Pro-Biafra supporters call for the release of Kanu in southeast Nigeria in November, 2015. (AFP / Pius Utomi Ekpei)

Discontent in 'Biafraland'

Port Harcourt, Nigeria -- Minutes after touching down in Port Harcourt, I could feel the paranoia setting in.

I'd come to the city in Nigeria's south to travel to "Biafraland" in the southeast, which declared independence from the rest of the country in 1967, sparking a brutal civil war that lasted until 1970.

Refugees flee during the "Biafra War," January, 1970. (AFP file photo)

Discontent with the federal government has never been far from the surface in the region and over the last few months has increased, after the leader of a hardline pro-Biafra group, Nnamdi Kanu, was arrested and put on trial in the capital, Abuja.

Kanu, of the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) group was arrested in October on charges of "treasonable felony" and Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari has described him as committing "atrocities" against the state.

Nnamdi Kanu (c) in federal court in Abuja, November, 2015. (AFP / Pius Utomi Ekpei)

I've covered his trial for months from Lagos, the commercial hub in the southwest where Kanu is written off as a radical heretic with a dangerous agenda that will result in another civil war.

In the rare times there is news on his case, it's brief.

I wanted to see what the situation was like on the ground in the heartland of his support, in "Biafraland" itself.

Last month IPOB, which generally only communicates in wordy press releases and through pro-Biafran newspapers in the southeast, agreed to talk to AFP so my photographer colleague Stefan Heunis and I set off for Port Harcourt.

The strategic city -- the hub of Nigeria's oil and gas industry -- was part of the independent Republic of Biafra in the 1960s until it was recaptured by the army in 1968.

Unlike in Abuja and Lagos, news of Kanu's trial dominates the front pages of newspapers and radio airwaves here and pro-Biafra graffiti and posters are commonplace on the streets.

Pro-Biafra supporters march through the streets of Aba, southeastern Nigeria calling for Nnamdi Kanu's release. (AFP / Pius Utomi Ekpei)

In the wider southeast, Kanu's IPOB group seems to enjoy VIP status.

It operates with martial discipline, has chapters in many southeast states and uses code names.

With Kanu behind bars, IPOB is suspicious of strangers, fearing they are agents of the federal government.

A Biafra supporter who lost his leg during a pro-Biafra protest in 2015. (AFP / Stefan Heunis)

The suspicious atmosphere is aggravated by long-standing ethnic animosities in a country that before colonial rule was a multitude of kingdoms and tribal states and today is home to some 500 ethnic groups, with Yoruba, Hausa and Igbo the three largest.

The ethnic divisions are being aggravated in a worsening economic climate caused by the fall in global oil prices, which has drastically cut government revenues from exports.

Ijaws from the south who want a fairer share of oil revenue have started to attack pipelines and facilities again, threatening the Yoruba in the southwest where many oil companies have their bases.

The mostly Kanuri fighters of the Islamist group Boko Haram have attacked the Hausa - and everybody else -- in the northeast in their quest for a hardline Islamic state.

And nomadic Fulani cattle herders have stepped up attacks against farmers, mostly in the religiously mixed central states.

A man shows his scars after surviving a Fulani Herdsmen machete attack in southeast Nigeria. (AFP / Stefan Heunis)

In the southeast, where the Igbo people dominate, IPOB alleges it is being purposefully sidelined by the others. Many claim the region and its people have been "punished" for what happened in the 1960s.

We got a taste of this chronic paranoia firsthand. Before coming to Port Harcourt, we had arranged for a driver, who happened to be Yoruba.

Apparently this was a big mistake -- IPOB's chief of security advises me to get rid of the Yoruba driver in case he's a spy for the federal government. It's "for your own safety," he said, assigning us a new Igbo driver and an IPOB bodyguard.

The chief of security, wearing a Fossil watch and caramel-coloured crocodile leather shoes, explained why he can't trust Yoruba, Hausa or Fulani people.

"They don't understand our struggle," he said.

We drove from Port Harcourt to Aba, an expressway through verdant countryside with frequent military and police checkpoints -- nearly as many as in the Boko Haram-ravaged northeast, Stefan remarked.

Pro-Biafra supporters during a rally in the southeast town of Aba in November, 2015. (AFP / Pius Utomi Ekpei)

We met with many people who said they were injured by security forces during peaceful protests. Some had amputated legs, one man had lost an eye.

They showed us bullet wounds and told us that during three separate protests Nigerian security forces shot "indiscriminately" into the crowd. They said the Nigerian army dumped dead protesters into mass graves.

Others described the hazards of life as a pro-Biafra supporter. They said friends and family just disappeared if police found them with a red, black and green Biafra flag, or pro-Biafra photos on their cellphones and that random street skirmishes with Nigerian security forces were common.

Little, if any, of this news gets reported in the daily papers that I read in Lagos.

