By Ojo Maduekwe
The defence headquarters on September 15, declared Nigeria’s separatist group, the Indigenous People of Biafra, IPOB, a “militant terrorist organisation”. The DHQ accused IPOB of being violent and in possession and use of weapons such as “stones, Molotov cocktails, machetes and broken bottles, among others” on a military patrol on September 10, 2017 in Umuahia, Abia state.
Few days before the DHQ branded IPOB a terrorist group, the Nigerian army had resumed a controversial military exercise codenamed ‘Operation Python Dance II’ to check “assassinations, attacks on security personnel and theft of weapons, kidnappings, armed banditry and violent agitations by secessionist groups” in the five Southeast states of Abia, Anambra, Ebonyi, Enugu and Imo.
Before the resumption of the controversial 30 days exercise which was to run from September 15 to October 14, military personnel of the 82 Division Area had taken to the streets in a show of force. In what was seen as taunting IPOB, the army had on September 10 passed in front of the residence of Nnamdi Kanu, leader of IPOB, shooting into the air while they marched.
There are conflicting stories as to what occurred. One account said “about three Hilux vans loaded with heavily-armed soldiers were stationed near the house of the IPOB leader” and had wanted to gain entrance into the compound but were resisted by IPOB members who formed human shield at the entrance. The army was alleged to have fired at them, killing three and wounding some.
There was a clash between the army and IPOB members. A trending online video shows members of the secessionist group pelting the army convoy with stones. While the army claims that a female civilian and one of its officers were injured, IPOB says some of its members were killed by the army. A second video shows someone that was allegedly hit from an army stray bullet.
The following day, another clash between the army and IPOB was said to have happened in the commercial city of Aba, Abia state. A third video that was nothing short of torture, shows armed soldiers beating a group of unarmed IPOB members and commanding them to lie and drink from a muddy ground.
Many IPOB members reacted to this video by erecting bonfires on roads, burnt a police station and conducted a stop and search operation (with the intent to kill, as can be seen from another trending video) on commercial buses in search of travelers who belonged to the Hausa and Fulani ethnic group.
Nigerians have criticized the military operation as undemocratic and undermining the duties of the police. Professor of literature and African studies at Carlton University Ottawa Canada, Pius Adesanmi, wrote, “You cannot use soldiers and their tanks for routine law enforcement. Even in Iraq and Afghanistan, there is still law enforcement by police. How can the Nigerian military issue a statement and claim that she was conducting a routine “show of force” in a civilian street?”
The labeling of IPOB a terrorist organization has come under heavy criticism from human rights organizations and lawyers. The Nigerian Human Rights Community, NHRC said, “In a democracy, the military should have made its findings and submitted same to the national assembly for deliberations.”
Lawyers have cited Nigeria’s Terrorism Act in their argument. According to them, under the Act, only a high court judge on the advice of the national security adviser, the inspector general of police or the attorney-general of the federation can declare an organisation a terrorist group and that such has to be published in a Gazette. Based on this they said the military’s action was illegal.
Members of IPOB in agitating for secession from Nigeria, a treasonable offence under the country’s 1999 Constitution, has remained peaceful and unarmed, and so there was no basis for this illegal and unconstitutional terrorist tag by the DHQ. Like the NHRC rightly stated, “The ban on IPOB is likely to force the group underground… It has foreclosed the prospect of negotiation which is an essential element of democracy and free speech.”