Anarchy was averted in the South-east on June 5 when the police in Enugu foiled an attempt by a pro-Biafra group, Biafra Zionist Federation, to seize a radio station for the purpose of announcing the rebirth of the Biafran Republic, but would that halt the emerging sentiment? Christopher Isiguzo asks
When recently members of a breakaway faction of the outlawed Movement for the Actualisation of the Sovereign State of Biafra, the Biafra Zionist Federation, mounted an attack on the Enugu State Government House in a bid to hoist the Biafran flag and possibly herald a rebirth of the defunct Biafran republic, not many people took them seriously. They were widely described as jobless youths who were merely seeking attention.
Prior to the March attack, the group led by a London-trained lawyer from Abia State, Mr. Ben Onwuka, had claimed to have declared the new republic on November 6, 2012. Onwuka and about 400 of his followers drew the anger of the law enforcement agencies, who clamped down on the group, arresting and detaining the members for over a month.
But the attempt on June 5 by BZF to seize a radio station in the Coal City State, Enugu, which had at various times served as capital of the defunct Eastern Region, East Central State, old Anambra State, and now Enugu State, was the most audacious by the group so far. It was the most daring move to revive the Biafran sentiment since the end of the Nigeria Civil War in 1970.
Invasion Members of the group, who had initially been declared wanted by the police for attacking the Government House, Enugu, had in the early hours of June 5 invaded the Enugu State Broadcasting Service (ESBS) to make an announcement regarding the rebirth of Biafra. Though, the move was foiled by the police, two persons, a police sergeant and a civilian, were killed in the incident. They were said to have been shot by the BZM and the police. Twelve persons, including the BZM leader, Onwuka, were arrested by the police while several others escaped.
The group were said to have forced themselves into the radio station before 5am on that fateful day, entering the studio and demanding to make a broadcast to declare the independence of Biafra. But for the smartness of the man on duty at the radio station, who feigned ignorance of how to operate the studio equipment, perhaps, there would have made a broadcast proclaiming Biafra Republic. He was said to have tried to placate the group to buy time by claiming that the station had been off air for three days, while one of the security men sneaked out to alert their superiors who then called the police.
A team of policemen from the nearby Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, Enugu office, were the first to arrive the scene. The policemen, who challenged the group, were, however, overpowered when more of their members emerged from the bush. It was in the ensuing commotion that the police sergeant and one of the BZF members were, allegedly, shot dead.
Arrest The Commissioner of Police, Abubakar Adamu Mohammed, who paraded the suspects at the Enugu State Police Command, said the group was arrested with arms, including guns, machetes, a 25-litre jerry can of petrol, and 46 empty bottles of beer. He added that the police also recovered a compact disk with a recorded message and a sheet of paper containing the summary of the intended broadcast. Mohammed confirmed the death of two persons, adding that it was the same group that had attacked Enugu Government House in March.
According to Mohammed, "Today, at about 05:20 hours, the Ben Igwe Onwuka-led Biafran Zionist Federation invaded Enugu State Broadcasting Service with the intention of setting the place ablaze. The highlight of what they wanted to tell the members of the public was an appeal calling for all boys from Obiagu to come out, all boys from Ogui to come out, all boys in Enugu to come out. They also asked students to come out; those people with Keke NAPEP (commercial tricycle) to come out. They wanted to order all businesses to be closed today, all schools to be closed, all markets to be closed and all government elected officials to surrender all property in their possession by midday.
"So you can see, these people went there in a sense of trying to overturn the government and its something that we will never tolerate." The suspects were not allowed to speak with newsmen.
Strong-arm Method Onwuka had shortly after the attack on the Government House detailed how the group intended to go about its activities. He had made it clear that unlike MASSOB, which has pursued a non-violent approach, his group was ready to go all out against the security operatives, as they would be as violent as other militia groups existing in other parts of the country. He threatened that what Boko Haram was doing in the northern part of the country would be a child's play compared to what his group would do in the South-east, unless their agitation for a new republic was granted.
While dismissing insinuations that the group was being sponsored by some politicians in Enugu State, Onwuka had explained that the major target of BZF was to hoist the Biafran flag as a symbol of the rebirth of the defunct Biafra Republic. He claimed they had succeeded in doing this during the attack on the Government House. Onwuka had warned that the Nigerian state should vacate the Biafran territory before March 31, 2014 or risk a bloodbath, disclosing that his group has concluded plans to take total control of Biafran land from April 1, 2014.
Ambitious Independence Plan According to Onwuka, "We didn't attack the Government House but we captured it back for the Biafra people. We captured it for four hours and there was a battle between the Biafrans and the Nigerians and by 7am we retreated because we didn't have any weapons in our hand, to avoid any loss of life.
"The reason why we did it was to show the Biafran people that the hope for Biafra is still alive and that nothing shall quench the aspiration of the Biafran people to be independent. That independence has been resurrected. So the Biafran flag was raised at the Government House on the 8th of March 2014 and I, Benjamin Igwe Onwuka, led the operation.
