur village of Tabit in October 2014. [10] Khartoum maintains that Darfur has been stabilized and rebel fighters either expelled or neutralized.

Khartoum’s new effort to consolidate its power in Darfur raises renewed possibilities of an alliance of Arabs and non-Arabs against Khartoum, but the events of the last three decades have left a massive and deeply ingrained distrust between the two. Arab and non-Arab rebel groups in Darfur have toyed with the idea of an alliance against the center since 2007, when some Arab factions began to realize their international reputation had been irreversibly stained from manipulation by an insincere Khartoum regime that never had their interests in mind. [11] In addition, the services and development programs promised to the Arabs for their participation in the Janjaweed campaigns never materialized, leaving the Darfur Arabs no better off than they had been in 2003. Tension between the Darfur Arabs and the riverine Arab groups that control the government (the Ja’ailin, the Danagla and the Sha’iqiya) tend to bring out the strong prejudices that exist between the two Arab groups. The riverine Arabs regard the Darfur Abbala and Baqqara as backwards and “Africanized.” The Darfur Arabs, however, claim descent from the great Juhayna tribe of Arabia; some extremists seeking to shed the control of the riverine Arabs have described the latter as “half-caste Nubians.” [12]

Even Musa Hilal has at times demonstrated a broader understanding of Darfur’s ethnic make-up and the methods used by Khartoum to create and exploit racial and ethnic divisions. In 2008, Hilal told a gathering of Baqqara and Abbala tribal leaders that all Darfuris were “Africans” of mixed Arab and African origin who needed to work on restoring their traditionally cooperative social fabric. [13] In a private meeting with U.S. diplomats that followed, Hilal said “We found out that we have more in common with the Africans of Darfur than with these Nile Valley Arabs,” and even made a surprising recantation of the Arab supremacist philosophy he had followed for decades, suggesting that, based on their better education and moderation, “the Fur should lead” in Darfur, a return to the leadership structure of the old Fur Sultanate. [14]

Complete faith in Daglo’s loyalty does not exist in Khartoum, where conciliation is common when it is in the regime’s interests but indiscretions are never completely forgotten. In this case the issue is Daglo’s mutiny against the government in 2007 over RSF salaries, land and a dispute with Musa Hilal. Unable to assert its authority in Darfur and unwilling to see large numbers of armed Arabs join the rebels, the regime was forced to make major concessions to keep Daglo’s forces onside. When the salaries still went unpaid, Daglo threatened to storm Nyala, the capital of South Darfur. Money and arms eventually brought an end to the mutiny, but not the suspicion. [15]

While some Arabs and non-Arabs may discover they have a common enemy in Khartoum, they are still far from having common goals. In recent years, Khartoum has shown little interest in mediating disputes between Arab groups in Darfur that leave these groups weak, preoccupied and unable to unite against the center, especially at a time when budget cuts related to the loss of oil-rich South Sudan make it difficult for the regime to buy cooperation. The consequent environment of perpetual tension and suspicion does not bode well for the success of a campaign to seize the weapons of Darfur’s armed factions by force. In making the attempt the regime will encounter the consequences of its long-standing cynicism and duplicity on the Darfur file and a divide-and-rule policy that has left it with fewer friends in the region than when the rebellion and counter-insurgency began in 2003.

