ABUJA — More than a month after corpses were found floating in Nigeria’s Ezu River, groups across the country continue to search for answers. Some fear the corpses were victims of extra-judicial killings by Nigerian security forces, a charge the government denies.
In a run-down open air market, Peter Odoemene said members of his group, a separatist organization from the Biafra region, are not the only ones demanding an explanation.
Police say at least 18 dead bodies were found floating in the Ezu River in Anambra State in late January, in various states of decomposition. Some groups claim the total number of bodies discovered is closer to 50.
The people have not yet been identified and no one knows who killed them. Police say the investigation is ongoing.
Odoemene said police are to blame for the deaths, and that 11 members of his group are suspected to be among the dead. He also is disgusted at the way the killers disposed of the bodies.
“That river, people are drinking it. Now it’s contaminated. It’s very bad. Even if those people committed an offense they don’t need to kill them like that and dump them inside the river,” he said.
The discovery of the bodies was a national scandal with government critics saying it is an “open secret” in Nigeria that security forces shoot suspects without a trial. Amnesty International says police killed hundreds of suspects in 2012, often without first arresting the victims.
The Nigerian government adamantly denies this charge, with President Goodluck Jonathan saying rival political groups are planting the stories. Officials contacted for this story declined to comment.
Abubakar Umar Kari, a senior political science lecturer at the University of Abuja, said he believes extra-judicial killings are common in Nigeria, but it’s not entirely the fault of the police. He also partially blames corruption in the judiciary.
“It is an outcome of frustration by the security forces who feel that these suspects have committed crimes, and if they are taken to court they are usually released only for them to go back to their nefarious acts," said Kari. "At a point it was almost a norm among the Nigerian police to simply execute suspects of armed robbery and other dangerous crimes.”
Kari said the corpses could be Biafra separatists, known as MASSOB. The fact that the group has made these claims public, though. will make police less likely to provide answers because MASSOB advocates that Biafra secede from Nigeria, and has many enemies.
Other less controversial groups also are demanding an explanation about the bodies, including the Nigerian Bar Association, which this week called on Jonathan to set up his own investigation.
Clement Nwankwo, the executive director of the Policy and Legal Advocacy Center in Abuja, said the main problem is that if the police are guilty, the investigation will never be conclusive. He also calls on the president, saying security forces need more resources and training.
"What we expect the president to do is to recognize that the security services have a huge challenge, which is the huge challenge of themselves being targets and not knowing who the next terrorist is, and so tend to react in that atmosphere with fright,” said Nwankwo.
Other analysts are more cynical, saying nothing will be done and when the cries for justice die down, Nigerians will suffer “mass amnesia” to cope with the tragedy.