Halted Trial of Separatist Leader Nnamdi Kanu Raises Concerns for Peace in Nigeria

Four years after his disappearance, the long-awaited trial of Nigerian separatist leader Nnamdi Kanu was finally scheduled to resume on July 26th, after Nigerian authorities located and rearrested Kanu in late June. As the head of the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB), which the Nigerian government considers a terrorist group, Kanu was being charged in Nigeria’s Federal High Court for 11 crimes, among those being “terrorism, treason, running an illegal company, publishing defamatory material and illegal possession of firearms,” according to Nigerian Justice Minister Abubakar Malami. When it came time for the highly anticipated trial, Nigerian authorities were unable to bring Kanu to the court, prompting the trial to be adjourned once again and postponed to October 21st.

Nnamdi Kanu and his pro-Biafra activism has been a point of concern for the Nigerian authorities for many years. His early years of activism began in 2009 when Kanu began advocating for the resurgence of Biafran separatism in Nigeria through the U.K.-based Radio Biafra. As his movement began to garner more support, Kanu eventually founded the Indigenous People of Biafra in 2012, which called for the restoration of the secessionist Republic of Biafra that existed between 1967 and 1970 in the southeastern region of Nigeria.

The short-lived Republic of Biafra had been the subject of the 1967-1970 Nigerian Civil War, during which the secessionist state called for its independence from Nigeria. The call was initiated mainly by members of the Igbo ethnic group, who were experiencing anti-Igbo violence and persecution in the country. Fighting ensued between the two sides as Nigerian government forces attempted to contain the threat of the secessionist Biafran state, and Biafran forces fought to protect their territory. The war ended with the defeat and dissolution of the Republic of Biafra and the restoration of its territory back to Nigeria. However, the bloody war claimed the lives of 100,000 military members and between 500,000 to 2 million civilians due to starvation, and its effects are still felt today by members of the Igbo community, according to the New World Encyclopedia.

Through his involvement with the IPOB and with the support of hundreds of thousands of supporters rallying in Nigeria and around the world, Kanu has been fighting to re-establish the Biafran state. However, Kanu and the IPOB have often been criticized for the occasional calls for violence to achieve their goals. According to Newsweek, during the meeting of the World Igbo Congress in the United States, Kanu stated that “We need guns and bullets from you people in America.” Protestors supporting the Biafra movement have also reportedly been seen holding signs with messages such as “Biafra or death.”

The rhetoric being pushed by Kanu’s IPOB and the subsequent threat it posed for Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari and his government’s hopes of maintaining a united Nigeria ultimately led to Kanu’s arrest in 2015. According to Premium Times Nigeria, Kanu was charged with inciting treason and terrorism, among other similar charges, but was then granted bail on “health grounds” in 2017. That same year, Kanu’s house was stormed by the Nigerian military, forcing him to flee the country. Now four years later, Kanu is due to face the court for his charges, but the failure of Nigeria’s secret police (the SSS) to produce him in court poses a dilemma over the country’s next steps in the Nnamdi Kanu trial.

A major flaw on the part of the Nigerian authorities is the lack of transparency surrounding the circumstances of Kanu’s re-arrest and his inability to arrive in court on the day of his trial. Upon his arrival in Nigeria, authorities claimed that Kanu was found and arrested abroad and that “The re-arrest was made possible by the diligent efforts of our security and intelligence agencies, in collaboration with countries with which we have obligations,” according to a statement made by Nigerian Information Minister Lai Mohammed. Authorities failed to specify where and how Kanu was detained, as well as which countries were involved in the operation. 

While in detention awaiting trial, Kanu claimed that he was abducted and detained in Kenya, where he was severely mistreated for nearly a week before his return to Nigeria. Members of Kanu’s legal team described the situation as “state kidnapping,” which can be considered illegal under international law, according to The Guardian. Reuters reported that one of Kanu’s lawyers, Ifeanyi Ejiofor, stated that Kanu was held by Kenya’s special police force for 8 days and “was tortured and subjected to all forms of inhuman treatment which worsened his health condition.”

In response to the claims made by Kanu and his lawyers, Kenya denied that it was involved in the abduction and re-arrest. The High Commissioner of Kenya to Nigeria, Wilfred Machage, stated on Twitter that the accusations made against Kenya were “fictional, imaginary and deliberately concocted to fuel antagonistic feelings among certain sections of the Nigerian people.” 

Meanwhile, members of the international community have questioned the actions of the Nigerian government and the details surrounding Kanu’s re-arrest. Many have demanded answers, including the United Kingdom, where Kanu is also a citizen. In a statement released on behalf of Britain’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office, Minister Tariq Ahmad stated that “We are seeking clarification from the Nigerian government about the circumstances of the arrest and detention of Nnamdi Kanu.”

While the Nigerian government continues to stay silent about the details of Nnamdi Kanu’s re-arrest, unanswered questions arise regarding Kanu’s absence on the day of his trial. Since he was arrested, Kanu has been in the custody of Nigeria’s secret police, known as the SSS, yet his lawyers claim that their requests to visit Kanu have been repeatedly denied. One of Kanu’s lawyers, Aloy Ejimakor, told Premium Times Nigeria that “This Saturday (July 31st) will make it two weeks since I saw him with my eyes.” 

As more time passes without access to Kanu, Ejimakor and the rest of Kanu’s legal team have grown worried about his wellbeing and safety after the SSS were unable to present Kanu to the court. “…This thing [the Nigerian government is] doing is interfering with his constitutional rights and is fueling legitimate speculations and concerns about his wellbeing,” stated Ejimakor.

Concerns regarding Nnamdi Kanu’s safety also stem from the fact that the Nigerian government is known to crack down on pro-Biafra figures and protestors. Amnesty International once reported that Nigerian security forces were responsible for the deaths of 150 pro-Biafra protestors between August 2015 and 2016. Considering this, in addition to the shady conditions of Kanu’s rearrest and subsequent failure to present him in court, it is not surprising that there are suspicions about the Nigerian government’s involvement in the Nnamdi Kanu case.

As more questions remain unanswered about the whereabouts of Nnamdi Kanu, his re-arrest, and his current condition, the integrity of the Nigerian justice system will continue to diminish. As long as Nigerian officials avoid sharing the truth with the public, Kanu may be at risk of not being offered a free and fair trial by the court. For this reason, the Nigerian government must be transparent with Nigerian citizens and the international community about Kanu’s case, or else trust will be lost and more unrest may arise in the country.

However, peace cannot be achieved without addressing the underlying issues in this conflict, one of them being Igbo grievances. Whether they choose to identify with the IPOB or not, many Igbos continue to feel marginalized by the government and sense that their region is being neglected in the Nigerian political sphere, according to the BBC. It is important to understand that Nnamdi Kanu’s movement is not new, but rather the revival of sentiments that have existed in Nigeria for years.

Addressing the concerns of the Igbo may be one step towards a peaceful Nigeria. Diplomatic talks between the IPOB and the Nigerian government and a commitment to non-violence on both sides might also be a step we can hope to take in the future. But to ensure all of this, Nigerian authorities must carry out a fair trial for Nnamdi Kanu and offer more transparency to the people.

Muna Khalidi

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