NOTES

  1. The term “Janjaweed,” which predates the counter-insurgency, was used colloquially in reference to armed bandits. The term was not used by the Arab militias themselves or the government.
  2. “Border Intelligence Brigade (Al Istikhbarat al Hudud) (AKA Border Guards)” Sudan Human Security Baseline Assessment (HSBA), Small Arms Survey, Geneva, November 2010, http://www.smallarmssurveysudan.org/fileadmin/docs/facts-figures/sudan/darfur/armed-groups/saf-and-allied-forces/HSBA-Armed-Groups-Border-Guards.pdf
  3. Julie Flint, “Beyond ‘Janjaweed’: Understanding the Militias of Darfur,” Small Arms Survey, Geneva, 2009, fn.78, http://www.smallarmssurveysudan.org/fileadmin/docs/working-papers/HSBA-WP-17-Beyond-Janjaweed.pdf
  4. For the RSF, see, “Khartoum Struggles to Control its Controversial ‘Rapid Support Forces’,” Jamestown Foundation Terrorism Monitor, May 30, 2014, https://www.aberfoylesecurity.com/?p=852
  5. The SLM-MM is named for its Zaghawa commander, Minni Minawi (a.k.a. Sulayman Arcua Minawi). Like Hilal, Minawi joined the government in Khartoum from 2006 to 2010 as Senior Assistant to the President of the Sudan before returning to the rebellion in Darfur. Nimr Abd al-Rahman was captured by government forces in the battle and replaced as SLM-TC head by al-Hadi Idriss Yahya.
  6. See Jérôme Tubiana and Claudio Gramizzi, “Tubu Trouble: State and Statelessness in the Chad-Sudan-Libya Triangle,” Small Arms Survey, Geneva, 2017, http://www.smallarmssurveysudan.org/fileadmin/docs/working-papers/SAS-CAR-WP43-Chad-Sudan-Libya.pdf; “Rebel or Mercenary? A Profile of Chad’s General Mahamat Mahdi Ali,” Militant Leadership Monitor, September 7, 2017, https://www.aberfoylesecurity.com/?p=4010 .
  7. See Suliman Baldo, “Border Control from Hell: How the EU’s migration partnership legitimizes Sudan’s ‘militia state’,” Enough Project, April 2017, https://enoughproject.org/files/BorderControl_April2017_Enough_Finals.pdf
  8. For Jabal ‘Uwaynat and RSF activity in the area, see: “Jabal ‘Uwaynat: Mysterious Desert Mountain Becomes a Three-Border Security Flashpoint,” AIS Special Report, June 13, 2017, https://www.aberfoylesecurity.com/?p=3930
  9. The UNAMID bases are located at Eid al-Fursan, Tullus, Muhajiriya, al-Malha, Mellit, Um Kedada, Abu Shouk, Zamzam, al-Tine, Habila and Foro Baranga.
  10. “Mass Rape in North Darfur: Sudanese Army Attacks against Civilians in Tabit,” Human Rights Watch, February 11, 2015, https://www.hrw.org/report/2015/02/11/mass-rape-north-darfur/sudanese-army-attacks-against-civilians-tabit
  11. See Andrew McGregor: “Darfur’s Arabs Taking Arms against Khartoum,” Canadian Institute of Strategic Studies Commentary (November 2007), https://www.aberfoylesecurity.com/?p=559
  12. Julie Flint and Alex de Waal: Darfur: A New History of a Long War, Zed Books, London, 2008.
  13. “Iftar with the ‘Janjaweed’,” U.S. Department of State Cable 08KHARTOUM1450_a, September 25, 2008, https://wikileaks.org/plusd/cables/08KHARTOUM1450_a.html
  14. Ibid.
  15. “Border Intelligence Brigade (Al Istikhbarat al Hudud) (AKA Border Guards)” Sudan Human Security Baseline Assessment (HSBA), Small Arms Survey, Geneva, November 2010, http://www.smallarmssurveysudan.org/fileadmin/docs/facts-figures/sudan/darfur/armed-groups/saf-and-allied-forces/HSBA-Armed-Groups-Border-Guards.pdf; Julie Flint, op cit, 2009, pp.34-36, http://www.smallarmssurveysudan.org/fileadmin/docs/working-papers/HSBA-WP-17-Beyond-Janjaweed.pdf

“Biafra or Death”: Mazi Nnamdi Kanu and the Struggle for Biafran Independence

Andrew McGregor

October 10, 2017

Mazi Nnamdi Kanu, the founder and leader of a Biafran separatist movement known as the Indigenous Peoples of Biafra (IPOB), has been missing since a raid by Nigerian security forces on his Abia State compound on September 14. Rumors abound regarding Kanu’s fate or location: some say he sustained gunshot wounds in the raid and is in serious condition but unable to seek medical help for fear of arrest; others say he was killed and his body taken away or that he was arrested after the raid and hustled off in an unmarked vehicle, or even that he escaped to the United Kingdom (UK) via Malaysia (This Day [Lagos], September 24; Vanguard [Lagos], October 2).

