A Biafra separatist leader and UK national was arrested by Nigerian authorities in Kenya and taken to Nigeria in an act of extraordinary rendition, his family and lawyers have claimed.
Nnamdi Kanu, a British-Nigerian citizen, fled Nigeria in 2017 while on bail facing charges of terrorism and incitement. He was arrested last week and brought to Nigeria’s capital, Abuja.
Nigerian authorities have declined to say where he was taken from. The sudden arrest caused widespread surprise in Nigeria, as his whereabouts had been unknown for years.
Kanu, the leader of the Indigenous People of Biafra (Ipob) – a prominent separatist movement proscribed in Nigeria – has long been a widely known and controversial figure in Nigeria. He has called for Biafra independence, including in broadcasts from Radio Biafra – a digital station he founded and ran from his home in south London.
Kanu was first charged in 2015, when Biafra secessionist mass protests erupted in Nigeria for the first time since the Biafra civil war. The conflict is one of the darkest chapters in Nigerian history and the bitter legacy still reverberates in Nigeria.
Kanu’s whereabouts had been unknown since he left Nigeria in 2017, after soldiers attacked his home in Abia state during one of a number of military operations against separatist agitators in the region.
His brother Kingsley Kanu said he had spoken to him while he was in Kenya, days before he went missing in June.
“I spoke to him on the phone, he was well, in Nairobi. His associates said he went out, he didn’t take his documents with him so he wasn’t planning on going anywhere. Then all of a sudden we see him paraded in handcuffs in Abuja,” Kingsley Kanu said.
“It is an extraordinary rendition, aided by Kenyan authorities,” he said. “It is an outrage that cannot be allowed to happen. We are holding the Nigerian government and Kenyan government responsible. The British government, they know what is happening,” he said, adding that UK officials had made contact with Kanu’s family and legal team and that there were concerns he would be abused in detention.
“I am concerned for his wellbeing because you know how they will treat him,” Kingsley said.
Lawyers for the Kanu family accused the Nigerian government of “state kidnapping” and said he was abducted by Nigerian officials in Kenya and taken to Nigeria against his will.
Evidence seen by the Guardian shows Kanu entered Kenya this year on his British passport on a visa expiring in June. His UK passport remains in Kenya.
Kanu was not in possession of a Nigerian passport, his family said, and he has verbally renounced Nigerian citizenship in broadcasts.
The abduction of a person from a foreign country with the aim of rendition to justice is illegal under international law.
Nigerian and Kenyan authorities have denied that Kenya was involved in the arrest, while the UK consulate in Nigeria has said it contacted Nigeria’s government concerning the case. UK officials did not immediately respond to requests from the Guardian for information.
To Kanu’s many followers he is the most vocal and defiant advocate for Biafran independence. Secessionist protests have been brutally shut down in Nigeria. Yet broadcasts calling for mass uprisings, taunting the president, Muhammadu Buhari, and targeting ethnic groups in Nigeria have drawn the ire of Nigerian authorities.
Nigeria’s attorney general, Abubakar Malami, said on 29 June that Kanu had been extradited to Abuja, after cooperation between Nigerian intelligence services and Interpol.
“He has been brought back to Nigeria in order to continue facing trial after disappearing while on bail,” Malami said. He accused Kanu of “engaging in subversive activities” and of responsibility for rising armed attacks against police and civil authorities in south-east Nigeria that have been blamed on armed separatist groups.
The arrest of Kanu comes amid growing tensions around regional divisions within Nigeria, and armed separatism in the south-east.
Since security forces brutally clamped down on mass protests which began in 2015, armed attacks in the region have grown. More than 150 people were killed at pro-Biafra rallies between August 2015 and August 2016 according to Amnesty International.
The protests were in part a response to the election of President Buhari, who served as a brigade major in the civil war. Millions of people died in the conflict, mostly in south-east Nigeria, from starvation after a government blockade of the region prevented food supplies and humanitarian support.
Last month, Twitter deleted a post by Buhari for violating its rules on abuse, after he referred to the civil war in a threat against armed Biafran groups.
“Those of us in the fields for 30 months, who went through the war, will treat them in the language they understand,” the president said, drawing mass condemnation.
In retaliation the government banned the use of Twitter in Nigeria.
The legacy of the war is still bitter in Nigeria. Authorities censor cultural depictions of the conflict and the war is not taught in most schools.