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When Did Playing Football Become Treason?

The accused—some still in the football kit they were wearing on the day of arrest last September—line up outside the High Court in Lagos on 22 March. (Sunday Alamba | Associated Press)
The fate of 50 men and three women currently being held in Nigerian prisons—charged with treason for their involvement in a football tournament last September—hangs in the balance. If found guilty, they face possible execution. State prosecutors allege that the prisoners organized the event—the Biafra Freedom Football Tournament—under the aegis of the Movement for the Actualisation of the Sovereign State of Biafra (MASSOB), which the government has banned. Since the arrests on 11 September, defense attorneys and activists claim that the prisoners have been beaten and driven to nervous breakdowns by confinement in overcrowded cells. Only after more than six months were the accused charged in Federal High Court. The following report on biafraland.com, edited slightly for sense and spelling, chillingly renders the atmosphere at the arraignment on 22 March:

This morning at the Federal High Court . . . where the 53 great Massobians were docked.

We gathered in thousands outside the court room—by the sea-side, since the court room was full to capacity. Press people (including some international journalists who came to monitor and report the judgement) could not find their way in with hundreds of fully armed police men standing.

But as soon as the court was over and [the accused] start to come out one by one, we stood up in front of those hundreds of fiercely looking and heavily armed police men. As they were passing from the court room to the Black Maria, we began to wave hands, hail and singing, chanting Biafra songs. They (Massobians) were also replying back, by waving and shouting to us "We can't give up," and the police men with some of our security men helped in controlling and calming people down.

Imagine when thousands of people start to sing many Biafra songs like "Anyi agaghi alapu Biafra" with many others. Mostly we keep singing to them: "FREEDOM SHALL COME BY SORROW AND BY TEARS, FREEDOM MUST COME."

Appreciation for the plight of the so-called Massobian 53—some of whom had merely wandered by the football event to watch or to sell water—requires going back 38 years to the Nigeria–Biafra civil war. More than 1 million died from fighting and famine after the Igbo, who predominate in the delta and interior of the southeast (see map), proclaimed the independent state of Biafra, named for the Bight of Biafra (since renamed). The state, with its own currency, flag and anthem, and limited recognition from foreign governments, endured less than three years. Lawyer and politician Ralph Uwazurike formed MASSOB in 1999 as a nonviolent movement to regain independence (see the UN Integrated Regional Information Networks report, "Government Cracks Down on Biafra Secessionist Movement," 19 April). They have sponsored work stoppages, demonstrations, boycotts and the September football tournament.

Teams were competing on 11 September 2004 for the Ralph Uwazurike Cup at the Abule Ado Technical School in Ojo, Lagos. According to the husband of a caterer preparing the hall for the award ceremony, "[H]ardly had they started the game when a lorry-load of agents of the state came and arrested all of them" (Fred Iwenjora, "Story That Touches the Heart: My Life Is in Ruins, Cries Man Whose Wife Is Detained as MASSOB Member," Vanguard [Lagos], 26 March). The caterer, Gloria Mokwe, was arrested with the others and has been held, with two other women, at Kirikiri Maximum Prison on the same treason charges. According to her husband, Christian, she was pregnant when arrested but has suffered a miscarriage in jail.
Igbo (Ibo) life
"It was a very strange thing," said a Nigerian colonel who had fought the Igbos in the Nigeria–Biafra civil war, "but when the war ended, it was like a referee blowing a whistle in a football game. People just put down their guns and went back to the business of living" (quoted in David Lamb, The Africans [New York: Vintage, 1987], 309). Igbos had been treated favorably under British colonial rule, which began in the mid–19th century. Igbo were pastoral, yam farmers, yet, according to Lamb, driven toward achievement. They controlled government after independence in 1960, but tribal violence forced them back south. Lamb writes of the coming civil war: "[T]he Ibo elders in the east, fearing that reconciliation with the federal government was impossible and annihilation likely, invoked the call of Ibo brotherhood and issued a simple message to their people: Come home."

Acclaimed Igbo writer Chinua Achebe (author of Things Fall Apart [1958]) served as spokesman for Biafra during the civil war. His poetry written during the war was published as Christmas in Biafra.

Love of football among the people is unquestioned. When Santos and Pelé visited in 1969, the civil war halted for the two-day interim (see also Wiebe Boer, "A Story of Heroes, of Epics: The Rise of Football in Nigeria," in Football in Africa: Conflict, Conciliation, and Community, ed. Gary Armstrong and Richard Giulianotti [London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004], 59–79).

Christian Mokwe identifies an 18-year-old woman who is also being held. "That young lady, I learnt, [is] a good soccer player who was getting closer to being called to the Super Falcons. You would pity her when you meet her in prison. She now looks sickly and always in tears."

The group of 53—some media reports place the total at 52, with speculation that one detainee may already have died in custody—was herded into the courtroom on 22 March, as mentioned, to hear charges that they "did conspire with each other and other persons still at large to levy war against the Federal Republic of Nigeria" (Okey Ndiribe, "Ordeal of Detained MASSOB Members," Vanguard, 27 April). Again they were seen in court on 11 April, when Justice Marcel Awokulehin granted bail. At that time, the group was "[s]tacked in a police Black Maria like hay, . . . wearing jerseys of various football clubs, hanging their football boots on their necks, and sweating profusely like they had just finished a 90 minute duel" (Achilleus Uchegbu, "Biafra Football Tourney: 52 Igbo Youths Granted Bail," Daily Champion, 12 April). They sang "Jehova I bu dike n'agha," "God, you are mighty in battle."

But no one has been freed in the interim. The court attached conditions to the bail that will prove difficult for the detainees to meet: two surety bonds, one from a homeowner and a second from a high-ranking public official. Both must be based in Lagos. These are contacts that those charged are unlikely to have, not to mention the bail amount of $3,850 (500,000 Nairas).

One positive during the ordeal has been the support of some Lagos-based media. Both the Vanguard and Daily Champion have editorialized on the prisoners' behalf and objected to what seems to be systematic repression of MASSOB. Despite the obstacles to the aim of secession, the UN report says that the red-and-black Biafran flags, with rising sun in the middle, have been flying in southeast cities of Onitsha, Enugu, Aba and Owerri. "Whenever policemen go around the streets to take off the flags hanging on electricity poles, the flags are replaced overnight," said one Onitsha resident.

Nigerian media ask, Are these Biafrans really the greatest threat to civil society?

The question is, when did playing football become a treasonable offence?

Even if these hapless Igbo were gathered together in one spot for the said football tournament, does that constitute treason, to the extent that they could be treated as vicious criminals and not accorded their rights according to the Geneva Convention?

How can unarmed footballers be charged for levying war against their state?

Among those captured by police that September day is said to be a 70-year-old Igbo man. What sort of threat does this old folk constitute to the powers that be? (Chiemeka Iwuoha, "Obscure Opulence and 52 Biafran Footballers," Daily Champion, 5 April) | back to top