Mazi Nnamdi Kanu

Nigeria’s government, fearing the growth of a southern version of the northern Boko Haram insurgency, declared IPOB a “terrorist organization” the day after the raid. Given that over one million Nigerians died during the unsuccessful 1967-1970 war for Biafran independence, Kanu’s efforts to inflame separatist sentiments in Biafra and their consequences for Nigeria’s stability and oil revenues are being taken seriously.

IPOB, claiming two million members mostly from the Igbo ethnic group, says it is in a struggle with Hausa-Fulani security forces from the Muslim north. Kanu has been accused of creating a secret armed group to combat them. Kanu, a dual British-Nigerian citizen, was out on bail on treason charges that followed his 2015 arrest at the time of his disappearance. The separatist leader promised before the raid: “If I’m re-arrested, this country will burn, I assure you” (Sun News [Lagos], September 2). Kanu’s promise to cut off vital oil revenues from the south has hardly endeared him to the rest of the country and he is opposed even by some fellow Biafran separatists.

(History Today)

The government’s decision to declare IPOB a terrorist group and the army’s ongoing Operation Python Dance II has pre-empted any mass insurrection, but tension in Nigeria’s South-East region is growing.

Early Life

Kanu was born in Nigeria’s Abia State in 1967, the first year of independence for the short-lived Republic of Biafra. A Christian of the Igbo ethnic group (one of Nigeria’s largest, with 33 million people), Nnamdi Kanu is the son of HRM Eze (an Igbo royal title) Israel Okwu Kanu, a traditional ruler based in Isiama Afara, a town in Umuahia, Abia State (Nigerianbiography.com, December 19, 2015). As the son of an Igbo traditional ruler, Nnamdi Kanu is sometimes referred to by his followers as “prince.”

Kanu attended the University of Nigeria, Nnsuka in Enugu State, where strikes interrupted his progress, before further studies at London’s Guildhall University (NigerianMonitor.com, n.d.).

According to his father, Kanu was originally a member of a major Biafran independence group, the Movement for the Actualization of the Sovereign State of Biafra (MASSOB), but a rift began with MASSOB leader Chief Ralph Uwazuruike over the distribution of party funds. A permanent split occurred after Uwazuruike arrived at Kanu’s wedding with ten buses of angry supporters. The wedding was disrupted and Kanu badly beaten (Punch [Lagos], February 14, 2016). At that point, Kanu decided to lead his own independence movement.

Radio Biafra

 Radio Biafra first operated as the “Broadcasting Corporation of Biafra” during the Nigerian Civil War. The station was revived by Kanu as a London-based shortwave and internet broadcaster in 2009. [1]

According to Kanu, “Radio Biafra programs were designed to wake up the public from their slumber and address the issues of the time, which [were] youth unemployment, lack of infrastructural provisions, poor electricity, an absence of rural development, and conspicuous absence of respect for human rights” (Facebook, December 31, 2015).

In practice, Kanu and his radio associates became known for inflammatory and insulting commentary. Beginning in 2013, Kanu used his broadcasts to claim that Igbo politicians were controlled by northern Muslim Hausa-Fulani “godfathers” who were working toward the Islamization of Nigeria’s southeastern states (Sahara Reporters, March 25, 2014). In a statement written after his 2015 arrest, Kanu apologized for referring to President Buhari on Radio Biafra as “evil, a terrorist and a pedophile,” and for uncomplimentary comments about President Goodluck Jonathan and Igbo elders: “All I was trying to do is draw attention to the problems afflicting society and what society is doing about it” (Facebook, December 31, 2015).

In one of his most disturbing statements, Kanu promised chaotic bloodshed if he failed to get his way:

If they fail to give us Biafra, Somalia will look like a paradise compared to what will happen to that zoo. It is a promise, it is a pledge and it is also a threat to them. If they do not give us Biafra, there will be nothing living in that very zoo they call Nigeria; nothing will survive there, I can assure you…  I do not believe in peaceful actualization or whatever rubbish it is called. I have never seen where you become free by peaceful means (Sahara Reporters, March 25, 2014).

