Resolving the Cliffhanger: A Case for Dialogue Pathway from the Rising Insecurity in Southeastern Nigeria

Resolving the Cliffhanger: A Case for Dialogue Pathway from the Rising Insecurity in Southeastern Nigeria

Presented at the Multi-Stakeholder Consultative Forum on the Attacks on Security Institutions, held June 3, 2021 at the Armed Forces Resource Centre, Abuja.

Ben Nwosu, PhD

Institute for Development Studies

University of Nigeria, Enugu Campus



Nigeria is beset with security challenges of a magnitude never known since the end of the Biafra war fifty-one years ago. From terrorist insurgency in the North East, Northwest and North Central to farmer herder violence concentrated in the northcentral and parts of the southern states. There is also a rising sophistication in kidnapping and mass abductions across the country, armed robbery, communal violence, secessionist agitations and many more. Evidently, the country totters at the brink of failure as a state. The country’s story of recent crises would pass for what literary experts refer to as cliffhanger, which is suspense in a story plot, one that leaves a reader with anxiety about what happens next. In the light of these developments, Internations in 2019 ranked Nigeria the third most dangerous place to live in the world (Sahara Reporters, 2019).   Also, the Fragile States Index 2021 Report places Nigeria on the alert zone (Fund for Peace, 2021).

The latest commentary on the state of Nigeria is from the American Council for foreign Relations. Their position is that Nigeria has failed as a state because it is unable to keep its citizens safe and secure. The groups contests that all failed states harbor some form of violent internal strife, such as civil war or insurgency. Nigeria now confronts six or more internal insurrections and her inability to provide peace and stability to its people has tipped a hitherto very weak state into failure.  While the apocalyptic portrayals of our country in these reports is worrisome we can see in the lived experiences of Nigerians, clearly evident decline in the indicators of these reports especially the twelve political, social and economic indicators used for Fragile States assessment. The indicators of security threat, factionalized elites, group grievance, economic decline, uneven development, human flight and brain drain, degree of state legitimacy, quality of public services, Human rights and rule of law, refugees and displacement and finally external intervention all apply to Nigeria in different uncomplimentary degrees. Among the above listed indicators, declining security, group grievance and questionable legitimacy of the national state is rising in comparison with other indicators in the South East of the country. This development forms the basis of today’s gathering and conversations. My paper will discuss the salient aspects of fragility indicators drawn from the framework of CAST (Conflict Assessment Systems Tools) applied to the Nigerian context, especially South East. The paper will also assess the current response strategy of the state and proffer suggestions for what may work better.

The Security Situation in Southeastern Nigeria

The security component of the Failed States Indicators (FSI) evaluation considers whether the state has the monopoly of use of force, the relationship between the state and citizens, availability of arms especially in private hands and civility in the use of force by the proper authorities. In regard to these elements, I present the security situation of the southeastern states and consider how recent developments symptomize either progress or decline based on the elements of state failure. The eastern part of the country was in 2016 ranked the safest by the UNDP Human Development Report. The region was only relatively safer than others because it also had its fair share of farmer-herder conflicts in which many lives continue to be lost. Reports suggest that use of automatic weapons is common among the herdsmen. Amnesty International (2018) reports a total death of 3641 across the country in these attacks.  South East had a share of 52 of the deaths. More recent events in which herdsmen attacked a community in Ebonyi state led to the death of about 25 persons in Ngbo community of Ohaukwu Local Government area in April 2021 (Okutu, 2021) Another 50 persons were killed in Ebonyi State in the last weekend of May 2021 following an attack by Fulani herdsmen (Anioke, 2021). These attacks and clashes involves the use of arms, usually automatic assault weapons. Several reports have shown that herders freely deploy these weapons without qualms when they have disagreement with farmers and communities. A climate of fear occasioned by these attacks is creating a decline in agricultural productivity across the South East especially in communities that are traditionally known for agriculture.

