The BBC has reported that at least 100 people have been charged with treason in south-eastern Nigeria after a march supporting independence for Biafra, their lawyer says. Igbo members of the Biafran Zionist Movement (BZM) declared independence from Yoruba- and Haused-dominated Nigeria, raised the Biafran flag and then marched through the region’s main town of Enugu over the weekend, the Igbo stronghold during the Biafran War. Most of those arrested were young men, many sons of former Biafran fighters, but some were veterans of the war themselves. They were all remanded in custody.
More than one million people died during the 1967-70 Biafran conflict – mostly from hunger and disease. Political scientists debate whether the term “war” accurately describes the conflict. To be a “war” a certain percentage of deaths must occur on each side, and nearly the all the deaths occurred among Igbos and nearly all were due to the national government and its allies cutting off food and medical supplies to Igbo communities.
The BZM first gathered on Sunday to mark the birthday of former Biafran leader Chukwuemeka Ojukwu, who died in November 2011 and was buried in Enugu in March. His burial revived some cries for independence. The BBC (from Lagos, and not Enugu mind you) says that 45 years after the Biafran flag was first raised – an action which sparked Nigeria’s civil war – a small number of separatists still keep their dream alive, despite the threat of being charged with treason.
Biafran War 1967-1970
- 1960: Nigeria gains independence from the UK
- 1967: South-eastern portion of Nigeria secedes as Republic of Biafra on 30 May
- Biafra dominated by Igbo ethnic group
- Home to much of Nigeria’s oil
- Nigerian army blockades Biafra and more than a million people die through famine, disease and fighting
- 1970: Biafran government surrenders
Some recently released books and films have increased attention to Biafra. The war has been put back in the spotlight as the renowned Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe, arguably the greatest male writer in Nigeria with Wole Soyinka, has just released his memoirs of the conflict. Igbo-American Chimanada Adichie’s amazing novel Half a Yellow Sun is being made into an American film, as this traumatic period of Nigeria’s history is set to reach a wider audience. The title refers to the flag created for the shortly independent republics of Biafra. The film stars Thandy Newton and was filmed primarily in Calabar, with my friends working as extras on set. Far less impressive, the Jeta Amata’s movie Black November is soon to be released starring Mickey Rouke, Viviva A. Fox, and Kim Basinger, which is an effort to take Nollywood mainstream to Hollywood. Based on the ridiculous trailer I almost hope no one goes to see the unrealistic portrayal of the oil conflict. Oil was a key impetus to the start of the Biafran War and control over reserves undergirded much of the struggle over Nigerian territory in the late 1960s, but I doubt the average viewer will think enough about the movie to be able to link natural resources to conflict.
- Mass arrests over Biafra protest (bbc.co.uk)
- Remembering Biafra (nytimes.com)
- ESSAY By Chinua Achebe : The Genocidal Biafran War Still Haunts Nigeria (igbokwenuradio.wordpress.com)
As mentioned in my previous two posts, last week’s start of the International Criminal Court‘s case against the former President of Cote d’Ivoire was historic. He is the most high-profile defendant to date, and the first head of state to face charges. Many Ivorians and members of the Ivorian diaspora are following the case closely, and emotionally. According to those I spoke with on Tuesday, so many people hoped to attend Gbagbo’s pre-trial that there was a sign-up list online in order to fill the 75 seats in the public viewing gallery fairly. In the 30 minutes before the start of proceedings, police escorted in groups of half a dozen people or so, and many hopeful attendees began to complain that police were using a different list than that online. The ICC’s front desk employees had told me earlier that morning that it was first come first serve, and that whoever lined up soonest would enter.
However, there was no semblance of any orderly line, and people began to argue with others waiting to enter, and then some hostility began to be directed at the police. One tearful woman approached an escorted group as they passed through the ICC’s street entrances, yelling at them that they were criminals and murders. Others began pushing their way to the front of the line, claiming a friend was saving them a place. As police tried to gently usher people away from the buildings entrance, demonstrators who had been at the pro-Gbagbo rally across the street became agitated and screamed at the police officers.
