It happened in quick successions. The day was December 17, 2015. News had just come over the radio of a court ruling in favour of the release of Nnamdi Kanu, the detained leader of the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB).
Jubilant crowds poured out into the streets of Onitsha, the commercial capital of Anambra State. A group of soldiers stationed at the Head Bridge Market opened fire on one of the crowds.
By the time the smoke cleared, three people laid dead with over a dozen sprawled on the ground with gunshot wounds. The soldiers fled the scene but not without taking with them the three corpses.
Later in the afternoon, five more bodies were discovered meters away from the scene bringing to eight the number of people killed on the spot. Of wounded victims taken to hospitals, four later died, bringing to 12 the total number of victims who perished in the fatal shooting.
Three of the dead men were identified as Michael Nweke, 37; Peter Chukwuma Nwankwo, 26; and Mathew Ndukwe Kanu, 25. PREMIUM TIMES gathered that until his death in the hands of soldiers, Michael Nweke was a private security guard employed by the Catholic Reverend Sisters’ Convent at Nkpor in Idemili North local government area of Anambra State. He was a native of Aguekka Village in Ekka Community of Ezza North LGA of Ebonyi State.
Peter Chukwuma Nwankwo, an Onitsha-based trader, was a resident of Ezenwankwo Street in Ugwuagba Layout, Obosi. He hailed from Amaokpo in Nssakra Omege Community of Ezza South LGA of Ebonyi State. The third victim Mathew Ndukwe Kanu was an artisan in Onitsha and a resident of Obosi. He was a native of Ndiodo Community in Akanu-Ohafia LGA of Abia State.
Anxious family members went from police stations to mortuaries in search of missing or dead relatives. The search continued into the New Year. Leaving no stone unturned, the search party that included members of IPOB and a human rights organization, Intersociety for Civil Liberties & Rule of Law, hired divers to search the River Niger fearing the corpses might have been dumped in there.
On February 15, 2016, two months after the killings, 31-year old Sunday Nweke, younger brother to Michael Nweke, received a phone call directing him to hurry to the Onitsha General Hospital with a photograph of his late brother. There he met some IPOB members who led him to a mortuary attendant. Sunday identified the body of his late brother. The attendant, whose identity was not revealed, disclosed that some soldiers of the Onitsha Army Barracks, accompanied by some police personnel from the Onitsha Central Police Station, deposited the bodies on December 21, 2015. The attendant claimed he and his colleagues were warned not to say anything or release the corpses to anyone.
Similarly, Frank Chijioke Nwankwo and Grace Onyinyechi Kanu, relations of Peter Chukwuma Nwankwo and Mathew Ndukwe Kanu respectively, received phone calls to come over to the Onitsha General Hospital. They too were able to identify the bodies of their brothers killed two months before.
Traders at the Onitsha HeadBridge Market told PREMIUM TIMES that the ill-fated crowd shot by the soldiers were neither armed nor protesting. Azu Okwuashi, a trader at the market, said there was nothing provocative about the activities of the crowd.
“They were mostly young men who ran out into the street to jubilate when they heard a court had ruled in favour of the release of Nnamdi Kanu. They were not protesting. Why would they protest what for them was a good news?” Mr. Okwuashi said.
Nnamdi Kanu, director of London-based Radio Biafra and leader of separatist Biafran organization, IPOB, was arrested in October 2015 by the State Security Service. The news of his arrest generated mass protests across parts of Enugu State, Delta, Imo, Abia, Cross River, Anambra, Akwa Ibom and Rivers State.
Despite meeting bail conditions, Mr. Kanu is still held, a situation that has continued to agitate his supporters within and outside the IPOB.
Prior to the Onitsha killings, PREMIUM TIMES had on December 2, 2015 reported the Inspector General of Police ordering his anti-riot force to ‘maximally’ restrain pro-Biafran protesters.
Earlier, on November 16, 2015 the General Officer Commanding 3 Division of the Nigerian Army, Major General Hassan Umaru, at a press conference in Maxwell Kobe Cantonment, Rukuba, Plateau State, warned “all those threatening and agitating for the dismemberment of the country that we shall apply the ROE (Rule of Engagement) to the fullest”.
From Onitsha to Aba, Enugu to Umuahia, activists say, ‘maximum force’ has been the operational code for the unprecedented police and military brutality that has led to the extrajudicial killings of an unknown number defenceless civilians across the zone.
Human Rights organisations like the Civil Liberties Organisation (CLO), the Intersociety for Civil Liberties & Rule of Law, Amnesty International, Center for Human Rights & Peace Advocacy (CHRPA), and Forum for Justice have for years been documenting cases of extra-judicial killings in the South East, including what has been termed the murderous excesses of the special police unit called the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS), stationed in Awkuzu, Anambra State.
