From George Onyejiuwa, Owerri
Between the devil and the deep blue sea! That is the fate of many residents of Orlu, one of the major towns in Imo State.
The Igbo have an idiomatic expression – “Igbalahu ajo mmadu, zute ajo mmuo n’uzo.” Simply put, it means, “to escape or run away from the evil man only to run into an evil spirit on the way.”
In some communities in Orlu and its environs in Imo State, communities like Umuna, Omuma, Umutanze, Okporo, Awo-Omama, Owerre Ebeiri, Amaifeke, Eziachi, Umueowa, and Ihioma, you are likely to find empty houses and deserted compounds. The people are between the devil and the deep blue sea. They are caught between members of the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) and its security group, Eastern Security Network (ESN) on one hand, and troops of the Nigerian military and other security agencies on the other hand.
In this area, many residents caught in-between the big battle of the Nigerian security operatives with members of the IPOB have fled their homes to save themselves from the dangers and threats posed by both to lives and property.
Those who have not been able to do so, are said to be living in constant fear of either becoming victims of the “unknown gunmen,” said to be hunting for alleged collaborators, saboteurs or traitors to their cause, or of security operatives arresting and detaining or killing innocent people under the guise of hunting down members of the IPOB\ESN, and their sympathizers.
Victims of the ‘devil’
One of the firsts to suffer the ordeal is the Amukamaras from the Awo community. Their elder brother, said to be a retired military officer, was accused by IPOB of working for Nigerian security operatives by spying and reporting for them on their activities. And, once you are accused like that, it is like God’s case in which there’s, reportedly, no appeal. And, whenever the “unknown gunmen” strike, it is like visiting the sin of the father on his children.
Unable to track down the so-called saboteur, who is said to be as slippery as fish in the water, the gunmen gruesomely dispatched one of the Amukamaras to the world beyond, just to send a message or warning to his elder brother. Not wanting to be the next victim, the traditional ruler of the community who, in his bid to make peace, became enmeshed in the case, packed his bag and baggage, and left the place for good. As you read this, he is hiding in an undisclosed location in Lagos to prevent himself from joining the list of the “damned” whose case has already been decided somewhere by “unknown gunmen”.
Like the traditional ruler of Awo community, Eze Mkpado of Umuzike autonomous community in Orlu LGA, has abandoned his community to seek safety in Lagos. A member of the community who spoke to Saturday Sun revealed that the monarch was accused by the IPOB/ ESN of harbouring herdsmen. They, therefore, tagged him with the ominous sobriquet “SABO” (shortened form of saboteur). And, today, in many places in Igboland, to tag you with that is as good as handing you a death sentence.
“When you are accused of being a SABO for accommodating the Fulani herdsmen in the community, my brother, that is a very big problem,” he said. “Let me tell you, a lot of people have lost their lives since this problem started, either in the hands of the IPOB/ESN or overzealous security operatives. So, the Eze who is also close to Governor Hope Uzodimma had no choice but to run for his dear life. So, right now we do not have an Eze.”
But one Jonathan Ugochukwu from Okporo community was not as lucky as Eze Mkpado. Like the traditional ruler, he too was accused of being a saboteur or an informant to the security operatives. But after shooting him dead late last month, they beheaded him and displayed his severed head at the Orie Okporo market, apparently, to serve as a warning to other ‘traitors.’ It made a fearful and chilling sight.
Victim of the deep blue sea
Mr. Chinonso Uba, a businessman, fled his Okporo community in Orlu after Mr. Abutu Yaro, immediate past Commissioner of Police in Imo State accused him of being the financier of IPOB/ESN without presenting to the public any incriminating evidence. Subsequently, he ordered the burning down of his hotel, warehouse, and private homes, including that of his aged mother. He narrowly escaped death. Today, he is nowhere to be found as he too has left his community to go into hiding in this season of anomie.
But the relics of the destruction meted out to his property still stands as proof that even if the operatives who carried out the Commissioner’s order did not smoke marijuana within the confines of the hotel in obedience to the notice on the outside wall which stated: “No smoking of marijuana here”, they must have taken some wraps of the substance outside before storming the place. Or, else, since the place is dubbed “King of Alcohol,” they must have taken some bottles of it from its storehouse before embarking on their mission to the place.
