From Stanley Uzoaru, Owerri
Orlu considered to be one of the most peaceful zones in Imo State was recently turned into a theatre of war, when detachments of the Nigeria Army with the aerial support of helicopter gunships embarked on a military operation to search for the operatives of Eastern Security Network, the security and vigilante outfit of the proscribed Indigenous People of Biafra, IPOB, in the forests of Orlu.
The operation, which was devastating led to the death of some of the officers, members of the security outfit, as well as innocent residents of the area. It also left an indelible memory in some of the prominent sons from the town who were subjected to one form of harassment or the order.
This was caused by a frequent stop-and-search operation by the military drafted to quell the skirmishes between the soldiers and ESN operatives. Various warfare tactics were said to have been deployed to the town to flush out the ESN members.
But above all the suffering, pains and humiliation the residents were subjected to, were reminiscent of the war civil war, which the people can never forget in a hurry.
The scenario can be compared to what one would see in Hollywood movies as helicopters flew at very low level and grenades thrown into the perceived camps of ESN officials.
So many of the residents got injured in the ensuing panic and pandemonium; some of them had to flee their homes to take refuge inside nearby bushes not attacked by the helicopters.
One of the foremost traditional rulers in the area, Eze Thomas Obiefule, who spoke to Sunday Sun reporter, said that the fear exhibited by the people was quite understandable.
Orlu, he said, had never experienced any war previously, noting that Orlu was never affected by battles of the 1967-1970 civil war as none of the battles was fought on Orlu.
“It was quite strange to us, everything looking as if it was a war, the war we never experienced in Orlu. No single gunshot was fired here during the civil war, so you can imagine what it feels like seeing those big helicopters flying at low level over the top of our roofs.
“Orlu is known for trade; I had a shop at Number 3, Owuse market in Orlu where I was selling; we were in the market that day, January 15, 1970, when we heard that the war was over, some soldiers even came there to buy things from us.
“No gunshot was fired, we have never experienced what we experienced. That was why we were surprised at what happened recently, it had never happened before, but thank God it is over now, everywhere is now calm,” Obiefule said.
But despite the calmness in the area, the people are still struggling to bounce back to their normal business life. Although, the soldiers have left the town, the heavy presence of mobile policemen everywhere is yet to restore the confidence of the people.
Even some parents who are still gripped by fear have refused their children from going to school. Few of the traders selling at the local market in Okporo and Umutanze, as well as other rural markets have summoned courage to come to the market.
A trader at one of the daily markets in the area, who simply gave her name as Mrs Chidubem said the military operation in the bush has affected some products supplied directly from there to the market.
“Palm produce like kernel and oil are expensive now; some of the farmers who have the courage to go to the bushes to harvest the palm add extra money for their efforts in ensuring the product is not out of supply, the same goes to those that tap palmwine,” she said.
It is not only the rural traders that are complaining; those in lockup stores along the major roads are also lamenting over low patronage.
Obinna who runs a popular beer parlour in the heart of the town said he has never experienced such low patronage from his customers in the past.
His words: “People used to come here and unwind both in the morning and at night. I usually open for business around 9:00 a.m every day, but as you can see for yourself, this is past 3:00 p.m and you can count the number of customers I have served since you came here.
“If it were to be before, here would be filled up; I can say the days I make little sales are on Sundays, but I can’t compare other Sundays before the crisis, but we thank God every day the situation is improving.”
The story is not different at the popular Banana Junction in Orlu, as most traders decried the low patronage by customers. The commercial vehicle transporters too are not left out.
Most of the transporters complained of low turnout of passengers. One of the commercial drivers at the popular junction who does not want to be identified in print said: “It appears those who are going outnumbered those coming in. Most of the passengers we carry are those travelling out of the town probably to run away from the unrest in the area.
“We now witness more exit unlike before when we had more passengers coming in from Owerri and other towns. Most of them are business people, some of them came to buy in Orlu while some came to sell their products here, but it is no longer so.
“It appears they have been scared away by the recent happening in Orlu; some of them now avoid coming to Orlu. Remember that the state governor imposed curfew in Orlu, some of them can hardly beat the dusk to dawn curfew”.
A visit to some of the banks in the area showed that the same scenario playing out. Very scanty number of people can be seen at most of the new generation banks in the area. A staff of one of the banks who pleaded not be named attributed the low patronage to the recent military operation in Orlu.
“Customers are less now as you can see, but it is gradually picking up, it was worse than this before; I believe people prefer to have their money kept in their homes for use because of the curfew imposed by the governor, only few come out here to transact business with us,” the bank staff disclosed.
On the presence of Fulani herdsmen in the town, the traditional ruler of Amaifeke in Orlu, Eze Emmanuel Okeke, told Sunday Sun that the herdsmen were no longer in the town.
“We don’t see them here again, everywhere is calm now, I have not seen any herdsman here for some time now. The governor has done well using his wisdom to settle the situation,” Okeke said.
His counterpart, Eze Obiefule while corroborating the claim also waved aside the rumour that Governor Hope Uzodimma’s plot to create a ruga settlement in Orlu instigated the crisis in the zone.
“I heard of the rumour, but it is not true. I have known the governor for over 25 years now. I don’t think he can ever involve himself in that kind of thing, it’s all rumour,” Obiefule said.
Before the military operation in the zone, it was widely rumoured that the state governor plotted to give away some land in Orlu for the establishment of a ruga settlement.
According to the rumour mill, the residents, especially at Okporo got wind of it and chased away the herders encroaching on their farm. Their initial resistance was the genesis of the crisis in Orlu, Sunday Sun learnt from a source.
This rumour, it was gathered, birthed the testing of the IPOB vigilante’s strength in Orlu as they were said to have moved into the forest to prevent the alleged ruga initiative from coming to fruition.
However, IPOB has insisted that Orlu is not the only place its vigilante is operating in the Southeast.
Media and Publicity Secretary of IPOB, Emma Powerful, told Sunday Sun that the group also has its men in Ebonyi, Anambra and other parts of the Igbo land.
He said Orlu only became controversial because the military was deployed to attack the ESN vigilantes.
“This is not happening in other parts of the Southeast where ESN is operating. Go to Ebonyi, Anambra, Abia and other places in the Southeast nobody deployed soldiers, but Hope Uzodimma. ESN is everywhere and they are doing their job. What made Orlu’s case so prominent was that the Imo State governor, Hope Uzodinma invited soldiers to attack ESN and IPOB. Other governors are not inviting soldiers to settle their own case.
“For those asking why Nnamdi Kanu never operated the ESN in Abia State, well, I have to tell you that every part of Biafra land is where Nnamdi Kanu is protecting, not only Imo State, and we are out to protect every place, not just one particular place.
“This is a continual process and we won’t allow Hope Uzodimma to stop us or cede Orlu land to Fulani; that was why he brought soldiers because ESN became a stumbling block to him. We are succeeding in whatever we lay hands on, Fulani must leave our land whether Hope Uzodinma likes it or not,” Powerful declared.