Nige­rian Igbo Leader Says He’s Now A Jew

Fire­brand sep­a­ratist Nnamdi Kanu urges his fol­low­ers to pray to Yah­weh.

Forward Magazine - - News - By Sam Kesten­baum Con­tact Sam Kesten­baum at kesten­baum@ for­ward.com or fol­low him on Twit­ter, @skesten­baum

Af­ter spend­ing year and a half im­pris­oned by the Nige­rian gov­ern­ment, the pop­ulist leader was fi­nally free and sur­rounded by his sup­port­ers. He wore a long gown with a prayer shawl draped over his shoul­ders. Rais­ing his hands, he greeted the crowd with one He­brew word: “Shalom.”

Is one of Nige­ria’s most fa­mous po­lit­i­cal ac­tivists a Jew? It’s com­pli­cated. He says so, at least. Nnamdi Kanu, leader of the group In­dige­nous Peo­ple of Bi­afra, calls him­self a Jew who “be­lieves in Ju­daism.” He urges his fol­low­ers to obey the Ten Com­mand­ments and to pray to Yah­weh, a He­brew form of God’s name. He ap­pears to be af­fil­i­ated with a He­brew-styled, Je­sus Christ-ori­ented con­gre­ga­tion in south­east Nige­ria.

Kanu is the charis­matic leader of a group call­ing for an in­de­pen­dent state called Bi­afra, in the south of the coun­try — in what would be a sov­er­eign na­tion for the Igbo, one of the coun­try’s largest eth­nic groups.

“I was born to re­store Bi­afra,” he said to a cheer­ing crowd in late May. “I say Bi­afra or death.”

Last month marked 50 years since the bru­tal Bi­afran Civil War rav­aged south­ern Nige­ria. More than 1 mil­lion of the Igbo died in a failed bid for in­de­pen­dence. Ten­sions are sim­mer­ing again as Kanu and his group are once more call­ing for in­de­pen­dence — and Kanu’s em­brace of Ju­daism is now part of his plat­form.

In call­ing him­self a Jew, Kanu is not alone among the Igbo. While most of the 34 mil­lion Igbo are Christian, there is a wide­spread be­lief among the Igbo that they are the ge­nealog­i­cal de­scen­dants of the bib­li­cal Is­raelites. Most are staunch sup­port­ers of the State of Is­rael — and see in Zion­ism a model for their own na­tional move­ment. In more re­cent decades, Igbo have been adopt­ing Jewish rit­u­als and be­lief into church ser­vices. Some have also for­mally con­verted.

Now, Kanu, the most high-pro­file fig­ure in what is po­ten­tially an ex­plo­sive po­lit­i­cal move­ment, is pro­claim­ing him­self a Jew.

“He is the most pop­u­lar Igbo man to­day,” said Remy Ilona, a Nige­rian lawyer and the au­thor of the 2014 book “The Ig­bos and Is­rael.” “And now he is re­turn­ing to, or adopt­ing, Ju­daism.”

Who ex­actly is Kanu? He has re­ceived a flurry of in­ter­na­tional press in re­cent days,

but few have noted the deeply spir­i­tual el­e­ment of his lead­er­ship.

He was born and raised in Nige­ria’s south­east, but only while liv­ing in Bri­tain did he come to promi­nence as a na­tion­al­ist leader. In 2009 he started Ra­dio Bi­afra, a Lon­don sta­tion that called for an in­de­pen­dent state for the Igbo peo­ple.

In some of his broad­casts, he seemed to urge Bi­afrans to take up arms against the Nige­rian state. “We need guns and we need bul­lets,” he said in one such ad­dress, the BBC re­ported.

While IPOB main­tains that this “was a metaphor,” it was com­ments like this that led to Kanu’s gov­ern­ment de­ten­tion.

In Oc­to­ber 2015, af­ter ar­riv­ing in Nige­ria for a visit, he was ar­rested in a La­gos ho­tel and charged with “crim­i­nal con­spir­acy, in­tim­i­da­tion and mem­ber­ship [in] an il­le­gal or­ga­ni­za­tion.”

De­tained for months by the Nige­rian gov­ern­ment, his celebrity only grew.