Arrest and Trial

 Kanu was arrested at a Lagos hotel by the Department of State Services (DSS – Nigeria’s secret police) on October 14, 2015 during a visit home. He was charged by the DSS with “criminal conspiracy, intimidation and membership of an illegal organization.” The arrest generated protests outside the Abuja courtroom and across much of southwestern Nigeria. Despite being granted bail on October 19, 2015, Kanu remained in detention over the protests of his lawyers.

Nigerian authorities were no doubt alarmed by an address given by Kanu at the World Igbo Congress in Los Angeles on September 5, 2015 in which Kanu said the independence movement needed “guns and bullets.” Kanu tried to walk back his comments in a June 2017 interview, insisting the Igbo only needed weapons for self-defense against marauding Fulani herdsmen, but the damage was done (Daily Post [Lagos], June 27).

Inspired by Donald Trump’s support for Brexit, Kanu wrote the president-elect from prison in November 2016 to remind him that his electoral victory placed upon him a “historic and moral burden to liberate enslaved nations in Africa… It is imperative to draw historical parallels between your victory and that of the great Dwight Eisenhower, a fellow Republican, who was instrumental in the dismantling of European colonialism in Africa” (Herald [Lagos], November 11, 2016).

Nnamdi Kanu with supporters (Naij.com)

During new bail hearings in early 2017, Kanu often appeared in court wearing a Jewish yarmulke and tallit [prayer shawl], signs of his newly professed adherence to Judaism and the belief that the Igbo are a lost tribe of Israelites. [2] Some followers protesting for his release outside the court appeared in similar garb.

The court granted Kanu bail on April 25 on condition that he refrain from public speaking, giving interviews or joining a gathering of ten or more people. He was due back in court on October 17, 2017. One of the three individuals who stood as sureties for Kanu’s bail was Nigerian Chief Rabbi Immanuel Shalum Okabemadu.

After his release, Kanu attempted to clarify his position on Biafran independence:

An independent Biafra means going back to where we were before the White man came. I am talking about total independence from Nigeria. Nothing can ever happen to make me change my mind about this [direction] of independence for Biafra. It is either Biafra or death. I will not go to war because truth is a far more potent and deadlier weapon than bullet and mortars. I have absolutely ruled out war from the struggle. When I say Biafra or death, I mean I will keep pushing; either I am alive or dead in the process, I won’t stop (Daily Post [Lagos], July 6).

Nnamdi Kanu and the Hebrew Igbo

Donald Trump’s election to the U.S. presidency was greeted with street celebrations by IPOB members who believed he would reverse President Obama’s support for the Buhari administration. Many of the pro-Biafran celebrants wore yarmulkes and tallitot. Some of the self-declared Jewish Biafran separatists believe the president’s strong support for Israel will translate into support for an independent pro-Israel Biafran state (Forward.com, February 6).

Pro-Trump Rally, Port Harcourt (The Forward)

The similarity of some Igbo customs to Jewish customs was first noted in the 1789 autobiography of a freed slave, Olaudah Equiano. [3] These similarities were expanded upon by Christian missionaries, but the identification by an Igbo minority with Judaism and Israel is of much more recent vintage. Nonetheless, Israel’s Supreme Court ruled in 1994 that “there are no historical, halachic or national grounds to view the members of the Igbo tribe as Jews,” and all Igbo attempts to migrate to Israel under the Law of Return have resulted in deportation (Forward.com, January 24, 2016). Efforts to establish a link by DNA testing have proven controversial rather than conclusive (Times of Israel, August 11). Though the “Jewish Igbo” remain a highly vocal and visible minority, out of some 33 million Nigerian Igbo, only 3,000 to 30,000 practice a form of Judaism.

Benjamin Onwuka

A rival Biafran independence movement is known as the “Biafran Zionists’ Federation” (BZF, a break-away group from MASSOB).  Pro-U.S. and pro-Israel, the BZF is led by barrister Benjamin Onwuka, who declared the independence of Biafra with himself as “interim president” on July 31 (Pulse.ng, August 1). Onwuka announced Israelis would have important cabinet appointments in his new administration and (falsely) that the new nation had “been recognized by the U.S.” (Daily Post [Lagos], July 31; This Day [Lagos], September 13).

