There have been an unusual number of reports here on eastern-northern tensions recently. This is a terrible oversimplification, but for those new to Nigerian politics this situation is easier to understand by thinking of most northerners as Hausa Muslims and most easterners as Christian Igbos. However, there are many Igbos living in the north and many Hausas living in the east, contributing to the conflict. Other important factors are contemporary worry about the northern Islamic sect of Boko Haram and residual strain left over from the Biafran independence effort.
There is still tension between northerners and easterners over the question of who started the Biafran War. In 1966, several Igbo radicals deposed the first president of an independent Nigeria, Nnamdi Azikiwe (also an Igbo, but one who grew up in the north). Major General Aguiyi-Ironsi was installed as head of the military government for six months until Northern officers staged a much more violent counter-coup that put Lt. Colonel Gowon (a northerner) into power. It was under his administration that Igbos perceived an increase in violence and persecution against both the Igbos living in the north and those who had remained in their historical homeland in the south-east. In 1967, the eastern region declared itself independent, as the Republic of Biafra led by Dim Ojukwu, creating a two-and-half year civil war that killed a million people, mostly Igbos.
So, northerners and westerners tend to view the conflict as being created by Igbos who staged the first coup and then tried to declare independence, while Igbos argue that Gowon declared war on the Eastern region in order to force the region back to Nigeria. They say that Ojukwu and his troops fought in defense, and that he only declared independence under pressure from eastern people who wanted to end the violence against the easterners living in the north.
There remains a pervasive sense of injustice among many Igbos in the east regarding the failed independence movement. There is still the Movement for Actualization of Sovereign State of Biafra (MASSOB), led by Chief Ralph Uwazuruike, and various association of Biafran War veterans. Ojukwu died this past November and Igbo war veterans immediately called for him to be given a proper state burial by the Federal Government but the Senate rejected the measure because he is not a former Head of State. His body will tour three West African countries and Haiti before he is interred.
Ojukwu’s burial in Enugu has been postponed due to fuel subsidy protests but is scheduled for March 3. The event has been jointly planned by the Federal Government and MASSOB. The South-east and South-south geopolitical zones will be closed down for the day and MASSOB has issued a sit-at-home order. There is a major security concern that Boko Haram will see the burial as key target for attack. Boko Haram has killed almost 300 people so far this year. The security will be even more tenuous since a northern police officer in the eastern state of Anambra shot a man this week for failing to pay a bribe in full. Although the Hausa officer has been arrested for murder, Igbos committed retaliatory violence in Onitsha, Asaba against northerners seen as interlopers in the region. Northern Muslims in Anamabra have fled into neighboring states, and now there is worry that Boko Haram could in turn attack the east. We will have to watch how March 3 unfolds.