LAGOS, Nigeria (AP) — A Nigerian separatist leader accused of instigating violence in country’s southeast pleaded not guilty to terrorism and treason charges in court Thursday in the capital, Abuja.
Amid heavy security presence, Nnamdi Kanu, who also holds British citizenship, was brought into the court for his trial, which first began in 2015 but stalled after he jumped bail and escaped the country in 2017. He was arrested abroad and extradited back to Nigeria in June this year.
The Nigerian government did not say where Kanu was arrested but the British High Commission in Nigeria has asked the Nigerian government to explain the circumstances of his arrest. The U.K. would also “expect any trial or legal proceedings to follow due process,” Dean Hurlock, a British High Commission spokesman, said.
Kanu leads the Indigenous People of Biafra a group pressing for the southeast region to break away from Nigeria and become an independent nation.
The group takes its name from the short-lived efforts to establish an independent nation of Biafra in 1967 when the members of the Igbo ethnic group in the southeast tried to break away from Nigeria. It failed after a deadly civil war in which an estimated 1 million people died, many of starvation.
The new pro-Biafra group is calling for a referendum in which the Igbo people can vote on whether or not to become independent from Nigeria. The Igbos allege they have been marginalized by Nigeria’s federal government.
Amid the calls for a referendum, Nigerian authorities have outlawed the Indigenous People of Biafra as a terrorist organization in 2017. They accuse Kanu of leading terrorism-related activities and instigating violence in the southeast, including a jailbreak in Imo state that led to the escape of nearly 2,000 inmates earlier this year.
The formation of the Eastern Security Network, a paramilitary arm of the group, in December 2020 coincided with a spike in criminal attacks in the region, according to data from the U.S. Council on Foreign Relations which collates incidents reported by Nigeria’s media. In August, the Nigeria police announced “a major breakthrough” with the arrest of a woman they claimed was a “spy girl” for the Indigenous People of Biafra group.
But the group denies any wrongdoing in its quest for a Biafran nation. In an Oct. 18 statement, it described itself as “a freedom-fighting movement” which is not violent.
In the weeks leading to Kanu’s court appearance, the pro-Biafra group called on residents of the southeast to remain indoors on certain days in solidarity with the separatist leader. Violent attacks are reported on such days, with police statements saying that people who disobey the stay-at-home directive are attacked by supporters of the pro-Biafra group.
The group’s demand — and that of other secessionist agitators in Nigeria’s southwest — has been resisted by the government of President Muhammadu Buhari who has insisted that the unity of Africa’s most populous country is “not negotiable.”