With a population made up of more than 250 different ethnic groups and a strong sense of regional as well as ethnic identity, Nigeria has seen the emergence of numerous self-determination groups. These groups have advocated various forms of autonomy on an ethnic or regional basis, within or outside the current federal structure of the country. Several of them, for example Yoruba groups in the southwest, Igbo groups in the southeast, and Ijaw and other groups in the oil-producing delta in the south, have been very vocal in articulating their demands for autonomy, based on claims of marginalization within the current political system; some but not all have used violence. In the last few years, an umbrella organization for Yoruba self-determination groups, the Coalition of O’odua Self-Determination Groups (COSEG), has not only brought together the various Yoruba organizations, but has also made overtures to self-determination groups of other ethnicities and regions of Nigeria which, while representing different interests, are united in their opposition to the current federal structure, and hence the federal government, of Nigeria.
In February 2003, Human Rights Watch published a report on the O’odua People’s Congress (OPC), one of several Yoruba self-determination groups active in the southwest of Nigeria. The report described cases of extrajudicial killings and other abuses suffered by OPC members at the hands of the police, as well as numerous killings and other acts of violence by the OPC.71 Since the publication of that report, incidents of violence by and against the OPC have decreased, as its leaders appear to have reached a kind of peace or compromise with the federal government. However, there have been cases of extrajudicial killings, arrests and other forms of harassment of members of other self-determination groups.
In May 2003, Kayode Ogundamisi, a well-known activist in Nigeria, president of the O’odua Republic Front (ORF, a more recently-established Yoruba group) and former National Secretary of the OPC, was arrested by members of the SSS and detained for two weeks. He was denied contact with his family and lawyer throughout his detention. After two weeks, he was released without charge. During his detention, he was questioned repeatedly about his political activities and those of his organization, the ORF, and he was told he should join the political mainstream. From the interrogation, it would appear that the arrest may have been linked in part to a newspaper advertisement by the ORF published in the Lagos-based Punch newspaper a month earlier, on April 5, 2003. In the advertisement, the ORF called for a campaign for a sovereign national conference, a referendum on an Oodua republic72 and a campaign for a free southwest. Wale Adedoye, a journalist from The Punch, who was with him at the time of the arrest, was also arrested but released after a few hours.
Kayode Ogundamisi had spent the last few years living in Europe but had returned to Nigeria in time for the elections in April and May 2003. On May 11, 2003, he was arrested at the international airport in Lagos, as he was preparing to board a flight back to the United Kingdom:
Several other members of the ORF were questioned and had their houses searched around the same period. Two days after Kayode Ogundamisi’s release, Obe Tajudeen, a local ORF leader in the Mushin area of Lagos, was arrested by the SSS. The SSS asked him for information on Kayode Ogundamisi and other leaders of the ORF; they asked him who Ogundamisi had been seeing and what he had been doing. He was released after one day. During the period of Kayode Ogundamisi’s detention, the SSS also searched the house of Jibril Ogundimu, another ORF leader. On around June 21, armed police searched the house of Oluwatoyin Jimoh, another ORF leader, in Ilorin, the capital of Kwara State; they subsequently apologized, claiming they had mistaken the house for someone else’s.74
Many members of the Igbo organization Movement for the Actualisation of a Sovereign State of Biafra (MASSOB), based in the southeast of Nigeria, have been arrested, detained and killed by the police since the organization was created in 1999. MASSOB advocates a separate state of Biafra for the Igbo, the dominant ethnic group in the southeast, based on the ideals of those who fought in Nigeria’s bloody civil war in 1967-1970.75
MASSOB claims to be a non-violent movement, although the police and some other sources claim otherwise. Although the organization denies having any interest or involvement in politics, MASSOB had been agitating for an Igbo president for Nigeria and had threatened that there would be no elections in the southeast in 2003. However, they subsequently withdrew from that position and are not known to have disrupted the elections when they eventually took place.76
Although MASSOB does not appear to enjoy the kind of massive popular support which would represent a serious political threat to the government, MASSOB members have been persistently harassed by the police, acting on orders from the federal government. The clashes between MASSOB and the police are reminiscent of those between the OPC and the police,77 with the police raiding MASSOB premises and its leader Ralph Uwazuruike’s house on several occasions in 2000 and 2001.
