Five years ago, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) rated the South-East the most human security secure geopolitical zone in Nigeria. This was contained in its 2016 National Human Development Report for the country.
UNDP defined human security as safety from chronic threats such as hunger, disease and repression as well as protection from sudden and harmful disruptions in patterns of daily life, whether in homes, jobs or communities.
“The most human security secure geopolitical zone is the South-East, while the North-West and the North-East geopolitical zones are the least human security secured, with residents of the Federal Capital Territory being the worst in most realms of the Human Security Index,” the organisation stated in a release signed by its economic adviser in Nigeria, Ojijo Odhiambo.
It is doubtful if the UNDP or any other credible organisation would pass similar verdict on the South-East, now. The zone has lost its ambience, the tranquil environment that had enabled its people put their spirit of industry and enterprise to work. In its place, Unknown Armed Men (UAM) have taken over. There is presently crisis in the South-East and, as it is, there is no place to hide.
Since the mismanagement of the 2020 #EndSARS protests across the country, the South-East has assumed a metaphor for arson, destruction of public assets and, lately, attacks on individuals and security agents. From the August 2020 police invasion of the meeting of Indigenous Peoples of Biafra (IPOB) in Enugu by and execution of 21 members of the group, to the attacks on police formations in Ebonyi, Abia and Anambra, it has been a case of one ugly tale or another.
Then came the January 22 invasion of Orlu, Imo State, by officers and men of the Nigerian Army in search of operatives of the Eastern Security Network (ESN), the militant wing of the IPOB. Eight buildings were burnt and one person killed in the encounter. Security forces re-invaded the area three days later, clashing with the ESN and killing at least five people, before being repulsed by the ESN. Four soldiers were reportedly killed in the fighting. The following days, Nigerian Air Force planes and helicopters were deployed to search for ESN operatives in and around Orlu.
On January 28, more soldiers were deployed to oust the ESN and the authorities declared a curfew, which was brutally enforced. The curfew and the anticipation of imminent heavy fighting caused civilians to flee the city, with some youths taking refuge in the bushes and tree trunks. Hostilities were renewed on February 18, when the Nigerian Army and the ESN clashed in a forest outside Orlu.
The atmosphere in the zone was yet to settle when unknown armed men hit Owerri and released about 1,844 inmates from the correctional centre in the city. The hoodlums also attacked Police Headquarters, freed some suspects detained in the State Criminal Investigation Department (SCID) cells and set ablaze many vehicles parked at the premises, as well as the SCID office building. The operation, according to reports, lasted close to three hours.
The attackers were said to have arrived the centre in large numbers in several Hilux pick-up vans and Sienna buses, armed with sophisticated weapons and immediately engaged the security personnel on duty in a fierce gun battle. They were also said to have set ablaze military checkpoints along Onitsha Road and the one around Ugwu Orji in Owerri North Local Government Area.
The police has accused IPOB of carrying out the attacks. But the organisation has fired back, insisting that neither it nor the ESN was involved in the offensive.
Now, what we have at hand is not an issue of propaganda, blame game or buck-passing. It is rather one that constitutes a huge threat to national security. The invasion of Owerri has many attributes of war. The precision and thoroughness in the execution indicated an exercise that had been properly planned and coordinated. The number of men and volume of resources deployed for the operation also showed how decisive the planners were. How the security agents within and outside the facilities were caught flatfooted by the attackers to the point of no significant resistance, also gives cause for concern. It simply speaks of intelligence failure on the part of the relevant authorities.
There is, therefore, no time for name-calling and trivialities. All hands must be on deck to get to the root of the Owerri incident and prevent it from spreading to other parts of the country. Every Nigerian of good conscience must stand up in condemnation of the assault on Owerri.
From whatever angle it is looked at, the region and residents of the South-East are the losers in the confusion at hand. When criminals are freed from correctional centres, as in the Owerri episode, and unleashed on society, everybody is endangered. When public buildings are razed, the people and economy of the state suffer. Opportunities are created for dubious politicians to award contracts for reconstruction and make money. And in the instant case, where the South-East has been at the receiving end of the Federal Government’s exclusionist politics, the situation becomes more troubling as the vandalised structures may never be rebuilt.
Some of the public facilities destroyed in Lagos and other parts of the country during the bungled #EndSARS protests, are at various stages of rehabilitation. But the buildings torched in Orlu and elsewhere in the South-East at the same time are still battered. Further stress on the infrastructural base of the region will rather compound the situation for the people. The South-East has had enough of disruptions in its daily life lately and does not deserve the current stress.
It would be dangerous for security agents to draw immediate conclusions on any persons or groups as being behind the ugly trend in the East. When Boko Haram launched its murderous campaign in 2009, it started with attacks on the police and other security facilities, before widening its sphere of attacks to markets, schools, worship centres and other public institutions. What is needed right now is not throwing up our hands in the air or merely accusing the ESN/IPOB as the masterminds of the Owerri attacks. Every assertion must be proven.
Those charged with ensuring security of life and property for Nigerians, should do their work. Above all, there is urgent need for coalition of intelligence to unravel those behind the Owerri mayhem and bring them to justice. In situations as this, every lead counts.