From PETRUS OBI, Enugu
Abia State-born Ben Onwuka and his pro Biafra group, Biafra Zionist Movement (BZM), became popular after they were arrested in Enugu on November 5, 2012 for re-declaring the Republic of Biafra at an open space in the coal camp area of Enugu.
Close to 100 of them alongside Mr. Onwuka were picked up by the police, as they were marching round the streets of Enugu with Biafra, United States and Israeli flags. For the next 38 days, the group languished at the Enugu Maximum Prison.
Onwuka grew up in the United Kingdom and has lived in London for 28 years. He studied Law and International Politics. He practiced law for about 10 years in London.
“It was from there I decided to return home because the means that Biafra issues have been fought have not been internationalised. The international community does not understand or does not know the aspirations for independence by the Biafra people. And to do that Biafra must align itself with the United States of America; though it’s difficult because of Great Britain; and at the moment I am categorically assured that the United States, Israel and France are on our side. And with the US on our side we will defeat Britain diplomatically, in order that Biafra can be independent,” Onwuka said.
Fresh from prison custody, Onwuka, who says there is no going back in the struggle for Biafra, recently addressed a press conference announcing February 20, as the date fixed for the inauguration of the Biafra government in Enugu.
In this chat with our reporter in Enugu the BZM leader shares his prison experience and also threw more light on the February 20, inauguration of Biafra government.
Sir, what was it like, spending 38 days in prison?
It was quite horrendous; we were mixed up with hardened criminals; we were mixed up with murderers, armed robbers, kidnappers, just name them. All night, nobody slept; the place was like an oven; they smoke 24 hours of the day and any slightest mistake you will be beaten to hell by the inmates. So it wasn’t a very good experience, but it’s part of the struggle; you cannot emancipate your people, as a leader without tasting that. It’s also good we went there because we saw a lot of injustices being done to the inmates; even though a lot of them have committed a lot of crimes they are suffering unjustly. For instance, a lot of them have been condemned because they have nobody to speak for them; lawyers will go in there, take money from inmates and they will disappear and their case is completely forgotten. I saw hundreds of young men who have been there for eight to nine years and forgotten because their lawyers have disappeared. It’s good we went there because we are going to make sure that this issue of lawyer or the judiciary is going to be completely overhauled and reformed; when you are paid you must do your job. So it wasn’t physically a good experience, but it was good we saw the other side of the world; it’s really an inside world; when you are there you don’t know what happens outside. It wasn’t quite pleasant, but it was good we went there and I am prepared to take it again for the sake of this struggle.
Were you put in a common cell?
I was in a common cell, with about 53 other inmates; and in that cell you are not allowed to misbehave; any slightest thing you are beaten thoroughly. They have their laws and if you do not dance to the tune of the inmates you find yourself in a very hot soup.
Can you give an instance of what you mean here?
They have their routine; for instance, you are not allowed to speak to somebody when there is quietness; they have time when nobody must speak a word. If you just make any turn to talk to somebody you are sent to the toilet to spend the night. If it is time to bathe, you mustn’t spend more than five minutes in the bathroom; if you stay more than that you’ll go and stay in the corridor the whole night. If you don’t flush the toilet properly, because there they ration water, you are going to stand at that toilet the whole night and nobody will rescue you. If a mobile phone is brought in for you and you are recharging without informing the boss in the cell there, they will seize the phone from you and sell it.
Our cell is an open hall without window; there is little or no ventilation and people sweat all through the day. We were 53 inmates in all and there were five BZM members with me in the cell. They kept increasing and reducing the number of inmates, but at the last count before we left we were 53.
Who informs a new inmate of the rules in a cell?
It’s the inmates; inside each cell we have a governor; you have a 2i/c, that is like the deputy; you have all the positions, just like you have in government. So each cell has a governor and this governor is like a president and is very powerful. When he is coming in from work, because they are chosen as a task force men and they become administrators within, everybody shows respect. These are people that have spent seven to eight years in prison. The taskforce works with warders to check the cells. The governor has everything; he has his own bed, we sleep on the floor, but the governor has a bed; he has mosquito net covered for him; he is paid. The government pays him; you know inmates are entitled to about N20 daily. They don’t give it to prisoners; it rather ends up with the governors and you dare not complain. In another way, it’s good because they maintain law and order in the prison because some inmates there committed terrible crimes and if you give them another chance they will do same even in the cell there. The governors are on their toes to ensure that nothing goes wrong in the prison because if you give them a chance they will kill you there; they can kill you, Most of them committed murder.
