From Magnus Eze, Enugu, Stanley Uzoaru, Owerri and Ogbonnaya Ndukwe, Aba
The latest phrase in the South East and parts of the South-South regions of Nigeria is ‘unknown gunmen’. Every atrocious act in these places, including attacks on public infrastructure; security agents and their formations, is attributed to this category of people, in the manner the Afro-beat king, Fela Anikulapo Kuti, sang that the then military junta would blame the ‘unknown soldier’ for their escapades.
There is tension and fear in the two regions of the country following plans by the federal government to deploy more military assets, including troops, intelligence personnel and the Nigerian Security and Civil Defence Corps (NSCDC) to the areas.
Already, there is an ongoing clampdown on pro-Biafra groups there, including newspaper distributors and vendors selling any published materials on Biafra.
The two regions, had, in recent time, come under attack by armed groups, who killed policemen as well as burnt police stations and correctional facilities in Imo, Abia, Anambra, Ebonyi, Enugu, Akwa Ibom and Rivers states.
In Anambra, a series of deadly attacks was launched on security formations and, so far, 16 policemen and four naval officers have been killed in three months, from February 24, when the first incidents took place at Mkpologwu and Omogho communities in Aguata and Orumba North local government areas, respectively.
Records showed that Imo has been the worst hit as no fewer than 15 police formations had been attacked and razed by gunmen in the state, including those at Obowo, Aboh Mbaise, Isiala Mbano, Etiti, Ehime Mbano, Orlu, Orsu, Nwaorieubi, Ahiazu Mbaise, Ezinihitte Mbaise, Mbieri and Nwaorieubi. The hoodlums also did not spare the judiciary, as the magistrate’s courts in Ngor Okpala and Ihitte Uboma councils of the state were attacked, while security forces have been combing the communities in search of members of the Indigenous Peoples of Biafra (IPOB) and its vigilante outfit, Eastern Security Network (ESN). ESN commander, Kanayo Nwokike (Ikonso) was recently ‘neutralized’ by security forces in his community, Awomamma, in Oru East, Imo State, while joint-security operations have continued in the Orlu axis of the state.
Residents have been severely traumatized by heavy presence of the military there even as private homes have been raided. The home of Awurum Eze, who, according to the army, was the second in command to the slain ESN commander, Ikonso, was recently burnt down in Mbano, Imo State, by troops before his eventual arrest in Aba, Abia State.
IPOB has since denied that Eze was their member much less being commander of the ESN.
Security challenges in the two zones have topped discussions at the National Security Council in its recentmeetings in Abuja, chaired by President Muhammadu Buhari.
One of the decisions at the council’s latest meeting was a fresh ultimatum of three weeks given to the security chiefs to check the rising insecurity in the country.
The council also announced that a new security strategy to contain violence in the two zones would be devised.
As part of the undisclosed security strategy for the two regions, acting Inspector-General of Police, Alkali Usman Baba, had in a wireless message with reference CB: 0900/DTS/DOPS/VOL.47/812X, titled “Attack on policemen, snatching of rifles by IPOB,” warned police officers and personnel not to accompany their principals to Abia, Anambra, Ebonyi, Abia, Enugu, Imo and Rivers states, until the security situation in the region improves.
Daily Sun gathered the authorities were concluding plans for massive troop and security assets deployment in the two zones to restore order.
A similar deployment in the two zones under former Chief of Army Staff, Lt. Gen. Tukur Buratai (rtd), was codenamed Operation Python Dance in the South-East and Operation Crocodile Smile in the South-South and South-West, respectively.
What is not known is whether the death of the Chief of Army Staff, Lt. General Ibrahim Attahiru, in a military plane crash in Kaduna last weekend will affect these arrangements. He had reportedly handed a “shoot-on-sight” order to soldiers in the South-East and South-South.
Sources said the new security strategy for the regions was aimed at neutralizing armed groups as a disincentive to further violence.
Meanwhile, leader of IPOB, Nnamdi Kanu, last week, directed members of the IPOB family to, henceforth, stop all physical meetings, alleging that the Nigerian authorities were hell-bent on decimating Igbo youths.
