On 5 April, unidentified gunmen attacked the police headquarters and freed some 2,000 inmates from a nearby prison in Owerri, the capital of the south-eastern Imo State. While the government labelled the attack an act of terrorism and ascribed it to the Eastern Security Network (ESN), the paramilitary wing of the secessionist Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) movement, the group has denied any involvement. Nevertheless, attacks on remote police stations attributed to the ESN have been on the rise in recent months. A heavy-handed security response has to be expected now, which will likely increase local support for IPOB and may radicalize the movement further. While there does not seem to be an imminent risk to oil-producing areas in adjacent states, this may change in future as local groups sympathizing with the Biafra cause may radicalize and challenge the current equilibrium in the Niger Delta.
Arguably more important than the headline-making prison break was the accompanying assault on the Imo State police headquarters, during which large amounts of weapons and ammunition were reportedly carried away. If indeed perpetrated by the ESN, this brazen attack would add to a string of more low-key assaults on remote police stations that arguably followed the textbook strategy of how to arm a nascent paramilitary organization. While IPOB had been operating peacefully since its inception in 2012, its founder, Nnamdi Kanu, announced the creation of an armed wing in December 2020.
Calls for an independent Biafra long pre-date President Muhammadu Buhari’s presidency and had in fact never really died down in the southeast since the end of Nigeria’s civil war (1967-70), which was fought precisely over this issue. However, such sentiment intensified only after Buhari’s election in 2015 and the government’s strategy of trying to silence pro-independence groups in the southeast created the opposite effect. In levying charges of treason on Kanu in 2015, who was then still a UK-based political activist and prominent Biafran advocate, the administration made a celebrity of him. Kanu and IPOB have since capitalized on this and attracted a growing support base, particularly among the Igbo youth in Nigeria’s south-east. This was further reinforced as security forces harassed the local population in the context of security operations against the group, which is likely to become a problem again in the aftermath of yesterday’s events.
Although IPOB’s vision of an independent Biafra would include large chunks of the oil-producing Niger Delta (cf. map below), local militant groups have so far been careful not to align themselves with IPOB’s agenda. They arguably know full well that crossing this line would jeopardize their business model, i.e. extracting cash payments and lucrative security contracts from the government in exchange for holding the peace. Nevertheless, the fragile status quo in the Niger Delta may come under pressure should the ESN prove willing and capable to expand further south, thereby tapping into the growing reservoir of young Igbos that live across the region and are sympathetic to IPOB’s cause.