Late last month, anger over series of reported killing of youths by a now disbanded notorious police unit, the Special Anti Robbery Squad (SARS) sparked protests across the country, which was subsequently hijacked by thugs who embarked on looting and arson in Lagos, Rivers, Osun, Enugu, Abuja, Adamawa and elsewhere across the country.
Amid the carnage, some produced an edited version of the IPOB leader’s speech in which he called for attacks on certain politicians, circulated it and began to allege that the events in Lagos were instigated by IPOB, in what was contrived attempt to cause ethnic acrimony and deflect attention from certain politicians.
In Rivers, Governor Nyesom Wike blamed the crisis that broke out in Obigbo area of the state, which led to the reported killing of six soldiers and three policemen on IPOB. He signed an executive order prescribing the group in the state, and charged security agencies to fish out members of the group amid a 24-hour curfew imposed on the area.
Soldiers consequently stepped in and by many accounts, carried out series of extrajudicial execution of the youth population there with dozens allegedly killed in an event many have described as a massacre.
“There was an ambulance carrying some people that were killed, soldiers stopped them and set it on fire. Everyone is running for their lives, including children. Some hide themselves in a dustbin,” an eye witness narrated in a now viral video.
“There is blood everywhere. They will kill and carry the corpse away. I cannot understand why the governor will say it’s because of IPOB; he knows where they hold their meeting. He should have waited for them to come for their meeting so he can go there and arrest them. Why killing innocent children in their homes?
“They take young boys, tie their legs, tie their hands, cover their eyes and shoot. I have never seen something like this.”
This has always been pattern of reprisals against a group that has been proscribed but every excuse is used to unleash violence on them. For instance, Sunday, August 23, 2020 is a day 35-year-old Kingsley Ude (not real name) will never forget. A dedicated member of the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB), himself and hundreds of his comrades had gone to Practicing School Emene, a suburb of Enugu State capital for their usual Jewish prayers when a team of policemen and Department of State Services (DSS) stormed the meeting venue.
The fracas that ensued led to the death of two DSS operatives and, by some estimates 20 members of IPOB. The state police commissioner, Ahmad Abdulrahman had put the number of the separatist group killed at four. But Ude, who said he escaped death by the whiskers, insists that the number is much more.
“They shot and killed a close friend of mine who was standing next to me, I was almost killed too. It was a terrible day,” he said. “I only managed to escape, but they killed more than 20 people. When they kill, they would take the corpse away.”
IPOB spokesperson, Emma Powerful claimed in statement that 21 members of the group were killed, while 47 were arrested. The number of the dead remains disputed, and it’s a pattern that has continued for many years.
Since 2015 when Nnamdi Kanu, leader of the separatist group was arrested and detained for more than two years, sparking protests by his supporters and members of his group, at least a thousand were either killed or disappeared.
In September, weeks after the Enugu incident, rights group, the International Society for Civil liberties and the Rule of Law, Intersociety, released a report saying it has discovered no fewer than seven secret graveyards where pro Biafra agitators killed by Nigeria’s security forces were buried.
The group in the report by in by its board chairman, Comrade Emeka Umeagbalasi; Head, Civil Liberties and Rule of Law Obianuju Igboeli and Head, Democracy and Good Governance, Chinwe Umeche, said the graves are located in three states of Delta, Anambra and Abia.
“The location of the seven secret graveyards in Igboland are: Asaba Airport location /swamp; Onitsha military cantonment cemetery; Nkpor-Umuoji road environs; Umuahia forest/ Afara-Ukwu palace; Aba National High School; Aba-Port Harcourt Road borrow pits and other designated gravesites where hospitals mortuaries dispose unclaimed or ‘state property’ corpses and Ogwe-Ukwa West forest graveyard discovered in the first week of August, 2018,” the group said.
“There are also more undiscovered criminal graveyards in Uyo (Akwa Ibom State) and Port Harcourt (Rivers State) where dozens of slain pro Biafra activists and other collateral victims were disposed.”
The group said efforts to get Deputy Director, Army Public Relations, 82 Division Nigerian Army, Enugu, proved abortive as calls to his two mobile phones between 4pm to 5.50 pm were switched off, “while some of the victims of such criminal graveyards also include those taken alive by security forces particularly soldiers of the Nigerian Army to such criminal graveyards and shot dead and dumped.
