In South East Nigeria, pro-Biafra campaigners allege brutal crackdown
Chukwu Ebuka Moses is too young to remember the Nigerian civil war that began in 1967 and which by its end nearly three years later devastated the southeast, shattering dreams of an independent Biafran homeland.
But the 19-year-old student believes he joined the ranks of Biafran war veterans when he was shot during a protest in the Abia state capital, Aba, on January 18.
Moses, fragile and limp, has to be carried to a black plastic chair under the shade of a thatched grass hut at an open bar.
“We were just singing and protesting. Policemen started harassing us, throwing tear gas and shooting guns at the same time,” he told AFP.
He pulled up his black shorts to show a penny-sized scar on his inner left thigh. X-rays later revealed the bullet split his femur in three.
“I can’t breathe since the bullet shot me. I’m losing strength from my body,” he added, his eyes suddenly widening with panic and his breathing becoming laboured.
Moses, who like many young men his age supports English Premier League football team Chelsea and listens to Nigerian R&B duo P-Square, joined pro-Biafra protesters just a month before.
He dreams of securing a good job in a region where unemployment is rampant and opportunities few.
“I’m not scared,” he said defiantly, winning a chorus of approving murmurs from older men nearby. “Biafra must surely pass.”
– Resurgent dreams –
Human rights lawyer Onkere Kingdom Nnamdi said more than 50 people have been killed, 100 injured and 200 detained in connection with protests calling for the release of Nnamdi Kanu.
Kanu, who leads the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) movement, was arrested last October and has been in custody awaiting trial since December on charges of treasonable felony.
But President Muhammadu Buhari has already said publicly Kanu has committed “atrocities” against the state and he “will not tolerate” threats to Nigeria’s unity.
Kanu’s arrest and the government reaction has strengthened backing for IPOB beyond longstanding calls for more jobs, better health care and basic infrastructure in the southeast.
Thousands of his supporters have flooded the streets of major southeast cities in an unprecedented show of solidarity in the past decade, demanding a separate state for the Igbo people that dominate the region.
Buhari, a former military ruler, appears determined not to let that happen.
Injured protestors at three separate IPOB rallies from November to February said armed police and soldiers released tear gas and shot at the crowd “indiscriminately” with live ammunition.
“They were shooting helter skelter,” said Paulinus Uwaga, a 50-year-old construction worker who was shot in the foot while protesting in the southern oil hub, Port Harcourt, on November 10.
“They were shooting indiscriminately.”
IPOB members allege injured and dead protestors were carted away and later dumped in mass graves. Others just disappeared.
Emeka Uzoma, a 22-year-old electrical engineer, said he hasn’t heard from his cousin since police found a red, black and green Biafra flag in his backpack.
“No one knows whether he is alive or dead,” he added.
– ‘We live in fear’ –
The treatment of Kanu and his supporters echoes that of Shiite Muslim cleric Ibrahim Zakzaky, who has been in custody since his followers clashed with the military in the northern city of Zaria last December.
In April, Amnesty International accused the Nigerian army of “unlawfully” and “deliberately” killing more than 350 of Zakzaky’s followers and burying them in a mass grave.
In the southeast, pro-Biafra supporters not only allege heavy-handed security tactics but also discrimination: injured IPOB protestors say they have been turned away from hospitals.
Chibueze Chukwu, a 40-year-old protestor who in February was shot in the leg, said two hospitals rejected him before he was taken to an IPOB-run clinic.
“They said they were scared of police and army and they won’t treat bullet wounds,” he said. “If they realise you are an IPOB member you’ll never see light of day again. We live in fear.”
IPOB and its sympathisers believe nothing has changed since the civil war when Nigeria blockaded the self-proclaimed Republic of Biafra into submission.
Some one million people, most of them Igbos, died from starvation and disease.
Chinedu Iwu, a 26-year-old driver, said he was shot in the knee by a soldier standing just three metres away.
“He squatted down. He’s looking at me, I’m looking at him, then he shot me,” Iwu said.
“They are not here to protect us. They are here to finish us,” he said. “I need my freedom.”