Kidnapping for ransom is another security challenge of the South East. This is usually done in different guises including picking up citizens along the highways, abducting them from their homes, kidnapping with make-believe transport vehicles where unsuspecting passengers are lured in, sedated with drugs and taken to kidnappers’ hideouts. Lately, the abduction of large number of travelers has also commenced in the south East. Several students of Abia state University commuting back to their campus were abducted by unknown gunmen in the early week of May 2021. Of course several other devices are deployed in this kidnapping and in many cases involves violence on threat of it. Usually heavy amounts are demanded in ransom which in instances that affected families can afford the ransom, they pay and keep the incident unreported. Indeed, the record of ransom payment in Nigeria’s kidnapping industry according to a report by S.B Morgen (2020) amounted to 18.32 Million USD between 2011 and 2020. This figure certainly fails to capture the full picture considering multiple unreported incidences.

 The latest among the security challenges in the region is serial attacks on security institutions and personnel. The development started in January 2021 but gained unusual traction in March. 2021. For a snapshot, Since January 2021, serial attacks have concentrated on the police and other security personnel and facilities in the region. In Ebonyi state, Onueke police station in Ezza South LGA was attacked on January 8 and 3 police officers died in the process. Divisional Police Headquarters was also attacked and burnt down in Isu, Onicha LGA on February 4. On March 1, Iboko police station in Izzi LGA was attacked. In Abia State, 1 police officer was killed on February 1 following an attack on Omoba police station, Isiala Ngwa LGA.  Two police officers were killed following an attack on Abayi Divisional Police Headquarters in Aba. Also in Abia state, 3 officers were killed on March 22 in Abiriba, Ohafia LGA. Similarly, Uzuakoli police station in Abia state was attacked and burnt while detainees were freed on March 19, 2021. Imo state has recorded several attacks including those of Umulowo Police Division in Obowo LGA on February 5, in which 2 police officers died; Aboh Mbaise Police station was on February 25 attacked and burnt down. On March 9, a police station at Ihitte Uboma LGA was burnt. In Anambra state, 1 police officer was killed on March 18, at a police checkpoint in Neni, Anaocha LGA; 1 police officer was also murdered at Ekwulobia police station in an attack on March 19. Further in Anambra, there was an attack on April 19 at zone 13 Headquarters in Ukpo, Dunukofia LGA  where 2 police officers were killed (Nwosu and Nwokolo, 2021). Another attack took place in Obosi where 2 police officers were killed (Gunmen kill two officers, raze facilities in Anambra, May 6). While the heart of these attacks are in the South East, there are also pockets of attack and killings of the police in neighbouring South-South states.

Beyond attacks on the police, bandits also assassinated 4 soldiers in the South East region in the first quarter of 2021 (Nwosu & Nwokolo, 2021) and another five on May 29, 2021 at Ihiala, Anambra State (Ujumadu, 2021). Also on May 29, the same unknown gunmen attacked and destroyed the Nigerian Immigration Headquarters in Umuahia, Abia State (Gunmen bomb Immigration headquarters in Abia, 2021). Earlier on April 5, they attacked a Correctional facility in Owerri Imo state and freed 1844 inmates. In most instances of these attacks, the gunmen recover the weapons of their targets and take them away as well as burn security operational vehicles and buildings. Important to note is that the focus of the violence has widened beyond security institutions to include the electoral institution. In the month of May, at least eight different attacks on the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) offices took place in the South East (Abiodun, 2021). The attackers commonly referred to as unknown gunmen, are not only well armed, but appear well trained in arms use. This ring of sustained attacks suggests massive illegal arms in wrong hands within the region. Relating this to the extensive availability of arms to both Boko Haram terrorists and herdsmen, the Nigerian state is no longer the monopolist of arms usage in the country.

