The demonstration in Aba was the latest by separatist groups on an issue that has again exposed deep and longstanding ethnic fault lines in Africa’s most populous nation.
A previous unilateral declaration of an independent Republic of Biafra in 1967 led to a brutal civil war that left more than one million dead in nearly three years of fighting.
In Aba, the commercial hub of Abia state, some 2,000 people carried placards with slogans such as “Biafra or death” and waved the Biafran flag — a golden rising sun on red, black and green.
Others wore t-shirts and caps with the image of Nnamdi Kanu, the director of Radio Biafra and founder of the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) pressure group.
Some sang freedom songs and carried the outlawed Biafran pound currency.
“Getting our leader out of detention is our immediate concern but ultimately we want to be free from Nigeria,” IPOB’s Abia coordinator, Ikechukwu Ugwuoha, told the crowds.
“We are tired of this forced marriage imposed on us in 1914 by the British colonial authorities. We don’t want anything to do with Nigeria again because we have not benefited from Nigeria.”
– Criminal conspiracy –
Radio Biafra was taken off air in July this year after the government accused it of being a “seditious pirate radio station” which broadcast “unsavoury hate messages”.
Kanu was arrested last month and charged with criminal conspiracy, membership of an unlawful society and criminal intimidation.
A judge in Abuja on Wednesday ordered Nigeria’s secret police to produce him in court next Monday.
Tension has been building since Kanu’s detention, culminating in demonstrations in major southeastern cities and fears of a crackdown against protesters.
In Port Harcourt last week, police fired shots in the air and teargas to disperse hundreds of pro-Biafra supporters.
The Aba demonstration came after a planned blockade of the Niger Bridge on Tuesday was cancelled because of warnings from security personnel.
The bridge crossing the River Niger which links the southeast with the rest of Nigeria was the de facto border during the civil war.
Pro-Biafran sentiment has persisted among the dominant Igbo people in southeast Nigeria because of perceptions they have been punished for breaking away.
But the man who led Biafra during the civil war, Emeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu, warned against a second bid for secession in an interview before his death in 2012.
Nigeria’s military ruler at the time of the civil war, Yakubu Gowon, last month said he recognised people’s right to protest but the concept of Biafra was “finished”.
“I don’t think it (the increased pro-Biafran sentiment) is any threat,” he told Nigeria’s Channels television on October 23.
“If there is anything of this sort, anywhere in any part of the country, just like the problem of Boko Haram, we, Nigeria,should deal with it in a mature way.”
– ‘No going back’ –
On the streets, however, there was defiance. IPOB member Jude Chukwu Akiaba tore apart the green and white Nigerian tricolour, calling the country “dead and buried”.
“The Nigerian government has neglected the Igbos for long,” the group’s women’s leader, Uzor Amaka, told AFP. “There are no social amenities like roads, electricity, hospitals and jobs in the east.
“Our people are still being made to suffer for the civil war. So, it is better to call it quits with Nigeria and put our destiny in our hands.”
Osmond Lekwauwa said he was ready to die for the cause.
“What’s the point of belonging to a nation where you cannot have basic necessities like good roads, water, electricity and jobs?” he asked.
“I left school (university) six years ago and have not been able to secure a paid employment. I have been doing menial jobs to survive. At 32, I cannot even raise a family.
“I will rather die being a Biafran than to remain in Nigeria,” he said, urging local political leaders to back their campaign.
“There is no going back on the struggle,” he added.