This Day (Lagos)

4 November 2005

Nigeria: Ralph Uwazurike: Nabbed in a Football Pitch

Lagos — The name Ralph Uwazurike until about five years ago would not have rang a bell. Not any more. His Movement for the Actualisation of the Sovereign State of Biafra (MASSOB) has been pitched in long drawn battles with security agencies. Uwazurike had until recently when he was arrested proved elusive. What was the motivation behind the formation of MASSOB? Sources close to the Uwazurike family say that he disappointed that even with the advent of democracy in 1999, the Igbos were still being shortchanged in the scheme of things.

Uwazurike hails from Umuanumu, Okwe in Onuimo Local Government Area of Imo State. He grew up in Okwe and had his early education in the same area before proceeding to India where to study law. It was in India that the MASSOB leader claimed to have encountered the teachings of Mahtma Ghandi and became as it were an apostle of passive resistance, which he has adopted in the struggle for the rebirth of Biafra.

He is married to former Ngozi Ohia and they have four sons, two of who are in the university. His wife even with her frail physique is said to be a pillar in the struggle.

It is interesting that it was during a game of football, a sport, which the MASSOB leader had played with so much passion and even sponsored several local competitions in his village that he was arrested by security agents posing as NYSC corps members.

The headquarters of Biafra is located in his village. The village used to be a quiet agrarian one under it lost its serenity to the marauding soldiers and security men who come constantly to hunt the MASSOB men. Although his Umunamu kindred have suffered several dislocations as a result of the activities of MASSOB they are said to be "mightily proud of him."

At the beginning, a number of Igbo leaders had preferred to alienate themselves from the group, but these days, they do so from behind the scenes. Having seen the strength and popularity of the group particularly among grassroots Igbo, politicians and so-called Igbo elite have seen it as a potent force that may be instrumental to attaining political relevance.

No one took them serious when they happened on the scene. MASSOB was dismissed as the ranting of just one irrelevant Nigerian seeking relevance. The major domo in the organisation at that time were mostly half witted, half educated, sometimes even completely illiterate motor park touts and motor boys. The movement at that time lacked any form of intellectual input, so it was easy for people to say that MASSOB was just a group of rabble rousers.

Over time, perhaps because of the continued feeling of frustration and marginalisation by the Igbo, the people began to seek desperately for a rallying point and in that bid began to accept MASSOB as that rallying point. A lot of mainstream Igbos began to take an interest in MASSOB and its activities and also began to give it support. This is even more so for the Igbo in the Diaspora, especially in the US. Here, MASSOB has become the voice of the Igbo and there are groups or cells of the organization in nearly all the states of America.

Even the Igbo socio-political organisation, Ohaneze, has also decried the activities of the group stressing that although any group had the liberty to protest, such a protest must be within the ambits of the laws of the land. "We believe that the alternative to the rule of law is anarchy, and we think that our youths should be disciplined to respect all constituted authorities. They should respect the laws of the land," Ohanaeze had said then.

However, on August 26 last year a bewildered nation had woken up to find the markets in most cities of the country including Lagos, Onitsha, Aba, Kano Jos and Abuja shut down on the directive of MASSOB which declared the day as holiday to mark Biafra Day.

The Federal Government was jolted at the success of the directive with little or no public gathering. Even the state governments in the South-East that tried to over rule the directive discovered to their dismay that they were disregarded by the people. Indeed, tales of Biafran flags, Biafran currency, newspapers, and mementos gained currency.

Further dimensions to the Biafra struggle was perhaps recorded early this year when the news spread that the currency used by the defunct Biafra was now a legal tender in some parts of the country and even in the sub-region. Before then the Biafran flag had sprung up in various villages in the South-eastern states.

The moral authority of the State Security Services (SSS) was even brought to question at a stage when Uwazurike alleged that the director of SSS in Imo State asked for a five million naira bribe from him so as to end the persistent harassment on him and his group at their Okigwe national secretariat. The allegation was initially taken as blackmail as the director denied ever meeting him but when a respected Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN) Chief Mike Ahamba confirmed that the duo met in his house, the SSS authorities at Abuja redeployed the director to Abuja and sent a new man whose main objective was to arrest the rebellious MASSOB leader. But last,

Uwazurike's hiding ended as some disguised SSS operatives arrested him while he was playing football with some of his faithful.

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