Hudson Institute

Understanding the “Unknown Gunmen” Who Attacked a US Convoy in Nigeria

Research Fellow
A police officer stops a car at a check point ahead of the February 25 presidential election at Awka in Anambra State, southeast Nigeria, on February 16, 2023. (Pius Utomi Ekpei/AFP via Getty Images)

On May 16, gunmen attacked an advance convoy of the United States mission in Nigeria as it traveled through a rural part of Anambra state in the country’s southeast. The gunmen killed four people—two Nigerians who worked for the mission, and two members of their Nigerian police escort—and abducted three others, prompting a flurry of international media coverage. Several hours after the incident, National Security Council spokesman John Kirby stressed that “no US citizens” were involved in the incident, and international media quickly echoed this claim. In keeping with an unfortunate trend, Kirby’s statement downplayed the sacrifice of the four Nigerians who perished in the attack.

I recently conducted fieldwork in southeastern Nigeria, through which I interviewed different actors behind the insecurity there. I hope to provide a bit of context to this incident so that policymakers, analysts, and the media can understand how an attack like this could come about and avoid misinterpreting the incident. 

At present, the available information points to a random assault of the sort that has become all too common on Nigeria’s highways rather than a coordinated, premeditated attack aimed at US personnel or interests. No group has claimed responsibility for the assault, and it is unlikely that any will come forth. The seeming randomness of the attack underscores the extent to which insecurity in Nigeria’s southeast is characterized less by a traditional insurgency than by an evolving hybrid of criminal, political, and ideological violence that different political actors can choose to portray and manipulate to suit their interests. Though random, the attack on US diplomacy in Africa will likely have significant ramifications.

IPOB and Violence in the Southeast

So far, both Nigerian and international media coverage of the incident have implicated the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB), a movement seeking autonomy or secession for Nigeria’s Igbo people, as the likely perpetrator of the attack. Superficially, this is plausible. The Nigerian government has proscribed IPOB as a terrorist organization and asserts that it aims to break away from Nigeria by force. The government has also accused IPOB’s gunmen of waging an insurgency throughout the region since 2021. This begs the question of why the US would send a convoy through an area “controlled by insurgents.”

The problem with this framing is that there is no coherent insurgency in southeastern Nigeria as such. Nigerian officials and Biafran agitators alike claim there is one, even if some may admit it has become “factionalized” with rival groups vying for power. But IPOB is not factionalized so much as it lacks any coherent identity at all. Although there are rival self-styled leaders of the movement—principally individuals in the diaspora who attack each other over Twitter and Facebook—it remains unclear the extent to which any of these figures direct the violence on the ground. All the while, a host of criminal and militant groups in the southeast have begun operating under the guise of IPOB’s armed wing in a way that obfuscates the true nature and intent of their operations.

Since the end of Nigeria’s civil war in 1970, Igbos have sought greater representation in national politics. These aspirations have not been fully realized, and Igbos have espoused widespread grievances against the Nigerian government and nostalgia for the short-lived Republic of Biafra that was defeated in the civil war. The reintroduction of electoral politics in Nigeria in 1999 resulted in a series of Biafran agitations that Nigerian authorities met alternatively with repression and cooptation. 

IPOB formed in the early 2010s under the leadership of the charismatic—if eccentric—radio broadcaster Nnamdi Kanu. It may be tempting to blame inflated egos like Kanu’s that have long undermined the unity of Biafran organizations for IPOB’s fracturing. IPOB itself formed as a splinter of another group that Kanu accused of selling out. But a more pertinent reason can be found in the haphazard means by which IPOB, mostly a peaceful group throughout the 2010s, came to militarize itself and, in turn, allow different criminal and political actors to weaponize its reputation for political ends. 

IPOB’s more militant phase began after Nigerian security forces launched a heavy-handed crackdown on the movement in 2017. Some sources say the crackdown was driven by President Muhammadu Buhari’s personal animosity toward Kanu, who had aired sensationalist radio broadcasts mocking the president. Kanu went into exile after this crackdown and remained there until he was kidnapped in Kenya and illegally repatriated by Nigerian intelligence services in June 2021. The Buhari government has held him in detention ever since, contravening a court ruling. (The incoming president is widely expected to release Kanu upon taking office later this month in an effort to promote “national unity”—and no doubt be rid of this legal inconvenience.)

While in exile, Kanu had begun restructuring his movement along the lines of an armed struggle. Notably, in December 2020, Kanu announced the creation of an “Eastern Security Network” (ESN), ostensibly to defend southeastern communities against attacks by violent herdsmen from the north of the country (a genuine problem, though exaggerated by IPOB propagandists). In doing so, Kanu sought to build a broader popular base by supplanting the Nigerian state as the primary guarantor of security for local communities. Kanu also formed the ESN to establish a pretext for his own movement to use violence as it saw fit, a prerequisite for waging an organized insurgency. But it seems that Kanu overestimated his ability to control the various young men that would flock to his cause, a problem that only grew worse after Kanu’s extraordinary rendition and subsequent detention. As early as 2021, a Nigerian think-tank, SBM Intelligence, predicted that the movement would factionalize as a result of personality clashes and competition between its leaders over money, which largely proved to be the case.

