Biafra protests
Pro-Biafra supporters hold a poster of jailed activist Nnamdi Kanu during a protest in Aba, southeastern Nigeria, calling for his release AFP/Getty Images

Nigerian security forces have used excessive force against pro-Biafran protesters in south-eastern Nigeria, Amnesty International has claimed. Lucy Freeman, senior research adviser at Amnesty, told IBTimes UK the NGO had documented instances of excessive force used against protesters connected to the pro-Biafran movement.

Pro-Biafrans hold regular marches across south-eastern Nigeria calling for independence and the release of their leader Nnamdi Kanu. It is believed that during one of the latest demonstrations held in Aba state on 9 February, at least 10 people were killed by the army and police, with footage purportedly showing Nigerian security forces attacking pro-Biafrans being widely circulated on social media.

However, spokesperson for Nigerian defence, Rabe Abubakar, told IBTimes UK the police and army did not kill the demonstrators. He also said security forces had to intervene as some pro-Biafrans were allegedly carrying weapons.

"What is happening in south-eastern Nigeria is not a conflict situation and the law enforcement model that has been used is not appropriate," Freeman said. "It is not appropriate to use lethal force on protesters, even in case of a violent protest.

"There are consistent reports of excessive use of force, deaths and injuries of people connected to the Biafran movement, of people in Zaria, of people in the north-east. We are not prosecutors and we are not able to carry out a criminal investigation, but the Nigerian government is obligated – when there are credible and serious allegations of human rights violations – to carry out investigations that have to be independent, impartial and effective. It is not enough to deny allegations and people need to be prosecuted and brought to justice."

Freeman confirmed that an Amnesty team is on the the ground conducting investigations into allegations of violence and recent pro-Biafran protests. "It is a difficult context because you have so much cover-up by the military. In an ideal situation if someone dies by the use of force, there should be an autopsy, some records of the death, of arrests. What we have seen across the country is that these kind of basic documentation and investigations are not done."

Nnamdi Kanu

Kanu – leader of the Indigenous People of Biafra (Ipob) and director of Radio Biafra – was arrested by the State Security Service (DSS) in Lagos in October 2015 on conspiracy and terrorism charges, which were later dropped.

A day after the Abuja High Court ruled he should be released, officials pressed new treasonable felony charges against him, while President Muhammadu Buhari said Kanu would not be granted bail due to the "atrocities" allegedly committed.

Kanu was kept in DSS custody until Justice John Tsoho ruled he should be transferred to the Nigeria Prison Service in Kuje, about 40km south-west of Abuja, so family members could visit.

"We have seen in several cases the practice of the DSS of arresting someone, holding them unlawfully, and when that person challenges their detention with bail, they are immediately charged with something else to prolong their detention. That's unlawful detention," Freeman said.

"There are a number of people who have been detained in connection to Boko Haram who had a similar thing happened. The question is: To what extend is the rule of law respected? By looking at the examples of Kanu and other cases it seems that it is not being respected."

Nigeria's position

The spokesperson for the army and the government have not responded to a request for comments. However, the Nigerian government has always maintained that Nigeria's unity is a priority for the country and that although peaceful pro-Biafran protests are welcome, demanding the breakaway of the Biafran territories is against the constitution.

The government also told IBTimes UK that it does not consider the separatist movement a threat to the current leadership, and defined pro-Biafrans as an "insignificant number of frustrated people who are not a threat to the existence of Nigeria".

In several interviews with IBTimes UK, the army and the police denied allegations of violence during pro-Biafran protests, arguing that security forces had to intervene as pro-Biafrans "were armed and disrupted peace in the state".