Group Grievances and Declining State Legitimacy

These two indicators are taken together because they are mutually reinforcing. There are many background to grievances. It may be driven either by injustice or greed. Whichever is the cause, there is usually a sense of deprivation or denial of access from what the deprived subject is convinced as their rightful entitlement. Sustenance of such deprivation provides the underpinning motivations for rebellion or conflict and this was the main thrust of Ted Gurr’s (1970) Why men rebel. A related thesis is from a Commonwealth group coordinated by Amartya Sen more closely capture our local circumstance. The group’s idea weaves together the elements of history, grievance and conflict and argue that remembered age long injustices play an important role in justifying and sustaining many conflicts. For instance, colonialism, slavery and genocide may normally leave behind potentially flammable grievances (Sen etal 2011). Such history presents a backdrop against which more immediate grievances become significant. Relating this idea to the relations between the Nigerian state and the South East Igbo, one readily thinks about the civil war and the gory history of what took place in parts of the country before the declaration of Biafra such as coordinated killings and eventually, monumental losses of the war. These incidences leave the Igbo with a psychology of collective victimhood. Victimhood psychology has to do with experiences of being targeted as members of a group (see Noor, Vollhardt, Mari, & Nadler, nd).

Victimhood is believed to manifest in different ranges of value allocation in the country including employment opportunities, access to federally coordinated institutions like the unitary schools, infrastructural development etc. Lack of equity in value allocation bear the is expressed in the common parlance of marginalization. It may be correct to argue that poor persons everywhere suffer structural injustice. However, in deeply divided societies that had fought a war and agreed on ways of ensuring inclusion for every group, it sends wrong signals to distribute public good to the exclusion or advantage of any group. For instance, when there is a national security council that does not have a single Igbo, which is among the three largest groups and makes up more than 15 percent of the estimated 200 million population of the country (CIA World Factbook, 2021). Related to this exclusion is an evident apprehension in the South East when after the last security council meeting a strategy was said to have been agreed for the South East security situation. Also after that strategy that is unknown to the South Easterners, the Inspector General of Police instructed his men in the region to engage in what amounts to extra judicial killings (Odeniyi, 2021).  So when people respond to this type of politics they take into account the history of their past in which they had paid dearly with blood and continue to pay with exclusion.

The consequence of feelings of political exclusion is either apathy or hatred. The apathy derives from the belief that the government treats them as being undeserving of citizenship rights. Thus the state loses legitimacy. Yet the basis of political support for any state is a positive mind attitude towards civic objects. So it is not strange to see poor regard expressed about the country, condemnation of its leadership and agitations for separate statehood which of course bear security consequences.

State Response, and Search for the Assailants: Beyond a Single Narrative.

The government has always treated Biafran agitators with hard-nosed coercive response, beginning with the regime of President Obasanjo when the Movement for the Actualization of the Sovereign State of Biafra (MASSOB) was the leading if not the only Biafran revivalist organization. Subsequently, other pro-Biafran organisations sprang up in the South East including the Biafran Zionist Movement, Biafra Independent Movement (BIM) and the later arrival to the struggle Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB). The IPOB is the most vocal of these organisations at the moment. When IPOB emerged, it took the air waves by storm, deployed hateful narratives and with sheer power of demagoguery it attracted massive following like Hitler’s oratory did for the Nazi party prior to their electoral victory. The main reason it attracted following is that the messages of radio Biafra concentrated its attacking force on the failures of the Nigerian state in embedding equity and inclusion especially as it affects the Igbo. The country fails in structural inclusion of the poor across the entire country and fails even more in cultural inclusion of the post-war Igbo. Thus, Radio Biafra struck the cord of the feelings of south Easterners by concentrating on these lines of narrative. The message of the Radio resonated substantially with the poor, unemployed and low end workers like artisans. Many of them were already familiar with the history of the civil war and their lived experiences tends to align with the narratives of marginalization (cf Adibe, 2017). Thus IPOB rallies began to attract massive crowds especially in major cities like Aba, Asaba, Onitsha, Port Harcourt and quite a good number in Lagos.

The state’s most visible decisive response to IPOB is the use of force. One outstanding incident in this regard took place, between May 29 and 30 2016 when the IPOB gathered to have a rally in Anambra State. A joint operation of military, State Security Service and the Police had killed between 90 and 120 agitators in Asaba Delta State, Onitsha, Nkpor areas of Anambra state. Many of the killed persons were reported to have be given mass burial at the military cemetery in Onitsha. Those who were injured were traced to their hospital beds at Nnewi were abducted and never found again (see Mayah, 2016).  Again in September 2017, the military invaded the home of the leader of IPOB Mazi Nnamdi Kanu in Umuahia. Efforts by some IPOB members to resist them led to the death of five youths with another thirty injured (Jannah, 2017). The agitators were not daunted by these developments. They appear to have become more determined and assertive in their struggles.

