Nigerian government outlaws radical group

Chris McGreal The Nigerian government has banned a radical Yoruba organisation responsible for the murders of hundreds of people in Lagos in days of fighting between the country’s two largest ethnic groups. President Olusegun Obasanjo proscribed the widely supported Odua Peoples Congress (OPC) and ordered the arrest of its leadership and members amid another surge in ethnic violence that many Nigerians fear is a further step toward the Balkanisation of their country. Thousands of Hausa families originally from northern Nigeria have sought protection in military barracks as soldiers were deployed in Lagos city centre and various suburbs to quell the killings by Yoruba militants. Bodies were still lying in the street on Thursday amid torched cars and buses and razed buildings. “Such brutal and irresponsible acts cannot and must not be tolerated in a civilised society,” Obasanjo said. “Therefore, law enforcement agencies are hereby ordered to arrest and prosecute any person who claims or presents himself as a member of the OPC and similar organisations, all of which are hereby declared illegal, unacceptable and a serious threat to the peace and security of Nigeria.”

The police say they have picked up more than 200 people, including two OPC leaders. “We are going for the OPC leaders one by one. We have a list of its leaders,” said Lagos police chief Mike Okiro. The Red Cross said at least 100 people have been killed, and probably a lot more, and 20E000 forced from their homes by the violence that began on Sunday as Yoruba militants pursued alleged thieves into a mainly Hausa area of Lagos. The attacks spread to many other parts of the city, including parts of the business district. Obasanjo has trod carefully around the OPC until now, but the latest bout of bloodletting can be expected to lead to retaliatory attacks against Yorubas living in northern cities. It has also raised the spectre of the first attempt at secession by a Nigerian region since the failed bid for Biafran independence three decades ago at the cost of more than one million lives. The OPC was founded six years ago to promote the interests of 20-million Yorubas living in Nigeria’s south-west where there is widespread resentment at years of military rule under the northern-dominated army. Popular support for the organisation surged after it emerged from underground with the return of civilian government last year just as northern states rushed to introduce hardline Islamic law, including amputations for theft and lashes for adultery. The imposition of sharia law is widely viewed as a form of ethnic persecution by the mostly Christian southerners living in northern Nigeria. It has gone a long way to garner public backing in Lagos for the OPC’s demand for political autonomy or even outright independence for south-western Nigeria. The ban on the OPC came after the leader of its moderate wing, Dr Fredrick Fasehun, refused to sign a joint communiqu’ with Hausa leaders calling for an end to the violence. It is not clear if he is among those arrested. The police have spent nearly a year hunting the leader of the organisation’s more radical faction, a fugitive cabinetmaker called Gani Adams. He became a folk hero in Lagos after eluding capture despite a price put on his head by the authorities and radical northern organisations for leading ethnic killings of thousands of Hausas and eastern Igbos in the city. The murders provoked retaliatory massacres of Yorubas in other parts of Nigeria. Underpinning the rise in Yoruba nationalism are fears that growing disillusionment with Obasanjo’s government could lead to a return of military rule. The political cost of his failure to turn Nigeria’s economy around and bitter battles with the country’s corruption-plagued Parliament has been compounded by accusations on all sides of ethnic favouritism.

Obasanjo, a Yoruba, has lost support in south where he is accused of being soft on militant northern Muslims behind the constitutionally questionable enforcement of hardline sharia. In the north, he stands accused of ignoring the OPC’s excesses. The Information Minister, Jerry Gana, rejected the latter charge by reminding Nigerians of the near total destruction of the southeastern town of Odi by the army when it was ordered to quell unrest there. “Do you want us to demolish Lagos like Odi? It is not possible. In this democracy, government is striving to carry people along. You people are still criticising us for what happened in Odi. The president is very, very sensitive. But I cannot begin to convey the strong terms in which he denounced the activities of these groups,” Gana said.

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