Though IPOB has never claimed any operations against the Nigerian government, “unknown gunmen,” as IPOB supporters would ironically refer to implied ESN members, began to conduct sophisticated attacks in the southeast in January 2021. The organized and targeted nature of these initial operations suggests that Kanu’s lieutenants had something of a core armed wing at the start of their campaign. But various sources I interviewed in the southeast believe that IPOB very quickly turned to relying on local criminal gangs to put weight behind the ESN. A jailbreak in the southeastern state of Imo on Easter weekend in 2021, widely believed but never proven to have been orchestrated by Kanu’s lieutenants, resulted in the escape of nearly 2,000 inmates. Many of these inmates are believed to have nominally joined ESN after. There was an attendant spike in violence in the region perpetrated by both state and non-state actors after this jailbreak. Shifting to a full war footing, the Nigerian military responded in a dragnet fashion, forcing local residents to walk, arms up, through hastily erected checkpoints and sending helicopter gunships into villages suspected of harboring the gunmen. These tactics were sure to exacerbate popular grievances in communities with living memories of a horrific civil war. But IPOB could not fully capitalize on this popular backlash against the Nigerian government, as Kanu’s movement quickly ceased to operate as a coherent organization.

Kanu and his lieutenants may have expected to rally and organize the various gangs of the region into a cohesive Biafran army. But instead, many of these gangs that were nominally loyal to Kanu benefited from using IPOB and ESN as a guise for their parochial criminal activities. In 2022, Kanu’s cohort had begun more vocally to espouse nonviolence and focus on legal petitions and public protests to secure Kanu’s release from unlawful detention. Yet, in these individuals’ view, the misguided rhetoric of some of the more visibly militant spokesmen like Simon Ekpa (see below) led the public to blame IPOB and ESN for extortionary violence against local Igbo communities that Kanu would never endorse. While these IPOB leaders’ frustrations seem genuine, they overlook the Pandora’s box that Kanu opened when he allowed criminal gangs in the southeast to rebrand as Biafran freedom fighters.

The year leading up to Nigeria’s February 2023 elections featured an uptick in various kinds of violence in the southeast. Gunmen engaged in typical insurgent violence against security forces, while ordinary residents were also targeted by violent kidnappings for ransom. Additionally, northern Nigerians residing in the southeast were the victims of murders likely intended to stoke intercommunal tensions and perhaps pave the way for ethnic cleansing in an eventual Biafran state. Perhaps most notably, “unknown gunmen” attacked the offices of the national election commission more frequently than such offices had ever been attacked before in Nigerian history. Political candidates, judges, and party officials were also assassinated at alarming rates. 

The southeast thus earned the unenviable distinction of being the epicenter of election-related attacks in the months leading up to February 2023. While there was hardly any accountability for the violence, it seemed likely that political figures had coopted many of the “unknown gunmen” allegedly associated with the ESN to advance specific political interests, such as suppressing turnout or assassinating a political rival. Credible reports also implicated legally questionable militias known as Ebube Agu, ostensibly established by the southeastern governors to fight IPOB/ESN gangs, in some of the violence.

Simon Ekpa’s rise to prominence in 2022 further muddled the picture. A Finland-based social media pugilist and self-anointed prime minister of the “Biafran Government in Exile,” Ekpa made a name for himself with his open embrace of bloodshed and calls for militants to enforce a weekly general strike known as a “sit-at-home” order in the southeast. Many Nigerian analysts and security officials see his bellicose tweets as evidence that Ekpa leads the bulk of the militants in the region and has succeeded Kanu as leader of IPOB. (Ekpa still claims fealty to Kanu despite falling out with most of Kanu’s closest associates.) But many individuals close to Kanu, as well as some self-described ESN members whom I have interviewed, dispute Ekpa’s command or influence, accusing him instead of being a front man for the political interests that began using the IPOB/ESN cover for partisan violence in the lead up to elections.

Much remains unclear about the exact roles of different individuals in the violence. But it is safe to say that, by the start of 2023, Nigeria’s southeast had become home to a mélange of different criminal groups, nominally ideological insurgents, and state-backed militias that were all implicated in horrific violence against local communities and federal security forces. Meanwhile, the various sponsors of this violence benefited from the fact that this complex array of violent actors would be reduced to a simple and singular narrative of Biafran secessionist violence. In the national discourse, blame would fall squarely on the shoulders of people like Kanu or Ekpa. In thinking he would form a Biafran army with ESN, Kanu had instead undermined IPOB’s claim to be fighting on behalf of ordinary Igbo and invited various self-interested parties to hijack his movement.

