The leader of the secessionist Indigenous People of Biafra is Jewish, as are many members, and that’s putting the community at greater risk of attack.
The tapping noise from Ima Nwachukwu’s footsteps breaks the solemn silence as the 49-year-old rabbi walks among worshippers draped in white robes, prayer shawls and yarmulkes at a synagogue in Port Harcourt, Nigeria’s third-largest city. “Remember you are not the only one persecuted. Jews all over the world are,” she tells them. She bows before the Star of David — ringed by a ribbon of blue light — at the end of a long sermon in which politics, persecution and purification all mingle.
It’s a sermon rooted in a sharpening battle for survival that Nigeria’s small but fast-growing Jewish community faces. Africa’s most populous nation has seen its Jewish population double over the past five years to an estimated 10,000 people. Synagogues in the country have also doubled in this period, from fewer than 10 to at least 20 today. But now, the community finds itself increasingly caught in a violent battle between Nigerian authorities and a revived secessionist movement for the creation of Biafra, which briefly existed as a separate nation in the 1960s.
The Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB), the separatist movement that’s a successor to the earlier Biafra campaign, is led by Nnamdi Kanu, a British-Nigerian political activist who is Jewish. Most of Nigeria’s Jews are from the country’s southeast, which is also the home of the Biafra movement. They largely belong to the Igbo, Nigeria’s third-largest ethnic community, which has formed the base for the separatist campaign since the 1960s. Jewish Nigerian protesters have joined peaceful marches seeking a separate state. And though IPOB doesn’t directly link its demand for a new country to Judaism, Kanu resurfaced in Israel late last year, a year after going underground following raids at his home. All that has set the stage for increasingly targeted attacks by Nigerian agencies against the Jewish community and its places of worship. More than 50 Jewish worshippers were arrested last December in the southeast state of Abia after they called for a separate Biafra. In January last year, Nigerian police forces raided a synagogue, also in Abia, and arrested two people over alleged links to the IPOB. But according to upset worshippers, they also took away the synagogue’s Torah and the Tanakh. Police raided another synagogue in the state in February. In 2016, an Amnesty International investigation showed that Nigerian forces had killed more than 150 pro-Biafra activists that year.
Nigerian authorities deny any religious-based persecution, insisting that they’re only targeting a terrorist group, the IPOB. But at least 28 Jews were among those killed in 2016, some of them taken from — or shot at in — synagogues and Kanu’s home. The walls of Nwachukwu’s synagogue are pockmarked with bullet holes. And the growing violence against Jews could lead to a chilling effect on the religion’s growth in Nigeria, some leaders fear.
“The synagogue is one of the riskiest places to stay,” says Yermeyahu Chukwukadibi, a Hebrew teacher and rabbi who heads a synagogue in Port Harcourt, in the southeastern River state. “People are afraid of identifying with Jews because of the persecution.”
The origins of Nigeria’s Jews are disputed. Many within the community believe they’re one of Israel’s “lost tribes.” Ancient Jewish scripts suggest communities that existed in North Africa may have spread to West Africa — and Nigeria — several centuries ago, some historians say. “We are not Jews by adoption,” says Abah Enage, a storyteller who is widely considered a custodian of the Jewish tradition in Nigeria. Many non-Jewish members of the Igbo community believe their ancestors too were Jewish and were converted to Christianity during British colonial rule.
Others disagree and suggest that Judaism in Nigeria is a relatively recent 20th-century phenomenon. Paul Obi-Ani, a history professor who is himself Igbo and teaches at the University of Nigeria in the southeast city of Nsukka, says Igbo Jews and the ancient Israelites share “cultural trait resemblances” but that there’s little “established historical evidence” of ancient links.
Where there’s unanimity, though, is over the rapid growth of Nigeria’s Jewish community in recent years — and how that expansion and the Biafra movement have fed into each other. Kanu is a practicing Jew who wears his religion publicly, in his appearances, speeches and public prayers. That, combined with the perceived support he enjoys from Israel — the country hasn’t publicly backed IPOB but didn’t bar Kanu from staying there in exile either — have helped Judaism’s popularity among the Igbo community at a time the Biafra movement has picked up again. Nwachukwu, in fact, appeals to Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for help against Nigerian authorities. “He is our leader,” she said. “Let him not forget the seed of his people abroad. We shall — one day — return to Jerusalem, our motherland, one day.”
A comradeship over a shared sense of persecution with Jews — over their history, and not just in Nigeria — also makes the religion attractive to many in the Igbo community as it fights for a separate land, say some analysts. “When you persecute minorities, you give them the opportunity to grow, to become known and to gather sympathies,” says Chikodiri Nwangwu, a political scientist at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka. Nigeria’s Jews, he says, deserve better. “They are citizens of Nigeria and deserve full right to practice their religion.”
So far, Nigerian authorities have shown no intent to change their approach. In fact, Jewish community leaders say attacks have been getting worse — they point out that there’s been a discernible uptick since U.S. President Donald Trump moved the American embassy in Israel to Jerusalem in 2018. Also, authorization requests for peaceful protests are being turned down, they say. Government officials claim that’s to avoid potentially violent clashes, but critics say it’s a way to stop Nigerian Jews from articulating concerns publicly.
Either way, those worries aren’t going anywhere. Not while Nigeria’s Jews are in the crosshairs of authorities battling a separatist movement.