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Nigeria cracks down on Biafran movement
(Monday, June 27, 2005)
MASSOB soccer players line up at Lagos High Court for trial
Fifty-three people who participated in an unusual soccer tournament last year in Nigeria's main city, Lagos, are now fighting for dear life.
State prosecutors say the tournament, held in the name of a secessionist group, the Movement for the Actualisation of the Sovereign State of Biafra (MASSOB), amounted to treason. They have demanded the death penalty.
The accused were arrested in September 2004 and were held in detention for more than six months before being formally charged in March this year.
The group, which includes three women, was eventually granted bail on Monday, 11 April.
"Some of them were arrested while playing football, some while watching football and some while selling water sachets at the football venue," said defence lawyer Anthony Omaghomi, while arguing the case for bail.
Overruling prosecution objections, high court judge Marcel Awokulehin said the defendants were entitled to bail until they were found guilty of planning to "levy war against the nation" and inciting Nigerians against President Olusegun Obasanjo.
Bitter memories of a brutal civil war
By bringing treason charges in this case, the government has indicated a readiness to use a very heavy hand indeed to crack down against the increasingly popular separatist movement campaigning for an independent republic of Biafra in southeastern Nigeria.
For many Nigerians, the very mention of Biafra raises bitter memories of a brutal civil war nearly 40 years ago that threatened to tear the nation apart shortly after its independence from Britain.
In 1967, the Igbo people of southeastern Nigeria broke away from the Nigerian federation to declare the independent state of Biafra.
This contained most of Nigeria's oil wells, so the separatist move threatened to deprive the rest of the federation of its main source of revenue.
A civil war ensued that claimed more than one million lives as people in the steadily shrinking Biafran enclave succumbed to famine.
By 1970 the insurrection had been totally crushed and the immediate threat of Africa's most populous country splitting up into a series of tribal-based states had been averted.
But the problem has not gone away.
Ralph Uwazurike, the lawyer and politician who formed MASSOB in 1999, insists that his own campaign to resurrect the sovereign state of Biafra is completely non-violent.
His movement has organised a series of rallies, demonstrations, boycotts and stay-at-home strikes and the infamous Lagos soccer tournament to campaign for its demands.
MASSOB has often made symbolic declarations of independence during these events.
Support for the movement has grown as Nigerians in general have become more and more disenchanted with the present system of federal government.
Uwazurike's claims that successive governments have oppressed and discriminated against Nigeria's estimated 30 million Igbos have struck a chord among thousands of young Igbos, born after the civil war, who have joined MASSOB's ranks.
The government initially saw MASSOB as an irritant, but its attitude hardened after the group organised a successful stay-at-home protest on 26 August 2004. This not only shut down private businesses and markets in the southeast, but also in major cities such as Lagos and Kano, where Igbos are dominant in commerce.
"It was not just a vote for MASSOB but also a protest against Obasanjo's government," said Uche Okereke, a political science lecturer at the Awka university in Anambra state in southeastern Nigeria.
"People in this region believe they're still being punished for the Biafra war, and will point to the region's bad roads, poor electricity supply and absence of Igbos in top military and security positions to illustrate allegations of systematic neglect by successive regimes," he added.
But Okereke said that while many Igbos have increasingly questioned the existence of Nigeria as a nation, those who, like MASSOB, want to break up the federation, are not yet the majority.
"Many of those who are asking for Biafra are those who didn't experience the civil war," said Sylvester Mba, a 58-year-old engineer, who fought for Biafra during the civil war.
"If they had experienced Biafra, they would know it is not necessarily the solution to bad government," he said.
Seeking the peaceful break-up of Nigeria
MASSOB has never tried to put its popularity to the test by contesting elections - the movement simply says it is pushing for a constitutional conference to agree the peaceful break-up of Nigeria.
Obasanjo convened a three-month constitutional conference in the federal capital Abuja earlier this year to review the links that hold Nigeria together. But the 400 delegates, who debated the country's future there, were all personally invited by the president. MASSOB didn't get an invitation.
Obasanjo made very clear in his speech to open the conference on 21 February that the question of any part of Nigeria breaking away from the federation was not up for discussion.
"The National Political and Reform Conference is not designed to dismember or disintegrate Nigeria," Obasanjo told the 400 delegates assembled in the federal capital Abuja.
"The conference is about designing the most appropriate and relevant institutional mechanisms for managing our diversity and differences," he added.
Nigeria's 126 million people belong to about 250 different ethnic groups. But the country is dominated by the Hausa/Fulanis of the north, the Yoruba of the southwest and the Igbos of the southeast.
Rigged elections increase disenchantment
According to Okereke, sympathy for MASSOB has been growing since the general elections of April and May 2003, which were marred by widespread allegations of vote rigging.
The end result in southeastern Nigeria was that the All Progressive Grand Alliance Party (AGPA), a mainly Igbo party led by Chukwuemeka Ojukwu, the leader of the Biafran secessionist movement in the 1960s, was eclipsed by the ruling People's Democratic Party (PDP) of President Olusegun Obasanjo.