Speaking to Saturday Sun, Chidiebere, Chinonso’s younger brother, dismissed the Police Commissioner’s allegation against his elder brother as false, insisting that he had nothing to do with either IPOB or ESN. He recalled that his brother was arrested by the Police Intelligence Response Team (IRT) led, until lately, by Deputy Commissioner of Police (DCP), Abba Kyari, over the same allegation in February 2021. He was tagged a financier to IPOB in Orlu. He was later taken to Abuja. But thorough investigations by the IRT proved the allegations to be false and borne out of envy and jealousy. Hence his elder brother was released to return to Orlu to continue with his business. That was until Commissionerb Yaro, breathing fire and brimstone, sent police operatives to destroy his property some months ago.
Profiling the atmosphere of fear
Speaking further on the climate of fear that has enveloped Orlu communities since the war of attrition between the security operatives and IPOB/ESN members began, Chidibere disclosed that most of the young men have fled Okporo community as people could hardly sleep at night as a result of sounds of gunfire which nobody knows whether it is coming from the unknown gunmen or security operatives or both.
“We hardly sleep at night,” he said. “Anybody who is coming to this community must ensure he or she arrives before 5 pm; otherwise the person should better wait till the following day. This is because you could be tagged an IPOB/ ESN member out to stake out places or spy on the movement of the security operatives. And, if you are so tagged, you will be lucky to be alive after that. In some cases, they will simply waste you. So when it is 5 pm, whatever business that you are doing, close up and go home. Even so, people are afraid to come home as people are leaving the community. I too, am preparing to leave because anything can happen.”
A lady who identified herself as Chinyere corroborated Chidiebere’s story when she talked about travelling from Lagos to Umudioka, Orlu, her village to attend a burial ceremony about two weeks ago, and finding the whole place turned upside down by fear of the unknown. The lady who shared her experiences with Saturday Sun, said that she was shocked to get home and find her people living in fear. According to her, she got home late that day as a result of usual heavy traffic on Lagos-Onitsha/Owerri Road. Instead of arriving at about 5.30 pm, she did at about 9.30 pm. Her people who were eagerly waiting to welcome her were greatly terrified as they wondered what would become her fate. “I was supposed to stop at Eziachi where I usually board a bike to my village. But I was warned by my people not to stop there at that late hour because there won’t be anybody there,” she said. “They hinted that unknown gunmen could appear there at any time, which is why the area is usually deserted now as early as 7.30 p.m.”
A man who refused to disclose his identity for fear of being attacked said members of Orlu communities living in Lagos, Abuja, and other towns in Nigeria are in paradise, unlike their kit-and-kin at home. “The news we hear in Lagos is nothing to be compared with what you meet on the ground when you go home. You hear more terrifying stories of how people are being kidnapped, robbed, killed, and so on,” he explained. “The worst is that they now behead people the unknown gunmen referred to as informants to the security agents. I even heard that they have a list of people they plan to kill for working against them. Once your name is there, and they come for you, they burn your house and completely wipe out the person’s entire household. As a result, people have run away from the villages for fear of being killed.”
“Everybody is a suspect”, says one Godwin who comes from Umuowa, Orlu. “Even the bike man carrying you could turn out to be a robber, kidnapper, ritualist, or an unknown gunman.
The worst is that kidnappers, robbers, and ritualists now hide under this crisis to perpetuate their evil while they accuse unknown gunmen or government security agents”.
Mrs. Mary Okeke from Amaifeke, confessed to Saturday Sun that they are really living in fear. “Once it is nightfall, everybody enters his house. We talk in hushed voices for fear of being attacked,” she said. “We hear all manner of gunshots here. Some elderly people who have children in Lagos have gone to stay with them there. Something should be done about this.”
In Amiri community of Oru East, a resident who wants to remain anonymous said that the situation is akin to a war zone as nobody is safe, not even the security operatives as they too are being hunted by the unknown gunmen.