More than a hundred separatists have been arrested in Nigeria's southeast for carrying symbols of the failed Republic of Biafra some 40 years after it sparked a 1960s civil war that killed about 1 million people and nearly tore the oil-rich nation apart, authorities said Thursday.
The men were wearing a separatist Biafra uniform and carrying the rising sun flag of the Biafran republic when they were stopped in buses heading to a ceremony in Enugu, said the city's state police spokesman Ebele Amarizu.
Another 23 men heading to the ceremony at Enugu's Presidential Hotel were arrested in the nearby city of Onitsha, Anambra state police spokesman Emeka Chukwuemeka said.
Police believe all those arrested belong to the Movement for the Actualization of the Sovereign State of Biafra, a group that wants to re-establish a separate Biafran republic in Nigeria's east. The group's leader, Ralph Uwazuruike, voluntarily handed himself over to the police to join his followers, said Nnamdi Ohiagu, the head of the allied Biafra Central Council.
Uwazuruike has been detained many times by Nigerian authorities for trying to revive the struggle for the breakaway republic. He has faced treason charges in the past.
The separatist group could not immediately be reached for comment Thursday. However, it has said in the past that it is a nonviolent movement, even though the government has banned it after accusing the group of a series of attacks and treasonable acts.
"The group is outlawed," Amarizu said. "You can't talk about your own country when you are living in a country which is recognized by the law. ... We consider such actions to be treasonable."
Police say all the detainees will be arraigned in court on yet-to-be determined charges. However, the arrests raise questions about what can be considered treason or free assembly in Nigeria, a nation that became a democracy in 1999.
"They have a right to gather as long as they are not disturbing the peace," said Olusegun Sotola, a researcher at the Lagos-based Institute for Public Policy Analysis. "This could be an abuse of their human rights."
The Biafran republic was born in 1967 out of lands in Nigeria's east, including portions of its oil-rich Niger Delta. Led by Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu, the breakaway region fought a bloody civil war that provided the world its first television images of starving children on the continent.
Ojukwu, now 67, has been hospitalized with a serious illness in the United Kingdom.