Subsequently, IPOB launched in December 2020, the Eastern Security Network (ESN) which it claimed has the mandate of protecting the old Eastern region comprising South East and four South-South states from violent Fulani herdsmen. This signaled a transition to armed struggle. When the recent development in the South East which is the systematic and serial attack on security institutions started, a Correctional Centre in Owerri Imo state and the Police Command were attacked resulting in the release of 1844 inmates, the Inspector General of Police at the time Mr Mohammed Adamu squarely laid the blame on the IPOB and ESN (Omonobi, 2021). Perhaps, the rhetoric of the IPOB leadership and their launch of the ESN security wing may have underpinned this opinion. However, the announcement of the culprit with such a tone of finality was rather hasty coming from a high policy level. Emerging facts tend to suggest that there is yet a final answer about who really are these killers of cops and destroyers of security and other national institutions. At the moment, what we have are in my opinion mere allusions or hypotheses. Suspicion of IPOB and their security wing, the ESN is only one of such hypotheses and I regard it as a first possible hypothesis.

Based on one of the emerging stories about the incipient approach to mayhem, I propose a second hypothesis which is that the attacks are done by ‘infiltrators’ to the South East. To support this proposition, a recent arrest of two suspected bandits in the region who claimed to be of northern origin and are behind most of the attacks in the region including those of Owerri Correctional Centre and Police Command was reported in the press (Police arrest two northerners behind recent attacks in Imo (2021). Further, the Governor of Ebonyi State Mr Dave Umahi recently declared that some criminals are using the name of IPOB and Eastern Security Network to commit crime so that the persecution of IPOB and ESN will cover them (Criminals Using IPOB’s Eastern Security Network Name to Commit Crimes, 2021).Similarly, the Governor of Imo State Hope Uzodinma advised that no fewer than 400 people suspected to have carrying the attacks in Imo state have been arrested and charged to court and Over 70 percent of those arrested are not Igbo (Ogugbuaja & Osuji, 2021). This report lines up with another by the same Governor Uzodinma that it is disgruntled politicians who fund the attacks and that some of those arrested are not even from the South East (Agbakwuru, 2021). Specifically, a former Governor of Imo State according is accused of having imported Northern youths into the state to cause crisis and stop the implementation of a certain government policy that affects him (Okorocha behind attacks on Police Headquarters and Owerri Prisons, 2021). Governor Uzodinma’s charge leads us to the third hypotheses which is that the attacks are a political power play by disgruntled politicians. Fourthly and related to the third which is about the need to either win or retain power, I draw from the documentation of Isaac Olawale Albert (2005), a certain development of the days of National Democratic Coalition’s (NADECO) struggle against the cancellation of the results of June 12 election. This was during the regime of the late Gen Abacha regime. Olawale Albert reports that the regime applied the terror tactics of bomb explosions and assassinations and in turn blamed it in on the opposition, especially NADECO. Since we have had such a history and there are accusations about use of force in the struggle for power, analysis should leave such an option open. Whichever of these guesses is accurate, we are yet to conclusively know. The point is that there are snippets of events that are relevant for taking each of them serious. Whichever is the truth needs to be established through rigorous investigation to avoid the danger of a single story.

