The rise and fall of Nigerian fugitive leader Nnamdi Kanu

Tuesday July 06 2021
Nigerian fugitive Nnamdi Kanu

Nigeria’s Nnamdi Kanu, the fugitive secessionist leader of the proscribed Indigenous People of Biafra. PHOTO | COURTESY


When Nnamdi Okwu Kanu was born in September 1967 in Afia State, Nigeria was a young nation bracing for its bloodiest civil war yet. The Biafran war, as it is now known, would go on to claim the lives of three million people, mostly from starvation.

More than five decades later, Kanu would go on to carry the torch of the failed separatist dream to create a Biafra State, an entity separate from present-day Nigeria.

Since forming the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB), he has had several run-ins with the law. He was charged with treason in 2015 but fled the country in 2017 while out on bail.

Nigeria has labelled him a terrorist.

Following a dramatic arrest on June 26 whose details are still unclear, Kanu was arraigned in an Abuja court last week and later detained.

Authorities have given conflicting information on where he was arrested. Nigeria claims it was in London, which British authorities have denied. His family and lawyer claim he was taken from Kenya, but Kenyan officials have denied any knowledge of this.


Controversial life

The recent drama only marks the latest chapter of Kanu’s controversial life.

Born in Isiama Afara Ukwu, in today’s Abia State, southeastern Nigeria, Kanu’s fugitive lifestyle made sure he missed the burial of his parents, Israel Kanu and Ugoeze Nnenne Kanu.

Last week, after he was detained, British officials tended to his needs, but could do little to save his skin. They only asked that he be treated in line with international standards for suspects.

A dual citizen of Nigeria and the UK, he committed most of his alleged crimes far from Nigerian soil, often running an online radio station from the UK after he fled to London in November 2017.

A graduate of the University of Nigeria in Nsukka, he seemingly had a normal life before choosing to become a pro-Biafra activist sometime in the 1990s.

He is also a graduate of London Metropolitan University, Government College in Umuahia and Library Avenue Primary School, also in Umuahia.

He became one of the more vibrant members of the Movement for the Actualisation of the Sovereign State of Biafra (MASSOB), a secessionist movement formed in 1999 by Ralph Nwazurike to seek the independence of South East Nigeria.

As a member of MASSOB based in the UK, he was entrusted with running the movement’s online radio. But he soon outgrew his shoes, and his growing dominance pitted him against Nwazurike, a lawyer, and he broke away and formed IPOB in 2014 as the director of a UK-registered radio station named Radio Biafra. Kanu continued to use this platform to champion Biafran separatism.

Soon, he began to urge more action, violence even, as he commanded his supporters to disobey law and order. Because of these calls, he constantly clashed with Nigerian security operatives, especially the army.

IPOB was then banned by all the five eastern states and the court pronounced it a terrorist organisation, a move gazetted by the federal government.

‘Becomes a Jew’

After a bloody operation to curb IPOB activities and rein in its members, his supporters engaged the army in a gun fight, leading to Kanu’s arrest. He was arraigned for treason in Lagos on 14 October 2015.

He was detained for more than a year, despite various court orders that allowed his release.

Kanu was finally arraigned on November 23, 2015 in an Abuja magistrate court for the first time for charges of "criminal conspiracy, intimidation and membership of an illegal organisation" by Nigeria's Department of State Services (DSS). 

In court, Kanu wore a Jewish prayer shawl and head covering. In court, he proclaimed that he "believes in Judaism" and considers himself a Jew.

On April 28, 2017, Kanu was released from prison on bail on health grounds, and under strict conditions that he agreed to abide by. But his country home in Isiama Afara, Abia State, was raided by the Nigerian military, though he escaped capture.

He then fled the country under unclear circumstances, and despite depositing both his Nigerian and British passports in court.

Kanu’s location remained unknown for months until he resurfaced in Israel in 2018. He later relocated to London, from where he continued his quest for the secession of Biafra through a referendum.

Military wing

Even though he was now thousands of miles away, Kanu did not let up. In December 2020, he announced that IPOB had established a militant wing, the Eastern Security Network (ESN), which he said would defend southeastern Nigerians from bandits and armed Fulani herders. 

Kanu then gave all the governors of southeast Nigeria a 14-day ultimatum to ban open grazing, and threatened to deploy ESN fighters to enforce a ban if the authorities did not do so.

He started dishing out orders to ESN to attack and kill security personnel and civilians from the north who were resident in the east, an assignment diligently pursued by his group.

ESN commander Emeoyiri Uzorma Benjamin, alias Onye Army, 28, who has since been arrested by Nigerian authorities, has admitted leading and carrying out attacks on security operatives under alleged instructions from Kanu.

He claimed responsibility for an attack on Owerri Correctional Centre, Imo State, three months ago which saw thousands of inmates, including pro-Biafran groups, freed.

He also admitted that ESN was behind the attack on the country home of Imo State Governor Hope Uzordima, a move that was in retaliation for the killing of a top commander of the group.

Crackdown on pro-Biafra movements

Despite Kanu’s arrest, and that of some ESN fighters, Nigerian authorities are marching on with their crackdown on his supporters in the southeastern region.

According to a report by SaharaReporters, ESN members have retreated into Cameroon, where they will stay until the coast is clear again and they can regroup in Nigeria.

“The military operation will continue in the southeast. Fighter aircraft will continue to comb forests and hideouts based on intelligence. It will not stop; it will only intensify with Kanu’s arrest. There is a strong suspected alliance with groups in Cameroon and even operational joint training camps. The military is working on this intel,” a military source told the publication.

For now, Nigerian authorities will be keeping a closer eye on Kanu. There will likely be no escape this time.

The attorney-general and minister of justice, Abubakar Malami, recently said: “Self-acclaimed leader of the proscribed secessionist Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB), Nnamdi Kanu, has been intercepted through the collaborative efforts of Nigerian intelligence and security services.”

He will remain in the custody of the Department of State services (DSS) until July 26, 2021 following an application by the federal government’s lawyer, Shuaibu Labaran.

He is facing 11 counts in his treason trial.