Prelude to the Attack: A Shifting Militant Landscape in Anambra

Elections came and went in southeastern Nigeria with high turnout in cities and low turnout in rural communities ravaged by violence. (Working as an observer in the southeast on election day, I was turned away at a checkpoint on my way to one community due to an attack in the vicinity.) In the months leading up to the elections, violence had been concentrated in the northern parts of Imo state, while Anambra saw the second highest level of incidents. Most of the gunmen were believed to operate in forest camps straddling the Imo-Anambra borders, though their operations were primarily concentrated in Imo for reasons that seem rooted in that state’s particularly complex and vicious politics. Just a few days before elections in February, the violence started to shift northward from Imo into Anambra and persisted there for several weeks for reasons that were not immediately clear.

In response to the uptick of “unknown gunmen” in Anambra, the military and police launched a joint operation in late April aimed at uprooting the gangs operating along the state’s southern and eastern districts that abut Imo. These operations seem to have been relatively successful on their own terms. Security forces killed one gang leader, and the gunmen abandoned a number of their camps along the axis. But as is often the case with these offensives, the result was more like a balloon being squeezed than popped.

Many details of the incident remain unclear, but the picture that emerges so far suggests that this attack was most likely random and opportunistic rather than a premeditated effort to attack US personnel or interests. The gunmen laid an ambush on the convoy on one of the main roads in Ogbaru, shooting into the vehicles and dragging several people out of the wreckage before the Nigerian military could respond based on the alerts it received. 

Unfortunately, this type of ambush is an almost daily occurrence on Nigeria’s highways, including in the southeast. Gunmen in that region rely on kidnapping for ransom to sustain their operations, and after facing inconvenient setbacks at the hands of the security forces, they would be all the more likely to seek a quick influx of resources that a hostage-taking has the potential to provide. This would especially be the case if their new base of operations, in this case Ogbaru, were only temporary, as one source with knowledge of militancy in the region suggested. In that case, they would have much to gain and little to lose by conducting a kidnapping in the area. Unfortunately, these gunmen (and their informants) have gotten very good at identifying potential VIP convoys, even ones that are relatively discrete. Based on what I have heard about the incident, it strikes me as most likely that the gunmen or their informants spotted the convoy and, without knowing who was inside, wagered that it contained targets worth attempting to kidnap. If the gunmen had conscious plans to attack US mission personnel, and if they had the intelligence and sophistication to carry out such an operation, we may expect that they would have recognized the convoy that passed through on May 16 for what it was—an advance team—and waited to target the main convoy. What they did instead suggests an opportunistic attack against what they recognized as a likely high-value target, but perhaps not knowing anything more than that. This explanation still leaves some questions unanswered, namely regarding the apparent brutality that these kidnappers meted out against their victims. (Although, in my research I have found that some kidnappers are more violent than others, and the gunmen in this region have shown a particular animosity toward police, which could have been a factor here.) But this theory strikes me as more plausible than that of a targeted, ideologically motivated attack given my understanding of militancy in the southeast and what we know about the convoy and its route.

Conclusion: Balancing the Risks and Requirements of Diplomacy in Nigeria

The tragedy of May 16 is bound to reignite a policy discussion about the US diplomatic posture in Nigeria—the number and location of US personnel within the country and the procedures and restrictions governing both their official and personal movement. I have been of the opinion that one of the handicaps of US policy in Nigeria, and Africa more broadly, is the post-Benghazi security cordon around US officials that makes it difficult for them to visit and thereby better understand the country’s different hotspots. Indeed, as insecurity has spread across Nigeria in recent years, embassy personnel have increasingly been confined to the Abuja metropolis or the central neighborhoods around the consulate in the commercial capital of Lagos. As many diplomats are aware, there are drawbacks to limiting US diplomacy to the safety of conference halls and cocktail receptions in the most expatriate-heavy neighborhoods of these two metropoles. Abuja is a convenient meeting spot for the country’s political elite. But there is no substitute for seeing the country’s diverse regions first-hand and building relationships with locals outside the federal capital. 

Yet as the latest incident reveals, the risk of deadly attacks along many of Nigeria’s roadways is quite high. And these are random attacks, to say nothing of the more organized insurgents who might conceivably have a political or ideological interest in proactively attacking US government personnel. The security situation being as unpredictable as it is, it will be all the more tempting for US officials to err on the side of caution when it comes to moving about Nigeria.

The goal of a State Department review of America’s diplomatic footprint should be to find means of improving the safety and security of US personnel without succumbing to a further “Green Zonification” of the US diplomatic presence in a country that, while volatile, is quite strategically significant.