Some of the Igbo can see the writing on the wall, but not in a language they are familiar with — it is in Hebrew, written in the hand of a Jew named Nnamdi.
From his beginnings as the highly opinionated voice behind Radio Biafra, Nnamdi Kanu’s rise to prominence has confounded many. One minute, he was spreading alternative facts from a council flat in Peckham; the next minute, he was the face of a struggle.
As I wrote here, that transition has been fueled by propaganda, Judaism and the Nigerian government. However, one of these factors stands out, for obvious reasons.
The original struggle for Biafra had very little to do with religion. Yet in recent times, we have seen ‘Jewish leader’ appear in the same sentence as Anambra, and the Tallit (the Jewish Prayer Shawl) drapped over the IPOB leader in photos.
Nnamdi Kanu desperately needs the Igbo people to believe that he, and they themselves for that matter, are descendants of the Jews.
One of the more common generalizations about the Igbo tribe is that they are wanderers.
This, in itself, draws credence from another notion that the Igbos have no clearly defined point of origin. Unlike Nigeria’s other major tribes, the Hausa/Fulani and the Yoruba, there is no definite account of how the Igbo civilisation developed or how its people came to be at the stretch of land in the East that has become their homeland.
The closest thing to an authoritative account is that offered by the historian and linguist, Kay Williamson. In the book “The Early History of the Niger Delta”, she suggests that the Igbos migrated down the Niger Delta from a Northern area in the Savannah and first settled close to Delta, with a secondary center of Igbo people more to the North, in the Awka area.
Nnamdi Kanu’s origin story goes much farther than the Niger. According to him, the Igbos are one of the forgotten tribes of Israel who emigrated down to Africa.
In the final days of June, while muslims across the world celebrated the end of the month of Ramadan, Kanu was visited by ‘Jewish faithfuls’ at his country home. In their time there, they reportedly showed Kanu where the Igbos were referred to in the Torah — a move that was supposed to serve as evidence of the Igbo’s jewish lineage.
As a people, the Igbos have always had a strong sense of ethnic identity. In emphasising a relationship between the Igbo and the Jews, Kanu offers an explanation that fills a void.
To the uninformed, he seems to provide a strong account of their origin that matches the sense of identity that each member feels and understands. It is no mistake that more people, particularly the young, have opened their minds to this belief.
The struggle for Biafra is as religious as it is ethnic. Perhaps due to the origins of the Civil War; the Kaduna progroms, the Igbo coup and the Northern counter-coup of 1966, most Igbo see the Hausa/Fulani in the North as the main opposition between them and the realization of Biafra.
While the Igbo are predominantly Christian, it is nearly impossible to separate the Hausa/Fulani from their identity as muslims. The implications of this dichotomy are far deeper than you think, and Kanu seems to understand this.
A fair number of aggrieved Igbos see the struggle for Biafra as one between good and evil. For them, it is a romantic battle between their values, and the North’s hold on a system that they believe has subtly foisted its beliefs and preferences on all Nigerians with little respect for their inclinations, religious and otherwise.
Ironically, in his broadcasts from Radio Biafra, Kanu was often heard berating Nigerian christians. In one of such, he referred to Christian leaders as puppets of the Northern cabal, corrupt men of God who he called blood-suckers that have taken advantage of their followers.
Judaism presents a different alternative, one that suits Kanu’s motives to the letter.
By appearing in the forefront and holding Jewish traditional celebrations at his home, he is putting himself forward as something more than a rebel - a spiritual leader that has the divine on his side.
Beyond Nigeria’s shores, the Jews are more known for their origin than their religion. A mere mention of the word ‘Jewish’ evokes Israel - a nation whose struggle for statehood is well documented.
The Bible is basically built around the timeline of their fight for a place of their own and later, in the New Testament, their independence from the Romans.
In modern times, their persecution in Nazi Germany and later, across Europe is one of the major sub-plots of the Second World War.
Let’s make this as simple as possible. Israel is synonymous with nationalist struggle.
There is much that Kanu stands to gain from associating himself with Israel, even if there is very little proof of any connection.
By claiming that he is a Jew and that the Igbo emigrated from Israel, Kanu inspires a sentimental connection to arguably the world’s most persecuted people.
For anyone who chooses to subscribe to this rhetoric, it portrays the exclusion of the Igbo and the demand for Biafra as an extension of the Isreali struggle for a Jewish nation.
Apart from offering a historically comfortable perspective to Biafra, Kanu’s narrative gives the impression that the demand for secession is a divinely ordained struggle that goes beyond Nigeria to their shared identity with the Jews.
I wouldn’t be surprised if he has used these exact words to describe it.
There’s also the chance that Kanu has no idea what he’s doing, and is just going with the flow. There is little to indicate when he adopted Judaism; either at some point before he joined the agitation for Biafra, or in detention upon his arrest in 2015.
We should note that Kanu is not the first Igbo man to claim ties with the Jews. In the Eastern part of Nigeria, there are over 28 synagogues that service a growing community of ‘Igbo Jews’.
Conservative estimates have put their population at something between 3,000 to 5,000.
These ‘Igbo Jews’ refer to an early (and widely influential) statement from the 1789 autobiography of an Igbo man, Olaudah Equiano, a Christian-educated freed slave, as proof of their Isreali origin.
In it, Equiano suggested a migratory origin of the Igbo Jews, supposedly tracing them to Israel and drawing cultural similarities between the Igbos and Jews.
The Igbo Jews are not recognized by the mainstream Jewish community or Israel.
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All this being said, Nnamdi Kanu’s new found faith reeks more of opportunism that anything else. His interpretation of the Igbo’s origin serves to offer them a collective identity and give credence to his separatist ambitions.
Nowadays, he accepts visitors and makes public appearances with the Kippah on his dome and the Tallit draped across his shoulder; an image that reinforces his growing image as a Messiah-like figure among his followers.
Above all things, it is also likely that it is an attempt to secure Jewish and Isreali support for the struggle. As ridiculous as it sounds, it wouldn’t be all that strange.
Since his days behind the microphone at Radio Biafra, Kanu has called on foreign nations to support the struggle for Biafra, either through pressure or more tangible means.
None of the countries have uttered a word in support; it is very unlikely that Israel would be the first to extend hands of help.
But that has not stopped Nnamdi Kanu from trying.
Some of the Igbos can already see his writing on the wall .
"A Jew named Nnamdi is going to lead you into the Promised land"
At the end of May, Kanu hosted a large Shabbat party outside his family’s country home. He was joined by IPOB members who had ‘converted’ to Judaism and a large congregation from the Yahwah Yashua Synagogue.
Kanu used this opportunity to establish a connection between the spiritual and political parts of his struggle — telling his followers that the worship of the “God of Israel” is central to his vision of a free Biafra.
“We’re going to worship in temples and synagogues”, he said.
Nnamdi Kanu desperately needs the Igbo to believe that they are descendants of the Jews.
On the surface, it may seem like misdirected floundering. But in reality, it is an important chapter in his mission to sit at the helm of the Igbo struggle for Biafra.
Everyone knows it is easier to get people to fight for something when they believe in it. Besides, it’s Nigeria, adding some religion to the mix doesn’t hurt anybody.