One year ago, on October 14, 2015, Nigerian security forces arrested the leader of the Indigenous Peoples of Biafra (IPOB), a group from Nigeria’s southeastern region that seeks to establish an independent state.
The supporters of Nnamdi Kanu, who previously lived in the United Kingdom and who spread his message through the UK-based Radio Biafra, are likely to mark the anniversary of his arrest with protests. Nigerian authorities, rather than invoking the heavy-handed tactics they have used on pro-Biafra protesters in the past, should protect their right to peaceful protest.
Kanu, along with co-defendants Benjamin Madubugwu and David Nwawuisi, were charged with criminal conspiracy, engaging in unlawful society and criminal intimidation, but these charges were withdrawn on December 16, 2015.
An order for Kanu’s release on bail by a federal high court in Abuja was countered by another judge when fresh charges of treason were filed against Kanu and the other defendants on December 18, 2015. The trio remains in detention pending the conclusion of the trial.
More than 40 years ago, at least 1 million people died in a three-year civil war when Nigeria’s government fought against pro-Biafran separatists who had declared an independent republic.
Kanu’s court appearances sparked several largely peaceful protests by supporters in various southeast and Niger Delta towns, which have been met with force by security forces, including police. According to media reports monitored by Human Rights Watch, by February 2016, at least 10 supporters had been killed, with scores more arrested and injured during the protests.
The deadliest single incident so far occurred this May 30, as supporters of IPOB and the Movement for the Actualization of Sovereign State of Biafra (MASSOB), another proscribed Biafran separatist group, commemorated the 49th anniversary of the 1967 Biafran declaration of independence. Media reports say scores of separatists and two security agents allegedly died during confrontations in several southeast states.
Nigerian authorities should investigate the deaths of these protesters – none have been investigated to date. Authorities should also ensure a fair trial for Kanu and his co-defendants.