Nigeria's season of ethnic discontent

The release and re-arrest of members of a Yoruba organisation this week have marked the latest chapter in Nigeria’s bid to contain ethnic unrest in various parts of the country.

Fredrick Fasehun and Gani Adams, leaders of the Oodua Peoples Congress (OPC), were initially jailed with four other members of the group after clashes broke out in the commercial capital of Lagos last month between rival OPC supporters. The National Union of Road Transport Workers was also drawn into the violence, which reportedly claimed up to eight lives—while more than 40 vehicles were burnt.

The OPC is a militant grouping formed in 1997 to represent the Yoruba, which constitute the second-largest tribe in the West African state. Yorubas are concentrated in south-western Nigeria.

On Monday, the detainees appeared to have been let off the hook, after the director of public prosecution for Lagos state advised that they had no case to answer.
However, Fasehun and Adams were re-arrested the following day. They face charges of murder and arson.

In another court decision related to ethnic unrest, officials ruled last week that Alhaji Mujahid Dokubu-Asari—leader of the Niger Delta Volunteer Force—should be remanded until January 10 on treason and felony charges. He was arrested early last month after publicly calling for the break-up of Nigeria.

The force has taken up arms to demand that a greater share of oil revenues from the southern delta be awarded to local residents, who have grown weary of seeing these profits disappear into the pockets of corrupt politicians. Inhabitants of the delta, which is dominated by the Ijaw ethnic group, also accuse oil multinationals of polluting their environment.

Last year, Dokubu-Asari and Nigerian officials seemed to have attained a certain measure of détente, with the force leader even being invited to the capital, Abuja, for talks with President Olusegun Obasanjo.

He now faces life imprisonment if convicted, a prospect by which he claims not to be daunted.

“I am prepared to make any sacrifice for my people. The struggle for the emancipation of my people is my life,” Dokubu-Asari said, as he was led from court to a security van. “We are not Nigerians. What we are saying is that this trial marks the beginning of the freedom of all the nationalities.”

This fighting talk notwithstanding, critics of Dokubu-Asari accuse him of having been a tool of government in the past, by intimidating people into voting for the ruling People’s Democratic Party during elections in 2003.

Dokubu-Asari’s wife, Mujahidat, says he may turn to regional and international courts if he feels that Nigeria’s legal system has denied him justice.

“Locking up our leaders or killing them, or charging them for treasonable felony for their speeches, will not solve the problem on the ground,” she said during an interview in Lagos on Wednesday. “We need to sit down at a round-table conference to discuss the problems and find lasting solutions to them.”

Nigeria’s government also faces a headache over ethnic matters in the form of the Movement for the Actualisation of the Sovereign State of Biafra (Massob), and its leader, Ralph Uwazuruike.

Late last month, Uwazuruike and six others were arrested and charged with planning to overthrow the government—and with running an illegal organisation and inciting violence and intimidation.

Massob advocates for the secession of a part of south-eastern Nigeria, referred to as Biafra, largely peopled by members of the Igbo, the country’s third-largest tribe. This region also tried to secede in 1967, sparking a three-year civil war in which millions died from starvation caused by an economic blockade.

“The demand for Biafra is borne out of a long period of neglect of the easterners by the federal government,” says Massob’s director for information, Comfort Enenike.

While the group has renounced violence, the seven detainees appeared defiant as they left the court where they pleaded not guilty to the charges against them—shouting “Freedom, freedom, freedom!”, “Biafra or nothing” and “No negotiation!”. Their trial has been adjourned to December 6.

This week, women from Massob warned that they might march on the presidential villa in Abuja if Nwazuruike was not freed; Enenike also said there would be a re-enactment of the 1929 riot by women in the city of Aba if he remained under arrest. The 1929 uprising took place on the back of concerns about taxation by British colonial rulers.

Festus Keyamo, lawyer for both Dokubu-Asari and Nwazuruike, says that by arresting ethnic leaders, the government is addressing the consequences rather the causes of tribal dissent in Nigeria.

“The ethnic militias are not in themselves the cause of unrest and agitations,” he said in Lagos. “The agitations are borne out of frustration, the dissatisfaction with the lopsidedness and injustice of the federation system in Nigeria.”—IPS

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