Nigeria’s President Muhammadu Buhari said on Sunday he would not allow the country to be dismembered as it faces calls for secession in a region formerly known as Biafra and the Niger Delta oil hub along with a separatist insurgency by Boko Haram.
Nigeria is Africa’s most populous nation and has the continent’s largest economy but it has struggled for unity among its 180 million inhabitants who include Christians and Muslims. Its 250 different ethnic groups mostly co-exist peacefully.
In the last few months calls for a separate southeastern state known as Biafra have grown louder, evoking memories of a conflict there that killed around 1 million people in the 1960s. Militants in the restive southern Niger Delta have also called for independence in the last year.
“Highly irresponsible groups” were calling for the “dismemberment of the country,” Buhari said in a televised speech to mark the anniversary of Nigeria’s independence. “We cannot and we will not allow such advocacy.”
His comments come against the backdrop of a military deployment to the southeast and a crackdown on the region’s best known secessionist group, the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB), which was last month labelled a terrorist organisation.
The group’s leader, Nnamdi Kanu, has not been seen since Sept. 14 when IPOB says his home was raided by soldiers. The military on Friday said it did not raid Kanu’s home and was not holding the IPOB leader.
Buhari also said the government continued to hold talks with communities in the Niger Delta to maintain a ceasefire which halted attacks on oil installations which last year cut the OPEC member’s crude production by over a third.
“We intend to address genuine grievances of the communities. Government is grateful to the responsible leadership of those communities and will pursue lasting peace in the Niger Delta,” said Buhari, a former military ruler.
The broadcast was aired on Sunday shortly before the presidency said Buhari was travelling to the northeastern city of Maiduguri, epicentre of the Islamist militant Boko Haram insurgency, to celebrate the independence anniversary with soldiers fighting Boko Haram.
The jihadist group is seeking a separate state in the northeast adhering to a strict interpretation of Islamic law.
More than 20,000 people have been killed in the insurgency since 2009 and at least 10.7 million people in the northeast need some form of assistance, according to the United Nations which says it is one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises.