The wife of jailed pro-Biafra activist Nnamdi Kanu has accused the British government of “evading responsibility” for ensuring her husband’s human rights are not violated.
In an exclusive interview with Newsweek, Uchechi Okwu-Kanu, who gave birth to the couple’s first child together in January, says that the stress of her husband’s detention in Nigeria—which began almost five months ago in October 2015—meant that she almost miscarried.
Kanu, a British-Nigerian dual national, is the leader of the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB), a global campaign group calling for independence for the region formerly known as the Republic of Biafra, currently southeast Nigeria. Biafra existed as an independent republic between 1967 and 1970 and was populated mainly by members of the Igbo ethnic group before it was re-amalgamated into Nigeria.
Kanu was arrested in Lagos by the Nigerian State Security Service (DSS) in October 2015 on charges including criminal conspiracy and belonging to unlawful society. Since then, he has twice been granted bail by Nigerian courts but remains in detention.
The Nigerian government filed fresh charges against him in December 2015 of treasonable felony—which carries a maximum life sentence in Nigeria—accusing Kanu of attempting to overthrow Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari by broadcasting secessionist material on Radio Biafra, an underground media outlet of which Kanu is the director. His trial is due to begin in the Nigerian capital Abuja on Monday.
Okwu-Kanu says that her husband’s human rights have been violated by the Nigerian government and security forces, who have kept him in detention despite the Federal High Court in Abuja ordering in December 2015 for the pro-Biafra activist to be granted unconditional bail.
“It is for the British government to get involved, to make sure that this person’s human rights are being respected and they haven’t done that. They’ve been to see my husband but that is not where it ends,” says Okwu-Kanu, who married Kanu in 2009 and lives with her husband, step-son and son in London.
Labour MP Angela Rayner, the U.K.’s Shadow Minister for Work and Pensions, tells Newsweek that she has received multiple allegations of human rights abuses against Kanu and other pro-Biafra protesters in Nigeria from her constituents and had raised the issue with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO).
Amnesty International also tells Newsweek that it is investigating allegations of human rights abuses of pro-Biafra protesters, including killings and arbitrary arrests, in at least four locations in Nigeria, and that it will look into claims that Kanu had been tortured in detention.
“His human rights have been violated and international human rights bodies should be all over the place because he is also human,” says Okwu-Kanu. “From my perspective, they [the British government] are evading some responsibility. They should be doing more, they should visit him more... It’s obvious and apparent that the Nigerian government and the DSS is not obeying the law.”
An FCO spokesperson tells Newsweek: “The U.K. takes all accusations of human rights abuses seriously. We have provided assistance to Kanu since his arrest in October 2015, including visiting him regularly in prison and attending court appearances. In each of our visits to Kanu he has told us he is in good health and that he has access to both a doctor and his lawyer.” The FCO spokesperson also says that the U.K. “fully supports the territorial integrity of Nigeria.”
During the early months of his detention, Okwu-Kanu says she was unable to contact her husband and wasn’t sure if he was alive or dead. The stress prompted the heavily-pregnant Okwu-Kanu to go into early contractions in November 2015. “I managed to get an ambulance and got the whole thing under control. I was kept under care, watched for two or three days before I left the hospital,” she says. The couple’s son—whom Okwu-Kanu prefers not to name for reasons of privacy—was delivered safely on January 4.
Okwu-Kanu says that she last heard from her husband earlier in February and was reassured that he was in good health. She says that the support of members of IPOB—who view her husband as a divinely-ordained leader sent to bring about the actualization of Biafra—has helped her through Kanu’s absence. “The fact that they’re all behind me has strengthened me. Knowing that people are behind my husband, it gives me strength every day. That’s probably the reason why I’m still alive, the fact that he is loved by the people,” she says.
The declaration of Biafran independence by former Nigerian military officer Odumegwu Ojukwu in 1967 sparked a three-year civil war between the Biafran and Nigerian forces. More than one million people died, many due to starvation after the Nigerian forces blockaded Biafra’s borders.
Despite having spent her entire married life in the U.K., Okwu-Kanu says she and her family would move to Biafra in an instant were it to be re-established. “Biafraland is a blessed land,” she says. “We have everything in season.”
The Nigerian government has declined repeated requests by Newsweek for comment on Kanu’s detention. In December 2015, Buhari warned that the British-Nigerian activist posed a flight risk and that he should face justice in Nigeria.