It has been nearly 50 years since Biafra’s bitter independence struggle, the inspiration for Frederick Forsyth’s bestselling The Dogs of War. Now a south London DJ currently imprisoned in Nigeria has taken up the battle, and Biafrans are once again fighting – and dying – for the dream of their own country
Tucked between the bus garage and the Christ Miracle Gospel Ministries church, Sandlings Close is one of the more non-descript parts of Peckham. There are no gritty high-rise flats, no bearded hipsters running pop-up restaurants. Instead, there are rows of modest, semi-detached council houses, most now privately owned.
It’s the sort of place that SE15’s best-known fictional resident, Derek Trotter, might have retired to had Trotters Independent Traders ever turned a profit. Behind the door of one of these homes, however, lies an organisation that dreams far bigger than just New York, Paris and Peckham.
Welcome to the unlikely headquarters of Radio Biafra, broadcasting every night to an army of Nigerian listeners – not just in Little Lagos, as Peckham is sometimes dubbed, but in 100 countries around the world. It looks like a pirate-radio station, but its agenda goes far beyond music and chat. In the words of Nnamdi Kanu, its director and former DJ in chief, ‘We want a free and independent Biafra. Or death.’
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A free and independent where? Mention Biafra today, and most Britons would probably struggle to find its place on a map, never mind its place in one of Britain’s bloodiest colonial epilogues.
In fact, finding Biafra on a map is impossible these days. It existed for just two and a half years, from 1967 to 1970, when, less than a decade after Nigeria gained independence from Britain, the mainly Christian Igbo people formed a breakaway state in the south-east.
Angered by the massacre of tens of thousands of Igbos in the Muslim-dominated north, Biafra formed its own army, produced its own currency, and declared independence. The Igbos, who often describe themselves as the ‘Jews of Africa’, wanted their own Israel. They got something closer to holocaust.
Britain, which had drawn Nigeria’s borders arbitrarily, had little patience with locals trying to reshape colonial frontiers. London backed Nigeria’s army in strangling Biafra at birth, supplying weapons and turning a blind eye to a military blockade that resulted in the starvation of about a million people.
Long before Live Aid, it brought the world images of African famine, with emaciated children dying in front of the cameras. Mercenaries and weapons smugglers also ran amok, inspiring a young reporter on the ground called Frederick Forsyth to write his bestselling novel The Dogs of War. For the next few decades, the dream was all but abandoned, with many Igbos leaving Nigeria altogether.
Igbo’s around the world unite
Today, Igbo people live everywhere from Canada and Dubai to China. The original Radio Biafra, a true pirate outfit, which broadcast propaganda from a jeep-mounted studio to avoid Nigerian warplanes, fell silent. But eight years ago Kanu restarted it from London, and as the 50th anniversary of the conflict looms, it is once more campaigning for secession. As Kanu once put it, ‘No amount of intimidation, arrest, torture, deprivation will stop Biafra from coming.’
This time, the campaign is also enjoying its very own ‘Brexit boost’. For if Britain doesn’t want to be part of the European superstate, supporters ask, why should Igbos remain part of a disastrous behemoth like Nigeria, with its 250 different ethnicities, 500 tongues and 170 million people?
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After all, five decades on from the war, the Nigerian state has become a byword for inept, corrupt government, with the world’s 10th biggest oil reserves, yet 60 per cent of people living on less than $1 a day.
‘Brexit asked why Britain should remain in a system that does not fit it,’ says Emma Nmezu, a Radio Biafra DJ and supporter of Kanu’s movement Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB). ‘Kanu says it is the same with us and Nigeria.’
Until recently, Kanu was politely ignored by the outside world. To many Igbos, he was at best an expat dreamer, at worst a rabble- rousing shock jock. Then, after years in which nobody took him seriously, the Nigerian government did just that. During a visit to Nigeria 15 months ago, he was arrested by its feared Department of State Security at a hotel in Lagos.
Ever since, he has languished behind the peeling walls of Kuje Prison, where he is now awaiting trial for ‘treasonable felony’, punishable with life imprisonment. One plank of the case against Kanu, 47, is a recorded speech to the 2015 World Igbo Congress in Los Angeles, in which he effectively gave a call to arms.
‘We need guns and we need bullets,’ he declared. ‘We now know that the best way to defend yourself is to be armed, because [Islamist terror group] Boko Haram is everywhere.’ Kanu’s lawyers say that it was just overexcited rhetoric, and that no shiploads of weapons ever crossed the Atlantic. But justified or not, his arrest has turned him from a loudmouth expat into a political prisoner.
