An on-the-ground investigation has confirmed that the Nigeria army shot many unarmed people during last month’s planned pro-Biafran commemoration events in Onitsha, Anambra state, Amnesty International has said.
The human rights organisation said evidence gathered from eyewitnesses, morgues and hospitals confirmed that between 29-30 May 2016, the Nigerian military opened fire on members of the Indigenous people of Biafra (IPOB), supporters and bystanders at three locations in the town.
MK Ibrahim, country director of Amnesty International Nigeria, said:
“Opening fire on peaceful IPOB supporters and bystanders who clearly posed no threat to anyone is an outrageous use of unnecessary and excessive force and resulted in multiple deaths and injuries”
“In one incident one person was shot dead after the authorities burst in on them while they slept These shootings, some of which may amount to extra judicial executions, must be urgently and independently investigated and anyone suspected of criminal responsibility must be brought to justice.”
The exact number of deaths is unknown, partly due to the fact that the Nigerian army took away corpses and the injured.
Amnesty International has received reports from various sources on the ground alleging that at least 40 people were killed and more than 50 injured.
The organisation said after visits to hospitals and morgues, it confirmed – based on initial investigation – that at least 17 people were killed and nearly 50 injured.
“The real number is likely to be higher,” the human right body said.
“Some of the dead and injured IPOB supporters seen were shot in the back, an indication that they were fleeing the scene when they were shot.”
The leadership of IPOB claim more than 50 of their members were killed. The Nigerian army, in a statement, said troops acted in self-defence.
However, Amnesty International said it has seen no evidence that the killings were necessary to protect life. Although the police also claimed that IPOB supporters killed two policemen the next day in neighbouring Asaba, Delta state, Amnesty International said it cannot confirm the claim.
A joint security operation was carried out by the Nigerian army, police and navy between the night of 29 May and throughout 30 May, apparently intended to prevent a march by IPOB members from the Nkpor motor park to a nearby field for a rally.
Before the march began the military raided homes and a church were IPOB members were sleeping.
IPOB supporters told Amnesty International that hundreds of people who had come from neighbouring states, were asleep in the St Edmunds Catholic church when soldiers stormed the compound on 29 May.
A 32-year-old hair dresser who was in the church told Amnesty International: “At about midnight we heard someone banging the door. We refused to open the door but they forced the door open and started throwing teargas. They also started shooting inside the compound. People were running to escape. I saw one guy shot in the stomach. He fell down but the teargas could not allow people to help him. I did not know what happened to the guy as I escaped and ran away.”
Another witness told Amnesty International that on the morning of May 30, he saw soldiers open fire on a group of around 20 men and boys aged between 15 and 45.
He said five of them were killed. “I stood about two poles [approximately 100 metres] away from where the men were being shot and killed. I couldn’t quite hear what they were asking the boys, but I saw one boy trying to answer a question. He immediately raised his hands, but the soldiers opened fire…He lay down, lifeless. I saw this myself.”
The witness described how military officers loaded men with gunshot wounds into one van, and what appeared to be corpses into another.
Later that morning, another witness described how police shot a child bystander as a group of young men protested the shootings, blocking a road and burning tyres along the Eke-Nkpor junction.
He told Amnesty International: “I heard a police siren and everybody started running helter-skelter. I ran away with other people, but before we left, the police fired tear gas at us and shot a boy in my presence. He was just hawking in the street. He wasn’t even there to protest,” he said.
An Amnesty International researcher visited three hospitals in Onitsha and surrounding towns and saw 41 men being treated for gunshot wounds in the stomach, shoulder, leg, back and ankle. The researcher also visited mortuaries in Onitsha and saw five corpses with bullet wounds, all brought in by IPOB members on 30 May.
Amnesty International said it was informed that many of those killed or injured were still held by the military and police. It quoted several witnesses as saying the military loaded corpses in their vehicles and took them to Onitsha military barracks.
One witness told Amnesty International that around 30 people were held in the military barracks, while another witness said 23 people who were held in State Criminal Investigation Department were brought to court.
Following the shootings, the military told media sources that the soldiers only opened fire after being shot at first, but Amnesty International’s research said it found no evidence to support this.
The organisation said all the people it interviewed said the protesters were not armed; one young man said that he threw stones at the police and military after they shot teargas at the IPOB members. He said the military then fired live ammunition in return.
Amnesty International said information it gathered indicated that the deaths of supporters and members of IPOB was the consequence of excessive, and unnecessary use of force.