Friday, August 17th was like any other clement day in the city of Owerri, Imo state capital. There was neither an overcast sky nor a sign of a brewing storm, yet like a bolt from the sky, the storm broke and activities in the state capital went into a frenzy.
Suddenly, hundreds of women appeared in the heart of the city dressed in all black attires. No one could tell, in the heat of the moment, from where the women sprang from and where they are headed. It was too big a procession to have been kept secret until that Friday morning catching the security agencies napping and forcing them to clamber to a response. Never in the history of the state has such crowd of protesting women thronged the state capital in defiant yet calm and orderly processing that compelled attention. Long before mid-day, the women had eloquently conveyed their message to a city that literally came to a grinding halt while the placard-bearing women marched through.
One of the women who identified herself as Betty Biafra told our correspondent that in view of the state of the country and the subservient status of the Biafrans in the Nigerian state, it has become necessary to sensitize residents of the Biafran enclaves to jettison any hope in Nigeria and focus on the realization of an independent Biafran state which according to her was within reach.
She said: “Take a look at the pathetic state of the country Nigeria. What is the difference between Buhari now and Buhari in 1983 or 1984? Civil rule has been militarized while the northern section of the country unapologetically apportions to themselves all privileges and benefits derivable from the common wealth of Nigerians. Buhari clamped down on IPOB and outlawed it because we are Biafrans while he is still unable to even verbally reprimand herdsmen who have repeatedly engaged in the mass killing of Nigerians. The global society has since designated them a terrorist organization but Buhari’s Nigeria won’t. In the face of these and many more evils plaguing this country, the only just thing to do is to pursue the independence of the Biafran state.”
She added that the IPOB women were also demanding the whereabout of their leader, Nnamdi Kanu whose home was attacked by the Nigerian army and about 28 Biafrans killed and their leader abducted. He said the women were also calling on Imo people and all other Biafran region to boycott the 2019 election as a way of pressing home their grievances and focus on the Biafran referendum. “They can do whatever they like; they can continue killing and maiming our people, what is certain is that Biafra must come, it is a done deal, bought and delivered with the blood of martyred Biafran heroes. We are unstoppable.” Not long after this conversation, the dam burst and several detachments of police teams were all over the women shooting canister after canister of teargas in such close ranges that the canister became more lethal than the teargas dispensed.
In the heat of the moment, one of the protesters slumped; a near stampede ensued and scores were wounded. Many others had their clothes torn off their backs, while others were bundled into police trucks with reckless abandon. When the dust settled, more than 100 women had been arrested while scores alleged brutal assault.
While the Movement for the Actualization of the Sovereign State of Biafra (MASSOB) has accused the Imo state government and the police of denigrating and dehumanizing the women who had posed no threat to any person or people. Police authority on Monday, the 20th of August, 2018, ferried 114 of the women to a Magistrate court crammed in a Black Maria truck for arraignment.
Just before the arraignment, a pregnant woman and a middle-aged woman, collapsed in court and were rushed off to an undisclosed hospital for medical help. The two names were removed from the charge sheet. The Imo state Commissioner of Police charged them for conspiracy to commit felony. Following the charges read and the bail request by counsel to the women, Magistrate S.K Kadurumba of Court 2 , said the court lacked the jurisdiction to grant them bail on the offence for which they were charged and directed that they be remanded in prison custody and adjourned the matter till September 3. Not a few persons believe that the arraignment of the women in a court without jurisdiction, was a deliberate assault on their rights and humanity. While the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) regretted that the Police was beginning to rewrite the laws of the land to suit their vested interests; and ulterior mandate to oppress and repress free speech especially in South Eastern Nigeria, MASSOB maintained that the alleged assault on the women was an abomination for which Governor Rochas Okorocha must cleanse the land or face calamity.
Former Education Minister, Oby Ezekwesili slammed the Inspector-General of Police, Ibrahim Idris, and the Magistrate for their actions. “IGP, how in the world did you put this level of blight on our democracy with this saga of the protesting Imo women? I read that “the Magistrate says her court lacks jurisdiction, adjourns till 3 Sept for Attorney General’s advice. While the women are remanded in prison. Wow. How?” Mrs Ezekwesili said in a tweet.
