Every evening as five o’clock approaches, the clogged, perpetually dusty streets of this industrial city in southeast Nigeria begin to empty.
Groups of men just off work go inside, shut their doors and tune their radios to 102.1 FM.
Then an anthem begins to play, and a voice says “Kedu” — “how are you” in the Igbo language — to welcome listeners to the daily broadcast of Radio Biafra.
For the next 90 minutes, hosts and various guests proselytize for the revival of an old dream: the creation of an independent state called Biafra.
The broadcasts, conducted live from an undisclosed location in Nigeria, are illegal, and the group behind them — the Indigenous People of Biafra, or IPOB — has been classified by the government as a terrorist organization since 2017. Its leaders say they eschew violence and want a peaceful settlement of the issue through a national referendum.
Activists say people caught listening to the station have been arrested or beaten. But many residents here say they are willing to take the risk.
Radio Biafra is a daily reminder of the bloody civil war that ravaged Nigeria between 1967 and 1970. The conflict started when a Nigerian military general, Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu, declared an independent state of Biafra. It ended after more than a million deaths, mostly from starvation after the government imposed a food blockade on the region.
Ultimately, the rebels surrendered and the area was reintegrated into Nigeria under the government motto “No Victor, No Vanquished.”
But the memory of the brutal war looms large in Aba, feeding enthusiasm for the broadcasts despite extremely long odds that Biafra will ever come to be.
The main host is a man who goes by the name Emma Powerful and dedicates much of his airtime to railing against the government and organizing protests such as a short-lived boycott of national elections earlier this year.
Stay home “to make an everlasting impression on the world stage that we Biafrans are prepared to sacrifice everything,” he instructed listeners. “Anybody or family found outside on election day will perpetually suffer the ignominy of being labeled a traitor.”
Much of the radio station’s wrath is directed at President Muhammadu Buhari, who was reelected in February and has said that Nigeria’s unity is not negotiable, shutting the door on any discussions about a referendum.
Buhari is from the Muslim-dominated north.
The supporters of Biafran independence are from the southeast, mostly from the Igbo ethnic group, which numbers about 29 million people, or about 14% of the the country’s population.
Many Igbo people feel marginalized by the government far away in the capital, Abuja, and resent the heavy military presence in the region.
In 2016, Amnesty International accused the Nigerian military of embarking on a “chilling campaign of extrajudicial executions and violence” that resulted in the death of at least 150 peaceful pro-Biafra protestors over the course of a year.
The Nigerian military denied the claims, with Brig. Gen. Rabe Abubakar calling the report part of “a series of spurious fabrications aimed at tarnishing the good image of the Nigerian military.”
Outside experts and some locals suggested in interviews that tensions were on the rise.
“We feel like slaves in our own land,” says Victor Smith, a 23-year-old university student living in the city of Enugu. “It’s only a matter of time until [the army] pushes and people push back. We are getting stretched to the limit.”
Smith, who studies political science, said he listens to Radio Biafra, but has mixed feelings about it. He said he would like more discussion of the concrete policies he thinks will be necessary for a new state to function.
“What about policy discussions? Trade agreements?” he said. “We are making plans to leave, but where are we going. How are we going?”
A frequent voice on Radio Biafra is its founder, 51-year-old Nnamdi Kanu, who is patched in from London. The station first aired in 2009, only to close because of financial difficulties. It was revived three years later, when Kanu founded IPOB.
In 2015, after Kanu told a conference in Los Angeles that his group needed guns and bullets, he was arrested by the Nigerian government and charged with criminal conspiracy, intimidation and membership of an illegal organization. Kanu’s lawyers said his comments were political rhetoric and not an actual call to arms, according to the Telegraph newspaper in London.
Kanu spent 19 months in prison without trial before being released on bail in 2017. Later that year, according to IPOB, the Nigerian army raided his palatial home in Abia state, where Aba is located, and killed several of his supporters. The army denied that the raid ever took place.
This January, Kanu tweeted that he was in Britain. He holds citizenship there and in Nigeria.
The Nigerian government at various points has claimed to have blocked Radio Biafra broadcasts by shutting down radio frequencies and seizing transmitters.
But any successes were short-lived, and the efforts have become fodder for more ridicule of the government, including criticism that it is failing in its fight against Boko Haram, which nobody disputes is a terrorist organization.
“The government is insistent on spending scarce resources on tracing and jamming Radio Biafra while northern Nigeria is terrorized by Boko Haram daily,” Powerful said in an interview.
Gauging support for the cause of Biafra is difficult, as is determining how many people tune into the radio broadcasts.
One listener is Julius Nwokorocha, who at age 21 was drafted by Ojukwu’s army to fight in the war and served until he was injured in an explosion.
Today at 72, he lives in a tiny cement bungalow in Aba and never misses a broadcast.
Nwokorocha doesn’t agree with everything he hears, but he believes that there needs to be a national conversation about independence for Biafra.
“We still don’t feel like a part of Nigeria,” he said. “The army said, ‘No victor, no vanquished,’ but look at the federal roads here in the east. Most of them are bad. It feels like we are punished every day.”
“Kanu says a lot of things that are impossible,” he said. “But if Biafra happens tomorrow, it will be one of the greatest countries in the world.”
The end of each broadcast means his day is complete.
Life begins to return to the city as listeners emerge from their homes and shops. In the beer parlors, arguments can be heard about the day’s show.
By OLUWATOSIN ADESHOKAN and KRISTA MAHR