Between August 2015 and February 2016, about 170 “unarmed citizens” were shot dead or critically injured while about 400 others were arrested, charged or detained without trial. The right groups allege “torture, inhuman and degrading treatments in the hands of personnel of the Nigeria Police Force (NPF)”.
There are scores of reported cases of disappearances, abductions and pretrial killings of suspected members of IPOB or MASSOB (Movement for the Actualization of Sovereign State of Biafra).
Statistics made available to PREMIUM TIMES by the rights groups show for example that four people were killed in Awka and Onitsha on August 30, 2015; 13 killed in Onitsha on December 2, 2015; 12 killed in Onitsha on 17th December 17, 2015; eight killed in Aba on January 18, 2016; six killed in Aba on January 29, 2016 and 22 killed in Aba on February 9, 2016.
Among the four citizens killed in Onitsha and Awka on August 30, 2015 were Ebuka Nnolum, a native of Enuguabo-Ufuma in Anambra State; and Obasi Maduka of Oshiri in Ebonyi State. Of the 13 citizens killed in Onitsha on December 2, 2015 were Anthonia Nkiruka Ikeanyionwu (Anambra State), Kenneth Ogadinma (Abia State), Chima Onoh (Enugu State), Angus Chikwado (Anambra State) and Felicia Egwuatu (Anambra State).
And of the four citizens who later died in hospital after being shot by soldiers on December 17, 2015 for jubilating Nnamdi Kanu’s court victory, only one had his identity revealed as Okwu Friday. The identities of the three others were not made public as requested by their respective families.
Emeka Umeagbalasi, Head of Intersociety for Civil Liberties & Rule of Law told PREMIUM TIMES that human rights groups were not always able to detect and capture every case of extra-judicial killings or torture by policemen or soldiers in the South East.
“Some of the victims’ families are too afraid to come forward to report to us even when they know the identities of the policemen or soldiers that took their sons away,” Mr. Umeagbalasi said.
Massacre in school compound
What nobody was afraid to talk about was the mass killings by soldiers and policemen on February 9, 2016 of 22 IPOB members during a prayer session in a school compound in Aba, Abia State.
Human rights activists have called it an execution.
Emma Nmezu, IPOB spokesman, said to avoid unprovoked attacks of the type witnessed on December 2015 at the Onitsha Head Bridge, members of IPOB were advised to keep their activities off the road. Following this advice, over 100 IPOB supporters had on the fateful day assembled for a prayer meeting at the National High School, along Port Harcourt Road, Aba.
Survivors said that about 30 minutes later, at noon, the group was singing when a detachment of soldiers, policemen and naval personnel from a joint task force stormed the school compound and without much altercation began to shoot into the crowd.
Twenty-two people were shot dead on the spot. Over 30 others were left with various degrees of gunshot wounds. Among the 22 victims of the massacre were Uche Friday (30), from Asa in Abia State); Emeka Ekpemandu (35), from Owerre Nkwoji in Imo State; Chiavoghi Chibuikem, from Obingwa in Abia State; Nzubechi Onwumere (from Orlu in Imo State); Peter Chinemerem Ukasoanya (27), from Isialangwa North in Abia State; Chigozie Cyril Nwoye (23), from Umuna in Ezeagu, Enugu State; Chukwudi Onyekwere (26), from Aboh Mbaise in Imo State; and Chibuzor Maduagwu (28), from Amauzari in Mbano, Imo State.
Survivors’ accounts also had it that 12 of the 22 dead bodies were taken away by the soldiers who came in Hilux vans. The killer soldiers were said to have come from the 144 Battalion of the Nigerian Army, located at Asa in Ukwa West Local Government Area of Abia. At the time of the massacre, the 144 Battalion was commanded by Lt Col Kasim Umar Sidi.
The soldiers were joined by men of the Abia State Police Command as well as naval ratings from the Finance & Logistics Command of the Nigerian Navy, stationed in Owerre-Nta, Abia State. The Abia State Police Command was headed by Commissioner of Police Habila Hosea of service. The Area Commander was an Assistant Commissioner of Police, Peter Nwagbara.
The two officials declined to comment for this story. While Mr. Hosea did not answer or return calls, Mr. Nwagbara insisted all questions on the matter should be directed to the public relations officer of the command.
The Abia State Police Command publicly admitted to shooting and killing two IPOB members “for disturbing students of the National High School in Aba”.
Among the survivors of that shooting incident were Ikechukwu Ugwuoha, Amos Ezekiel, Okechukwu Nnebedum Nkume, Abia State Zonal Coordinator, Donatus Okeke and Joseph Okolie who had come for the IPOB meeting from Port Harcourt. They were arrested by the police, arraigned for “treasonable felony” along 15 other IPOB members and are currently remanded in Aba Prisons.