A few things stand out from the emerging security scenario in the South East. The first is that security provisions for the country are ineffective. This is evidenced by the ease with which hoodlums have successfully invaded police stations, killed officers and even take their weapons away. A lot of questions need to be answered about the quality and quantity of arms available for the job. The relevance of their training to meet the demands of modern policing is also troubling. Not even hitech CCTV cameras to pick the faces of these assailants are available in police stations. Hence, better armed bandits perhaps with more contemporary training are quick to assassinate policemen. The second thing that stands out is that the ineffectiveness of security provisions across the country leads to the poor coverage of certain spaces.  The third is persisting narratives of marginalization, poor condition of the economy, quantum rise in the number of unemployed and underemployed persons who swell the ranks of persons that may be likened to what Karl Marx (1976) referred to as the ‘reserve army.’ The reserve army referred above is a relative surplus population who are surplus to the labour requirements of capital in Marx. In the Nigerian case, they are surplus to the governance capacity of the state. Thus, they respond to revolutionary pressures in the country disguised under various forms of agitations including agitation for secession, agitation for restructuring, agitation for better economic conditions, agitations for the improvement of governance and agitation for inclusion. The perception of this group that they are structured into irrelevance in the political economy and governance system makes them aggrieved and thus, they pose like a reserve army available to supply fighters to different forms of rebellion. This is where economic dynamics such as poverty and unemployment comes into the conflicts not only in the South East but across the country. In the South East case however, there is a perception about deliberate neglect and subjugation of the region through inequitable distribution of national wealth and opportunities. Assertive contestation against this condition has always attracted a hard boot response from the Federal Government. This response in the most recent conflict had been likened to a repetition of the mismanagement that gave rise to Boko Haram in the North (Abati, 2021; Akinlontan, 2021).

Apart from Federal Government’s response with use of force, the most pronounced response by the governments of the South Eastern states is the establishment of a non-formal security outfit named Ebubeagu (translates lion’s grace). Ebubeagu is similar to the Amotekun that was jointly set up and ran by the governments of the South West states to curtail insecurity in their region. Secondly, the Governors canvassed for adequate funding for military policing of the region (15 Points from South East Governors Meeting, 2021). Since then, more troop are visible in internal security issues in the region. In the Orlu area of Imo state, they have been in open clashes with the Eastern Security Network. The troops occasionally quieten the area, but have not won the peace. Reports also suggest rights abuses and extra-judicial killings in Imo State by soldiers (Nkwopara, 2021).  In the fights between the soldiers and Eastern Security Network (ESN), both sides have lost men and none has given up. This opens a new zone of conflicts apart from the existing ones in the northern parts of the country. By this, the stage appears set for another war of attrition that is likely to be assymetrical.

Likely Scenarios

Continuing resistance of the national army by the ESN/IPOB despite its far superior fire power of the government troops, sends a clear signal about escalation of the conflict into higher intensity one. The pattern that may emerge as the use of coercive force continues is that the government forces may be tempted to revisit the used of maximum force like bombing which it had used against the ESN in Orlu in February (Alozie, 2021). Such a pathway would cause massive collateral damages result in condemnation for the troops and more than likely, sympathy from the population for the IPOB/ESN which purports to be fighting for the liberation of the region from political domination and exclusion. In fact, such a scenario would create the required complexity that would inflame an escalation of the conflict to a larger scale. Again, such a complexity fits what any separatist group would want because it makes them more relevant. It compels a need to open talks with them should there be an external mediator. A point that needs to be made here is that no peace solution is possible without involving all stakeholders especially the armed ones. This scenario is highly likely because, if it is possible to attack and dissolve into the population, it becomes difficult to identify the real enemy. Government troops may out of frustration, be tempted to attack possible places of refuge of their adversaries. Already, a house to house search for the members of the ESN and IPOB is being done in Imo and Rivers state (Nigerian Army, Police conduct house-to-house raid for IPOB, ESN members in South-East, 2021). But this step, can only yield a temporary solution, with a high likelihood of further conflicts.

To sum it, there is rising violence in the South East. There is also an ineffective security forces in relation to their equipment and training. Causality is linked to poor security provisioning, massive arms in the wrong hands, exclusion, poor economy, unemployment, above all there is a mixture of historical grief that is reenacted through the lived experience of exclusion and injustice. Groups that consider themselves marginal to the political economy responds with secessionist demands and with inclination towards vengeance and terror. There is also a chance that more armed actors that we know are in the South East at the moment even though IPOB stands out in the picture. Altogether, conflictive relations between armed groups and government forces has risen to a point that Nigeria is on the brink of precipice. With just a little nudge, the country would become a failed state. Going by the failed states indicators, the unfolding conflict in the region is only symptomatic of the country’s general drift towards a total failure of the state.

One reasonable option left is that the country needs not wait for an avoidable destruction to happen before embarking on a solution that would have been less costly. That solution is dialogue.

