Two consequential implications stand out in the recent United Kingdom Government statement on separatist groups in Nigeria’s South East. The first is that the deteriorating security situation in the region, the stomach-churning and senseless blood letting and barbarism that has lately seized the region, and which is at least in part blamed on IPOB and other groups, has dealt it probably an irreversible damage in the international community.
The second and a corollary to the foregoing is that the United Kingdom which hitherto was a haven for persons associated with IPOB, will no longer be as welcoming, once such persons are deemed to favour violent methods in the pursuit of their cause. Such sentiments are likely to spread to other Western nations, hitherto tolerant and even sympathetic to the ideals of self-determination which IPOB claimed to be pursuing. This is without doubt, an own goal by IPOB, started off as a peaceful movement, but has now been accused of involvement in at least some of the killings in the South East states.
The statement contained in the British Country Policy and Information Note (CPIN) provides Country of Origin Information (COI) and analysis for use by UK Government decision-makers. It allows officials handling particular types of protection and human rights claims by foreigners seeking refuge in England to do so with more comprehensive information.
In April 2021, a report credited to the CPIN had indicated plans by the U.K. government to grant asylum to persecuted members of IPOB and the Movement for the Actualisation of the Sovereign State of Biafra (MASSOB), as part of its refugee policy then.
That report said that “if a person who actively and openly supports IPOB is likely to be at risk of arrest and detention, and ill-treatment which is likely to amount to persecution, and if such person could prove persecution, then the IPOB member or supporter could be granted asylum.” That policy note was however, taken down a few days later following strong protest from the Nigerian government.
Subsequently, a revised CPIN on April 13, 2022 said that “If a person has been involved with IPOB (and/or an affiliated group), MASSOB or any other ‘Biafra’ group that incites or uses violence to achieve its aims, decision-makers must consider whether one (or more) of the exclusion clauses under the Refugee Convention is applicable. Persons who commit human rights violations must not be granted asylum.”
The same CPIN explained that “IPOB is proscribed as a terrorist group by the Nigerian government, and members of the group and its paramilitary wing – the Eastern Security Network (created in December 2020) – have reportedly committed human rights violations in Nigeria.
“MASSOB has been banned but is not a proscribed terrorist group in Nigeria. It too has reportedly been involved in violent clashes with the authorities,” it added.
But some Nigerian media outlets misrepresented this revised CPIN by reporting that the UK government had added IPOB to its list of terror groups. The Nigerian government swiftly waded in to welcome the development.
“It has taken our allies in the UK so long to follow (the Nigerian example in proscribing IPOB),” the statement further said, citing what it called: “the deep pockets of IPOB’s international network of funders that allow for lawyers and influence peddlers to aggressively lobby for and whitewash the activities of their client in Western courts; and… IPOB’s influential communication network of TV and radio stations – including London-based Radio Biafra – employed with great effect to spread misinformation abroad and incite violence at home”.
The Nigerian government statement was hasty and unnecessary. It served no obvious purpose at a time when the international community was independently reviewing its policy towards IPOB and such other groups in the South East of Nigeria. To underscore this point, the British High Commission in Nigeria quickly weighed in to clarify that the UK government did not designate the IPOB as a terrorist organisation.
“We are aware of inaccurate reporting circulating in the media and online that the UK government has added the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) to the UK’s list of terrorist groups or organisations banned under UK law,” the High Commission said in a statement.
“These reports are untrue. The ‘Indigenous People of Biafra’ (IPOB) is not a proscribed organisation in the UK,” the statement said, adding that “only violent members” of the IPOB will be denied asylum in Britain.
Yet this statement is loud in that it openly admitted that there has been a policy change towards granting asylum to persons associated with IPOB and groups like it. This is very significant and could have lasting effect.
The IPOB leader, Nnamdi Kanu, who also holds a UK citizenship, has been in the custody of the Nigerian government and facing trial, among other charges, for treason. The circumstances surrounding his trial, the activities and statements of IPOB as an organisation and the clashes between its members and the security forces are well documented.
Rather than jump in with both feet into an issue with public statements, gloating or otherwise, the government must see that deft diplomatic efforts do win over friends. And, therefore, it should invest more in this direction. Such an effort provides the government with an additional and cheaper tool for dealing with violent discontent.
On the other hand, this development may serve as the tonic for IPOB and other separatist groups to undertake self-interrogation for a change of their modus operandi. While lawful agitation or pursuit of a legitimate cause is allowed under a democracy, the use of violence and the breakdown of law and order nullifies any claim to such a cause.
IPOB and its affiliates owe themselves and the Nigerian state at large a duty to de-escalate tension and violence in the South East in particular, something the international community as evidenced by the UK government new policy seems keen to encourage.
Paul Ejime is a global affairs analyst.