Across the street from the Court, near the rally, perhaps a hundred riot police emerged from armored vehicles, although no riot ended up taking place. From my vantage point, the Dutch police were impressive in their professionalism. They remained exceedingly calm and respectful, even when Gbagbo supporters were not. I did not observe any excessive violence on the part of the police, and comparably speaking, I can’t imagine police in any other country showing such restraint. I noted that perhaps 1/3 of the riot officers were female, a much higher percentage than I think would be present in the U.S. in such a situation.
Right around the time when Gbagbo’s hearing was supposed to start, I looked across the street to see a young Ivorian man getting physical with another man, and then saw him take a full swing at a police officer when the officer tried to break up the fight. As soon as he tried to punch that officer, any hope of getting in to the hearing was over for all of us. The doors to the Court were immediately locked, police brought out German Shepherds, and then they began to close off the sidewalk.
Here are two clips I took of the “line” to enter the Court. The first shows the arrest of the man with the yellow bag above, and the second clip is of Gbagbo supporters getting frustrated when they were not permitted entrance. See:
- Laurent Gbagbo fit to stand trial (bbc.co.uk)
- Former Ivorian leader Gbagbo fights ICC for freedom (vanguardngr.com)
Last week was historic for the International Criminal Court. It marked the pre-trial of the case against Laurent Gbagbo, the first former head of state to ever face charges in the ICC. I arrived on Tuesday simply hoping to see the inside of the building, but instead spent the afternoon watching demonstrators clash with Dutch police, and each other.
I was familiar with the Gbagbo case before I arrived and it was a simply a coincidence that my visit coincided with the first day of his pre-trial, which he did not attend. I knew that Gbagbo was installed as President of Cote d’Ivoire in 2000 and was in power during the 2002 civil war that split the country into politically contentious north and south regions. He served for a decade, based mostly on his continual stalling of his second election, and when Alassane Outtara was declared the winner of the 2010 elections Gbagbo refused to step down. He and his supporters argued that Outtara rigged the election (which is really hard to do unless the candidate is the incumbent) and Gbagbo swore himself into office again, despite that international observers called the voting more-or-less fair and that Gbagbo had already serve the equivalent of the constitutional limit of two five-year terms. Cote d’Ivoire became an even more volatile place in November 2010 when both Gbagbo and Outtara began to use violence to ensure their respective presidencies. The post-election conflict received the most media attention when a mass grave was discovered containing the bodies of known Outtara supporters.
According to the Case Information Sheet on “Situation in the Cote d’Ivoire: The Prosecutor v. Laurent Gbagbo” provided to me at the ICC’s front desk, pro-Gbagbo forces purportedly used widespread and systematic attacks against specific ethnic or religious communities that were supporting Outtara. The ICC is alleging that murder, rape and other sexual violence, persecution, and other inhuman acts were committed over an extended time period and over large geographic areas (I’m using the ICC’s wording). Gbagbo is being called an indirect co-perpetrator for four counts of crimes against humanity. Although Cote d’Ivoire is not party to the Rome State that founded the ICC, it accepted its jurisdiction in April 2003, which was ironically under Gbagbo’s regime. Outtara reconfirmed the country’s acceptance of this jurisdiction and at the end of last year the former President was arrested in the capital of Abidjan and transferred to The Hague. He has been fit to stand trial, and after being found indigent, the Court has borne the cost of his Defense.
Based on the violence that has occurred in Cote d’Ivoire over the last decade and the 2010 election strife, I was not totally surprised to see a rally outside the ICC on Tuesday. I became confused though when I approached the demonstration to see participants wearing t-shirts saying “Free Gbagbo” and holding banners calling Gbagbo a political prisoner. I initially assumed the 200+ demonstrators were there to see justice served against a tyrant, but on the contrary, they were loyal to Gbagbo and had come to support him.
