The Federal Government on Tuesday expressed anger over a plan by the United Kingdom to offer asylum to “persecuted” members of the Indigenous People of Biafra and the Movement for the Actualisation of the Sovereign State of Biafra.
The Minister of Information and Culture, Alhaji Lai Mohammed, in an interview with the News Agency of Nigeria in Abuja, said the plan was disrespectful to Nigeria as a nation
Mohammed stated this as there were indications on Tuesday that the Federal Government might summon the British High Commissioner to Nigeria, Catriona Laing, over the asylum offer.
But socio-political groups including the Middle Belt Forum, the Ohanaeze Ndigbo, Afenifere and the Pan-Niger Delta Forum, supported the asylum offered by the UK and berated the Federal Government over the development.
The UK Visas and Immigration issued new guidelines to its decision-makers on how to consider and grant asylum applications of members of Biafran secessionist groups in Nigeria.
In the guidelines published on assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government, it stated that the asylum would be granted to “persecuted” members of IPOB and MASSOB.
Federal Government a few years ago designated IPOB, which was formed in 2012 by Nnamdi Kanu, as a terrorist organisation. MASSOB was founded in 1999 by Ralph Uwazuruike.
The two groups are calling for the secession of the Igbo in the South-East and many other ethnic nationalities in the South-South from Nigeria.
In the guidelines titled, ‘Country Policy and Information Note Nigeria: Biafran secessionist groups,’ released in March, the UKVI, a division of the Home Office, directed its decision-makers to consider if a person “who actively and openly supports IPOB is likely to be at risk of arrest and detention, and ill-treatment which is likely to amount to persecution.’’
It further said the UK must also consider if the Federal Government’s actions were acts of prosecution, not persecution.
“Those fleeing prosecution or punishment for a criminal offence are not normally refugees. The prosecution may, however, amount to persecution if it involves victimisation in its application by the authorities,’’ the 56-page document noted.
An example of persecution, the UKVI said was “if it is the vehicle or excuse for or if only certain groups are prosecuted for a particular offence and the consequences of that discrimination are sufficiently severe.
The punishment which is cruel, inhuman or degrading (including punishment which is out of all proportion to the offence committed) may also amount to persecution.”
On the alleged marginalisation of the Igbo, which it said led to the current agitation by IPOB, it said, ‘’Nigeria’s President Muhammadu Buhari has been perceived by some as being dismissive and unsympathetic towards the people of the South-East, particularly with regard to the appointment of senior government officials which appeared to favour his northern constituents.
Some Igbo complain of under-representation in the Federal Government, marginalisation, deficient infrastructure as a result of a smaller allocation of federal resources than other regions, and a sense of historical grievance against a state that they say does not represent them.’’
The UK government observed that new independence movements were, ‘’reportedly driven by a sense of unfair treatment and marginalisation.’’
It disclosed that MASSOB and IPOB had largely advocated peaceful change but on occasions had used rhetoric that might encourage violent resistance, adding that IPOB in particular, through its online platform, Radio Biafra, and online comments of its leader, Kanu, had stoked secessionist aspirations and encouraged resistance to the authorities.
The guidelines noted that though MASSOB was not a banned organisation and continued to conduct public activities, a number of its supporters had been arrested – and some killed during demonstrations.
It stated, ‘’MASSOB, since its formation in the late 1990s, has clashed with the security forces. Numerous members have been killed, wounded and arrested – usually during demonstrations. Over a hundred arrests were made in September 2018, at least 10 in 2019; and, in July 2020, it was reported that members of MASSOB were arrested following clashes with the police.
“IPOB has in recent years become the dominant Biafran group. Since 2015, the security forces have reportedly extra-judicially killed tens and injured hundreds of its supporters and leadership, often using excessive force to control protests.
“The security forces have also arrested hundreds of IPOB supporters at different events, usually when disrupting demonstrations or marches to promote Biafran independence, particularly during 2015 to 2017, as well as during raids on the homes of IPOB leaders. Sources also report clashes with the authorities during 2018 and Amnesty reported that security forces arrested at least 200 and killed 10 supporters at different times during 2019.
“Further clashes and violence occurred between security forces and IPOB in August 2020 in the city of Enugu when the police stormed an IPOB meeting and also in October 2020 during confrontations in Rivers State. These incidents resulted in the arrests and deaths of IPOB supporters as well security force personnel, although there seem to be contradictory reporting on the exact figures.”