On his part, the IGP, Alkali Usman, in accordance with the presidential directive to the Nigeria Police to re-evaluate and put in place new strategies to check violence and secessionist plots in the South-East and other parts of Nigeria, last week launched Operation Restore Peace.
He practically declared war on pro-Biafra agitators and gunmen reportedly attacking and destroying police infrastructure in the South-East and South-South regions and ordered their extermination.
Usman, who spoke on the sideline while addressing the Police Mobile Force and Special Tactical Squad of the Force in Enugu shortly after he launched the Operation Restore Peace at the Okpara Square, Independence Layout, Enugu, shockingly directed policemen in the region not to adhere to the rules of engagement while dealing with Biafra secessionist groups, adding that his job was to protect them.
“Don’t mind the media shout; do the job I command you. If anyone accuses you of human rights violation, the report will come to my table and you know what I will do. So, take the battle to them wherever they are and kill them all. Don’t wait for an order.
“What other order are you waiting for when Mr. President had ordered you to shoot anybody carrying AK-47 rifle? Quote me, even a dead policeman can be tried and dismissed from the force and his family will not get his benefits.
“So, don’t sit and wait for them to come; take attack to them and don’t lose your arms to criminals,” the police boss said.
Earlier, in an address before declaring open the operation, which was witnessed by governors of the South-East states and heads of other security agencies, the IGP stated that the operation was for the stabilisation of the security in the geopolitical zone.
He maintained that “the time is now. Today’s launch of Operation RP by the Nigeria Police follows the directives of Mr. President to the Nigeria Police to re-evaluate and emplace new operational strategies to stem the tide of violence and secessionist agenda not only in the South-East but across the country.”
He noted that, “Indeed, the resort to terror tactics, disregard to constitutional processes and disrespect for democratic standards to advance their interests of creating an ungovernable space in the region informed the decision of the Federal Government to outlaw IPOB.”
Coming of unknown gunmen
The South-East region was arguably the most peaceful in the country until early this year when attacks became the order of the day in the area. The most pronounced of the crisis was that of Orlu in Imo State, which has practically been turned to a war zone.
The Orlu unrest allegedly emanated from skirmishes between the Nigerian Army and the ESN floated by the IPOB in parts of the the South-East and South-South.
For more than a week, life was hell in the place, with economic activities paralyzed, leading to the imposition of curfew on about 10 local government areas by Imo State governor, Hope Uzodimma.
Sources claimed that the crisis started when soldiers took the fight to the IPOB vigilante in Okporo in Orlu while searching for the camp of the ESN. The bloody clash that ensued allegedly claimed the lives of two soldiers on that mission, while the vigilantes reclined into their shells in the forest.
However, a reprisal the next day sparked off serious crisis in the town as the angry soldiers were said to have killed many innocent civilians in the process. Also, houses and shops were said to have been razed by the soldiers.
IPOB did not own responsibility for the attack but a group that called itself “Volunteers” had taken to the social media claiming responsibility.
Whether it was the ESN or the Volunteers that allegedly attacked the soldiers, the fact is that innocent residents of Orlu and its environs were made the scapegoats.
“They were just chasing people about; they were asking if we had seen the IPOB people. They would flog you and give you all sorts of punishment,” an Orlu resident said.
It was after the Orlu incident that tension began to rise in the region; the assailants became somewhat emboldened as they attacked police formations in Imo, Ebonyi, Abia, Anambra and Enugu as well as Akwa Ibom, Rivers and Delta states in the South-South.
The attack on the Owerri Correctional Centre and the Imo State Police Command, where about 1,884 inmates were released, was a big shock to many, just as that of the Omuma country home of Governor Uzodimma, in Oru East LGA, was audacious. Lately, offices of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) in Imo, Ebonyi, Enugu and Akwa Ibom States have not been spared.
The security situation resulting in the killing of operatives in the South-East has instilled fear in police personel in the region such that many of them are seeking redeployment from the region.
Tens of policemen have lost their lives in several attacks on police formations across the South-East as the region has recorded more than 60 attacks on security formations and killings of operatives by yet-to-be-identified assailants. This came as some of the policemen are facing orderly room trial for deserting their duty posts in the region.