The Dialogue Option: Why, with Who and about What?

Dialogue refers to a wide range of activities, from high level negotiations and mediation to community attempts at reconciliation. Specifically, it is interested in achieving peaceful and practical solutions to problems and conflicts. Dialogue addresses conflict drivers, builds greater consensus, social cohesion and defines a shared vision of the future (Elayah, Schulpen, Kempen, Almaweri, AbuOsba, Alzandani, 2018). The UNDP presents what ought to be the ideal form of dialogue by suggesting that it should be inclusive by bringing together a diverse set of voices. It entails learning not just talking. It has a spirit of inquiry that requires self-reflection. Participants must be willing to address the root cause of a crisis not just symptoms. Dialogue should recognize another’s humanity with a clear demonstration of empathy towards one another. It should recognize differences as well as areas of common ground and demonstrate a capacity for change. It also has a not-too-exciting quality of stressing a long-term perspective (2009).

Further attributes that relate to the uniqueness of dialogue include a rejection of one size fits all strategy. It requires a symmetry of powers in the discussion framework. The parties must feel free and safe to express their views and interest on the subject of dialogue. Above all, in dialogue, there are no winners and losers. Negotiations move towards achieving a concrete settlement, but dialogue supports confidence-building, bridging communities, sharing perspectives and discovering new ideas (UNDP, 2009). To sum it, dialogue resonates the five discourse ethics drawn mostly from the thoughts of Habermas which require that:

(1) no party affected by what is being discussed should be excluded from the discourse (the requirement of generality); (2) all participants should have equal possibility to present and criticise validity claims in the process of discourse (autonomy); (3) participants must be willing and able to empathise with each other’s validity claims (ideal role taking); (4) existing power differences between participants must be neutralised such that these differences have no effects on the creation of consensus (power neutrality); and (5) participants must openly explain their goals and intentions and in this connection desist from strategic action (transparence) (Flyvbjerg, 1998, p.213).

Habermas’ discourse ethics provides a groundwork for free open, sincere and inclusive conversation. In a dialogue with conflict resolution goal, the stakeholders need to see the need to talk with those considered beyond the pale (Devane, nd). In support of this principle, Lothian (nd) suggested that in working towards a conflict resolution, you do not need to like your enemy. You only show them respect which you demonstrate through opening dialogues. He went on to present an empirical narrative of a direct experience with the Irish Republican Army (IRA). Over a twenty-five-year period, Lothian was the first British Minister to open talks with Sinn Fein (IRA). According to him, he observed that in the conflict, the war with IRA could not be won. Secondly, there could be no long term solution. Thirdly, in the midst of the continuing war, it had become needful to find ways of engaging the IRA and fourthly, the only way to do this was through a dialogue. After a long and circuitous exploratory dialogue, substantial confidence building had taken place. This culminated in the signing of the famous Good Friday Agreement. The overriding need for dialogue in a conflict situation is that while conflict and insurgency may be overcome by military actions, but it cannot be defeated by such an action. Take note, dialogues paves way for negotiations which warrants extracting particular commitments.

It is in dialogue that discordant assumptions and perceptions are understood and reconciled. With sufficient empathy, the narrative of those who feel marginalized may become clearer to other parties. Also with alternative narratives, the reason to search for a middle ground become clear to the parties. With the simple tool of Johari’s Window, the parties present what they collectively know about the subject of contention. Then each party presents knowledge and experiences that unique to it. Finally, the blind spot is jointly explored by both parties (see Mefalopulous, 2009). The figure six (6) viewed from the base is six, but a viewer from the reverse sees nine (9). Thus, the task of the parties in dialogue would be to seek how to create a more objective meaning to both parties. It is this communicative approach that remains under-explored in resolving the conflict of state building in Nigeria.