In his supporters’ eyes, he is now Peckham’s own Nelson Mandela. Since his arrest, there have been pro-Biafran demonstrations in nearly every country with an Igbo presence, and bigger ones in the Igbo homelands of south-east Nigeria. In the city of Onitsha – the scene of heavy fighting during the war – crowds of 20,000 turned out, holding placards of the saviour from south London alongside the Biafran flag, a red, black and green tricolour emblazoned with a rising yellow sun.
And the blood has been flowing once again. Since the autumn of 2015, at least 150 Nigerians have died in clashes with security forces at pro-Biafran rallies, according to a report in November by Amnesty International, which accused the government of heavy-handed policing and ‘extrajudicial executions’. Hundreds more have been injured and arrested, and several police killed.
Further violence is a near-certainty if Kanu is convicted, a prospect security forces can ill afford while their hands are full with the fight against Boko Haram. Yet the furore over Kanu’s arrest has gone all but unnoticed in Britain, where the 200,000-strong Nigerian community is generally much seen but little heard. In areas like Peckham, though, Nigerians now vie with hipsters for dominance.
Credit: Tom Saater
Within the community, Igbos also stand out from Nigeria’s other two big ethnic groups, the Yoruba and the Muslim Hausa (the latter is largely absent from London). ‘Igbos are very entrepreneurial, and they also produce a lot of writers and British politicians,’ says Nels Abbey, a British-Nigerian businessman and former columnist on the black weekly newspaper The Voice.
Most British-Nigerian MPs are of Igbo descent, he points out, including Helen Grant, Britain’s first black female Tory MP, and Chuka Umunna, the former Labour shadow-cabinet minister occasionally tipped as a future PM. Other prominent figures include the rapper Tinie Tempah and the actor Chiwetel Ejiofor, who starred in the film adaptation of Half of a Yellow Sun, novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s account of the Biafran war.
‘In Britain, these people are just seen as “black” MPs, writers, actors, sportspeople, etc, but they’re not,’ Abbey adds. ‘They’re not even just Nigerian – they’re Igbo. Igbos are also sometimes perceived as a bit snobbish, as if they think they’re capable of anything. But it isn’t snobbery if you can back it up. Nnamdi Kanu is a case in point – a guy living in a house in Peckham who thinks he can be a saviour to a nation. That beautiful audacity is typically Igbo.’
Boko Haram: ‘Biafrans are still being killed’
Tune into Radio Biafra and that sense of otherness combines with a feeling of persecution. There are frequent references to Boko Haram’s campaigns of church-burnings across northern Nigeria, which have forced up to a million Christians to flee. While Boko Haram has targeted Christians in general rather than Igbos in particular, it has revived memories of the pogroms of 50 years ago.
Radio Biafra DJs like Nmezu insist they are simply highlighting Islamist violence – something they say Britain now fights shy of doing. ‘It was the British who first brought Christianity to us in Biafra,’ said Nmezu, who moved to Britain in 1975.
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‘But then they made us part of an Islamic country, where even now Biafrans are still being killed, and where our leader has been thrown in jail. Is Britain a country that still defends freedom of speech? We fear it’s moving away from the values of Christianity towards those of Islam.’
Part of the problem is that Nigeria’s president, Muhammadu Buhari, is not only a Muslim northerner but an ex-general who fought the Biafrans during the war. He was also a military dictator in the 1980s, ordering soldiers to whip people who did not form orderly queues at bus stops. Much as he now styles himself as a democrat, with such a past, it has not been hard for Radio Biafra to portray him as the enemy.
Like the original station, the modern-day Radio Biafra is mobile, broadcasting sometimes from Peckham and sometimes from Croydon, also home to a big Nigerian community.
Radio Biafra and the dangers of broadcasting
Its DJs are security-conscious, which is perhaps understandable, given Buhari’s record for hunting down opponents abroad. In 1984, his government sent agents to London to kidnap Umaru Dikko, a former minister accused of embezzlement.
They were only thwarted when customs at Stansted opened a crate the Nigerian government claimed was ‘diplomatic baggage’ and found Dikko, drugged, inside. In protest, Britain broke off relations with Nigeria for two years. The Kanu affair has not had the same fallout, but has put the British Government in an awkward spot.
While Kanu’s supporters have lobbied Peckham’s MP, former acting Labour leader Harriet Harman, to press for his release, Buhari’s government is irked that Radio Biafra, banned in Nigeria, is allowed to broadcast from the UK.
British officials say that, as it is internet-based, it needs no broadcasting licence, and is legal as long as it does not breach hate-speech laws. Kanu’s home city is Umuahia, an urban sprawl of 400,000 that was a centre for the colonial administration. In his absence, the mouthpiece of the IPOB campaign is his brother Prince, 43.
