Untold stories of army operation in Abia
From Chuks Onuoha and Prisca Igboecheonwu, Umuahia
People in Abia State are feeling the ferocious power of the python, a predatory snake that kills its prey by coiling around it and constricting it to death, and then goes on to swallow it whole.
This in essence has been the lot of the people, particularly in Umuahia, the state capital and Aba, the commercial nerve centre of the state. Following the announcement by military authorities that the second edition of Operation Python Dance would hold throughout the South East, deployment of heavily armed soldiers began in earnest. And last Sunday, the soldiers on patrol in Umuahia had their first run-in with members of the Independent People of Biafra (IPOB), when they ventured too close to the home of Nnamdi Kanu, leader of the group. What happened thereafter set the stage for the agonizing acts visited on the people of the state by the soldiers.
At the Nigeria Union of Journalists Press Center, located at the old Abia Tower, near the Post Office along Aba Road, the traditional Ruler of of Akpuhuru Eda Autonomous Community in Ebonyi State, Eze Bonny Okoro, who is also the national trustee of NUJ Zone C, in Abia State and the State Correspondent of Oracle Newspapers, was among the journalists the soldiers manhandled when they invaded the press centre, and beat up journalists, on Tuesday September 12.
The soldiers seized his ipad and phones as well as laptops. They beat him to an inch of his life with the butt of their guns even as they kicked him with their boots. Others who suffered similar fate include, Mr Chidi Asonye of Authority newspaper, Sunday Nwakanma of Daily Times Newspaper, Linus Effiong of Daily Trust, Lawrence Nwokedi of Radio Nigeria and many others.
Recalling that horrible day, Eze Okoro said: “I was just arriving the office when I heard their ear-deafening siren and went to the window to see what was happening. As they were negotiating to Bende Road, traffic held them and some of them stopped while others had moved on, while I was watching what was happening through the window. I noticed that one of them was pointing at me. When I observed that I had to relocate to the balcony where others were. They started asking, where is the road, where is the road. All of them rushed up and one of them pointed at me and I told them that I had no phone. They asked me to open my bag and I did and they collected my Samsung tablet and smashed it, the other trod on it and the third person completed the destruction with the butt of his gun. They said that we were taking their picture but they did not get any phone with pictures.
Speaking also, Chidi Asonye said that when he heard the siren, he came out to see what was happening, and saw the first second and third armored personnel vehicles, and a long convoy of the military vehicles with soldiers who were armed to the teeth.
“While they were negotiating to go towards Bende Road, by then about 10 vehicles had already passed, and they shouted from on top of one of the vehicles, look at that man, look at that man. And soldiers from three of the vehicles disembarked and rushed towards the entrance of the building and entered. About 50 of them rushed in while some numbering almost 50 were on the ground, pointing their guns on those of us who were at the balcony, threatening that if we made a move, they would shoot us. We stayed put until they climbed up and descended on us. They were asking for the camera with which we were taking their pictures and we said we had none, and one of them demanded to see what was in the bag of the traditional ruler and immediately he opened it and was trying to show them the content, one of them snatched his ipad and smashed it on the floor. They collected our phones, ipads and left. More than 16 truckloads of military men came to the centre and damaged the place. They ransacked and turned the whole place upside down.
Sunday Nwakanma, who was no less traumatised, described the action of the soldiers as a show of arrogance. “We were just watching them from the balcony, we did not take any picture. By the way they were displaying, nobody recorded anything because there was nothing to record. They surrounded the building, while over 50 entered and started brutalizing all the people in the place, including the woman in the canteen and our secretary, Chidinma, who ran into the toilet to hide. All the phones they saw, they smashed and took some away.
In a similar development, the publisher of Masterweb, an online medium, Chief Charles Okereke, who was coming back from Aba told related the story of what happened to him on Monday, September 11.
He said that two soldiers who seemed to be drunk confronted him at Ubakala, on the outskirts of Umuahia metropolis and broke the windscreen of his car. The soldiers also injured the Nigerian editor of his media firm on the hand.
His words: “I was travelling with my Nigerian editor and somewhere at Ubakala, we got to a military checkpoint and they asked me where I was coming from and I told them. Immediately we passed the checkpoint, we drove two poles, heading for Umuahia town. Then two soldiers with their sticks and guns asked us where we were going and we told them. They said we should move on and as were about driving off, they started hitting our vehicle as well as my colleague sitting beside me on the passenger side. Then the one on my side started hitting my car with his gun, which he had already cocked. As I moved the next thing was that he hit the butt of the gun on my rear windshield and shattered it. I had to run for my life.
Seven people were killed at Isiala Ngwa junction, where a clash broke out between soldiers and IPOB members who were heading for Umuahia on solidarity visit to their leader in the aftermath of the altercation close to Kanu’s home on Sunday. Those killed were said to have died when the soldiers used their armoured personnel carriers to chase some of the IPOB members who escaped into the bushes in the area.
And last Thursday evening, a sustained shooting incident occurred at the family house of the IPOB leader, leading to the desecration of his father’s palace, which was ransacked.
They were said to have broken through the gate of the highly secured and fenced compound after dislodging the human barricade that had always been at the gate.
An unconfirmed family source said that about 22 people lost their lives during the invasion. Another source said that only four persons were killed by the troops, which shot at the palace for more than 30 minutes.
The heavy shooting made people in around Afara, where the palace is located to run for safety
In the morning of that day about 9.30 am, two persons who were said to have been dressed in IPOB uniform were shot dead in front of Diamond Bank, by soldiers, who drove in a Nigerian Army Hilux van, directly opposite Abia State Government House in Umuahia.
The incident caused pandemonium as news of the shooting spread across the city like wildfire, causing shops and offices to close in apprehension.
Transporters made detours to unusual routes to escape the wrath of protesting IPOB members, who blocked the Aba Road axis of Umuahia-Ubakala road of the city.
Many motorists withdrew their vehicles from the roads, forcing passengers to trek long distances.
When Sunday Sun visited the area, the blood of the two IPOB members shot dead was clearly visible on the ground before the gate. Efforts to speak to security personnel working for the bank yielded no fruit.
A female staffer of the Government House, who pleaded for anonymity, said that she was just coming to work when the incident occurred.
According to her, the Hilux van with the military men were driving from Akanu Ibiam Road into Bank Road when they sighted three men in IPOB uniform walking along the road.
“Probably because of the black upon black IPOB uniform they wore, the soldiers signaled them to come and they ignored the soldiers and kept going. The next thing we heard was two gunshots and the two men fell on the ground and in that confusion, everybody started running helter-skelter,” the lady said.
She said that the men alighted from their van, threw the two dead bodies into their van and drove off.
The source said that when the information got to IPOB members who were guarding the home of their leader, Nnamdi Kanu, they rushed out in protest over the killing of two of their own by the soldiers.
The protest led to the blocking of roads leading to Bank Road with tyres. The protesters chanted war songs and broke signposts, to demonstrate their anger. They also marched in protest to the residence of the former Police Commissioner, Mr Leye Oyebade, to report what the soldiers did to two of their members.
Oyebade, who briefed the press during the handing over ceremony to his predecessor, Mr Anthony O. Michael, told newsmen that the IPOB came on a peaceful protest to report the incident and he addressed them and advised them to remain calm.
Also banks closed for business for fear of the unknown, roads were deserted and scary rumour started flying here and there as to what awaited anyone that would go into Umuahia township.