From the nature of dialogue presented above, it needs to be broad-based. Any act of exclusion of critical stakeholders destroys its very essence. Thus in the case of the South East, every citizen is a stakeholder, leaders are stakeholders, community of aggrieved individuals who contest the sovereignty of the Nigerian state are important stakeholders. For the purpose of the conflicts in the region, the leadership may be divided into two. One is the leadership that emerged to drive Igbo nationalism in the immediate post Biafra war period which we designate as first generation Igbo nationalists. The other group are the leadership of the second generation Igbo nationalism which started emerging since 1999 that military rule ended. The first generation are neo-conservative Igbo petty bourgeoisie who operate through elitist organisations like Ohanaeze Ndigbo, Aka Ikenga and Alaigbo Development Foundation (ADF). Their actions are guided by ‘ako na uche’ (Igbo expression which translates ‘wise and tactful’). Based on this approach, they see engagement with leaders from other parts of Nigeria as the proper way to seek increased integration and participation of the Igbo in the mainstream Nigerian politics. Ako na uche is founded on the application of wisdom, common sense, sound judgment and restraint in dealing with all issues and situations to achieve desired results. They mostly seek the seek political inclusion of the Igbo through appointive and elective positions. Thus they provide platform for the promotion and protection of the Igbo petty bourgeoisie. The second generation Igbo nationalists regard this first generation elements as being disconnected from the grassroots and are collaborationist surrogates of their non-Igbo counterparts in Nigeria’s national leadership that is perceived to marginalize the Igbo. The rise of the second generation Igbo nationalists is rooted on the notion of disconnection between the conservative first generation nationalist and the masses generally (Nwangwu, Onuoha, Nwosu and Ezeibe, 2020).

The second generation Igbo nationalists see the crises of Igbo nation as a consequence of the oppressive Nigerian state and the collaborationist role of the conservative Igbo nationalists. This second generation is driven mostly by an incipient radical wing of new Igbo petty bourgeoisie in alliance with the grassroots especially those who belong to youth dominated ethnic organisations such as the Movement for the Actualization of the Sovereign State of Biafra (MASSOB), Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB), Biafra Liberation Movement (BLM), Biafran Zionist Organisation (BZM) among others. The worldview that underpin the movement of these groups is ‘nzogbu nzogbu’ (combative and confrontational). Nzogbu nzogbu is a popular traditional war song in Igboland. It is expresses a disposition to tear down with bravery and with the bulldozing force of the massive elephant. IPOB is in recent times, the most expressive and active of these groups (see Nwangwu, Onuoha, Nwosu & Ezeibe, 2020). The organization purports to the founded on the principle of non-violence, but actually represents the militant wing of postwar Igbo nationalism going by the pronouncements of their leadership. Their core anger is the marginalization of the Igbo and the solution they believe, lies in the establishment of a separate republic of Biafra for which a war was fought and lost between 1967 to 1970. This group resonates well with mostly young people born after the Biafran war. Its grassroots followership tends to be broad especially among the unemployed, under-employed and lumpen workers. The members are usually willing volunteer to the course of the organization. Besides, they have broad membership among Igbo in the diaspora. 

In terms of relationship, the second generation Igbo nationalists condemn the first as self-serving elements who prefer to feather their own nests while treating the general circumstance of the Igbo with levity. Thus, they are abused as quislings and saboteurs who are not to be trusted. In one incident of show of this anger with the conservative Igbo nationalists, an Igbo Senator of very high standing was physically assaulted in Germany when he attended a cultural event of the Igbo living in the country (Busari, 2019). Also in July 2020, the leader of IPOB Mazi Nnamdi Kanu ordered his members to stone the leader of the apex Igbo socio-cultural organization Chief Nnia Nwodo purportedly due to the neglect by Ohanaeze leadership of his warnings about an impending insecurity to be unleashed on the South East through herdsmen (Nnamdi Kanu’s death sentence on Nwodo, 2020). There are several other instances of collective and individualized abuses of Igbo elites by this emergent group. Thus, there is a divide among the elites. While the conservative Igbo nationalists command governmental influence and power, the second generation commands grassroots following. It is important to make this note because, there are insinuations that Igbo leaders (mostly alluding to the neo conservative group) have kept mute over the activities of separatists in the region. The point is that the two groups of Igbo elites do not mostly share the same viewpoint about how best to relate with the Nigerian state in regard to the subject of marginalization. Advising the separatist agitators is even a source of personal risk to the older generation. At the same time a suggestion to the government to reduce the hard boot approach due to its unavoidable consequence of collateral damage tends to be misunderstood as taking sides with insurgents consequently, the older generation is silent. Accordingly, any dialogue arrangement that would work must be inclusive enough to accommodate these shades, otherwise it will fail.

