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Nigeria/Africa Masterweb Special Feature

    Ojukwu & Biafra by the Ballot Box
    By Chukwujama Eze



    (Monday, September 27, 2004)

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    "It is clear that they do not wish to actualize the sovereign state of Biafra by illegal means. They will not overthrow government. But if at the end of the day they get massive support of the people and win through elections on the basis of their belief, why not?" -Ojukwu


    Dim Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu A former rebel leader who fought a three-year civil war against the Nigerian government still dreams of an independent Biafran republic in oil rich southeast Nigeria, but this time by the ballot box. Emeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu, who led Biafran forces in the 1967-1970 war, is engaged in an increasingly tense stand-off with the State Security Service. The feared SSS "invited" him to the capital Abuja after he expressed support for a resurgent outlawed separatist group called the Movement for the Actualisation of a Sovereign State of Biafra (MASSOB). Ojukwu, who is regarded as a national hero by members of the Ibo tribe, has challenged the government to arrest him. "I support the activities of MASSOB and I do not renounce Biafra as a philosophy" he said in an interview with Reuters at his home in Enugu. "There is nothing sinful about Biafra, nothing at all. It is an idea, one option for Nigeria. I can see the Biafra of the mind taking hold of the whole of Nigeria."

    Biafra includes the oil producing states of the Niger delta, where members of the Ijaw ethnic group are fighting an intensifying conflict against the government, but MASSOB is seeking sovereignty for the region by peaceful means. Many ethnic and civil society groups from across Africa's most populous nation are calling for a fundamental rethink of the Nigerian federation, as ethnic, political and religious violence has killed more than 1,000 people every year since democracy was restored in 1999. This year alone, hundreds of people were killed in sectarian violence in the northern Plateau and Kano states, while hundreds more have died in fighting in the delta. A million people were killed during the Biafran war, which pitted Ojukwu against Olusegun Obasanjo, then a federal commander and now president of the republic. Ojukwu said the security forces were over-reacting to MASSOB by disrupting its meetings and arresting its members. "It is clear that they do not wish to actualize the sovereign state of Biafra by illegal means. They will not overthrow government. But if at the end of the day they get massive support of the people and win through elections on the basis of their belief, why not?" Ojukwu said.

    STANDSTILL

    MASSOB called for a stay-at-home protest in August that brought several southeastern cities to a standstill. "I believe the Nigerian government is frightened out of its wits looking at these weaponless youngsters just moving ahead, propelled only by their faith that truth will eventually triumph". Having gone into exile in the Ivory Coast when the Biafran war ended in 1970, Ojukwu returned to a state pardon in 1982 and has remained active in politics. Last year, he ran as a long-shot candidate for the presidency under the platform of All Progressive Grand Alliance (APGA), but lost to Obasanjo in elections described by the U.S. State Department as "marred by serious irregularities and fraud". He lambasted Obasanjo for high-handed leadership.

    "The worst danger to Nigeria is the existence of an autocratic regime at the top. It is the tyranny at the top that is the greatest threat to the corporate existence of Nigeria". "They think because they contrived themselves into power, they are now power themselves, that is wrong. I will resist such a thing". Ojukwu has obtained permission from an Enugu High Court to file a civil action against the government and security services to prevent his arrest. "I have the right to hold opinion and I hold my opinion; whether the government likes it or not is up to them."

    Ojukwu has now joined forces with a surprising mixture of other ethnic groups from around the country, under the platform of Ethnic Nationalities Forum, to call for a Sovereign National Conference. "We want complete review of the constitution and a restructuring of the Nigerian federation in order to ensure the continued existence of Nigeria." "I believe all these can be sorted out in a dialogue around the table; that is the way, not the marshalling of troops that I also pay for with my tax".




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