And lo­cal pa­pers be­gan not­ing an in­ter­est­ing de­vel­op­ment: Peo­ple dressed in all white, wear­ing Jewish prayer shawls, be­gan com­ing out to sup­port Kanu.

These “strange men” said they were “Jews from the South-East re­gion of Nige­ria,” the web­site Naij.com wrote. “The men… prayed for him out­side the court premises.”

Then Kanu him­self be­gan dress­ing like these “strange men.” “Nnamdi Kanu seems to be hav­ing a swell time be­hind bars as he glows in a mag­nif­i­cent Jewish cloth,” the Nige­rian web­site Tori.ng wrote.

Other ob­servers were skep­ti­cal of Kanu’s trans­for­ma­tion.

“It is not clear if Kanu has con­verted to Ju­daism while in de­ten­tion since Oc­to­ber 2015,” one writer posted on the web­site Nai­jiant.com. “Kanu’s choice of cloth­ing may be an at­tempt to se­cure Jewish or Is­raeli sup­port for his cause. But it is not quite clear if this would work.”

This spring, af­ter a year and a half of de­ten­tion, Kanu and the court fi­nally came to a bail agree­ment. Not­ing Kanu’s re­li­gious af­fil­i­a­tion, the judge re­quested that Kanu present at his bail hear­ing a “highly respected and rec­og­nized Jewish leader.” And one showed up. On April 29, Van­guard ran a front­page story about how a “Jewish chief high priest,” named Im­manuel- El Shalom Oka-Ben ap­peared in court, helping to se­cure Kanu’s re­lease. “By Yah­weh’s grace I be­lieve he will be re­leased as soon as pos­si­ble be­cause noth­ing is more than our cre­ator in heaven,” the priest told the re­porter.

Fi­nally out of im­pris­on­ment, Kanu trav­eled the coun­try. Pho­tos of Kanu, now widely seen as an al­most Mes­siah-like hero for the Igbo, cir­cu­lated widely on­line. He is al­ways pic­tured wear­ing a prayer shawl or a head cov­er­ing.

At the end of last month he hosted a large Shab­bat ser­vice out­side his fam­ily’s com­pound, along­side a large con­gre­ga­tion called the Yah­weh Yahshua Sy­n­a­gogue. “Yahshua” is a He­brew ren­der­ing of Je­sus. A video of the ser­vice was streamed on­line, pic­tur­ing throngs clad in prayer shawls.

Kanu ad­dressed the crowd and made it clear that his mis­sion was both po­lit­i­cal and spir­i­tual.

“If you obey the Ten Com­mand­ments of our Lord and our God,” Kanu said. “Bi­afra will come.”

The wor­ship of the “God of Is­rael,” Kanu said, is cen­tral to his vi­sion of a free Bi­afra. “We are go­ing to wor­ship in tem­ples and syn­a­gogues,” he said.

Kanu said that this was the first ob­ser­vance of Shab­bat in his fam­ily’s com­pound, and a mean­ing­ful mo­ment.

“My joy knows no bounds, be­cause in pri­son I used to dream about this, used to dream of keep­ing Shab­bat, and to­day Shab­bat has been kept in my house,” Kanu said.

While the day was a cel­e­bra­tion, many wor­ried that it would lead to Kanu’s im­pris­on­ment again — be­cause he was once again call­ing openly for Bi­afran in­de­pen­dence and speak­ing in front of a large crowd. One con­di­tion of his re­lease was that he would not be in the com­pany of more than 10 peo­ple.

Kanu’s lawyer de­fended his client’s ad­dress to the con­gre­ga­tion.

“Re­mem­ber that Kanu is a Jew,” the lawyer told a lo­cal re­porter, fram­ing it as a mat­ter of re­li­gious free­dom. “The court, for ex­am­ple, can­not say that Kanu should not go to church.”

Kanu’s move ‘may be an at­tempt to at­tract Jewish or Is­raeli sup­port,’ said one writer.

GETTY IM­AGES

Clothes Make The Man: Kanu wears a Jewish prayer shawl in late May as he leaves his house in Unu­ahia, south­east Nige­ria, to greet vet­er­ans of Nige­ria’s 1967 civil war.

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