At least 12 dead in clashes over separatist protest

A secessionist protest left at least 12 people dead after violence erupted on the second of a two-day stay-home strike in southeast Nigeria, according to residents and witnesses.

The Movement for the Actualisation of the Sovereign State of Biafra (MASSOB) called for schools, businesses and offices to shut down on Monday and Tuesday in the ethnic Igbo-dominated areas of the southeast to back a demand for secession and protest the detention of their leader, Ralph Uwazurike, who is on trial for treason.

While most people complied on the first day, leaving streets deserted in key towns of the southeast, which is home to many of Nigeria’s over 30 million Igbos, more residents went about their daily affairs on Tuesday.

But attempts by MASSOB supporters to enforce the strike led to clashes with police in the cities of Owerri, Onitsha and Awka, in which at least 12 people were killed, residents and witnesses said.

“There was a confrontation on my street between armed policemen and MASSOB members armed with sticks and bottles. At the end there were eight bodies lying out there,” Eme Ezewunwa, a resident of Douglas Road located in the centre of Owerri, told IRIN. Some of the dead had visible gunshot injuries, he said.

Three people also lay dead after a similar clash between police and protesters in Onitsha, a major MASSOB stronghold, while in Awka a middle-aged woman food vendor was hit and killed by a stray bullet, according to residents and witnesses.

Some local newspapers reported that as many as 20 people were killed across southeast Nigeria during the protests. Official figures have not been released.

MASSOB spokesman Uchenna Madu accused the police of opening fire on unarmed protesters and declared the strike a success.

“Despite the police action of shooting our unarmed supporters and killing many, our protest action was a success and will serve as a warning to the Nigerian government,” said Madu.

Felix Ogbaudu, a top police official in the region, denied his officers had opened fire on protesters. Instead he accused MASSOB members of shooting and killing people who defied the stay-at-home call.

“They turned violent,” Ogbaudu told reporters. “You have every right to agitate but they have no right to embark on that type of enforcement drive.”

MASSOB wants to recreate the short-lived Republic of Biafra over which a bloody civil war was fought in Nigeria from 1967 to 1970, during which over one million people died, largely of starvation.

Separatist leader Uwazurike’s claims that successive governments have oppressed Nigeria’s Igbos have struck a chord among thousands of jobless Igbo youths who were born after the war but have joined MASSOB's ranks.

Human rights groups charge that dozens of pro-Biafran activists have been killed over the last six years for campaigning on behalf of their cause, with hundreds in detention after being arrested at marches and rallies organised by MASSOB.