I spent an hour or so talking with various protesters. Although a good number lived in the Netherlands, most seemed to have come from all over Western Europe, telling me they spent the night on buses from London, Paris, Berlin, and Milan to attend and would turn around and get back on the bus that same afternoon. I heard a litany of reasons for their presence there, with the most simple being that Gbagbo was a family friend or that he was born in the same community as the protester. Some said they came out because they felt he would be a better ruler than Outtara, while others felt he had been a scapegoat for an out-of-control military that acted of its own accord. Many voiced anger that Gbagbo’s inner circle have all been imprisoned under Outtara, including the former First Lady Simone Hehivet Gbagbo, his son, Michel Gbagbo, and former Prime Minister Pascal Affi N’Guessan. Many chanted about one-sided justice, in which both sides had committed violence yet only Gbagbo was arrested. I was handed a leaflet calling the 2010 election a France-backed coup, a form of neocolonialism. A different leaflet I received showed graphic photos of dead bodies from a massacre that allegedly occurred on July 20, 2012, captions stating that Ouattara used the military to burn opponents alive and that he had established concentration camps. Another Ivorian-French man at the rally gave me an information sheet that had nothing to do with the 2010 election violence at all, but rather was demanding an answer as to who was responsible for the November 2004 bombing of a French military camp in Bouaké, which killed 9 French soldiers, one American civilian, and injured 38 others. The pro-Gbagbo demonstration simply gave him an audience and platform he needed to get his message across.
Here is some footage I took of the rally in its early hours when it was at its calmest:
Protesters Bury Jonathan in Lagos During Occupy Nigeria:
Starting early this morning, dozens of Ijaw women from the Kolu-Ama community in southern Bayelsa State traveled to Warri, Delta State to protest in front of the Chevron office there. Their single demand was for the company to extinguish a fire that has been burning for ten days on an offshore gas platform. They claimed that Chevron had abandoned the fire after it started, leaving local to deal with the air pollution, fuel spillage, and other environmental degradation that accompany such an accident. Their placards included grievances ranging from depletion of fish stocks due to oil spills to Chevron’s failure to build hospitals in the area.
The Kolu-Ama fishing community where the demonstrators live is also the home of the Foropa, Alaibiri, and Sagbama groups. Bayelsa, the home state of President Jonathan, has experienced some of the most severe environmental damage caused by oil in all of the Niger Delta. Neither the Bayelsa Governor, Timipre Sylva, nor the Delta Governor, Emmanuel Uduaghan, have commented on the fire nor the demands of the protesters.
This Chevron office, one of four in southern Nigeria, has experienced demonstrations in the past. In 2010, over 200 ex-militants from the Niger Delta Welfare Committee (NDWC) marched through the front gates demanding more jobs for local youths. NDWC had been in talks with Chevron officials regarding local job creation but demonstrators turned violent once it was decided that negotiations were moving along slowly. The youths became even more aggressive when company officials argued that it was the responsibility of the federal government to create employment opportunities for locals.
So far, the women’s mobilization has been peaceful. There was no indication whether the women would return to continue their protest tomorrow.
There are two major developments today. First, the NLC has asked for a “suspension” (i.e. end) to the nation-wide labor strike and encourages all Nigerians to return to work tomorrow, despite that the price of fuel was not returned to its previous price. The federal government had stated last week that the N141 per liter price was non-negotiable but agreed with the NLC over the weekend on N97. The NLC also reiterated its call for an end to street demonstrations (although the demonstrations began before the NLC became publicly involved and most were planned and implemented independently of the NLC anyway).
Second, although the number and intensity of protests across the country lessened, today saw the strongest suppression of demonstrators yet. Police clamped down harshly on marchers (led by the former governor) in the northern city of Kano and President Jonathan deployed soldiers to disperse the remaining demonstrators in Lagos. Soldiers fired live rounds into the air and around the crowds. There were no fatalities. Additionally, state security forces stormed the CNN and BBC offices in Lagos, presumably to stop those news sources from reporting on the protests.
The Joint Action Front, the organizational force behind Occupy Nigeria in Lagos, has promised to sustain their protests.
Occupy Nigeria is over for the most part I think, and it is due to relative deprivation. Relative deprivation occurs when expectations (e.g. of standard of living) outpace capacities (e.g. to earn an income). In the long-term, the removal of the subsidy pales in comparison to other hardships this country has endured, and cannot be compared to many other injustices under previous regimes. Today’s Nigerians may compare themselves to Nigerians living under the economically inept administration of Obasanjo or the oppressive dictatorship of Abacha and be comparably thankful for Jonathan. Nigerians have low expectations of their government because the government so frequently under performs, thus rising fuel prices are not shocking enough to galvanize prolonged resistance. In the short-term, Nigerians spent last week bracing themselves for doubled fuel prices, making it easier to accept a 50% increase this week. So long as expectations remain low, the state will not disappoint its citizens enough to incite sustained opposition.
