Decades after a devastating civil war, southeast Nigeria grapples with a painful past while navigating a pivotal election.
Presidential Election Violence Threatens Southeast Nigeria’s, Fragile Peace
As Nigeria prepares for its February 25 presidential election, the southeast region of the country has been hit with a series of violent attacks on electoral offices. These incidents have raised concerns over the possibility of escalating violence in the region, which is still grappling with the painful legacy of the 1967-1970 civil war. While the attacks have been largely attributed to separatist groups seeking to establish an independent Biafra Republic, they also reflect the growing sense of disillusionment and alienation among the region’s population due to years of neglect and underinvestment.
A History of Separatist Tensions
The root of the tensions in Southeastern Nigeria can be traced back to the 1960s when ethnic Igbo army officers declared the creation of a Biafra Republic, leading to a brutal civil war that lasted for three years and claimed over a million lives. Since then, there have been sporadic calls for secession by some Igbo groups, who feel marginalized and discriminated against by the central government in Abuja.
This sentiment has been further fueled by the government’s response to recent security challenges in the region, which many see as heavy-handed and discriminatory. In 2017, the military launched a crackdown on the separatist group Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB), leading to the deaths of at least 150 people and the arrest of its leader Nnamdi Kanu. These actions have only served to strengthen the resolve of separatist groups and deepen the sense of alienation among the Igbo population.
A Chance for Change?
Despite this history of separatist tensions and violence, there is now an unprecedented opportunity for change in Nigeria’s democratic history, with a surprise candidate from the southeast emerging as a frontrunner in the presidential race. Former Anambra State governor Peter Obi, who is Igbo, has gained significant support in the region due to his record of performance and his identity as a fellow Igbo. This has led some voters to believe that he may be able to bring about the change and investment that the region so desperately needs.
However, Obi is not without his critics, and there are concerns that his candidacy could further exacerbate the separatist tensions in the region. Some have accused him of being too closely aligned with the central government in Abuja and of failing to adequately address the issues of marginalization and underinvestment that have plagued the region for so long.
Igbo Hope Revived in Southeast Nigeria’s Presidential Race
The February 25 presidential election in Nigeria is stirring up extremist views about secession for the country’s southeast, where a majority of people are Igbo. The region is still traumatized by a 1967-1970 civil war that left a million dead, triggered by a declaration of independence for the Biafra Republic by ethnic Igbo army officers. After years of underinvestment and feeling alienated from the federal government in Abuja, many in the region have extremist views about secession. However, unprecedented in Nigeria’s democratic history, a surprise candidate from the southeast has a chance in the race to succeed President Muhammadu Buhari, who leaves power after two terms marked by growing insecurity and poverty.
The hope for Igbo representation
Since Nigeria’s return to democracy in 1999, no Igbo has been elected head of state, further accentuating the feeling of marginalization in the region. Former Anambra State governor Peter Obi, a wealthy trader, and devout Christian present himself as a counter-model to his two main rivals, ageing establishment figures accused of corruption. Obi is running as the candidate for all Nigerians and not as an Igbo hopeful. The 61-year-old has a reputation for integrity and competence, which has drawn a huge social media following and managed to connect to many young Nigerians, who are eager for change.
The disillusionment of Nigerian youths
In past Nigerian elections, campaigns were marked by appeals to ethnic loyalties, and the polls were marred by violence, vote-buying, and delays. Insecurity and separatist tendencies are present concerns in the region, and the turnout rate remains a real unknown in the southeast. Even nationally, the turnout was only around 35% in 2019. Many young Nigerians, who are disillusioned by the state of things, are eager for change. They want a leader who will provide a better future and give them a reason to believe in Nigeria again.
The unpredictability of the race
Despite Obi’s social media following and popularity, his victory is far from assured. While the southeast is certainly his region, it is also historically a PDP stronghold. Former Lagos governor Bola Tinubu, 70, is the candidate of the ruling party All Progressives Congress (APC), and former vice president Atiku Abubakar, 76, is running for the opposition Peoples Democratic Party (PDP). The current state of Nigeria’s economy, coupled with security challenges, makes it difficult to predict the outcome of the election.
Armed groups have attacked the offices of the Independent National Electoral Commission, government buildings, and police officers in the last two years. Most of those attacks have been blamed on the outlawed separatist group Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB), which agitates for a separate state for the Igbos. IPOB has always denied accusations that its armed wing the Eastern Security Network is behind the violence. Even if the movement does not call for a boycott, it remains to be seen what proportion of the population will not go to the polls out of conviction or intimidation.