Like Boko Haram in the north, it's difficult to report on IPOB and the pro-Biafra movement. There are many versions of events. Without being there when it happens, it's next to impossible knowing whose version to trust.

IPOB, which claims it is a peaceful movement, has been described by prosecutors as a terrorist organisation, with Kanu allegedly sourcing arms to "levy war against Nigeria" and telling Radio Biafra listeners to "burn down as many police stations as possible" and "kill" policemen and military personnel.

Our new driver certainly had a cavalier attitude towards police. At several checkpoints, he hung out the window of his luxury Lexus SUV and shouted Kanu's trademark phrase "the zoo must fall" -- the "zoo" being Nigeria.

But surprisingly, instead of getting arrested, police officers broke into smiles and shouted "God bless you!"

A protest in support of Nnamdi Kanu in Aba, southeast Nigeria, in November, 2015. (AFP / Pius Utomi Ekpei)

Another young police officer leaned into the car to say "Do you know we are suffering? We are scapegoats."

On the way back from Aba our driver started blasting Rod Stewart's "Rhythm Of My Heart", turned on the hazard lights and started driving into oncoming traffic to beat the rush, a privilege usually reserved for Nigeria's "big men" -- top politicians, army heads of staff and oil executives.

The ride was as exhilirating as a rollercoaster -- and made me just as nauseous, too. I started praying for a cop to pull us over and tell us to get back on the right side of the road. Unfortunately my prayers weren't asnwered, but I was very grateful when we arrived at the hotel.

The next leg of the journey took us north to Nsukka, the bucolic university town with manicured lawns immortalised in Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's "Half of a Yellow Sun" as the home of a revolutionary academic who fights for Biafran independence.

We passed by ancient trucks reborn in hallucinogenic shades of orange, pink and green and painted in biblical scenes with Byzantine formality. Jesus was always white, so was Mary, and Samson wrestling the lion too.

A church in southeastern Nigeria following a Fulani herdsmen attack. (AFP / Stefan Heunis)

For every gas station there was a church, their names serving as proclamation of their militant dedication. First came Violent Faith Church International, then Jesus Army Assembly and the Global Liberation Prophetic Church.

IPOB members are devout people. In their "gospel of the restoration of Biafra" they describe Biafrans as the Israelites of West Africa and demand independence from Nigeria and total control of the vast riches in the region, including oil, which they say have been unfairly syphoned off by leaders from the north and southwest since Nigeria gained independence in 1960.

So important are God and gas in the southeast that they often appear together in the myriads of independently-owned petrol stations dotting the roads. 'Pinnacle Gas Station' and 'Good God Petroleum' were just two of the more pious distributors.

The Biafran War may have ended in 1970, but people in the southeast still have the same grievances, which have been jolted awake by the renewed tensions and violence in the region.

In Nimbo, an Igbo farming community outside Nsukka, villagers said they were attacked by Fulani herdsmen, nomadic cattle rearers who usually don't venture so far south.

At first glance it was hard to imagine violence in such a beautiful place, where the copper red soil produces flawless canary-yellow bananas and juicy mangos with a scent so fragrant it could be worn as perfume.

The illusion was brief. Men were in the hospital with deep gashes in their skulls, shattered jaws, arms and legs -- all a result of machete attacks. I stared too long at the Frankenstein stitiches. Had the machete hit just  millimetres lower, some of them would have been dead.

The farmers thrust photos of their dead relatives into my hands, saying they had no protection from the government and that a separate state is the only answer to their troubles.

Coffins on sale in southeast Nigeria, May, 2016. (AFP / Stefan Heunis)

You could feel the fear. The village was deserted. People had closed shop and moved to safety. They didn't believe that anyone would protect them from another Fulani herdsmen attack.

In certain respects, the Biafran dream is a modest one: a state with constant electricity, good roads, freedom from violence, and more jobs.

IPOB has tapped into that frustration at a time when life in Nigeria is getting harder as a result of the record low price of oil, the country's main source of income.

Now with charismatic Kanu behind bars -- a populist martyr in the making -- independence is increasingly being presented as the only course of action in the face of perceived bias against the Igbos.

It is a struggle that, at the very least, has many sympathisers in the southeast.

Flying out, I looked through the airport bookstand, where the young shopkeeper was reading "Half of a Yellow Sun". She was selling textbooks on Biafran military strategy and three different titles of pro-Biafra newspapers.

The Freedom Journal said 'Second Biafra Genocide Commence!' Beside it, the Message had a photo of Kanu going handcuffed into court, with the headline "I won't die, be steadfast, Biafra is at hand."

A 19-year-old who got shot during a pro-Biafra protest in 2015 is carried in Aba, Nigeria, on May 3, 2016. (AFP / Stefan Heunis)


Stephanie Findlay