By Joe Effiong, Uyo
In the build-up to the 2019 general election, all eyes were on Akwa Ibom State following the declaration that the election would be akin to the historical “Warsaw Saw War and War Saw Warsaw.” Fortunately or otherwise, the election came and went uneventfully. Neither bullets were fired nor bombs dropped and no life was lost. Or so people were made to believe.
But in the past two months, Akwa Ibom State has not only experienced war but a section of the state has also been almost ungovernable.
It all started in Essien Udim, the local government area of the former governor of the state, now Minister for Niger Delta Affairs, Godswill Akpabio. Some hoodlums were said to have turned Ikot Akpan village into a den of thieves, a cult haven, terrorising residents and visitors. When they were eventually arrested and charged to court, they were, surprisingly, released.
Daily Sun learned that they were, actually, “political boys” used during elections in the area by some politicians who also expect to solicit their services in 2023.
Returning to the village, the gangsters not only continued with their reign of terror, they even upped the ante by killing the police officer who was the IPO of the case. The village head of Ikot Akpan only escaped death by chance as the hoodlums did not meet him in his house when they went, but they burnt down the house.
That was the beginning of the problem, which immediately claimed the life of three policemen, including a chief superintendent who led the team to fish out the hoodlums that killed their colleague, the IPO. It was a deadly mission as he and four of his subordinates were killed on the spot. Four others were declared missing by the state police command. Till date, they have not been found. Some other security agents, including the soldiers and their vehicles, were equally wasted in Ikot Akpan that week.
Seeing that the police were overwhelmed, the military brought fighter jets and descended on Ikot Akpan and bombed the hoodlums’ hideouts.
Public relations officer, 2 Brigade, Nigerian Army, Akwa Ibom State, Captain Godfrey Abakpa, confirmed the military operation to newsmen in Uyo on telephone. He said: ”The operation just started. The general security situation in Akwa Ibom State was very peaceful and calm before these miscreants started their problem two weeks ago.
”They attacked so many security agencies and carted away some weapons and this gave them the courage to continue with their nefarious activities. In the light of this, the army commander and commanders of other security agencies decided that the criminals must be brought down.’
No arrest was made. However, Daily Sun learned from some locals that the army came “either too early or too late. When they came bombing, the boys had already left the village. But immediately they left, the boys returned and continued with their terrorism till date.”
“The police are scared stiff. Maybe if the army had delayed a little, the hoodlums would have been taken unawares. But in the heat of the crisis, having killed some soldiers and burnt their vehicles, they were on the lookout,” said a resident.
Thus, the only effect of the bombing was the emergence of internally displaced people camps in the area. Some ran to the church, while others were housed in the community civic centre. Those who could afford it left the village. Today, Ikot Akpan is almost a ghost town, even as the internally displaced persons have returned to their homes and left their fate in the hands of God and the hoodlums.
It was around that period that the Essien Udim crisis began to have spiral effects in the entire Ikot Ekpene senatorial district with the police being the primary target of the hoodlums.
On April 27, 2021, a policeman and a policewoman were gunned down at a checkpoint at Urua Inyang, the headquarters of Ika LGA. The hoodlums, said to have arrived on several motorcycles, also carted away rifles from fleeing and wounded policemen.
On Sunday, May 2, 2021, the hoodlum returned to Essien Udim with their atrocities when they burnt down the INEC office in the local government at Afaha Ikot Ebak, the council headquarters around 3:00am.
It was gathered that the hoodlums launched another attack on herdsmen grazing their cattle and killed no fewer than 12 cattle, forcing the herdsmen to flee and alert the security agencies.
But the worst of their attacks on security agencies, especially the police, was at Ini divisional police station, Odoro Ikpe, where they gunned down five policemen and a woman said to be spouse to one of the police officers.
There was a twist to the story, as the gunmen were said to have had mercenaries suspected to be members of the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB). The police did not confirm or deny the IPOB angle.
Apart from killing officers, the hoodlums, said to have stormed the police station in two buses in the early hours of Saturday, May 8, 2021, also set some vehicles and the police station ablaze, even as they injured some other policemen who scampered for safety and left unmolested.
