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Last Updated: Wednesday, 30 May 2007, 14:28 GMT 15:28 UK
Reopening Nigeria's civil war wounds
By Senan Murray
BBC News website, Nigeria

Nearly four decades after Nigeria's bloody civil war ended, some young men calling themselves "freedom fighters" are trying to re-open old wounds.

More than one million people died in the three-year Biafran war

They want to revive Biafra's crushed secession bid, launched on 30 May 1967, because, they say, they can no longer tolerate being marginalised by the Nigerian state.

But federal authorities have dismissed members of the separatist Movement for the Actualisation of the Sovereign State of Biafra (Massob) as "common criminals" and "armed robbers".

Massob wants a separate country for the Igbo people of south-eastern Nigeria.

For the government, Massob revives memories of the horrors of the Biafran war, in which more than one million people died.

But the Massob fighters - mostly traders and university graduates - have come up with some creative ways to press home their demand.

"They go into a market and order market women to pay parallel Biafran taxes instead of those approved by Nigerian government," says the BBC's Yusuf Sarki Muhammad, who was recently in the region.

New demands

A few years ago, the banned Biafran currency, the pound, re-surfaced in some markets in the region, until a government crackdown forced the perpetrators underground.

The truth is that every true-born Igbo man or woman secretly desires what Massob is trying to achieve,
Igbo journalist

Now, the rebels are out of hiding with three simple demands and a deadline.

They are demanding the release of their detained leader Ralph Uwazuruike, arrested in 2005 and being held on treason charges, and oil militant Mujahid Dokubo-Asari, from the Niger Delta, who is facing similar charges.

Their third demand is one that many others have made: a re-run of Nigeria's recent general elections which local observers say were a "charade".

Although the Massob fighters threatened to disrupt Tuesday's inauguration of President Umaru Yar'Adua if both men were not freed, they did not get round to it.

But they have said they are prepared to "die for the cause of justice".


The group appears to be losing relevance as their recent call for a "sit-at-home" strike failed to win any support among their traditional supporters - market women and unemployed Igbo young men.

Biafran soldier
The Biafran war ended in 1970

Chukwuemeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu, 74, who led the initial Biafran secession bid, has not come out publicly to reprimand Massob, but he is now old enough to see the futility in trying to do what he could not achieve as a 34-year-old army colonel.

Mr Odumegwu-Ojuwkwu's participation in Nigeria's recent presidential elections is often cited by analysts as proof that the Oxford University-educated former warlord has abandoned the idea of Biafra.

But south-eastern politicians watch their words whenever the subject is Massob.

They do not want to openly support the group for fear of incurring the wrath of the central government.

But they also do not want to be seen as betraying the Igbo cause.

Setting sun

"Look, the truth is that every true-born Igbo man or woman secretly desires what Massob is trying to achieve," a senior Igbo journalist, who lived through the horrors of the Biafran war as a child, told the BBC News website.

Ralph Uwazuruike
Massob leader Ralph Uwazuruike has been charged with treason

"But many of them are also smart enough to realise that it is foolhardy to let themselves to be identified as supporters of Massob," he said, requesting anonymity.

"I don't want to comment on what Massob is trying to achieve," says Uche Chukwumerije, a senator who used to be head of the Biafran propaganda machinery.

"But what I can say is that the long-term political stability of this country lies in a very drastic restructuring of the Nigerian state."

Other Igbo leaders, who do not believe in the practicability of Massob's ambitions, however, say the fighters have succeeded in drawing attention to the "continued marginalisation of the Igbo people by Nigeria".

Despite Massob's agitations, the reality is that the sun may have set permanently on Biafra once called "the land of the rising sun".

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