Robyn DixonContact Reporter
At first, the mood at the demonstration staged on a high school
playing field in the city of Aba, Nigeria, was almost festive. Dozens
of demonstrators, calling for Biafran independence, waved red, black
and green flags, and danced, clapped and chanted. Within hours, the
military moved in and opened fire with live bullets.
The flags toppled and were picked up by soldiers who used the wooden
flagpoles to beat protesters who had fallen, as others fled. The scene
plays out on a video taken by a witness and offered to the rights
group Amnesty International.
The protest on Feb. 9 received little international attention at the
time, but a report last week by Amnesty International has cast a
spotlight on the incident and an ongoing conflict that has gone
largely unnoticed outside Africa.
The region in southeast Nigeria saw a deadly civil war and starvation
in 1967 after it declared itself an independent country, Biafra. The
government imposed a food blockade, and around 2 million people died,
mostly from starvation.
Renewed calls for secession have sprung up in recent years, led by a
separatist group, the Indigenous People of Biafra, which emerged in
2012. The pro-Biafra movement involves mainly the Igbo people, a group
that long has felt marginalized and neglected by Nigerian governments.
The Amnesty International report, released Thursday, accused Nigerian
security forced of a “chilling campaign” of torture and killings to
clamp down on a pro-Biafran independence movement. Between August 2015
and August 2016, Nigeria’s military killed at least 150 pro-Biafran
protesters, according to the report, warning the actual numbers killed
could be much higher.
Nigeria’s military says it acted with restraint and accused the
protesters of violence. Military spokesman Sani Usman told Reuters
that protesters killed five police officers at a May protest and
attacked both military and police vehicles.
The Amnesty International report addresses several incidents but
focuses in particular on the Feb. 9 protest at Aba National High
“They started shooting us, killing our brothers. Over 10 of them were
lying dead there,” wept one young male protester in the video of the
The video also quotes a woman who was at the protest: “People dying.
People falling on the ground. Blood gushing out. The whole part of
that field was filled with human beings’ blood. Then after awhile,
they started carrying dead bodies into their van.”
Four days later, 13 bodies of protesters were found in a shallow pit
by the Aba-Port Harcourt highway in Abia state, Amnesty International
The organization interviewed 146 eyewitnesses and reviewed 87 videos
and 122 photographs in its investigation of the violence and found
that police repeatedly fired live ammunition at protesters without
“Eyewitness testimony and video footage of the rallies, marches and
meetings demonstrate that the Nigerian military deliberately used
deadly force,” according to the report.
In the worst incident at a protest on May 30, in Onitsha, Anambra
State, at least 60 pro-Biafran demonstrators were killed when soldiers
opened fire on a protest, the report found. Some protesters who took
cover in gutters were pursued by soldiers and executed, according to
One protester, a 28-year-old teacher who hid in a gutter, told Amnesty
International that he saw the soldiers piling up bodies of those who
were shot. He said a soldier found him in a gutter and poured acid on
“I covered my face. I would have been blind by now. He poured acid on
my hands. My hands and body started burning. The flesh was burning.
They dragged me out of the gutter. They said I’ll die slowly.” In a
video of an interview with Amnesty International, the man still bears
burn scars on his arms.
A 28-year-old woman recounted getting a morning phone call from her
husband on May 30, from the scene of the Onitsha demonstration. He
told her he had been shot in his stomach and had been thrown on the
back of a moving military vehicle with six other people, four of whom
Then her husband started whispering. He told her the vehicle had just stopped.
“He was scared they would kill the remaining three of them that were
alive,” the wife, who has one child, told Amnesty International. “He
paused and told me they were coming closer. I heard gunshots, and I
did not hear a word from him after that.”
She found his body in the mortuary the next day. He had a gunshot
wound to the stomach and two shots in his chest.
The Nigerian military has defended its actions. In June, an army
spokesman, H.A. Gambo, said the protesters unleashed anarchy and
security forces had “acted responsively in order to de-escalate the
deteriorating security scenario.”
Nigerian police and military often have been criticized for killings
and rights violations in various parts of the country by international
human rights groups, including Amnesty International and Human Rights
“It is chilling to see how these soldiers gunned down peaceful IPOB
members. The video evidence shows that this was a military operation
with intent to kill and injure,” said Amnesty International interim
director for Nigeria Makmid Kamara.
The IPOB leader, Nnamdi Kanu, who was arrested in December, faces
trial for treason, along with other activists.