“Several findings by our organization have further shown that such victims are majorly drawn from those arrested alive and taken to the graveyards and killed on the spot or those captives forced to carry their slain colleagues to the graveyards after which they are tied or blindfolded and shot dead to erase traces of culpability.”
On May 30, 2016, a combined team of police, civil defense corps and soldiers opened fire on members of the group who had gathered in their numbers at Nkpo, an outskirt of Onitsha, Anambra State to mark the Biafra day anniversary. On the occasion, eye witness accounts said more than a hundred were killed. It was a tale of sorrows, tears and blood.
Mr. Ekene Nwede, 30, a father of two, narrowly escaped death on the evening. “I lay down on my stomach as bullets flew all over the place,” he recalled. “I crawled, using a fence as my shield to be able to escape.”
Again, actual figures of those killed in that particular incident remains unknown, and nobody has been able to say for certain the number of young men felled by the bullets of men of the armed forces for holding protests in Onitsha, Aba, Enugu or elsewhere in the Southeast.
In a November 2016 report, global human rights body, Amnesty International said the number of agitators killed between August 2015 when IPOB leader, Nnamdi Kanu was arrested and August 2016 were at least 150, but that it is “likely higher.” Ekene says the number people killed the very day was more than 200.
“It was a massacre,” he said. “I can say that at least 200 were killed. But because they would kill and take away the bodies, you can’t say for certain. There was blood all over the place. And as I later learned, they lined up dead bodies at Onitsha barracks. They also would go to hospitals were the injured had run to, take them away and kill them.”
Ekene whose parents are from Ikwo in Ebonyi State, was born in Onitsha and was riding ‘Okada’ until the Willie Obiano administration slammed a ban on ‘Okada’ operation in Onitsha, Awka and Nnewi. He now survives and feeds his family by doing sundry menial jobs.
“Biafra,” he said, “is the only hope. This country is useless and frustrating. Nothing is working, it’s just useless. We should have our own country; we will keep fighting until we get it.”
Ekene and Ude share a lot in common. Both are unemployed, have only secondary school education and hold tight to the dream of an El dorado in Biafra sold to them by Kanu. Kanu has had assured that “Biafra must come.” It is this dream that spurs them on; a dream for which many have vowed to lay down their lives if need be, and indeed have been doing so.
“They have this belief that soon Biafra will come, they are investing their hopes on it,” said Tobi Nnaji, a youth leader in Enugu. “They are even contributing money monthly for the project. I know many of them who don’t have jobs, but no matter what, they must look for money to pay the dues.
“One of them, a friend of mine, once approached me to ask me to register, and that if I don’t even want to be a part of the meetings, that I should just be contributing money, so that when Biafra comes I will not be left out. Somehow, they have this belief that Biafra will come soon, and when it does, they would be rewarded with positions in government. It’s the lie Nnamdi Kanu sold to them. Unfortunately, they don’t listen to you when you tell them the truth.”
Southeast states turn out thousands of graduates yearly, arguably higher than any other zone in the country, but jobs don’t just exist. In a recent report, the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) said Imo state has highest number of unemployed people in the country, with 75.1% of employable people either unemployed or underemployed.
The situation is not much better in sister states, and indeed most of the country. Millions of well educated youths are unemployed, and even much more of those with secondary school education.
Frustration with this state of affairs is the key driving force of the pro-Biafra movement. It largely explains why Kanu message resonates. And why many are ready to, and have laid down their lives for his utopian Biafra.
“People are agitating, particularly in Anambra, because the government has not been able to create industries that can employ the teeming youths,” said Dr. Chidozie Nwankwo, a governorship aspirant in the state. “The thousands of young people coming out from universities every year are not able to find jobs.
“Our system is not actually what it should be. So, people are agitating because they are asking for better life, they are asking for jobs. We have to ensure that as people are coming out from school, they are empowered. As a business owner, I’m going to approach governance differently.”
Kanu who started pushing his message with the launch of Radio Biafra around 2012, through which he has won thousands of loyal followers, has been unrelenting. And things are assuming worrying dimensions, with many worrying that he and his men are becoming cannon fodder.