Third, if this dialogue is organized by the government, it is unlikely to attract the major shades of interest in contest, especially the separatists. Therefore, the process needs a peace facilitator that would help to open conversations. Some of the conversations would require a space that is neutral enough to be acceptable to all parties. Nigeria’s engagement with the Niger Delta militants largely benefitted from this approach (.…) after so much resources had been frittered away in the use of force.

Fourth, understanding that the issue is beyond elites and other individuals who are loud. It Includes the everyday individual who does not confront the government but merely struggles to survive. Participation has to be all inclusive in a demographic sense and geographical spread. In this segment of the dialogue which is similar to track II diplomacy, civil society groups need to be integrated to coordinate the conversations that would represent many shades of interest around the subject of inclusion in the Nigerian Federation.

Sixth, the dialogue in each case needs to come up with a framework which People should be allowed to freely articulate their interest around the what they consider as the most appropriate arrangement for coexisting with other groups. Perhaps, it is a dialogue that commences the process of renegotiating Nigeria’s federal union.

Seventh and finally, the other important dialogue is one around security and policing. The type and structure that suits the society should be citizens decision. Of course a crucial part of this conversation is the need to audit police equipment, quality of training and general infrastructure with a need for a thoroughgoing reform that raises them beyond easy defeat by possibly better armed and trained bandits.


In this paper, I have discussed the South East as a part of a larger whole. That whole is the Nigerian state which is fragile and edging towards failure. In that regressive movement, it has entered the alert zone. My discussion of the specific case of the South East point to declining security, presence of arms in unauthorized private hands and use of the same arms for criminal purposes, deep-seated grievances in the South East about the Nigerian Federation, narratives of exclusion, factionalized elites in the South East, declining economy, poverty a large population surplus to the social protection capacity of the state who are in turn a ‘reserve army’ available for recruitment to violence. Centrally, the Nigerian state lacks legitimacy among the masses and subaltern groups in the South East and they care very little about obligations of respect to it. The interaction of these dynamics is producing conflicts in the forms of demand for a separate state in the region led by IPOB.  Even though IPOB does not speak with everybody’s mandate, it has assumed a massive force and the emergence of its armed wing of ESN drew impetus from the levity of the Nigerian state in responding to the murderous ravages of herdsmen.

The government’s response to these agitations tends to be a fixated on one mode of approach namely use of force. This response template seems unmindful of the changing character of the dynamics at play. For instance, the emergence of the armed wing of IPOB is in the context of expansive agrarian violence which destroys lives and livelihoods while the state appears weak to mitigate the ravages and those of criminals who engage in other organized crimes like kidnapping and terrorism. In all, the state seems partisan. Its swift response to IPOB activities versus laid back approach to criminals outside of the South East appear instructive.

The disturbing development of attacks on security institutions and personnel in the South East is blamed on IPOB/ESN, though this paper contests that it is still subject to conclusive investigation. Yet we know that ESN fights back against the military in Imo State. Both sides appear determined. However, with the superior fire power of the government’s forces, ESN may resort to assymetrical warfare. The frustration from this type of warfare leads the government troops into rights abuses and collateral damages which attracts opprobrium for the fighting troops and could enlarge the support base of the separatists and further escalate the conflict. In all, one strategy that the Federal Government has not applied in this conflict is the dialogue approach.

 Communicative engagement is therefore recommended. The dialogue should be comprehensive, involving the factions of the elite and other groups, with adequate demographic and geographical representation. This is to be coordinated by a facilitator with a view to arriving and a framework which the people expect as the basis of equitable membership of the nation. The same formula may be considered for other zones of the country.

To end this piece, dialogue may not give a quick solution, but it would lead to a lasting one. Continued indifference to the need to apply it merely nurtures the destructive anger that is already pervasive across the country as well as leave opening for aggrieved groups to dialogue with similar groups across ethnic groups. The implication is clear for national unity.

Thank you for listening.


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