Nigeria’s Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka warned the government against any harsh crackdown on pro-Biafran activists in an interview broadcast Wednesday after an upsurge in separatist protests.
The 81-year-old, who won the literature prize in 1986, said Abuja needed to come up with new strategies for dealing with the issue to quell the renewed drive for independence in the southeast.
“I remember I wrote an article during the (civil) war and I said at that time that Biafra cannot be defeated,” he told the private Channels television station.
“People misunderstood what I was saying. I said once an idea has taken hold, you cannot destroy that idea…
“You may destroy the people that carry the idea on the battlefield, but, ultimately, it is not the end of the story.”
Recent weeks have seen a wave of protests calling for the release of the London-based director of Radio Biafra Nnamdi Kanu, who is also head of the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) pressure group.
He has pleaded not guilty to charges of criminal conspiracy and intimidation, and belonging to a banned organisation. He remains in the custody of Nigeria’s secret police.
The protests also saw calls for a separate state of Biafra, 45 years on from the end of a brutal civil war sparked by the declaration of an independent republic in 1967.
Some one million died of the effects of war, starvation and illness.
Soyinka himself was arrested and detained for almost two years by Nigeria’s then-military regime over his alleged interaction with the Biafra leadership under General Emeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu.
The novelist and playwright said Nigeria’s civilian government now needed to talk to pro-Biafra activists, most of them ethnic Igbos who complain of being marginalised since the end of the conflict.
“Ask what are those things we can do to make you content, to make you feel part of this entity (Nigeria)… what can we do to make them feel that they belong and are not alienated?” he said.
“Listen to some other Biafrans and ask them why they want to stay.
“But, don’t go around saying ‘the sovereignty of this country is indivisible, this won’t happen under my watch, it is not negotiable’. That type of language would only make matters worse.”
Police have sent reinforcements to the southeast because of the protests and vowed anyone threatening Nigeria’s sovereignty would “face the full wrath of the law”.