The Biafran National Guard

An armed group closely associated with Kanu is the Biafran National Guard (BNG), a group of militants led by “General” Innocent Orji, who claims to have received his appointment from the late Chukwuemeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu, president of Biafra during its brief independence (1967-1970). (Daily Post [Lagos], September 5).

The BNG says it works in cooperation with IPOB but ultimately takes orders from “Supreme Allied Commander Prince Nnamdi Kanu.” The group claims to have large numbers of Biafran-origin veterans of the U.S. military services and is seeking to recruit more. [4] In a statement released on September 18, the BNG declared that they were not a new group (as claimed by the Nigerian Army) but were an independent organization that did not subscribe to the “peaceful strategy of IPOB,” adding the Nigerian military “can go to hell” (Daily Post [Lagos], September 18). One of their odder beliefs is that President Buhari is dead and has been replaced by an imposter who is the product of plastic surgery and determined to “crush” Biafrans (Daily Post [Lagos], September 5).

A November 2016 Amnesty International report appeared to confirm IPOB and BNG claims of incidents of extreme violence against Biafran secessionists by the Nigerian Army, police and DSS, including widespread torture and the deaths of at least 150 pro-Biafra protesters between August 2015 and August 2016. [5] The army, in turn, cited IPOB attacks against non-Igbo ethnic groups and security services and claimed that IPOB’s “unjustifiable violence… threatens national security” and has produced “unimaginable atrocities to unhinge the reign of peace, security and stability in several parts of South East Nigeria” (Premium Times [Abuja], November 24, 2016).

The Raid on Nnamdi Kanu’s Compound

Abia State’s police commissioner declared that the Ariara police station was attacked repeatedly between September 10 and 14 by IPOB members using petrol bombs. The station was destroyed, with one policeman killed and three pump action shotguns stolen. The commissioner also outlined disturbances in Umuahia, where IPOB members allegedly attacked soldiers as well as the residences of military and police officers. Sixty members of IPOB were arrested and charged with offenses including terrorism and attempted murder (Guardian [Lagos], September 17; The Nation [Lagos], September 25; Premium Times [Abuja], September 25).

With tensions rising in Umuahia, a serious clash occurred on September 10 between security forces and followers of Kanu staying at his family compound. Kanu claimed troops had attacked the compound and injured occupants in an attempt to kill him; his lawyer added that “about five of his family members were brutally wounded and some unfortunately killed” (Premium Times [Abuja], September 10).

The police and the Army’s 14th Brigade gave varying descriptions of the incident, but both agreed there was no attack on Kanu’s compound, but rather that suspected IPOB militants had attacked soldiers on patrol and an armored personnel carrier (APC) on a test run with stones, broken bottles and machetes (Sahara Reporters, September 10; Leaders.ng, September 18). The military released a video supporting their version of events, including troops firing in the air but not at the demonstrators.

Four days later security forces were back with the clear purpose of seizing the compound and those within. Gunfire within the compound was reported for over an hour. IPOB claims that the Nigerian army removed 22 bodies and 38 arrested members from Kanu’s compound, none of whom have been heard from since (Daily Post [Lagos], September 18; This Day [Lagos], September 24). Among the missing were Kanu and his parents.

IPOB Declared a Terrorist Group

IPOB’s classification as a terrorist organization began a day later on September 15, when Nigerian Defense Headquarters confirmed that IPOB was “a militant terrorist organization.” Though the military backed off slightly a few days later, calling their announcement a “pronouncement” rather than a “declaration,” IPOB’s new status quickly received government backing (Africa News, September 19). An application by the attorney-general and justice minister to declare IPOB a terrorist organization was given judicial approval by the Federal High Court in Abuja on September 20 (Punch [Lagos], September 22; Sahara Reporters, September 24).