Amnesty International also joined the agitation when they posted in their official twitter handle that the organization was investigation the arrest and detention of the women. It read: “Amnesty International is investigating the disturbing arrest of 114 peaceful protesters.” Also, the Igbo Canadian Community Association (ICCA) described the action of the Federal Government in arresting, detaining, torturing, arraignment and incarceration of the 114 Igbo women sympathetic to the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) in Imo State as an affront on Ndigbo and a recipe for anarchy. In a statement issued by the group and conveyed electronically to New Telegraph, its president, Chief Ugochukwu Okoro, speaking through the Public Relations Officer (PRO) Mr. Ahaoma Kanu, said, “ICCA wants to sound a warning that the abhorrent manner in which President Muhammadu Buhari’s led Federal Government responds to issues involving Ndigbo is becoming too brutal for our endurance and if not stemmed at this moment, may pave the way for anarchy.
“The latest onslaught on Ndigbo by the FG on our grandmothers, mothers, wives and daughters, 114 of who were allegedly serially tortured with chemical agents and remanded in prison for exercising their constitutional rights to freedom of expression is one brutality too many.” Last Thursday, the 23rd of August, 2018, IPOB shocked the public when it alleged that the detained 114 women were about being subjected to forced-pregnancy test by the Owerri prison authorities and vowed to resist it at all cost.
The separatist group considered the move as invasive and denigrating on the women. In a statement signed by the spokesman of the group, Comrade Emma Powerful, IPOB said, “The gestapo style round-up of innocent mothers during a peaceful protest, their unlawful detention by the government, ongoing torture and humiliation, has taken a more sinister shape. “The forced pregnancy test for all the women including grandmothers, announced by the prison authorities, is a devilish and sinister intrusion into the health of our mothers reminiscent of the fate Jewish women endured in Concentration Camps in Europe during the Holocaust.” The statement continued: “We wish to notify the world that plans to subject our women to invasive and undignified pregnancy test is a genocidal medical experimentation we will not allow to be performed on our mothers.
Reacting however, Mr. James Madugba, the Public Relations Officer for Owerri Prisons said there was no plans to forcefully conduct a pregnancy test on the women yet. He however said, “The women are still new in our custody and there are no such plans yet. But it should be noted that conducting pregnancy test on female inmates is one of our routines. It helps us determine their status on entry so as to forestall embarrassing pregnancy issues and determine suitable conditions for such inmates within the facility.”
Narrating their ordeal, the Imo state IPOB woman leader who was also arrested, assaulted and detained said, “When our procession got to IMSU junction, without any provocation, the police started shooting teargas at us. From that point to Orlu road roundabout which is more than half a kilometre the police were persistently firing teargas canisters at us. But for some reason, the teargas was not working and not giving them the desired result as it was unable to disperse our women. As we entered Orlu road, apparently frustrated, the Policemen disembarked from their patrol vans and unleashed the worst level of brutality I have ever experienced; punching, kicking, gun-butting elderly women, mothers, and ladies alike. Right in before me, they beat one of our members to death. She fell in front of me and went still, I could not tell her identity immediately because the procession was carried out by women from 11 states.” She continued: “the beating did not stop when we got to the police station, these policemen even kicked women who were already on the ground. We sustained broken ribs, broken heads, miscarriages and a lot of unthinkable dehumanization.
About 50 women were stuffed into one stinking cubicle they called a cell where we defecated and urinated. At some point we were convinced the idea was to eliminate us extrajudicially.” As agitations and condemnation trailed the incarceration of the women more Civil Society groups, women advocacy groups and human rights groups from within and outside Nigeria continued to pile pressures on the Nigerian government to redress the impunity visited on the women. Following the massive outrage, the wheels of justice may have been accelerated for the women who were, against expectation, re-arraigned in an Owerri High Court On Friday, 24th August, 2018 against the September 3 adjourned date.
The court which sat way past 4pm seemed to have been specially convened for the women as the Police prosecution team was conspicuously missing in court.
The counsel to the 114 women, Ifeanyi Ejiofor, made their bail application which was not opposed and the presiding Judge granted the women bail unconditionally, striking out the case. Their release was received with jubilation by family members who thronged the court and Owerri prison premises to stand by their wards.
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