From Magnus Eze, Enugu
As normalcy returned to Orlu after weeks of skirmishes, Governor Hope Uzodimma of Imo State has revealed the real reason government invited the military to intervene in the crisis rocking the place. He said that it was to protect the people and save the area from being made a theatre of war.
He told stakeholders in Owerri the state capital last Saturday that inviting the military was neither to crush members of the Indigenous Peoples of Biafra (IPOB) nor its security arm, the Eastern Security Network (ESN): “Rather, it was to thwart a plot by some unnamed persons to make Orlu a war zone.”
He alleged that some persons possibly from outside Igbo land promoted the crisis in Orlu to destabilise the state and by extension, the South East. His Commissioner for Information and Strategy, Declan Emelumba, had before accused the opposition of instigating what happened in Orlu.
However, uncertainty still pervaded the area on Monday as several persons who fled their homes and villages in the wake of the military operation in search of the ESN’s camps in Orlu, Njaba and Orsu local government areas were yet to return.
The panic created by the presence of military helicopters on surveillance over the communities even to the boundary communities of Ihiala in Anambra State was yet to calm down. An indigene of Uda Orsuihiteukwa in Orsu Local Gogvernment that shares boundaries with Anambra State said though no indigene was shot by the soldiers but their operation caused serious anxiety:
“Most villagers out of fear had already deserted their homes to avoid a repeat of the Odi massacre. That was when the military invaded the Ijaw town of Bayelsa State in November 1999.”
A resident of Umunam Atta Community in Njaba LG, Andrew Ibe, said: “Though the soldiers were not harassing the people, but the concern was that there might be shooting any moment since their helicopter hovered over the area.
“Again, they arrested one of our respected sons, a priest in the Sabbath Church here. Since Saturday, when he was arrested, nobody has told us why that is so.”
IPOB had accused the Federal Government of declaring war on “the people of Biafra” through its military in a bid to harass, intimidate and cow the people into submission by relinquishing their ancestral lands to the Fulani terrorists from the Sahel. They also alleged that 33 clerics and elders in Orlu were detained as the army intensified its search for the camp of the ESN.
The group’s head of the directorate of state, Chika Edoziem, said the IPOB worldwide must gird their loins and be prepared for a long drawn out battle ahead: “Now, that the Nigerian Government has activated its final solution to the Biafran question with helicopter gunships in Orlu, they have crossed the line of no return.
“For us the Indigenous Peoples of Biafra, there is only one option that is open for us. We must defend every inch of our ancestral lands and our inalienable rights to live in our land of our ancestors as a free people.”
IPOB claimed that those nine pastors and 24 church elders including the presiding priest of Our Lord’s Sabbath in Umunam Atta Community, Njaba LG, Rev. Chigozie Nwaka, were arrested in Ubokoro Atta, Okporo and Okwudor.
Investigation showed that the raids on Orlu, Njaba, Orsu and Oru East council areas started in January while those arrested were detained in the state police command. One of the churches invaded was House of Prayer International Covenant Church, Okporo Orlu, where over 20 members and clerics were arrested.
But the spokesperson of the 34 Artillery Brigade, Obinze, Owerri, Babatunde Zubairu, who confirmed the operation said the locals were not being harassed.
Nine suspected members of ESN were arraigned for murder at the Magistrate Court 16, Owerri, by the police on February 18, and remanded at correctional centre. The suspects were Udechukwu Nwachukwu, John Okonkwo, Udechukwu Okwara, Izuchukwu Mgbenwa, Ambrose Ibeanuka, Justice Duruigbo, Odii Goodluck, Paulinus Offor and Chizaram Oguaju.
Igbo groups were unanimous in their concern over the situation in the Orlu. President of Alaigbo Development Foundation (ADF), Prof Uzodinma Nwala, said: “The situation in Orlu is very unfortunate and no one could actually say the real situation there. But we cannot continue like this. Our organization is making efforts to bring all elders and leading monarchs in South East to a meeting where we could discuss the issues of security and the best way to secure our people.”
Association of South East Town Unions (ASETU), applauded the state government for its timely intervention and withdrawal of the troops deployed to the troubled area. But it added that it was not enough except all those involved in the crisis were fished out and punished.m Its National President, Emeka Diwe and Secretary, Gideon Adikwuru, said in a statement: urged the state government to set up a judicial panel of inquiry to unravel the cause of the recent unrest as well as recommend punishment to all those involved: “In the wake of the crisis, countless innocent lives were lost, and assaults meted out on peace-loving citizens.
“Gory images abound about the horrifying situation. A mother, food vendor, was shot dead, likewise a young man on his way to Orlu from Njaba. Scores of other yet-to-be identified corpses littered the streets. There was arson, and even the beating up of a respected traditional ruler by security operatives.
“Till this day, there has not been any authoritative information from the government about the immediate and remote causes of the incident, those who are culpable and the approach to forestalling a recurrence.
“We therefore demand an independent judicial panel of inquiry to be set up in order to unearth the causes of the ugly scenario and to bring those involved in the reckless killing of unarmed civilians and human rights violations to book.
“Orlu people deserve justice, and the first step to getting that is through a panel of inquiry.”
President General of Ohanaeze Ndigbo, George Obiozor, during a visit to the traditional ruler of Orlu, Eze Emmanuel Okeke, cautioned: “Those who preach or prefer military solution to Nigerian problems are today, equally as a threat to Nigerian unity as those enemies they are fighting.
“Our position is that, no matter how bad Nigerian problems may be; only peaceful solution will be best to guarantee Nigerian unity. This could be achieved through a restructured, renegotiated, decentralised or power devolution.
“On the other hand, use of force, intimidation or violence will be a national catastrophe which should be avoided. Use of violent method will lead to a synchronised national crisis and ultimate disintegration of Nigeria, this too must be avoided.” He commended Uzodimma for his handling of the crisis, and lauded South East governors for banning open grazing.
Eze Okeke expressed surprise that Orlu known for its relative peace was at the centre of such unrest.