Just over an hour ago, President Jonathan announced that the federal government would reinstate a portion of the fuel subsidy, reducing the price at filling stations to N97 per liter. Although this is not the previous pump price of N65 that the Occupy Nigeria movement, the National Labour Congress (NLC), and the Trade Union Congress had requested, it is a significant reduction from the N141 price from the past two weeks. The President asked all Nigerians to return to work today, citing the economic hardships that the past week has caused to the country. In response, NLC called off the public demonstrations but continued with the strike, urging workers to stay off the streets and continue striking at home. I am waiting to hear back from the civil/human rights groups who had coordinated with the NLC to plan the protests, as the former may or may not continue with their marches that had been scheduled for this morning at Isaac Boro Park in Port Harcourt. Here is the text from the President’s broadcast:
This is the second time in two weeks I will address you on the deregulation of the downstream petroleum sector. In the last seven days, the nation has witnessed a disruption of economic activities. Although, the economic imperatives for the policy have been well articulated by government, the Nigerian Labour Congress (NLC) and the Trade Union Congress (TUC) went ahead to declare a nationwide strike.
There was also near-breakdown of law and order in certain parts of the country as a result of the activities of some persons or groups of persons who took advantage of the situation to further their narrow interests by engaging in acts of intimidation, harassment and outright subversion of the Nigerian state. I express my sympathy to those who were adversely affected by the protests.
At the inception of the deregulation policy, Government had set up the Justice Alfa Belgore Committee to liaise with Labour and other stakeholders to address likely grey areas in the policy, but despite all our efforts, Labour refused the option of dialogue and also disobeyed a restraining order of the National Industrial Court of Nigeria.
However, following the intervention of the Leadership of the National Assembly, and other well-meaning Nigerians, Labour accepted to meet with government, but this yielded no tangible result.
It has become clear to government and all well-meaning Nigerians that other interests beyond the implementation of the deregulation policy have hijacked the protest. This has prevented an objective assessment and consideration of all the contending issues for which dialogue was initiated by government. These same interests seek to promote discord, anarchy, and insecurity to the detriment of public peace.
Government appreciates that the implementation of the deregulation policy would cause initial hardships and commends Nigerians who have put forth suggestions and credible alternatives in this regard. Government also salutes Nigerians who by and large, conducted themselves peacefully while expressing their grievances.
Let me assure you that government will continue to respect the people’s right to express themselves within the confines of the law and in accordance with the dictates of our democratic space.
Government will continue to pursue full deregulation of the downstream petroleum sector. However, given the hardships being suffered by Nigerians, and after due consideration and consultations with state governors and the leadership of the National Assembly, government has approved the reduction of the pump price of petrol to N97 per litre. The Petroleum Products Pricing Regulatory Agency (PPPRA) has been directed to ensure compliance with this new pump price.
Government is working hard to reduce recurrent expenditure in line with current realities and to cut down on the cost of governance. In the meantime, government has commenced the implementation of the Subsidy Reinvestment and Empowerment projects: including the Federal Government- assisted mass transit programme which is already in place, and job creation for the youth.
Furthermore, the legal and regulatory regime for the petroleum industry will be reviewed to address accountability issues and current lapses in the Industry. In this regard, the Petroleum Industry Bill will be given accelerated attention. The report of the forensic audit carried out on the NNPC is being studied with a view to implementing the recommendations and sanctioning proven acts of corruption in the industry.
Let me assure Nigerians that this administration is irrevocably committed to tackling corruption in the petroleum industry as well as other sectors of the economy. Consequently, all those found to have contributed one way or the other to the economic adversity of the country will be dealt with in accordance with the law.
My dear compatriots, I urge you to show understanding for the imperatives of the adjustment in the pump price of petrol and give government your full support to ensure its successful implementation. I further appeal to Nigerians to go back to work and go about their normal duties as government has made adequate arrangements for the protection of life and property throughout the federation.
Government will not condone brazen acts of criminality and subversion. As President, I have sworn to uphold the unity, peace and order of the Nigerian State and by the grace of God, I intend to fully and effectively discharge that responsibility. Let me add that we are desirous of further engagements with Labour. I urge our Labour leaders to call off their strike, and go back to work.
