Biafra: My British husband is in Nigerian jail | #NwokeukwuMascot

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Uchechi Okwu-Kanu the wife of detained IPOB leader

Uchechi Okwu-Kanu’s husband Nnamdi Kanu is campaigning for restoration of the breakaway state of Biafra.

Uchechi Okwu-Kanu is used to danger and intrigue. A few years ago, talking to her husband on the phone from the family’s home in Peckham, she heard gunfire and asked what the noise was. There was a pause before he yelled: “They’re shooting at us.” Then the line to southeast London went dead.

Nnamdi Kanu, her husband, a British citizen campaigning for restoration of the breakaway state of Biafra in Nigeria, narrowly escaped death that day at the hands of government soldiers. He went into hiding.

The danger was not over. When his five-year-old son sent him a Father’s Day WhatsApp greeting in 2021, saying: “You’re the best daddy in the world”, Kanu replied: “Daddy loves you so much” and promised to call soon.

But he never did. Shortly after sending that message he was kidnapped in Kenya, chained to a wall and beaten severely before being taken bloodied and blindfolded to Nigeria.

He has been detained in isolation since then in Abuja, the capital, at the headquarters of the Department of State Services, Nigeria’s domestic intelligence service.

To his legion of supporters, Kanu is a Robin Hood-like hero but for the Nigerian government he is a terrorist inspiring secessionist violence to restore Biafra whose brief existence decades ago triggered a humanitarian disaster.

Appearing hooded in court in Abuja, Kanu, 55, has pleaded not guilty to 15 charges relating to terrorism and treason that are punishable by death.

“They want to kill him,” Okwu-Kanu, his 42-year-old wife told me. Kanu has been denied access to medical treatment for a heart condition and ulcers, she added. He needs an operation on his ear but fears he might be assassinated while under anaesthetic.

Okwu-Kanu predicted widespread unrest if he died in detention. “Any day that Nnamdi Kanu ceases to breathe will be the day that Nigeria will burn. He is the face and voice of Biafra.”

Fearing for his life and her own, Okwu-Kanu went into hiding with their two children in Yorkshire after her husband was seized. She has appealed repeatedly, thus far in vain, to the British government for help in securing his release.

“It’s so disappointing,” she said. “He’s a British citizen kidnapped in a foreign country, but they don’t seem to care, it makes them complicit, in a way. They are putting commercial relations with Abuja above the rule of law, basic human rights and decency.”

Last year Nigeria’s court of appeal found that Kanu had been the victim of “extraordinary rendition” and called for his release. A report by the UN Human Rights Council’s working group on arbitrary detention reached the same conclusion, stating that Kanu had been subjected to eight days of “torture and ill-treatment” by Kenyan special forces and was taken to Nigeria “with no prior hearing before a judicial or administrative body”, let alone access to a lawyer.

However, the UK government has stopped short of acknowledging that Kanu’s removal from Kenya was a case of extraordinary rendition. A court in London this year dismissed a case brought by Kanu’s brother, Kingsley, arguing that the government’s posture had frustrated efforts to secure his release.

Nigeria’s supreme court is due to issue a ruling on September 28 on the court of appeal’s order to free Kanu. “If the government has a real case against him, why didn’t they apply for his extradition from Britain?” said Okwu-Kanu.

The Foreign Office said: “We continue to provide consular support to Mr Kanu and remain in regular contact with his family and legal representatives, and the Nigerian and Kenyan authorities.”

Kanu ran Radio Free Biafra from Britain, later forming the Indigenous People of Biafra, a banned group in Nigeria. It wants to resurrect the defunct separatist state of Biafra that existed from 1967 to 1970. Kanu has insisted, however, that he has never advocated violence.

He was born in 1967, a few months after Biafra declared independence from Nigeria, Africa’s most populous country, unleashing three years of civil war and a blockade by the Nigerian military. An ensuing famine killed two million people, mostly children whose suffering was brought to the attention of the world in the haunting images taken by the photographer Don McCullin for The Sunday Times Magazine.

The Biafrans surrendered in 1970 but resentment endured. Half a century later Kanu’s secessionist movement is gaining momentum in the predominantly Christian region.


“Christian Biafrans are being massacred, our people are being killed, our churches are being burnt,” said Okwu-Kanu. She alleged that Fulani cattle herdsmen from the north were being encouraged by the government to invade Biafran lands. “They rape our women, our mothers, they machete and kill pregnant women, they take them hostage.”

Her husband had set up the Eastern Security Network, a militia group defending local farmers. But the region, she said, was clamouring not for armed insurrection but a referendum on independence.

“There’s nothing wrong with asking for freedom, it’s one’s inalienable right,” said Okwu-Kanu. “Scotland is asking for that, and that’s not terrorism. And the UK voted for Brexit from the EU — and that wasn’t terrorism.”

Over the years she has grown used to her husband’s long absences and the dangers of association with him. The shooting that interrupted her telephone conversation with him happened when the army attacked her husband’s family home in 2017, killing 28 of his supporters. Kanu was injured and spent a long period in hiding.

Okwu-Kanu had given birth to the couple’s youngest son, Nnabuikem, in 2016. Kanu met him for the first time when he returned to Britain in 2019. “It was quite an emotional scene, the first time he held him,” Okwu-Kanu said. “My life is full of emotional scenes. It’s a roller coaster.”

His reappearance in London coincided with an intensification of the secessionist campaign. A white van with tinted windows was often parked outside the couple’s Peckham home. Kanu believed they were under surveillance. He gave his followers the slip by arranging for a supporter to pick him up at the back of the building.

He was on a trip to Nairobi for meetings, having previously visited Brussels and Washington, when he was seized. He went to the airport to pick up a contact but never returned.

“I warned him to stay away from Africa,” Okwu-Kanu said. “I said to him, ‘You can’t go to any African country. Don’t you ever go to Africa.’ I had seen him in a dream being arrested in an African country.”

She did not tell her son that her father was detained until earlier this year. “He doesn’t say much, he sometimes cries for no reasons. I say why are you crying? He bottles it all up. He cries from the heart.”

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