ONITSHA: Shops, schools and businesses were shut in southeast Nigeria on Tuesday, 50 years to the day since the declaration of an independent republic of Biafra sparked a brutal civil war.
In Onitsha, the economic hub of Anambra state on the banks of the River Niger, most markets were closed and the streets were largely empty of people and traffic.
Separatist sentiment persists in the region, which is dominated by the Igbo people, and the main pro-Biafran independence group has called on supporters to stay at home.
“No work today, we are Biafran, we are not Nigerians,” said Ebere Ichukwu Eli, one of the few people to venture outside, where there was a visible security presence.
“No violence, it is a peaceful sit at home. We are protesting peacefully,” the 47-year-old said.
A woman who gave her name only as Justine said: “The market is closed today. I’m just going home to stay with my children. We want our one Biafra. It’s our land. That’s why we all sit at home today.”
In Aba, 150 kilometres south by road from Onitsha, churches on Sunday urged followers to stay at home as a peaceful protest.
The leader of the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) movement, Nnamdi Kanu, said his aim was for “civil disobedience” to force a referendum on self-determination.
Over 100 arrested
Local people said the closures were either to commemorate the anniversary in support or because of widespread fears of violence.
Nigerian police last week denounced “planned protests and order of market closures” and warned it would “deal decisively” with any breach of the peace or unlawful protest.
Last year, demonstrations marking the declaration of Biafran independence turned bloody. Amnesty International said the military gunned down more than 60 people.
Since August 2015, more than 150 people have been killed in pro-Biafra protests, said Amnesty’s Nigeria director Osai Ojigho. Nigeria’s government denies the claim.
“We urge the Nigerian security agencies to conduct themselves in a manner that will ensure public order without resorting to force,” he added.
Amnesty said security forces had arrested more than 100 members of pro-Biafran separatist groups in the run-up to Tuesday’s anniversary.
Nigerian Army spokesman Colonel Sagir Musa said in a statement that security had been increased across the southeast in places seen as “real or potential flashpoints”.
“The aim is to proactively checkmate possible security breaches in view of sordid/divisive utterances and in some cases blatant actions by secessionist agitators,” he added.
Calls for independence never disappeared even after the 30-month civil war, which left more than one million dead, most of them Igbos, mainly from starvation and disease.
Many people accuse the government of failing to invest in the southeast since the end of the war in 1970, blighting development. Some see it as a punishment for the conflict.
“Most people here will follow the instructions. We want to show government that we are angry. There’s no hope here for our children,” said Chuks, a 43-year-old taxi driver in Aba. “I’m double graduated and I couldn’t find a decent job. I have to work as a driver to feed my family.”
Support for secession has increased since the arrest in late 2015 of IPOB leader Kanu, who is currently on trial in Abuja charged with treasonable felony.
A court ordered his release on bail in April.
Kanu, who is in his 40s, said in an interview that his time in prison gave him the chance to reflect and plot out the quickest possible path to independence.
“The mission and the values of IPOB are very simple: to restore Biafra, to make sure Biafra comes by whatever means possible,” he said.
“We have chosen the track of peaceful agitation, non-violence, persuasion, logic, reason, argument. We are going to deploy all of that to make sure we get Biafra.” He added: “Our ultimate goal is freedom, referendum is the path we have chosen to take to get Biafra... There is no alternative.”
Published in Dawn, May 31st, 2017