DAKAR, SENEGAL - On Monday, 60 supporters of the Biafra separatist movement were imprisoned by court order in the southeastern Nigerian state of Abia. The order is part of a growing government crackdown against the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB), a group calling for southeastern Nigeria to break away and form an independent country.
In recent weeks, protests by IPOB activists have become increasingly tense. A rally in Abia earlier this month left a police officer dead and a police station nearly burned down.
The now jailed sixty people who took part in that rally were charged with conspiracy, terrorism, attempted murder, and membership in an unlawful society.
The governors of five southeastern states recently met and banned all IPOB activities, while the government has declared IPOB a terrorist organization, citing alleged offenses that included the formation of a Biafra secret service and using weapons against Nigerian security forces.
Emmanuel Kanu, the brother of Nnamdi Kanu, the leader of IPOB, denied the charges.
"We’ve never asked anyone to kill for us neither have we killed anyone. We are not Boko Haram. We are not ISIS. We are nonviolent freedom fighters. That’s who we are. From inception, Nnamdi Kanu made it clear to the whole world that we are nonviolent," Emmanuel Kanu said.
Nnamdi Kanu’s current whereabouts are unknown. The controversial leader was released in May after spending more than a year in detention facing charges of treason.
For years, he ran on online radio program, broadcasting from the United Kingdom. In his often-confrontational rhetoric, he has described Nigeria as a zoo that must be destroyed.
The government's only option, he recently suggested, is to give Biafra its freedom.
"Our promise is very simple. If they fail to give us Biafra, Somalia will look like a paradise compared to what will happen to that zoo," Kanu said.
Southeastern Nigeria is home to the Igbos, one of Nigeria's largest ethnic groups. Many Igbos say the predominantly Muslim Hausa-Fulani people of northern Nigeria dominate the federal government and marginalize the largely Christian Igbos.
An attempt to carve an independent Biafra out of the southeast in 1967 triggered a civil war that killed nearly one million people.
Igwe Christopher Ejiofor is a traditional Igbo king who fought on the Biafran side in that war. He said IPOB has legitimate grievances, but that its approach is wrong.
"Nnamdi Kanu expressed something that is not stamped and approved by the Igbo people as a whole. In political terms, no governors, no elders, no statesmen, no high profile Igbo politician have said that they are in support of Nnamdi Kanu or that they want Biafra to be declared," Ejiofor said.
Many Igbos say they do not want to repeat history. But many of them have also condemned the government's deployment of troops in the southeast this month. And as Nigeria’s October 1 Independence Day approaches, ethnic and political tensions remain high.