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Oil fueling separatist fervor anew in Biafra

Nigerian secessionists find it easier to sway today's young than those who recall the civil war 40 years ago.

January 07, 2007|Dulue Mbachu | Associated Press

UGA, NIGERIA — Long before Ethiopian famine, Rwandan genocide and the implosion of Congo, an obscure corner of Africa introduced the world to the civil wars and starving babies that would become grim and recurring hallmarks of the continent's troubles.

That place was called Biafra. Nearly 40 years later it is showing disturbing signs of catching fire again.

A movement demanding independence for the southeast Nigerian region has clashed several times with security forces in recent months. Whereas many of its older inhabitants remember the bloody 1960s and are fearful of a repeat, the secessionists are winning support among the young.

Then, as now, the region's oil is stoking separatist sentiment, with Igbos, the main ethnic group of the area, saying they are not getting their fair share of the wealth and are treated as second-class citizens.

"It is not an accident that no Igbo man has been at the top in the military or security services since the end of the war, despite our large population," said Uche Okpala, an activist in the separatist movement MASSOB (the Movement for the Actualization of the Sovereign State of Biafra).

"Everything done in Nigeria by the powers that be is done to our disadvantage," he said. "So we might as well have our separate country since we're not wanted in Nigeria."

Another irritant is religion. Muslims are the largest group in Nigeria, while most Igbos are Christians, and whenever tensions flare, those living on the others' territory suffer the reprisals.

MASSOB, with some 2 million members, is the most vociferous of several separatist movements increasingly challenging the unity of Africa's most populous country.

President Olusegun Obasanjo's government has not disguised its concern at MASSOB's growing appeal; MASSOB's leader, 48-year-old lawyer Ralph Uwazurike, was arrested in October 2005 along with other ethnic and militia leaders and faces trial for treason.

Uwazurike's followers have grown increasingly militant since his arrest. Street clashes with police have claimed dozens of lives. Witnesses have reported the emergence of arms-bearing cadres of MASSOB despite the group's claim to be nonviolent.

Troops were mobilized in July as fighting in the city of Onitsha spilled over into surrounding towns. Soldiers working with police have restored a semblance of order after what rights groups and residents described as a heavy-handed crackdown. But tension remains high as the soldiers search small towns for MASSOB members.

One such town is Uga, 400 miles east of Lagos and 30 miles from Onitsha.

During the three-year secessionist war, in which an estimated 1 million people died and footage of starving children with swollen bellies filled the West's TV screens, Uga played an important role. It had an airstrip that helped sustain the rebellion with arms and supplies, flown in by whomever the Biafran leadership could hire for the perilous job.

Sylvester Obi, 62, a retired civil engineer, remembers the daily air raids on Uga, the weeks spent in air raid shelters, the hunger and joblessness. "It is not an experience you would wish on your enemy," he said.

He is one of many Igbos who think revived separatism is a bad idea. As far as he's concerned, Uga is in Anambra, one of unified, federal Nigeria's 36 states, and "anybody who is talking of Biafra needs to have his head examined."

But Nigeria's 140 million people are a volatile mix of 250 ethnic groups, and Igbos, numbering more than 40 million, are among the three biggest.

The seeds of the Biafra war were planted in 1966, six years after Nigeria became independent from Britain, when an Igbo-led military coup toppled the civilian government, only to be ousted soon after by officers from the rival northern ethnic group.

Chukwuemeka Ojukwu, the Igbo who had been appointed military governor of the southeast after the first coup, refused to recognize the new military government and declared an independent state of Biafra, named after the Atlantic bay in the region's south.

After three years of fighting, the secessionists surrendered.

Today, Igbos remain the dominant force in Nigerian commerce, and their prosperity is evident in the new homes in their southern lands that look more prosperous than elsewhere in Nigeria. But the roads are poor, which the people blame on federal government neglect. One still sees veterans of the 1960s war begging by the highway.

One road, a two-lane blacktop, runs along the runway that once served the rebels. Patches of it are still visible, and midway along it is a checkpoint where heavily armed soldiers search vehicles and people for weapons and signs of MASSOB membership.

Onitsha also attests to the divided feelings of the Igbo. It's considered a MASSOB stronghold, and in August, its 30,000 residents fled, fearing the military planned to bombard it. They stayed away for several weeks until the local governor publicly guaranteed their safety, said Fegge resident Emeka Ahurudike.

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