The next day, Sunday, May 9, a police station along Uyo-Ikot Ekpene Road, at Ikot Odon, Abak, was burnt, while most people in the area were in Sunday church service. Though no life was lost there, the day did not pass without shedding of blood. The police command confirmed that one Sgt. Obadia Eli, attached to Mopol 57, Ukana, who was on his way to his beat, “was accosted and killed.”
The security situation in Ikot Ekpene became so tense and the police became so vulnerable and pitiable that Governor Udom Emmanuel had to pay the state police command headquarters in Uyo a visit to identify with the command over the attacks on security formations in the state.
Emmanuel condemned “the senseless attacks” and expressed concerns over the lives of officers murdered. He urged the command to rise to the occasion of containing the challenges and made a donation of N60 million to the families of the deceased.
There appeared to have been some semblance of ceasefire since May 12, though the gunmen were still parading the streets of Ikot Ekpene, Essien Udim, Ika, Ini and other local government areas in the senatorial district, unmolested. The Police Area Division, Ikot Ekpane, had to be guarded by the army to forestall any attack.
It was alleged that the hoodlums had the upper hand over the police and other security operatives because they had fortified themselves with juju, which made it impossible for bullets to penetrate their flesh.
“When the police advanced on that March 29 to attack the hoodlums, they were surprised to see that, instead of the hoodlums running away, they were still advancing towards the policemen who were shooting at them. When the police saw that their shots had no effect on the boys, they scrambled to run away. That’s when they were caught and three of them, including CSP Ben Ajide, were killed on the spot. Others were taken away. Nobody knows what has happened to them since,” a native of the community who pleaded anonymity told our correspondent.
But a civil rights group, Oron National Forum (ONAF), has asked the Federal Government to pay compensation to the people of Essien Udim for the invasion and bombardment they suffered at the hands of the hoodlums and security agencies.
“We have noted with sadness and deep concern the war in Essien Udim LGA in Akwa Ibom State, where a great population of civilians have been killed and properties worth billions of naira destroyed.
“In fact, the nation is at a crossroads, hopelessness and general insecurity challenges.
“We, therefore, use this opportunity to remind the Federal Government that the primary function of any government is the security of life and property, hence, we urge the Federal Government to live up to the expectations of the people in this regard.
“We call on the Federal Government to adequately compensate the bereaved families and the victims whose properties were destroyed, while appealing to the people to cooperate with security agencies in the interest of peace, security and justice,” the group said in a statement signed by the president and secretary, Ita Ante and Etifit Nkereuwem, respectively.
Daily Sun learned that life is beginning to pick up in Essien Udim and the adjourning Ikot Ekpene and other LGAs, especially since the arrival of DIG Moses Jitoboh’s Operation Restore Peace (in the South South and South East).
Since the “war” began in March and the army invasion a few days later, Jitoboh’s team is said to be the only one that has penetrated Essien Udim, especially Ikot Akpan, and come out unmolested.
He told security stakeholders at the police headquarters, Ikot Akpanabia, Uyo, that he was acting on President Muhmmadu Buhari’s directives that there should be no more killing of policemen or destruction of police facilities.
“I want to tell the people of Akwa Ibom State that peace is here. Peace will be restored. Operation Restore Peace has come to stamp its feet and we want to tell them that we have adopted a slogan, ‘Never again.’
“Never again will policemen be killed unjustly; never again will police stations be burnt, never again.
“I have gone to Ikot Akpan in Essien Udim, the biggest hotbed, we have dominated that place. The Police have taken over everything there and peace has been restored. So, never again will the police take all these killings and wanton destruction of properties.
“I am also here to tell you that, with what has happened, we will change the internal security so that it would be better. The internal security of this state will be re-engineered and you will have a better police force. We will retool our community policing to make it better”, he said.
Whether the ‘ceasefire’ is as a result of the presence of Jitoboh’s Operation Restore Peace, or because the hoodlums are war-weary, or a combination of these and other occurrences overt or covert would be revealed by time. For now, the fact remains that Essien Udim saw war; and like any war, its ripple effects almost engulfed the entire Ekpene senatorial district. The next target? Nobody knows.