Is there no separate cell for hardened criminals?
No. But they asked me if I wanted a private cell; you have to pay N35, 000 to stay on your own, where you can have access to people and all that.
So what are the things you would change in the prison system if you have the opportunity?
First is the legal system; the legal system is failing them; they are human beings, like us. The situation where lawyers go extorting money from prisoners must be stopped; a lot of prisoners are there waiting endlessly for their lawyers. They will go there to visit them and say ‘oh look I ’m going to handle your case, but you’ll pay N400, 000.’ The family will run around and pay the money and then the lawyer will disappear. So it’s very bad; a lot of boys are suffering there because their lawyers have disappointed and nobody cares about them. Also, there is a lot of abuse by the inmates themselves; they smuggle telephones to the prison and use it to extort money from outside. So we will reform the prison to be a place that would correct people; we will also entrench the basic individual rights. In Biafra we are going to restore the death penalty to serve as a deterrent…there are very young people there who committed very serious crimes and they confessed they did it; some raped a 70-year-old woman and all sorts of thing. So we will make sure that anybody that takes human life will pay for it.
Could you tell us more about the inauguration of the Biafra government on February 20?
There is no compromise to the Republic of Biafra issue. The president of Nigeria will be the president of Nigeria and the President of Biafra will be a president of Biafra. Our message to him and to the world is that Biafra has been re-declared on November 5, 2012 and it’s our right to opt out of Nigeria when we feel that the security of the lives of our people is no longer guaranteed. Our people are being killed on a daily basis across Nigeria; there is no security for us. Go to our churches in the North they have become ceaseless targets and most of the worshippers are easterners and mainly Igbo. So you cannot have a state where, within that state, a group or a tribe is targeted on a daily basis. Biafra was declared in 1967 to purely provide security for our people; this is fundamental international law; it’s not against anyone. So the president of Nigeria will be there; we informed him we were going to redeclare Biafra in November and we did it. Again, we have come out; we are pursuing the same agenda; now is the inauguration of the government and to tell the world that there is Nigeria and also there is a Republic of Biafra. So our message to the Nigeria president is: we wish him well, as he runs the affairs of Nigeria. Nigeria and Biafra are brothers, so we can cooperate; we will cooperate with them; where we will disagree, we disagree with them. The security of our people is very important to us and we will go the length to protect our people and give the right to freedom of worship.
Why do you say that the there is no compromise on the issue of Biafra?
Remember, Nigeria is an artificial creation; it was an amalgamation of the three components, mainly the easterners, the westerners and the northerners. Our view was never sought when it was amalgamated and we have seen that the Biafra, particularly, the Igbo side of Nigeria, has been the target of killing; we have lost over 3.8 million Igbo, who make up more than 80 percent of Biafra since 1914. Again, people say Ijaw, Efik, Urhobo, Igala; no; if you go to the North they don’t differentiate; they say we are all one. If you go to the West they say you are all one. So if we are going to be targeted all the time; killing, shedding blood, no; we have the right to seek our own independence. It is done elsewhere why not here. That’s why we are saying no compromise on Biafra. We have informed the international community; Nigeria has been informed, we have also informed the US; it’s no longer a hidden thing.
What’s next; what do we expect on February 20?
The next thing is the formation of government on February 20; because you cannot just declare a country without forming a government. So next is the inauguration of the Biafra government on February 20 here in Enugu; it won’t be in secret; the world will see it.
What have you put in place to make it a success?
We are not going to reveal our strategy.
Are we expecting a Biafra president to emerge that day?
Yes. BZM will elect who will be the president of Biafra. Let me clarify this situation; whichever group that will make sure that Biafra is actualised or re-declared, as a sovereign independent state and recognised internationally, has the power and the right to form the government. Let me give you an example. In South Africa, the ANC formed the government because it was the ANC that pioneered the independence of the country. If you go to Zimbabwe, it is still the Zimbabwe African National Union Patriotic Front led by Robert Mugabe that has been in power since 1980. BZM did it on November 5; BZM wants to establish a government of Biafra; however, we want to also incorporate all groups to come together because Biafra is not one-man bandwagon. So we want other groups to send in candidates for ministerial appointments. It’s an inclusive government for all, but the group that champions it, that is at the forefront that is easily recognized by the international community will form the crux of the government.
What will be the picture of the government?
It will be a presidential system of government not parliamentary.