Nine people were killed and more than 20 people wounded on Thursday when cheering supporters took to the streets of Onitsha in Anambra state to celebrate a high court decision ruling ordering the release of Nnamdi Kanu, the charismatic but controversial leader of the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB), a separatist group.
The army acted in self-defense when they used live ammunition to disperse an "irate mob", Col. Hamza Gambo, an army spokesman, told This Day newspaper.
Soldiers initially fired warning shots into the air, but the crowd was "undeterred", he said, adding that "three criminals were shot."
According to rights defenders, five demonstrators were killed at the busy Niger River Bridge, where some 200 demonstration had gathered. The death toll rose to nine when four other people died from their wounds.
In a bizarre development that the pro-Biafra opposition described as a "dastardly act", some 22 patients were picked up by Nigerian troops from the city’s Multi-Care Hospital and taken to military barracks that evening, according to Justus Ijeoma, the legal secretary of the Civil Liberties Organization in Anambra state. Five were subsequently taken back to the hospital.
"The army officers realized that about five of them had very terrible injuries and that they could die by the next morning if they weren’t taken back to the hospital," Ijeoma said in a phone interview from Onitsha.
Nzubechukwu Okonkwo, 24, is one of the five who were taken from his hospital bed to the military barracks -- and back – after he was wounded at the Niger River Bridge.
"It was like a battlefield," he recalled in a phone interview from his hospital bed. "They were shooting as if they were in a battle."
His older brother, Ogechukwu Okonkwo, 30, took him on a bicycle to hospital, where he was also picked up by soldiers. His brother’s whereabouts are unknown.
The military warned the hospital administration that the five would be detained as soon as their condition improved. Soldiers have reportedly taken up posts at the hospital entrance.
"They don’t want any of us to escape so that after treatment they will come and do whatever it is they want to do with us," Nzubechukwu Okonkwo said.
The detention of the two Okonkwos is also drawing criticism because they are members of a family of traditional rulers, princes in the Ichi royal family of Ekwusigo Local Government Area.
Despite the ruling by a high court in Abuja, Kanu, the director of Radio Biafra, is still in the custody of the Department of State Services (DSS), Nigeria’s secret police, since October.
An ethnic Igbo cultural organisation, the Ohanaeze Youth Council, has appealed to President Muhammadu Buhari to prevail on the DSS to comply with the court order by freeing Kanu.
Seventeen people who were taken to the Onitsha military cantonment on Thursday may have been transferred to the police, rights activists believe. But their whereabouts are still unknown.
"The reason for their abduction from the hospital was not disclosed to them," explained rights defender Ijeoma.
Follow Michel Arseneault on Twitter @miko75011