ONITSHA, 4 September (IRIN) - Armed soldiers shielded behind sandbags stand guard on both ends of the bridge over the River Niger and into Onitsha, a sprawling trading town of more than one million people in southeastern Nigeria.
Vehicles entering the city are subjected to searches, ostensibly for weapons and signs of membership in the separatist Movement for the Actualisation of the Sovereign State of Biafra (MASSOB), blamed for a recent series of violent incidents in the city.
More than three decades ago Onitsha and the bridge across the Niger were key battlegrounds as Nigeria fought a bloody civil war to prevent the attempted secession of the Republic of Biafra by the region's mainly ethnic Igbos.
Now Onitsha is once more at the centre of the latest attempt to resuscitate the Biafra cause.
The 1967-1970 civil war was one of Africa's most devastating - it claimed more than one million lives, most of them Igbos who starved to death. Nigeria, Africa's most populous country, has been increasingly challenged from within by groups demanding greater sovereignty since democratic elections in 1999 ended decades of military rule.
Generals had used Nigeria's diversity - it has more than 250 ethnic groups - as justification for their rule, reasoning that only the firm hand of the military could keep the country together.
While MASSOB claims its campaign is non-violent, bloodletting has nevertheless become increasingly associated with its endeavor. Hundreds of people have died in clashes between MASSOB and the security forces since lawyer Ralph Uwazurike founded the group seven years ago.
CLAIMS OF MARGINALISATION
Uwazurike says ethnic Igbos have continued to face repression from successive Nigerian governments since the end of the civil war in 1970. Evidence, he says, includes the fact that no Igbos have been appointed to top positions in the security forces since the war ended, even though Igbos comprise one of Nigeria's three largest ethnic groups. MASSOB also says that the Igbo region's roads and other infrastructure have been neglected.
While secession is not popular with the vast majority of Igbos, who number more than 30 million, MASSOB has won fanatical following from large numbers of young and unemployed youths in major cities in the Igbo areas. Most of its members were not born at the time of the civil war.
A series of clashes in July between activists linked to MASSOB and the police left dozens dead in Onitsha and several towns in southeast Anambra state, prompting President Olusegun Obasanjo's government to deploy troops.
A dusk-to-dawn curfew ordered by Anambra state governor Peter Obi, who has jurisdiction over Onitsha, remains in force in the city and several other towns across the state. Obi also banned MASSOB and a transport workers' union that residents said was engaged in a proxy war with the separatist group with the backing of some influential local politicians uncomfortable with MASSOB's growing influence.
"It is true MASSOB started out as a non-violent group but it is not exactly non-violent anymore," said Kene Ezeanyi, an Onitsha-based lawyer. "Thousands of unemployed street boys in recent years flocked to its ranks and they have been intimidating residents, with some of them even bearing arms."
Residents say MASSOB frequently declared street-cleaning campaigns, which provided a pretext for the group to show its strength in numbers. As thousands of members mounted street processions, waving Biafran flags depicting the rising sun, passers-by were frequently beaten and businesses forced to shut and join their activities, residents said.
With the arrest of the group's leader, Uwazurike, in September last year and his subsequent trial for treason, the street demonstrations were often to demand his release and regularly resulted in clashes with the police.
Early in July the clashes escalated with members of the National Association of Road Transport Operators (NARTO) taking on MASSOB activists. During a two-week period of mayhem in Onitsha, two police stations and the main prison in the city were burnt down. Dozens of people were killed. The violence then spread to other towns in Anambra state.
The government imposed a curfew and troops were invited to join the police in enforcing peace. While relative calm has returned to the streets, both Onitsha residents and MASSOB activists say summary killings and other violations by the security forces have continued.
SECURITY FORCES ACCUSED OF ABUSES
Several residents interviewed said the security forces upon their deployment embarked on cordon-and-search operations in sections of the city, particularly in Fegge and Okpoko, believed to be strongholds of MASSOB.
"Many people found with guns or MASSOB identity cards were summarily shot dead," Isotonu Nkwankwaka, a resident of the Fegge district, told IRIN.
Residents also accused the security forces of invading shops and markets in the city, which is one of the biggest trading towns in Nigeria, looting goods and stealing money. At the Bridge Head Market and Nkpor Market, residents pointed out charred buildings and shops they said were burned by soldiers.
Emeka Uzoka, a shopkeeper on Mbaukwu Street, said a group of soldiers came into the street one day shooting into the air, forcing residents to flee. Soldiers then went into their shops and helped themselves to drinks and money left behind.
"All the money I had in drawer, my sales for the day, was stolen by the soldiers," Uzoka told IRIN.
According to Innocent Dike, a MASSOB official in Onitsha, at least 200 suspected members of the group have been killed since troops were deployed. Several houses believed to belong to MASSOB activists were also razed, he said.
Dike insisted that the group remained committed to its stated non-violent principles and accused the government of using provocateurs in the road transport union to stir violence to create a pretext to clampdown on MASSOB.
"We are a non-violent organisation but the government became very nervous about our growing popularity in Igboland," Dike told IRIN. "What they did was to use NARTO, which sometimes carried our flags while committing violent acts to provide an excuse to destroy us."
Both the military and police deny the allegations of human rights abuses and brutality in Onitsha, insisting that the damage to buildings and property resulted from instances where the security forces faced gun-battles from the separatists.
Col. Ekanen Ikpeme, who leads the military force in Onitsha, dismissed the allegations as mere "rumours".
"There are these rumours because some people are not happy with the job we are doing, so they try to come up with stories to blackmail the security" forces, Ikpeme told reporters.
He said the military was poised for a long campaign in Anambra to ensure there was no resurgence of violence. "If people out there think that we will do this for two or three months and go back to the barracks, they are wrong," he said.
In late August, more than 100 armed soldiers sealed off a hotel in the nearby town of Nnewi to prevent a meeting of Igbo youth organisations after security forces linked it to MASSOB. Those arrested at the event included Peter Ejiofor, a university professor scheduled to give a lecture on "the Need to Promote Igbo Language" and two organisers, Jerry Emejuru and Bruno Akudo.
Chris Nsoedo, who leads the Igbo Youth Association in Canada, told reporters the troops said they had "orders from above" to stop the meeting.
"We came to the country with this project to unite Igbo youths at home with those in the diaspora," said Nsoedo. "We want to know the person above who will not let people gather to discuss their destiny."