Biafra separatist leader free and defiant

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The jailed leader of a separatist movement in the south-east of Nigeria known formerly as Biafra was released from detention at the end of October in a move analysts hailed as a helpful and diplomatic approach to the region’s problems by the government, but the secessionist leader says he will continue his struggle for independence.

“Nigeria must be Balkanized,” Ralph Uwazuruike, the leader of the secessionist Movement for the Actualisation of the Sovereign State of Biafra (MASSOB), told IRIN. “Nigeria is going to break into six republics. All the geo-political zones of the country will soon become separate countries,” he predicted.

Uwazuruike and many people in the south east region, who mainly come from the Igbo ethnic group, claim they are being discriminated against by Nigeria’s federal government.

They say the central government provides less basic infrastructure to the region such as roads, healthcare and potable water. They also say they are underrepresented in government given their population and spread.

“There is a lot of tribalism here and we cannot allow our people to be treated like slaves in their own land. All we want is our Biafra. We want to secede,” Uwazuruike said.

Between 1967 and 1970 more than one million of the 60 inhabitants of south east Nigeria are estimated to have died, mostly from hunger and disease, during the Biafran war which was about trying to win independence for the region from the newly formed Nigerian federal state.

Uwazuruike and other hardliners have continued to agitate for secession, arguing that the federal model has failed. The group mobilised large parts of the population in the south east to boycott a national census last year, claiming they were not Nigerian so should not be counted.

Uwazuruike, plus eleven other members of MASSOB were arrested in south east Nigeria in Okwe, Imo State in November 2005 during a crackdown on ethnic and regional leaders by former Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo.

The men were charged with training an army and unlawfully running a society with the aim of waging war against the federal state.

If found guilty they face the death penalty or life imprisonment.

“Everything I was fighting for before my arrest is still there”. Uwazuruike said. “MASSOB will not enter into any agreement with anybody.”

Several members of MASSOB have died in the last three years in south east Nigeria in fighting with police. Protests against Uwazuruike’s detention have turned into armed clashes that have caused the closure of markets and shops in towns in the south east.

Some observers want Nigeria’s current leader President Umar Yar’Adua to find more diplomatic solutions to the Biafra issue.

“He should try and listen to them and see what can be done to make them drop their agitation for independence”, political analyst Francis Otubu told IRIN.

The release of Uwazuruike on the premise of allowing him to attend his mother’s funeral was seen at the time as the useful kind of temporary measure that could calm tension in the region.

According to Nigeria’s justice minister Mike Aondoakaa, “We granted Uwazuruike bail because we want to be seen as treating everyone fairly.”

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