MASSOB have claimed that scores of their members have been extrajudicially killed by the police, particularly during 2000 and 2001. One of the most serious recent incidents occurred on March 29, 2003, just before the elections, when MASSOB members clashed with the police. The police reportedly stopped a large convoy of MASSOB members at Umulolo, near Okigwe, in Imo State, attempted to disperse them, then shot and killed several of them. According to their leader Ralph Uwazuruike, who was with the convoy at the time, those who were shot had been trying to run away from the tear-gas. The number of dead has not been confirmed by independent sources, and numbers quoted have ranged from seven to more than fifty. While the police stated that seven were shot dead on the spot,78 MASSOB put the figure much higher: “The police carried away about ten bodies and later my members recovered about fifty other bodies.”79 There was speculation that attempts by the police to block the MASSOB convoy may have been prompted by rumours that they were planning to disrupt the election campaign of Achike Udenwa, the Imo state governoran allegation which MASSOB have denied.80
A newspaper article reported that on June 16, 2003, seventeen MASSOB members were killed and eleven injured during a police raid on their secretariat at Nkpor, near the town of Onitsha, Anambra State. 81 Human Rights Watch has not been able to confirm this incident. The police denied any incident involving MASSOB, claiming that the incident which occurred on that day was an armed robbery, which led to a shoot-out between the robbers and the police.82
Hundreds of MASSOB members have been arrested since 1999 and many have been detained without trial, and sometimes without charge, for prolonged periods. Ralph Uwazuruike himself, who has been arrested several times over the last three years, was arrested again on March 29, 2003, the day of the clash with the police described above; around forty other MASSOB members were also arrested the same day. Ralph Uwazuruike was detained for just over two months, first in Owerri, capital of Imo State, then in the federal capital Abuja. He and four other MASSOB members were charged with conspiracy, unlawful assembly and misdemeanor. They were released on bail on June 6, 2003, having remained in detention throughout the election period.83
By mid 2003, an unknown number of MASSOB members remained in detention, in various locations in the southeast, as well as in other parts of the country. For example, at least seven MASSOB members who had been arrested during a meeting in Abuja were detained in Asokoro police station in Abuja for around three months in 2003; they were later released on bail.84
71 See Human Rights Watch report “The O’odua People’s Congress: fighting violence with violence,” February 2003. The OPC is not purely a self-determination group. It has also taken on characteristics of a militia group and self-appointed vigilante group.
72 O’odua, or Oduduwa, is the ancestor of the Yoruba race.
73 Human Rights Watch interview, London, June 23, 2003.
75 Biafra was the independent republic proclaimed in 1967 in the Igbo areas of eastern Nigeria following the end of the First Republic by two military coups in 1966. The ensuing civil war, known as the Biafran war, claimed between 500,000 and two million lives before it came to an end with a federal victory in 1970. Emeka Odumegwu Ojukwu, who led the Biafran movement, resurfaced onto the political scene more recently and stood as a presidential candidate in the 2003 elections, for the All Progressive Grand Alliance (APGA). Although he stood little chance of winning nationwide, many people in the southeast, including election observers, believed that APGA candidates would have won a significant number of votes in the Igbo heartland, had it not been for extensive rigging and intimidation by PDP candidates and their supporters.
76 In an interview with Newswatch, MASSOB leader Ralph Uwazuruike said: “At the beginning, we said we would not allow elections in the South-East if an Igbo man was not allowed to be the president as done in the West in 1998 [ ] We withdrew from that position and I made it public that we were no longer interesting in pursuing that position.” “All Igbo politicians want Biafra,” Newswatch, June 23, 2003.
77 See Human Rights Watch report “The OPC: fighting violence with violence,” February 2003.
78 See “Seven pro-Biafran campaigners killed in Nigeria: police,” Agence France-Presse, March 30, 2003. In the same article, a police spokesman claimed that MASSOB members had opened fire on the police. MASSOB have denied this.
79 See interview with Ralph Uwazuruike in “All Igbo politicians want Biafra,” Newswatch, June 23, 2003.
81 “MASSOB accuses police of killing 17 of its members,” The Vanguard, June 17, 2003.
83 Elections for the National House of Assembly took place on April 12, 2003; elections for the president and governors on April 19, and elections for state houses of assembly on May 3.
84 The seven MASSOB members are Augustine O. Obidimma, Ngagozie F.Mbamalu, Okechukwu Onyia, Samuel A. Chukwu, Osita Okeke, Kenechi Uwajuake, and Peter Eziagu. Human Rights Watch has not been able to confirm the charges against them. Human Rights Watch interview, Abuja, July 20, 2003, and telephone interview, October 6, 2003.