But the latest flare up between the group and Rivers government seems to have surpassed previous confrontation as there has been a coordinated assault on the group by the army backed by the government. A resident who gave an account of the incident, said contrary to the allegation that it was IPOB that killed soldiers, it was an ethnic clash between the people of Obigbo and the Hausa community that led to the crisis.
“First of all, let me state categorically that I’am not a member, a supporter or a fan of IPOB because of personal reasons not relevant here. It’s obvious that the majority of IPOB members in Obigbo are from Etche and Eleme, both are in Rivers state,” the resident said in an account now circulating on social media.
“The main fracas that triggered the mayhem in Oyigbo during the peaceful #EndSars protest was caused by the Fulani/ Northern Moslem community who confronted the protesters on a Friday after their routine prayers. They chased the protesters with weapons, in a bid to protect their main mosque at Elelenwo axis but were overpowered by the protesters who actually didn’t attack their mosque as expected but inflicted several and severe wounds on the Fulani youths.
“Later that night, the Fulanis brought in their herdsmen around Iriebe where they have a market (yam zone) but the youths of Obigbo and the IPOB came together to resist the herdsmen and drove them away, of course there were casualties on both sides. “This culminated into the burning of properties belonging to both sides and spilled over to the burning of the police station at Obigbo when it was seen that the police was on the side of the herdsmen.
“Later that day, the Fulani called in the army from Bori camp because the tide was turned against them. It was at this point that Wike took over when some six soldiers were disarmed and killed including three policemen. Rather than hold the two sides responsible, Wike hung everything on the IPOB, criminalized them and declared an indirect warfare on the Igbo, in the name of hounding the IPOB members.”
The governor however, denied targeting the Igbo, insisting that the soldiers were only after members of the IPOB.
“I know that this is not the first time, IPOB has used Obigbo as launching ground,” Wike said. “The security agencies are aware. IPOB added a new dimension this time. They killed 6 Army Officers and burnt one. They killed four Police Officers. They destroyed all the Police Stations and Court buildings. What offense did we commit as a state?”
Similarly, the spokesperson for Six Division of the Nigerian Army in Port Harcourt, Major Charles Ekeocha, said contrary to the allegation that army were going house to house to kill residents, the army only entered houses that where possible hideouts of hoodlums.
He argued that the army’s operations in Obigbo targeted only criminals who killed six army officers and other security men and went away with their weapons.
“We lost six soldiers in that area, their weapons were carted away; it was planned and executed. The weapons taken away are in the wrong hands and if we don’t retrieve those weapons now, subsequently those weapons will be used; if not against us, it will be used against innocent citizens in that area or any other part of the country,” the army spokesperson said.
“The exercise going on there now is searching and identifying houses used by the so-called IPOB members. We are searching those houses to see whether we can get all those rifles they took away from our soldiers; that is what we are doing, we are professional about it, I don’t know about the issue of the firing of weapons.”
The Oyigbo episode represents yet another example of worrying dimensions the pro Biafra agitation is assuming, and has added to the growing list of deaths as a result.
The IPOB leader’s promise of a coming Biafra is enticing. President Muhammadu Buhari’s lopsided policies and his inability to tackle herders menace have stoked further frustration against Nigeria. For many of his followers, Biafra can’t come soon enough. And many have little knowledge of how international politics and diplomacy work.
Kanu has also combined propaganda to give false hope. The popular belief among his followers is that soon the United Nations will intervene and create Biafra. And that Donald Trump will lend his support.
“One of them told me that when they protest consistently for 30 days, the UN will intervene,” Nnaji said. “It’s the kind of propaganda Kanu sells to them and they believe whatever he says.”
Once in a while, a photo-shopped image of Kanu addressing conferences in the U.S. and Europe emerges, which reinforces the hope of his followers that Biafra is imminent. But this hope is also increasingly leading to restiveness. There are concerns that some are becoming radicalised.
“Obviously, we are observing that some of the agitators are becoming radicalized,” said Enugu based legal practitioner, Chidi Ezeugo. “It is tinderbox that could ignite a flame of unrest. I hope those in authority will change their strategy, because at the moment, killing the agitators is causing more anger.”