Leaders of a banned Nigerian separatist group were arraigned on treason charges in federal court in the capital, Abuja, Tuesday. It was the latest in a series of legal moves targeting groups opposed to the federal state. If convicted, the six men could face the death penalty.
The six men were accused of holding illegal rallies, calling for the breakup of the federal state, and training a separatist army.
The men, all members of the Movement for the Actualization of a Sovereign State of Biafra, a group known as MASSOB, pled not guilty to the charges. "It is Biafra or nothing," the group's leader, Ralph Uwazurike, told journalists as he was escorted from the courtroom, adding his group would not negotiate.
The group advocates the revival of the short-lived Biafran republic, in Nigeria's oil-rich Niger Delta. Biafran separatists fought a bloody three-year civil war against the federal government in the late sixties. Supporters demanding Mr. Uwazurike's immediate release clashed with police Monday in the southeastern city of Onitsha.
MASSOB members say their movement is non-violent. And though a West Africa analyst with the research firm Global Insight, Olly Owen says this is well established, it is the group's other activities that have drawn attention.
"MASSOB has been very, very firm about its non-violent approach. But they have also been quite naïve in the approach they have taken," said Mr. Owen. "If you start launching a separate currency, if you start getting photographed in military fatigues, if you start rejecting the foundation of Nigeria, that is technically committing treason. So, I think it was only a matter of time before the Nigerian government clamped down on them."
Other groups have also been targeted recently. Niger Delta separatist leader, Mujahid Dokubu-Asari, is being tried on treason charges. Mr. Owen says that while a conviction on treason charges carries with it the possibility of a death sentence, he says, that is in no way a certainty.
"I think it's part of a generalized political paranoia as we approach 2007 elections," he continued. "If you look at the previous time at which MASSOB members were arrested for treason, it was actually for holding a football match in Lagos. The judge threw the case out. They were all freed according to due process."
Nigeria's current President Olusegun Obasanjo was a top military officer in the Nigerian army during the Biafran Civil War. More than a million people are estimated to have died during the conflict, most from disease and starvation.