Nigeria belongs to all of us and we must collectively safeguard its unity.
Thank you. God bless the Federal Republic of Nigeria.”
The demand that the liter price be reduced back to its original price of N65 per liter was one of the clear and consistent demands common among all agitating groups this week. It will be up to the involved civil society organizations to decide if they want to join the NLC in calling off streets protests but continuing the strike, or if organizations want to continue to demonstrate in order to meet their original price goal.
By agreeing to N97 per liter, subsidy supporters show that they are willing to engage in dialogue and compromise with the federal government, possibly increasing their legitimacy in the eyes of state officials and their chances of collaboration with the government in the future. However, agreeing to a price higher than the original one may also indicate to the public that the NLC is no restraining force on the state, and is simply a collection of “big men” making decisions behind closed doors.
The lesson learned by the government may be that if they want to implement an unpopular decision, all they must do is take a wildly unpopular action and quickly change it to a mildly unpopular one for it to be palatable. Like a seasoned salesman who knows a buyer will haggle over a price, perhaps the federal government doubled the fuel price in order to ultimately have the price be increased by just 50%, sending the public the message that the state is responsive to the demands of the public.
Occupy Nigeria activists did not take to the streets today. However, pro-Jonathan demonstrators reacted to pro-subsidy marches by staging their own movement, arriving to Port Harcourt on minibuses in order to show their support for the Federal Government’s decision. Gathering at 9 am, they marched north up Aba road, down to Diobu road, and then to Rivers State Government House (the site of Occupy Nigeria’s protest on Tuesday).
Most of the anti-Occupy Nigeria demonstrators were Ijaws from oil-rich Bayelsa, the ethnic group and home state of the President. They came out with two aims in mind. First, they announced their allegiance to the current administration. They cautioned that if anyone attempts to assassinate Jonathan then northerners will emerge to testify as to how he died. Their remarks allude to the fear that the protests, in conjunction with the discontent caused by Boko Haram violence, are enough to bring about an attempt on the President’s life. The second purpose of the protest was to criticize the National Labour Congress’ unnecessary national workers’ strike. Pro-Jonathan speakers stated that Nigerians should both go back to work and support the President’s decision to lift the subsidy. They further accused the NLC of complacency in the period after the extrajudicial killing of Niger Delta human rights activist Ken Saro-Wiwa in 1995, arguing that the NLC had a duty to speak out against the injustice of his execution.
Today’s march was led by the former leader of the Niger Delta Volunteer Force, Asari Dokubo. Dokubo is a militant-turned-politician who ran for Rivers State office twice in the 190s. He has lived in Abuja since being granted amnesty two years ago. It was the perception of some of the Occupy Nigeria mobilizers that Oronto Douglas, Jonathan’s strategic advisor on the Niger Delta, helped to fund the minibuses that delivered the demonstrators from Bayelsa State, but this is not at all confirmed.
The demonstration was peaceful overall, except for a scuffle over the distribution of free t-shirts. The shirts depicted the images of Asari and Saro-Wiwa along with the message, “Sovereign National Conference Now!” The purposed pan-Nigerian conference would bring together representatives from all ethnic groups to chart a path forward for the country. Such a conference feels far removed from the current crisis here.
Yesterday, the New York Times reported on how removal of the subsidy may affect production. “Nigeria’s main oil union said Thursday that it would shut down oil production on Sunday if the government did not reverse its decision to remove popular fuel subsidies. Nationwide strikes prompted by the decision, which has doubled gas prices, continued Thursday, as tens of thousands of people protested for the fourth straight day. President Goodluck Jonathan met with labor unions on Thursday to try to resolve the dispute. The president of one of the largest unions, Abdulwaheed Omar of Nigeria Labor Congress, called the talks ‘fruitful’ and said they would meet again on Saturday.”
Nearly 80% of the Nigerian state budget depends on crude revenues. Would the federal government really permit the union to stop production, especially in a post-Arab Spring oil economy in which Nigerian exports are more strategically important than ever? For me, not likely. However, a friend in the oil industry here thinks that the union absolutely could stop work and that if that happened, the Occupy Nigeria movement would officially be a success less than 24 hours later. The Nigerian state can survive reinstatement of the fuel subsidy, shame-faced but more-or-less as intact as before, but the state cannot survive without oil production.