Bodies found in borrow pits
Four days after the killings at National High School, scavengers on February 13, 2016 raised the alarm upon finding 13 dead bodies in a borrow pit located along Aba Port Harcourt Road.
The borrow pit was months earlier converted to a refuse dump by the government of Abia State. IPOB claimed the bodies in the pit included those of its members arrested and taken away by soldiers who stormed the prayer meeting in the school premises. The dead men were obvious victims of extra-judicial killings.
Photographs seen by PREMIUM TIMES revealed that the men were lying face down with pieces of clothes tied over their eyes. The bodies were dumped in a group of eight, three and two respectively.
Eight of the dead men had their hands tied behind their backs with Biafra flags said to have been among personal items taken away by the soldiers after the school compound shooting days earlier. An amateur photograph earlier taken with a mobile phone captures some soldiers and other unidentified persons dumping fresh corpses from a van into a mass grave. The 144 Battalion military barracks is about 10 kilometers away from the Borrow Pit.
Concerned members of IPOB and the human rights organization, Intersociety for Civil Liberties & Rule of Law, were among the first people to visit the borrow pit on Sunday, February 14, 2016. As words spread, representatives of Amnesty International came to the site on Thursday, February 18, 2016.
Three more corpses were discovered in another borrow pit behind a mosque located between the Timber Market and the Arewa Onions Market, near Uratta Junction, along Aba-Port Harcourt Road. The three corpses were covered with leaves after being doused with chemical substances suspected to be acid and embalmment fluid. The choice of chemicals was probably to shrink the corpses to the bones, make victims’ identification difficult while keeping the bodies odourless.
Amnesty research group, led by Justine Ijeomah, was reported to have said they were “investigating the strong allegations of excessive application of force by the Nigerian security forces against peaceful and nonviolent IPOB protesters during their protests in Anambra, Enugu and Abia States”.
The Amnesty team had on that Thursday, February 18, when they first visited the burrow pit, taken photograph and video evidences. However when the team returned on Wednesday, March 2, they were shocked to find that the 13 corpses had been set on fire and were smouldering. Obviously, someone was determined to destroy the evidence. Amnesty International has video recordings of the burning skulls and skeletons.
Petitions to UN Rights Commission
Following the discovery of burning corpses, human rights groups working in South East Nigeria have petitioned the National Security Adviser, Chief Justice of Nigeria, the United Nations High Commission for Human Rights, United Nations Chief Repertoire on Extra Judicial Killings, the European Union, among others.
Following expressions of concern by international bodies of extra-judicial activities against indigenous groups in the South East, the Nigerian Army announced on February 21 that it had dispatched an investigative team to Aba to ascertain claims of massacre of 22 IPOB members. The announcement was made by the Provost Marshal, Nigerian Army, Brig-Gen. Ayuba Tedman Hamman, during the commissioning of the newly established Human Rights Desk, Department of Civil-Military Affairs, Army Headquarters, Abuja.
“I want to say that since COAS (Chief of Army Staff) was appointed I have been inundated with complaints of human rights reports,” Mr. Hamman said. “I think there is a lot of gap, and that’s why this desk was established…
“We have sent an investigative team to ascertain the issue in Abia State about the complaint that our men shot some people involved in peaceful protests. I have confidence in our team and I know this was a joint operation but since we are part of it, we still need to verify. We investigate and at the end of the day prosecute the culprits.”
Over three months after, the outcome of the military investigation is yet to be made public. Human rights observers say the military investigation was dead on arrival given that three days before Mr. Hamman’s public assurances, the Nigerian Army had announced it had temporarily relocated the tactical headquarters of its 14 Brigade headquarters from Ohafia to Aba in an effort to curb the activities of IPOB and MASSOB.
The Commanding Officer, 14 Brigade Ohafia, Brigadier General Lawrence Fejoku, told newsmen he was in Aba to put in check the menace of pro-Biafra agitators and other violent crimes.
Mr. Fejoku also used that opportunity to deny that the military shot and killed 22 unarmed pro-Biafran supporters during a prayer session in Aba.
The killing continues
The Nigerian Army and the police on May 30 admitted killing no fewer than five persons when members of IPOB and MASSOB trooped out across the South-East states in marches to commemorate the 49th anniversary of the declaration of the defunct Biafra Republic by late warlord, Odumegwu Ojukwu.
Activists said the crowds were unarmed and that many more people were killed than the security agencies are ready to admit.
But the army claimed that in killing the pro-Biafra activists and wounding several others, its troops acted in self-defence as well as in defence of lives and property of peace-loving Nigerians.
The Nigerian government is yet to investigate the killings.