The U.S. Embassy in Abuja declared that IPOB “is not a terrorist organization under U.S. law” (Sahara Reporters, September 24). However, a special adviser to President Buhari insisted that recognition of IPOB as a terrorist group by foreign nations was “inconsequential”: “This is a group that was burning police stations; killing police officers, throwing bombs at military convoys, threatening to make the country ungovernable…” (Daily Post [Lagos], September 25).

Biafran Independence Protest

The “IPOB Intelligence Unit” claimed to have discovered a plot by “Hausa-Fulani Islamic extremists” in the security services to kill condemned prisoners in Nigerian military uniforms and then blame the killings on IPOB militants, justifying the planned extermination of thousands of Biafran “terrorist” youths (Daily Post [Lagos], September 22). No evidence was provided of this planned attempt to exploit the terrorist designation, which is somewhat typical of IPOB’s hyperbolic rhetoric that portrays the Biafran independence struggle as a war between the Igbo and the “British-supported Muslim Hausa-Fulani oligarchy” (Daily Post [Lagos], March 23). However, Nigeria has tried, unsuccessfully, to use the terrorist designation to compel the UK government to shut down Radio Biafra (The Nation [Lagos], September 22).

Conclusion

The Biafran secession movement is badly organized, and its failure to develop an encompassing strategic plan has left it open to charges that it is little more than an excuse for mindless street violence. These weaknesses are now being exploited by the state. IPOB’s threats of military activity to defend itself cannot be taken seriously, though at its present level of organization it is capable of terrorist activities, sabotage, vandalism and low-level militancy. Unfortunately, in Nigeria’s current highly agitated political atmosphere, this might be enough to ignite new waves of ethnic violence similar to those that sparked the first war for Biafran independence. Nigeria’s military is not taking chances — Operation Python Dance II may be viewed as a pre-emptive occupation intended to squelch the development of an armed insurgency, though there is a danger that it might also be seen as more of an act of intimidation than a measured response to a poorly-armed and rag-tag group of militants that one Nigerian commentator described as “looking in need of a good home meal” (Sahara Reporters, September 16).

There are many non-Igbo minorities within the borders of “Biafra” that have not been consulted by the Igbo secessionists, and Kanu’s approach is opposed even by other secessionists, including his rivals in MASSOB. The example of South Sudan’s 2011 secession from Sudan does not hold out hope for the success of an independent Biafra. President Buhari has been unequivocal in his opposition to Biafran independence: “We will not let that happen. For Nigeria to divide now, it is better for all of us to jump into the sea and get drowned” (Sun News [Lagos], May 10, 2016).

Though Nnamdi Kanu has been able to use his “royal” lineage to establish local credibility, his record does not suggest he can be taken seriously as the type of thoughtful, patient and responsible leader needed to bring any new nation into being. His haste, posturing and provocative behavior may have cost him his life; at best they have dealt a serious blow to the long-term success of the Biafran independence movement.

NOTES

[1] http://www.liveonlineradio.net/english/radio-biafra.htm

[2] Nigerian lawyer Remy C. Ilona is one of the most vocal proponents of the Igbo-Jewish identification and his 2014 work The Igbos and Israel: An Inter-cultural Study of the Oldest and Largest Jewish Diaspora is often cited in this context (Street to Street Epic Publications, 2014). More balanced accounts of the issue can be found in: Daniel Lis: Jewish Identity Among the Igbo of Nigeria: Israel’s “Lost Tribe” and the Question of Belonging in the Jewish State, Africa World Press, Trenton, 2014 and Johannes Harnischfeger, “Igbo Nationalism and Jewish Identities,” in: Edith Bruder and Tudor Parfitt (eds.), African Zion: Studies in Black Judaism, Cambridge, 2012, pp. 65-86.

[3] Published as The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano.

[4] See https://biafran.org/2015/07/25/mission-of-biafran-national-guard-bng/[

5] “’Bullets Were Raining Everywhere’: Deadly Repression of Pro-Biafra Activists,” Amnesty International, November 22, 2016, https://www.amnestyusa.org/reports/bullets-were-raining-everywhere-deadly-repression-of-pro-biafra-activists/

This article first appeared in the October 10, 2017 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Militant Leadership Monitor.