"It wasn't an armed attack on the Government House; it was Biafran people and the Biafra Zionist Federation led it and, I Benjamin Onwuka, was the man that pioneered it. It wasn't an attack on any one but for the restoration of the independence of the Republic of Biafra. I want the Biafra people to know and the entire world, that Biafra has been resurrected and no force of arm could hinder this aspiration for Biafran independence."
Onwuka also issued a number of ultimatums to the Nigerian government. "Our ultimatum number one: Nigeria must vacate Biafra by March 31, 2014, failure to do so; it is going to be a bloodbath. But this time around we are going to be fully armed and prepared for it. What is happening in Ukraine and Syria is going to be a child's play if they fail to leave Biafra by 31st of March 2014," he said. He added, "The Biafra people have had enough, the killings of our people on a daily basis both in the North and here in Biafra is no longer acceptable to us. There is no country in the world that the security of the citizens is not guaranteed. Ours must be guaranteed. This is the promise to the Biafra people that the killings must stop and it will stop because Biafra has risen.
"This attempt to reclaim Biafra independence, we shall revisit it again very soon, but this is a golden opportunity for all Biafrans to come together as one regardless of your state because the boundary for Biafra now is from River Benue to Ore. The states that will comprise Biafra now are Benue, Kogi, Delta, Edo, Bayelsa, Rivers, Cross River, Akwa Ibom, Ebonyi, Anambra, Enugu, Imo and Abia and Southern Ondo." He threatened that what "Nigeria is going to face very soon, they will never forget it. This is not 1967 to 1970, this is 2014 and the Biafran people are ready for it."
Condemnation However, prominent groups and individuals in the South-east have been condemning the actions of BZF, dismissing them as nothing more than a group of hoodlums whose activities must be checked before they get out of hand. Last Sunday in Enugu, governors of the South-east zone rose in total condemnation of the group. The governors said the move by BZF was an insult on the collective psyche of the Igbo.
Chairman of the South-east Governors' Forum and Abia State governor, Theodore Orji, who briefed newsmen at the end of their meeting, stated, "We condemned the attempt by the so called Biafra Zionist Federation led by one Benjamin Igwe Onwuka, who earlier attempted to gain entry into Government House, for the purpose of hoisting their flag and for invading the ESBS on Thursday, 5th June 2014 in an attempt to take over the media house and declare the state of Biafra."
In a similar vein, Igbo leaders under the umbrella of Igbo Leaders of Thought, in a statement signed by its deputy secretary and founder of the Igbo Youths Movement, Elliot Uko, noted, "The infantile act of seizing a broadcasting house in order to announce a new republic is not the proper way to express anger and frustration with Nigeria. Such actions, if anything, only result to overheating the polity, which is the last thing any well meaning Nigerian would pray for at this time." The statement pleaded with those who felt aggrieved over the Nigerian situation to channel their grievances through proper and legal routes, which includes the ongoing national conference.
Igbo Leaders of Thought stated further, "Actions that are capable of leading to breakdown of law and order must be discouraged as it not only paints us in bad light but also don't solve the problems at hand. We warn Igbo youths who are said to be preparing for or planning whatever demonstrations, to shelve the idea as such ill-advised actions as it would only be encouraging our already misguided folks who erroneously believe that secession or disintegration would help the situation.
"We advise those indoctrinating them along those lines to retrace their steps as a stitch in time saves nine. Finally, we reiterate that Ndigbo believe in one united Nigeria where equity and justice reign, where no man is oppressed; we believe in a restructured federal Nigeria where every section is treated fairly."
National Vice Chairman of the Peoples Democratic Party, South East zone, Col Austin Akobundu (rtd), also condemned the group's invasion of the Enugu radio station. In a statement issued in Enugu, the PDP zonal leader alleged that the sole intention of the group was to paint the South-east in bad light in view of the security challenges facing the country at the moment. He described the actions of BZF as suicidal and embarrassing to Ndigbo at home and in the Diaspora.
Security Challenge Security experts, however, believe the emergence of BZF and its mode of operation are a huge addition to the country's security challenge. They say the federal and state governments of the affected area must do everything within their powers to stop the BZF campaign now before it matures, because it has the potential of creating problems that would be difficult to solve. A security expert, who preferred anonymity, said, "It's unfortunate that our security people no longer engage in intelligence operation. These boys planned the operation right from when their leader gave an ultimatum; they went ahead to almost execute it. If the guy in the studio had caved in, by now there would have been a state of anarchy in Igbo land."
He also noted that there was need to address the increasing rate of unemployment in the South-east, explaining that many young men are easily lured into rebellious acts because they are jobless. Many, however, believe that the nascent Biafra sentiment is a dangerous resurgence that would require more than strong-arm tactics to successfully tackle.