From a distance, the undulating landscape of Awgu Hills is a mesmerizing sight, and even more so as you walk deeper into the thick foliage straddling the busy Enugu-Port Harcourt highway. As you do, life there rolls on rather idly and seems somewhat frozen in time despite the constant roar of traffic.
But brace yourself for some eerie discovery, because beneath all this lush vegetation lies a network of drainage channels and some serpentine caves, natural wonders which, unfortunately, have been used as hideouts by criminal gangs. Although this has been the case for decades, it all unraveled this August after the brutal killing of a Catholic priest, Rev. Fr. Paul Offu, and subsequent kidnap of the traditional ruler of Agbogugu, HRH Igwe Sunday Orji, and his wife, within the Awgu axis at locations less than 200 metres apart.
These were very unusual incidents in a state largely acknowledged as one of the most peaceful and secure in Nigeria. So the response from the Enugu State government was swift and robust. Governor Ifeanyi Ugwuanyi convened an emergency security meeting at the Government House, Enugu, which came up with a number of far-reaching resolutions, some of which includes sustained surveillance flights by the Nigerian Air Force over suspected dark spots in the state and overhaul of its security framework. The governor also sent an executive bill to the Enugu State House of Assembly seeking a review of the anti-kidnap law to strengthen, expand its scope and make it an effective crime-fighting tool with commensurate sanctions for kidnap.
In addition, he also approved the immediate engagement of 1700 forest guards and 5200 vigilante to help improve security. This employment spread across the various wards of the 17 local government areas of the state is consistent with community-based approach to crime-fighting the governor has adopted. Aimed at securing the confidence and support of locals, the impact of this tactics has been tremendous. Earning the locals’ support is crucial as evident in the security information that led to the unmasking of the different tunnels and caves through which kidnap-for-ransom bandits escaped with their victims. Or hide and emerge suddenly, aided by the surrounding thickets, to rob commuters on the Enugu-Port Harcourt highway.
Ugwuanyi’s engagement of locals to clear the long stretch of forested areas that border the busy highway has dealt a serious blow to the surprise element the thick vegetation once gave the bandits. The clear view has been a huge security boost. But the governor’s hands-on approach has also been of immense help. He amply demonstrated that commitment by visiting the sites every other day since last week, and offering security agencies the requisite logistical support.
It has to be stated though that there is an ironic sub-text to the relationship between governors in the federation and security agencies. The many flak that governors get from the public when the security situation go awry is often predicated on the notional precept that regards them as “chief security officers” of their states. But that is not the case in reality. It doesn’t matter that a substantial financial burden of the logistical needs of the country’s various security agencies are borne by governors.
For instance, the degree of support offered by governors across the country could be gleaned from Enugu State, where the governor has on several occasions donated utility vehicles fitted with necessary security gadgets to the various armed forces. Suffice it to say that such support often goes beyond equipment donations.
But rather than be outraged by this anomaly, the Enugu State governor views it as some painful but necessary contribution towards boosting security operatives’ morale and improving the state’s general security.
The arrest of the suspected killers of the priests and the abductors of the traditional ruler and his wife is a vindication of those measures, particularly the overhaul of the state’s security framework. The Catholic bishop of Enugu Diocese, His Lordship, Most Reverend Callistus Onaga, spoke on a similar note during the funeral mass for the late Rev. Fr. Offu. “It’s gratifying that those who killed Fr. Offu and Fr. Clement Ugwu have been arrested. We thank the governor for that,” he said.
These measures offer, also, a strong sense of reassurance about public safety going forward, chiefly because the forests which hitherto provided cover for the shady activities of kidnappers and sundry criminals will be patrolled regularly by forest guards. These guards will carry out roles complementary to the traditional law enforcement duties of the police. Indeed, the state government’s directive requiring prospective employees into the outfit to submit applications through the Department of State Service’s personnel in their local government area office, is meant to instil the requisite discipline in succesful candidates.
The envisaged patrols by the guards are critical because once the forests are entirely secured, the next stage is nurturing the state’s tourism potential, especially around the Awgu caves where the activities of kidnappers had all but blighted these nature’s endowments.
Just a few metres away from the Awgu caves lie a waterfall which gives the entire location the look of a perfect getaway for the adventure-minded. The 30-metre waterfall is a sight to behold and the sound of its cascading water could be discerned even from afar. Taking a dip in the sparkling water that forms below is often a surreal experience accentuated by the solitude and rolling hills that encircle this largely hidden tourist site in Awgu Local Government Area, Enugu State.
The commitment to develop the tourism sector is no mere lip service as Governor Ugwuanyi has demonstrated the sufficient will to do so. Ugwuanyi’s determination to grow tourism makes perfect sense. With its largely secure neighbourhoods, alluring landscape, numerous natural tourist sites and an international airport, Enugu State has the potential to grow into a major destination.
For now, however, the major task is ridding Enugu State of all forms of criminality and returning it to the kind of safety level residents once enjoyed, which earned it “one of the most secure and peaceful states in Nigeria” sobriquet. This is a goal that Governor Ugwuanyi pursues doggedly.
Ani, former editor of ThisDay – The Saturday Newspaper, and Saturday Telegraph, writes from Enugu.