The UKVI also hinted at reports indicating that some IPOB members, supporters and leaders arrested had been charged with treason which is punishable with the death penalty.
On cases for consideration for asylum, the UK agency said, “A risk of persecution will depend on their role, profile and activities for the group, and previous arrests by the state. A person who actively and openly supports IPOB is likely to be at risk of arrest and detention, and ill-treatment which is likely to amount to persecution. Each case will need to be carefully considered on its facts, with the onus on the applicants to demonstrate that they are likely to face a risk of persecution.’’
While acknowledging instances of attacks on security forces by IPOB members, the agency said were members of MASSOB or IPOB had incited or used violence to disrupt public order, the government might have legitimate grounds to arrest and prosecute those people.
It, however, argued that “where the government has arrested and detained persons who, for example, peacefully participate in demonstrations and has then charged them with treason or the person is subjected to periods of detention in degrading or inhuman conditions, such treatment is unlikely to be fair or proportionate, and is likely to amount to persecution.”
A senior official of the Federal Government, who confided in one of our correspondents, stated that the government would demand an explanation from the UK on its decision which Nigeria considered as inappropriate and veiled support for the outlawed group which had been agitating for the disintegration of the country.
The source stated, “The Ministry of Foreign Affairs will definitely take up the asylum offer to IPOB with the British High Commission. The government may summon the High Commissioner and demand an explanation for their decision which is totally inappropriate and a form of support for the proscribed group.
In the interview with NAN on Tuesday, the Minister of Information and Culture, Mohammed, said the offer by the UK was unacceptable to Nigeria.
He stated, “Let me say straight away that this issue is within the purview of the Honourable Minister of Foreign Affairs and I am sure he will handle it appropriately.
“But as the spokesman for the Federal Government of Nigeria, I will say that if indeed the report that the UK will grant asylum to supposedly persecuted IPOB and MASSOB members is true, then something is wrong somewhere.
“Against the background of the fact that IPOB is not only proscribed but also designated as a terrorist organisation here in Nigeria, the UK’s decision is disrespectful of Nigeria as a nation.
“The decision amounts to sabotaging the fight against terrorism and generally undermining Nigeria’s security. It is not only unconscionable, but it is also inexplicable,’’ he said.
The minister recalled that there had been heightened attacks against security agencies in the South East Zone.
He said IPOB had been linked to the attacks in spite of its denials.
Mohammed stated, “For the UK to choose this time to give succour to IPOB beggars belief and calls to question the UK’s real intention.
“If we could go down the memory lane, what the UK has done is like Nigeria offering asylum to members of the IRA before the 1998 Good Friday Peace Agreement,’’ he said.
Commenting on the development, the Middle Belt Forum stated it was not surprised by the action of the UK.
In an interview with one of our correspondents in Jos on Tuesday, the National Publicity Secretary of the Middle Belt Forum, Dr Isuwa Dogo, said the group believed that the UK decision was based on what it believed was the right thing to do given the situation of things in Nigeria which had degenerated for the worse.
Dogo asked, “Why should I be surprised by the decision of the UK on IPOB or MASSOB. The Nigerian government has branded them as terrorist organisations when known terrorist groups that have done the worst terrorist activities in the country are not so branded but instead, the government has left them to continue with their terrorist operations against the citizens. We in the Middle Belt are against the so-called branding by the government.”
The Middle Belt Spokesman, however, said it would not support the idea of IPOB and MASSOB abandoning their course in Nigeria to seek asylum in foreign countries.
The apex Igbo socio-cultural organization, Ohanaeze Ndigbo, said that every favour extended to any Igbo man deserved commendation of the Ohanaeze.
Ohanaeze spokesman, Chief Alex Ogbonnia, in an interview with The PUNCH, stated that the point of convergence among Ohanaeze Ndigbo and IPOB and MASSOB was much more than the point of divergence.
He stated, “A major point of convergence is that Ohanaeze Ndigbo, IPOB and MASSOB are Igbo. The only point of divergence is an approach to the agitation against the marginalisation of the people of the South-East.
