Radio Biafra: Why dangerous speech can be a catalyst for violence


By Chitra Nagarajan

Over the weekend, media sources reported the arrest of Nnamdi Kanu, the Director of Radio Biafra and leader of the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB), as he flew into Nigeria from his home in the UK. In recent months, the popularity of the radio station, which calls for an independent Biafran state, has grown. Although the government may think they have shown the decisive action needed, experience from the North East should serve as a warning. The government must ensure that due process and the rule of law is followed, and also begin the process of addressing the grievances underlying current dynamics in the South East. President Buhari should learn from what has happened in other countries – and in Nigeria – to mitigate conflict and prevent violence.

Nnamdi Kanu
Nnamdi Kanu

After all, Radio Biafra is inextricably linked with what people are saying and doing in the region. Self-determination has become the catch phrase of the moment. People are changing their Facebook profile photos to the Biafran flag and asking each other if they are Nigerian or Biafran. On 30th August 2015, the IPOB staged a demonstration through the streets of Onitsha in Anambra state to urge others to join their movement. The police opened fire, apparently to disperse the crowds.

It is not coincidence that this has been taking place since Muhammadu Buhari was announced the winner of the March presidential elections. Accusations of his activities as a soldier during the Biafran Civil War (denied by Buhari himself), the reaction towards power as represented by the office of the presidency transferring from ‘their brother’ to a Northern Fulani man and fears of a plan to ‘Islamise’ Nigeria are feeding this dynamic. Buhari’s failure to appoint people from the South East at the beginning of his tenure has not helped. Rather, it has furthered perceptions that he is intentionally marginalising Igbos from power, due to his own prejudices and in retaliation to the region’s votes for Goodluck Jonathan, the incumbent President.

All people have the right to self-determination, to decide their own destiny. Recognition of this right was important in colonial struggles in the last century. It was reiterated in the United Nations Charter and in many subsequent regional and international treaties. The African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, incorporated as Nigerian law by the National Assembly, states in its Article 20(1) that ‘all peoples shall have the right to existence. They shall have the unquestionable and inalienable right to self-determination. They shall freely determine their political status and shall pursue their economic and social development according to the policy they have freely chosen.’ Self-determination does not automatically mean independence. According to current international law, ethnic and other minorities only count as separate ‘peoples,’ if they are systematically disenfranchised by the government of the state in which they live. This means they are not able to participate in government either because they are not allowed to do so or as individuals suffer systematic and gross human rights violations so as to make this participation impossible. What this means in practice is rather unclear and seems to depend more on international politics than principle.

However, we should be concerned with the potential for violence and the fact that the government is failing to take action to address underlying grievances.

Nnamdi Kanu, the Director of Radio Biafra, said this in a July interview: ‘The only language that people in the zoo understand is the language of violence and force… The killing of people to disintegrate the zoo shouldn’t come to anyone as a surprise. Our promise is very simple. If they fail to give us Biafra, Somalia will look like a paradise compared to will happen to that zoo. It’s a promise, it’s a pledge and it’s a threat… If they do not give us Biafra, there will be nothing living in that very zoo they call Nigeria…’

This kind of rhetoric is deeply worrying. Experiences from other countries show that inflammatory speech rises steadily before outbreaks of inter-group violence and that just a few influential speakers can incite a group to . Speech can catalyse violence by inspiring an audience to condone or take part in violence.

Susan Benesch’s framework to assess dangerous speech underscores five factors to determine if speech develops from merely unpleasant or hurtful to a group, to actively dangerous. However, not all five are needed for speech to be dangerous. Two of these factors include having a powerful speaker with influence over the audience and an audience that is

In Rwanda, dangerous speech against Tutsi people added to decades of tensions between Hutu and Tutsi to create the conditions that enabled the genocide to take place. Anti-Tutsi rhetoric intensified in the years before the outbreak of violence. At the time, a culture where using words like ‘cockroaches’ to describe Tutsi and rhetoric around the existential threat they posed to the ‘Hutu nation’ became not only acceptable but normalised and encouraged. The Ten Commandments of the Bahutu told people they were ‘traitors’ if they married, befriended, employed or entered into partnerships with a Tutsi. Three out of ten of these ‘commandments’ specifically concerned women. There was a particular narrative spun about how Tutsi women were, on the one hand incredibly desirable, and on the other, completely unattainable to Hutu men. All of this ensured that when the time to give orders came, the population was primed to take action to kill all Tutsi and rape and sexually enslave Tutsi women. The newspaper Kagura and the radio station Radio Television Libre des Mille Collines (RTLM) enabled and supported the genocide through the messages they gave. As a result, the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda found Hassan Ngeze, Director and Editor of Kangura, and Ferdinand Nahimana and Jean Bosco Barayagwiza, leaders of RTLM, guilty of genocide and crimes against humanity.

Radio Biafra is not on the same scale as RTLM and unlikely to lead to the same type of genocidal violence. If nothing else, unlike Hutus, Igbos are not an estimated 85% of the population in Nigeria. However, it does fall on the same spectrum. Rwanda provides an example Nigeria would do well to heed in terms of the capacity and function of dangerous speech without challenge.

This is particularly significant considering that the Biafran war still remains unaddressed in Nigeria’s collective memory. Rather than proactively discussing what happened and its present day legacy, successive administrations have chosen a strategy of conscious forgetting that simply does not work. This ensures stories are passed down within family and kinship circles in one part of the country and completely ignored in others, without any effort to weave a national narrative grounded in truth and understanding.

The disintegration of Yugoslavia provides an example of how past conflicts can still be alive in group consciousness centuries afterwards. During his Gazimestan speech in June 1989, Slobodan Milosevic, then president of Serbia, drew on folk memories of the Battle of Kosovo in 1389, six centuries before, to talk of Serb victimisation, build support for nationalist sentiment and make a coded declaration of the necessity of war.

The government has made efforts to stop Radio Biafra broadcasting and by arresting Kanu. However, doing this in isolation only addresses symptoms rather than causes. Although limiting the means of dissemination and punishing the speaker are important ways of curbing dangerous speech, alone this does little to address the underlying grievances that ensure its popularity. Empowering the audience to be immune so this kind of speech does not spark a chord of recognition is critical. Responses also should balance the need to counter dangerous speech with freedom of expression. What is important is not whether speech is inoffensive but if it is likely to increase the likelihood of violence.

People in the East feel marginalised by the current government. This may not be deliberate but the administration has not taken this seriously, nor identified a process to mitigate feelings of disenfranchisement and frustration. Unfortunately, experience from the Delta and North East shows Nigerians that seemingly the only way to get the government’s attention in Nigeria is to engage in violence.

A president should not wait until things flare up before taking action. After all, Maiduguri peace activists say immediate and effective action taken in 2008 to deal with frustrations around inequality and corruption would have averted bloodshed. Arresting Kanu is far from enough. A president should not just respond to violence but make sure all citizens in the country feel included in the national project. Buhari started well by stating he belongs to everybody and to nobody – but he needs to turn those sweet words into action.

(Originally published by

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