Pope Francis greeted a group of activists from the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) group, who are campaigning for secession from Nigeria, after they gathered at the Vatican on Sunday.
IPOB is led by Nnamdi Kanu, a U.K.-Nigerian dual citizen who is currently detained in Nigeria, facing trial for treasonable felony. Kanu is the director of Radio Biafra, an underground media outlet that broadcasts material in favour of an independent state of Biafra in southeast Nigeria.
Nigerian military officer Odumegwu Ojukwu declared Biafran independence in 1967, sparking a three-year civil war that resulted in more than one million deaths and ended in 1970 with Biafra being reintegrated into Nigeria. Agitation for a separate state of Biafra has been rejected by the Nigerian government, with President Muhammadu Buhari affirming that the West African country is “one indivisible entity.”
During his weekly Angelus address—where the Pope addresses crowds of pilgrims gathered in St. Peter’s Square from the balcony of the Apostolic Palace—Francis extended a word of welcome to the indigenous people of Biafra. The Pope’s statement was greeted with cheers and celebration by the Biafran group, who were waving flags during the address.
The Pope traditionally greets travelling groups of pilgrims during his weekly addresses and the Vatican has not publicly commented on the Pope’s position on Biafran agitation for secession. Nigeria opened an embassy to the Holy See in August 2012 but diplomatic relations go back to 1976 and were conducted through Nigeria’s embassy in Spain prior to 2012.
Kanu’s trial is due to commence in the Nigerian capital Abuja on March 7. The charges against the activist, who is based in London, carry a potential life sentence.
During its three-year existence, the majority population of Biafra was made up of members of the Igbo ethnic group. When Britain declared the united state of Nigeria in 1914, Igbos in the east and southeast were joined together with members of the Hausa and Yoruba ethnic groups in the north and west respectively. Igbos are largely Christian while the Hausa are mainly Muslim.