“So Ohanaeze Ndigbo owes it a duty to protect the Igbo wherever they are, call it IPOB, call it MASSOB or whatever nomenclature that is used, it is a duty of Ohanaeze Ndigbo to protect the Igbo.
“On a daily basis, we appeal to IPOB and MASSOB to come to us, let us discuss and hold dialogues and formulate a common approach to the issue of the state of Igbo in respect to Nigeria. It is an appeal that has been consistent by Ohanaeze Ndigbo. It is very regrettable that IPOB has not been able to come to terms with this appeal.
“IPOB approach of abusing everybody is the point of divergence but their grievances are very genuine. All the young people will graduate from universities, some make first-class and are deprived of the opportunity of employment while somebody who barely passes before you know the person is giving a federal appointment. It is painful.”
“So whatever favour was done to an Igbo man deserves the appreciation of Ohanaeze Ndigbo. Whatever favour that is extended to a disciplined Igbo man deserves the commendation of Ohanaeze Ndigbo.”
He said the Federal Government instead of kicking against the UK’s gesture, should call IPOB, MASSOB and all other agitation groups for dialogue.
On its part, PANDEF described the decision of the UKVI to grant asylum to persecuted members of IPOB and MASSOB as a welcome development.
A spokesman for PANDEF, Ken Robinson, who stated this during a telephone chat with one of our correspondents on Tuesday, said it showed the mindset of the international community towards Nigeria.
He stated, “That signals the mindset or feelings of the international community towards what is happening in the country. It clearly indicates how they feel about what is going on and that they are not comfortable about what is happening. That is an acknowledgement of the bias and the discrimination with the way the government has been handling some of these issues in the country.
“We have a situation in the North-West where bandits have been terrorising communities and kidnapping people at random. Boko Haram is doing its thing in the North-East. And we have situations where communities have been invaded and helicopters hovering all over the place not doing much.
“In the South, especially in the South-East, the Eastern security network is a beautiful arrangement to secure the lives and property of the people.
“But it is obvious that they are being targeted. So it is a welcome development and of course, it’s a pointer to the government that they need to change their attitudes to some of these things in the country.
“But more than that, the international community, particularly the UK government should do more in persuading Nigeria to do things rightly.”
Also, the Yoruba socio-political organisation, Afenifere, said the failure of the government to provide welfare for its citizens made Nigerians leave the country.
The Secretary-General of the association, Bashorun Sehinde Arogbofa, said it was clear that the country was in a crisis and that led the IPOB and MASSOB members and other citizens to be leaving the country.
He said, “In the first instance, the government should not have pushed its own citizens to that extremism. When it comes to a situation when people get out of their own place of birth, it is very unfortunate
But the Spokesperson for the Coalition of Northern Groups, Abdul-azeez Suleiman, in an interview with berated the UK.
He said, “We at the CNG are not surprised at the development because we saw it coming a long time ago and issued an early warning. While we don’t support the Nigerian government’s opposition to the asylum offered by the UK, we still remind the international community that as a country, Nigeria has given a fair share of friendship and support to its friends across the world.
“Apart from the effort to keep the peace and foster mutual relationships, Nigeria has never done anything to undermine its international friends and partners.
“However, available evidence tends to rather suggest that these long term friends and allies have become directly or indirectly complicit in the xenophobic, hateful and violent campaign for Biafra especially by IPOB.
“The United Kingdom, for instance, has provided Nnamdi Kanu with the platform to incessantly insult and threaten Nigeria and Nigerians with violence and anarchy. In one such instance, he openly said that if Nigeria did not give them Biafra, “Somalia will look like a Paradise.”
IPOB, in a statement by its Director of Media and Publicity, Emma Powerful, appreciated the UK government for the support urged them to help in facilitating their freedom as what they need most is a referendum as they are granting political asylum to their members.
He thanked the UK, saying Biafrans were tired of living in bondage called Nigeria.
The statement read, “The global family of the Indigenous People of Biafra led by our great and indomitable leader Mazi Nnamdi Kanu, has noted with satisfaction the news that the United Kingdom has agreed to grant asylum to persecuted Biafra agitators resident in the UK.
“While we commend the UK for this bold initiative, we wish to most graciously remind them that what we Biafrans need and cherish the most is a referendum and not asylum in the UK. We are tired of living in bondage in the devilish contraption called Nigeria they created.