Kodiliniye Obiagwu’s prevailing memory of the Biafran civil war – the bloodiest chapter in Nigeria’s history – is listening to the radio.
Obiagwu, the South-eastern bureau chief of The Guardian Nigeria, said: “I remember that we listened to Radio Biafra often. I was only 10 but for my parents and other relatives, you could see what it meant to them. It gave you hope and lifted you. That’s not the feeling I get listening to it now.”
Nearly 50 years after a coup that sparked the quest for a breakaway Biafran state in the south-east of the country, an unprecedented wave of protest has erupted across the region once again, spurred on by the return of Radio Biafra and its increasingly incendiary broadcasts.
In October, clashes in Delta, Imo and the surrounding states intensified after the arrest of Nnamdi Kanu, the director of the illegal station, who is thought to have assumed control of broadcasting in the 1990s.
Kanu, a dual British and Nigerian citizen, had been running the station from his home in Peckham in south London. On 14 October, he was arrested during a visit to Nigeria for encouraging members of the Igbo community to use violence in their protests.
Concerns about Kanu’s treatment in detention have since been raised by his Peckham MP, Harriet Harman, while many others continue to march for his release.
Vincent Obetta, Kanu’s lawyer, has expressed concern about political interference in the case. Though the original charges were dropped in December, Kanu remains incarcerated and the state has since accused him of fresh terror charges.
In a televised interview on 2 January the president, Muhammadu Buhari, confirmed Kanu would not be released.
Lammy Ughebe, a journalist who attended Kanu’s court hearings in Abuja, said protesters had marched outside the court at each sitting. “If anything, the arrest has made the situation worse,” he said.
“The government see him as a vocal figure in the [Biafran independence] movement,” Ughebe said, “so there’s a feeling that he is being made an example of.”
The quest for an independent Biafra began in 1966, when Major Emmanuel Ifeajuna, of the Igbo ethnicity, led a coup d’état against the state government, which was dominated by northern Hausa leaders.
But the failed attempt to claim independence was used as a pretext by a northern military generals to seize power. Soon after, the region descended into civil war, Nigerian state forces imposing a devastating blockade on the self-declared Biafra state.
Millions of Nigerians starved to death during the three-year conflict – a memory that haunts the country to this day.
Radio Biafra was founded at the onset of this conflict, transmitting from equipment strapped to the top of a moving Jeep to avoid detection from state authorities.
The broadcasters would say ‘Biafrans, you cannot afford to sleep’. It was a romantic in a way
Obiagwu says that for his father, a Nigerian army soldier who defected to the Igbo rebel military in 1967, the broadcasts were an important source of inspiration.
“For [many] people the broadcasts on Radio Biafra were so important because they gave you a boost and kept you going,” Obiagwu said. “There were speeches by Ojukwu [ leader of the Biafran army]. The broadcasts always ended with encouragement to keep watch. They would say ‘Biafrans you cannot afford to sleep’. It was a romantic in a way,” he said.
The propagandist style gave it widespread appeal, said Ikeddy Isiguzo, a magazine editor living in Abia state. “It got people to get behind the war. Even if you were in primary school like I was, you felt you could participate..”
Isolated by the blockade, Radio Biafra was a trusted source of news for many Igbos who were sceptical of state and foreign broadcasts.
When the war ended, support for Radio Biafra waned and the station eventually stopped broadcasting. “It just fizzled out somehow. The civil war ended, there was hurt, there was ill feeling but essentially it was over,” said Ezekiel Izeze, a newspaper vendor in Enugu state.
Speaking on the condition of anonymity, a Nigerian politician whose uncle was involved in broadcasts during the war, said the station just lost relevance. “It was something we needed while the actualisation of Biafra seemed attainable. When that idea no longer was, those stations like Radio Biafra just became a painful reminder.”
At that time I remember that my father would not dare to trust other broadcasters
The failure of Nigeria’s successive governments to engage with this emotionally charged chapter of the country’s history laid the ground for the issue of Biafra’s independence to resurface.
The war and those who died in it are still not officially commemorated, giving room for conspiratorial voices, like Kanu’s, to thrive on the underlying suspicions that remain between the Igbo and Hausa populations.
In July, the station ran an audio clip of Buhari allegedly making anti-Igbo comments in an interview with the BBC Hausa service. No such interview exists, and the president’s office condemned the broadcast as propaganda.
A number of editorials in popular national newspapers have since denounced the station’s rhetoric, drawing comparisons with the RTLMC station, which promoted ethnic violence during the 1994 Rwandan genocide.
In August, Nnamdi’s broadcasts encouraged Igbos to destroy ethnically Yoruba churches, describing them as enemies and “agents of the state”. He urged listeners to take up arms and fight for independence.
In response, Nigeria’s ministry of information vowed to shut down the station in July. After claiming to have successfully jammed the signals, the broadcasts were accessible again within hours. Now also available online and via an app, Radio Biafra’s reach has grown among pro-independence Igbo groups, who have become increasingly vocal and fervent spurred on by Kanu’s rhetoric.
“Igbos on the whole are not really agitating for [an independent] Biafra, but do they still feel grievances? Yes they do,” Obiagwu said.
“There are small groups like The Indigenous People of Biafra (Ipob) and Movement for the Actualisation of the Sovereign State of Biafra (MASSOB) that have become more and more extreme.
“Many of them were not even alive during the war but they’ve heard the stories from their parents and in a way that makes them more aggravated because their parents are largely not acting on that bitterness,” he added.
“We need a dialogue where we can confront many of the difficulties that stem from the war. Anyone who listens to Nnamdi will know he doesn’t represent the majority, but voices like his are there also because of this lack of dialogue.” (The Guardian)