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ANALYSIS: How pro-Biafra disinformation machine churns out fiction as facts

Nearly 50 years after the civil war ended in Nigeria, the struggle to keep the dream of a separate Biafra state alive continues, including through a relentless disinformation campaign on social media.

Several online reports have depicted the independence of the south-eastern region of Nigeria as receiving the support of many world leaders, with its declaration as a sovereign state only a matter of time.

Even Pope Francis has said that Biafra was the “will of God”, urging the United Nations to do something, if these reports are to be believed. In turn, the UN is set to declare ‘Biafraland’ an independent nation in 2020 should President Muhammadu Buhari resist its impending secession. 

So inevitable is the push that the World Bank is preparing Biafra’s national currency and laying the ground for a central bank, we are told. A national airline is also on the cards, not to mention an oil refinery with US$200 billion in funding from US President Donald Trump.

This pro-Biafran content on social media is usually received with cheers by supporters of an independent state. But  - the headlines are fiction dressed up as facts.

Telltale signs of false news

In 2019 Africa Check spent a great deal of time fact-checking several of these false reports. Many had telltale signs of disinformation: they were poorly written, almost never attributed sources, and often contained mislabelled or manipulated photos and videos.

Organisations supposedly sympathetic to the Biafran cause, like the World Bank, refuted any associations when we contacted them, as did several experts we spoke to in the course of our work.

There are distribution penalties on some social media platforms. For example, if we debunked these claims on Facebook through our partnership with the company, any “false” rating drastically reduced the number of people who saw the posts. (For more on how this partnership works, see here.)

But the pro-Biafra disinformation machinery, like their decades-long campaign anchored in resource redistribution, is nothing if not resilient. We’ve seen far more dodgy content than we’ve been able to fact-check. 

Pro-Biafran organisations using propaganda tools

One of the organisations leading the renewed agitation for Biafran independence is the Indigenous People of Biafra. Its founder, Nnamdi Kanu, first revived Radio Biafra in 2009, using it to further the organisation’s pro-independence cause with broadcasts from London.
An image of Nnamdi Kanu, Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) leader, hangs on a wall in a house in Umuahia, one of the pro-Biafran separatist regions, on February 13, 2019, ahead of Nigerian elections. Photo: CRISTINA ALDEHUELA / AFP

Researchers have found that the pirate radio station also supplies disinformation, similar to the online content we’ve rated. They recommended that this “potent tool” be used “to promote history and cultural integration” in Nigeria rather than being an “instrument of secession and disintegration”.

Prof Lai Oso, who teaches mass communication at Lagos State University’s School of Communication, likened Biafra’s online disinformation campaign to propaganda

Oso is also the president of the Association of Communication Scholars and Professionals of Nigeria.

“In this era when fact-checking is becoming common and advancements in technology have made it easier for people to find facts, propaganda or disinformation is not a good communication strategy,” he told Africa Check.

A professor of mass communication at the Enugu State University of Science and Technology, Emmanuel Udeze, told Africa Check that the false claims about Biafra seem to be taking advantage of the limitations of social media when it comes to gatekeeping

“This is the other side of citizen journalism. Because everyone can now do reports and disseminate information, you can’t prevent the publishing of false information online.” 

“And because of people’s varying levels of understanding, quite a number of people can be fooled to believe false information at first,” Udeze said. He felt that this approach was likely to backfire.

Udeze, whose research interests include the image of nations in international media, said that at its origin propaganda was used for good by the Catholic Church.

But during the two world wars in the 20th century misinformation and disinformation became part of propaganda, according to Udeze. In his view, it is not a durable strategy. “Negative propaganda can sway people but not for long.”

Misinformation persists about Biafran history

Biafra has a history of employing propaganda to push its separatism agenda, the resident historian at the Centre for Memories, Prof Rina Okonkwo, told Africa Check. 

The centre is located in Enugu, a city which served as the provisional capital of Biafra, and its mission is to be “a repository of the history and culture” of Igbo people, the predominant tribe of the secessionist republic.

Okonkwo said she has researched the civil war in preparation for the centre’s exhibition in January 2020 to mark the 50th anniversary of Biafra’s military collapse. 

“I believe there was a lot of misinformation then by the Biafran government. They made everybody believe they were winning the war when they were not,” she said.

Okonkwo, who also teaches history at Godfrey Okoye University, Enugu, said this approach helped make the war go on for longer. 

“I’ve also found evidence of misinformation around the blaming of saboteurs for all the failings of the Biafran leadership,” she added.

Many studies have looked at the Biafran propaganda during the war as well the role the old version of Radio Biafra played in it. 

Will there be more studies in the future looking at the impact of social media on the ongoing Biafra agitation? We wouldn’t rule it out.


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