Ojukwu, who is now 71, also ran unsuccessfully against Obasanjo for the presidency.
Since then, in-fighting between rival factions of the PDP in Anambra State, has led several local party leaders to declare publicly that they helped to rig the 2003 elections heavily in the PDP's favour.
Increasing public disgust with the PDP and Obasanjo's government has played into MASSOB's hands.
In major southeast cities such as Onitsha, Enugu, Aba and Owerri as well as towns and villages across the region, MASSOB has been hoisting the green, red and black Biafran flags with a rising sun in the middle.
"Whenever policemen go around the streets to take off the flags hanging on electricity poles, the flags are replaced overnight," said Izzy Achor, a resident of Onitsha.
In the city's Port Harcourt Street, a main thoroughfare, dozens of Biafran flags now flutter in the breeze.
A rash of publications including newspapers, magazines and pamphlets, has emerged in the region either published by MASSOB or its sympathizers, advocating the Biafran cause.
The independence movement even operates its own clandestine radio station, the Voice of Biafra International, which broadcasts on short wave in the 41-metre band.
Uwazurike, the leader of MASSOB, declined to speak to IRIN. He pointed out that he was currently subject to a court order banning him from making public statements. This was imposed after the police filed treason charges against him.
However, the secessionist leader has articulated his views clearly in a series of interviews already published.
"What you should understand prima facie is that Nigeria is no good, how Nigeria is being administered is not good," Uwazurike told reporters in September last year.
"That is why some people are even calling for a sovereign national conference, some people are calling for Biafra and others say self-determination."
"What I am saying as a person is that I want the Soviet experience to happen in Nigeria," he continued. "My idea is let Nigeria divide into as many places as possible; let the people go."
According to Uwazurike, those who want to prevent Nigeria from disintegrating are simply crooks on the make. He described them as those "who are taking what belongs to Peter to give to Paul, who rob Niger Delta people of their oil resources and send it to the north to establish Abuja (the federal capital) and a refinery in Kaduna.”
Human rights groups say that dozens of pro-Biafran activists have been killed over the last six years for campaigning for such beliefs and more than 300 are currently in detention after being arrested by the police at marches and rallies organised by MASSOB.
One of the most dramatic confrontations occurred in March 2003, when armed police opened fire on unarmed MASSOB members at a rally in Uwazurike's hometown of Okwe in Imo State, killing seven people on the spot.
Human rights groups have accused the security forces of using brutal and excessive force to repress the non-violent activities of MASSOB.
The Civil Liberties Organisation, one of Nigeria's leading human rights groups, said in a recent statement that policemen frequently raided the homes of suspected MASSOB members, confiscated their property and used "disproportionate and often lethal force against a group that bears no arms".
Would violence be more effective?
MASSOB supporters say the movement is being unfairly punished by the government for its commitment to non-violence.
They point out bitterly that ethnic Ijaw militants in the Niger Delta appear to have gained more by taking up arms against the government.
The Niger Delta People's Volunteer Force, an Ijaw militia group led by Moujahid Dokubo-Asari, was invited to peace talks with the government in September last year after it threatened to attack oil platforms and shut down Nigeria's oil exports. Its leaders have been allowed to go free.
"Those who took up arms against the country, Obasanjo dined with them," said Biafran activist Martins Ukanwa. "But even though we don't have arms they are killing us because they see us as second-class citizens," he added.
The defunct Biafra had included areas occupied by oil region minorities such as Ijaws, Ogonis and Efiks. MASSOB activists said the new Biafra they are campaigning for still covers these areas if the inhabitants want.
“If they want to come with us they’re welcome, otherwise we Igbos are ready to go it alone,” Ukanwa said.
Nigerian police officials declined to comment on record about MASSOB. Several described the Biafran nationalist movement as a banned organisation, but were unable to cite any law or decree banning it.
But the issue of Biafran independence remains touchy for the government, not least because Obasanjo, a former army general, fought personally in the civil war on the side of the federal government.
When in September last year Ojukwu, the former Biafran leader, told a weekly magazine that he had sympathies for Uwazurike's campaign to revive the independent state, he was immediately invited to an interview by the secretive state security police.
They sent Ojukwu a one-way ticket to travel from his home in the southeastern city of Enugu to appear for questioning at their Abuja headquarters.
Ojukwu declined the invitation and dared the authorities to take the politically risky step of arresting him.
Launching a stinging verbal attack on Obasanjo, he said: "Ralph Uwazurike is purely and simply a young man disgusted and frustrated by General Obasanjo's governance. It is significant as it appears that millions of Nigerians are with him."
The police still holds the suspected MASSOB members in custody against court order granting them bail. They will know their fate July 6, 2005( refer to the related link below ).
*Article originally published on IRIN News( www.irinnews.org )
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