Like many better-off Nigerians, the brothers spent time as students in Britain, where Nnamdi settled and took British citizenship, dabbling in property by day and politics by night. ‘My brother was singled out by God for this mission,’ Prince says. ‘Nigeria has been a pretty dire concept from the start – it’s like asking Brits to live together with Kosovans.’
Prince is vague on exactly why his brother was chosen, beyond saying that he had a ‘vision’ around 2006, which took place in Croydon, of all places. But visiting the family home, a compound where geckos prowl in the lush garden, it is clear that both boys were steeped in the Biafran cause from an early age.
Credit: Tom Saater
Their father, His Royal Majesty Eze Israel Okwu Kanu, is a local chief who ran aid convoys during the war, and now hosts meetings for local war veterans. A minute’s walk down the road is the weed-covered underground bunker that was the Biafran forces’ HQ, from where the bulky old transmitters for Radio Biafra used to broadcast.
Prince takes me down its echoing corridors, showing me the modest private living quarters once occupied by the breakaway state’s leader, General Odumegwu Ojukwu. Ojukwu, an urbane Oxford graduate, is revered in Umuahia to this day.
Remembering the past
It was Western education, however, that set his people apart in the first place. While northerners shunned it as a challenge to Islam (a view echoed by Boko Haram), Igbos filled missionary classrooms and prospered, dominating clerical jobs in the civil service and also spreading their influence in the north. But power also bred resentment.
In 1966, following a short-lived military coup by mostly Igbo officers, 30,000 Igbos in the north were killed by machete-wielding gangs.
‘I was a trader in the north. Hausas burnt down my shed and forced us to flee, saying we were infidels,’ says Protos Emanaha, 72, a lieutenant colonel in the Biafran army. ‘I saw them butcher a pregnant woman, slashing her stomach open and taking her baby out to kill it.’
With a Sunday-best white suit hanging off his frail frame, Emanaha is sitting with a dozen other veterans in the Kanu-family parlour. They speak proudly of their David and Goliath war against the Nigerian army, using home-made landmines called ‘Ojukwu buckets’ and mounting ‘suicide squad’ raids in which tiny groups of soldiers would go into battle outnumbered. There is no pride in how things are now.
Despite a government pledge after the war that there would be ‘neither victor nor vanquished’, Biafrans claim they have been starved of state funds. The area claimed by Biafra includes the oil hub of Port Harcourt, yet most roads have potholes.
Even flying the Biafran flag is considered provocative by the police. And in the few cemeteries for the war dead, headstones have been swallowed by the bush. Living casualties of the war also say they got no state help.
‘From 1970 until five years ago, I was begging for alms by the side of the road,’ says wheelchair-bound Major Chuku Usim, 75, who now lives in a home provided by the Movement for the Actualisation of the Sovereign State of Biafra, another pressure group.
‘Nigeria has done nothing for me – now all I am begging for is my freedom.’ Yet whether Nnamdi Kanu stays in jail or returns to Peckham, it remains to be seen how many Igbos really want Biafra back. Many accuse him of reopening ethnic wounds best forgotten, and few of his diaspora followers seem keen on direct action.
In the video from Los Angeles, many of the audience look aghast at his pleas to give up a comfortable life in the West and join an armed struggle. None the less, the dream of the nation that lived for just 30 months still has much romantic appeal. And be they in California or Croydon, many pro-Biafrans still often find themselves wondering how different west Africa might be today had Biafra survived.
Credit: Tom Saater
Among them is Frederick Forsyth, who embraced the cause and was once made an honorary chief by a Biafran group in south London. To this day he maintains that Britain badly let down the Igbos.
‘They are shrewd, hard-working business people who are dedicated to education and self-improvement, and Britain couldn’t have run Nigeria as a colony without them,’ Forsyth says. ‘Biafra could have been the most successful state in Africa.’
‘Some of what Kanu says is racist nonsense, some of it is Braveheart-style patriot,’ adds Nels Abbey. ‘But to the rural guy on the ground, hearing someone in London, who’s sophisticated enough to run a radio station, that ticks a lot of boxes. The dream Kanu taps into has never quite gone away, and if there was a peaceful referendum on independence, it would probably get carried.’
President Buhari ruled out such a referendum last year. Then again, as Britain itself now knows, referendum movements that once seemed marginal can quickly gather pace. In the meantime, every evening around 7pm, Radio Biafra’s remaining DJs are on air, broadcasting messages in support of the Peckham prophet. In Sandlings Close at least, the half yellow sun will never set.