Many policemen in Imo, Abia and Ebonyi, it was gathered, are seeking to be redeployed from the states. They are pressing buttons with many, especially in Aba and Owerri, ready to pay huge sums of money to achieve their desire.
Although some senior officers believe that the operatives should remain in their current postings to tackle insecurity, others have already reached out to the police high command in a bid to facilitate the deployment.
Policing in the South-East at the moment is like a death sentence. As a response to the situation, security checkpoints have virtually disappeared in the region, just as many policemen now go in mufti. For instance, there is only a police checkpoint between Enugu and Abakaliki, the Ebonyi State capital, and also a military checkpoint at Mbulu Owo, in Nkanu East, along the Enugu-Abakaliki highway. Other roadblocks and stop-and-search exercises on motorists have been dismantled.
In Aba, the commercial hub of Abia State, most policemen now go to work wearing mufti. They change to their official uniforms when they get to their offices. At the Ezillo Police Division of Ebonyi State, even policemen armed with rifles were dressed in mufti when Daily Sun paid a visit there last Friday.
It was also observed that policemen now use unbranded vehicles to effect arrests and carry out other operations in Enugu and Ebonyi. In fact, in Ebonyi, the police would expect the vigilante or the newly formed Ebubeagu security outfit to arrest suspects and bring them to their stations.
The “withdrawal” of services from the streets by policemen has caused a spike in criminal activities. Residents of Aba have decried the rapid increase in the number of youths getting involved in cult-related activities, including attack on POS operators.
A policeman who would not want to be named in Aba while expressing their frustration queried: “Why are they killing and attacking us? We do this job with fear. We don’t know if we’ll return home alive after leaving the house in the morning. Most of the policemen killed have young children, who will take care of them?”
Regardless, fear has gripped officers and men of the Police serving in Aba, over the rumoured plan to transfer them to other formations outside the State.
The personnel, who have come under attacks for not being able to contain increasing activities of bandits, kidnappers and arsonists, are said to have recently been suspected to have hands in the new wave of crime in the area.
According to a source, intelligence reports on how to arrest the prevalent situation of burning down police facilities, carting away arms and releasing detained criminal suspects, were believed to be leaking to the bandits who always claimed they got information and were being sponsored by senior security officers.
When our correspondent visited the Aba Area Command, policemen and women were seen in groups discussing the transfer issue, with some of the women openly expressing willingness to go to new location if it becomes real.
Some Aba residents who claimed to be aware of the rumours, said it will be good to have a new crop of policemen to monitor and secure the commercial city and the Southeast zone.
A textiles trader, Chief Cajetan Ogaraku, said the move, if effected would be welcomed as he accused police operatives in the State of abandoning their mandate to pursue other issues.
A politician and top business woman, Mrs Justina Udeogu, said the move will sanitize the Aba society but, called on the authorities to be sincere while carrying out the exercise.
Divided opinions about attackers
Ask the police and other security agencies whom they think is behind the attacks on police formations, personnel and other security agents as well as public infrastructure; they will heap the blame on the doorsteps of the IPOB and its security arm; the ESN.
But, many blame those they call ‘unknown gunmen (UGM) for the criminalities. Others still believe that most of the attacks were so coordinated to have come from any ordinary group. This school of thought argue that there might be fifth columnists and “the intent is to create anarchy in the South East and use the opportunity to kill Igbo.”
In Imo, despite the worries by residents on the authorities to unmask the ‘unknown gunmen’, the State Government and even the police preferred not to make it a public discussion yet, for reasons best known to them.
Police Public Relations Officer of Imo State command, Bala Elkana who declined to mention those behind the destruction and killings in the State; said the new Commissioner of Police, Abutu Yaro, has followed up the recent disturbances with a special operation to quell the situation.
“He said: “If you are talking of what is happening in Imo now, as you can see, there is relative peace now since the Commissioner of Police, Abutu Yaro took control, but you can’t talk of the present without what has happened in the past. But I can assure you with the new operation, no problems in Imo again, I can’t disclose to you those behind the disturbances until after our operations”.
Similarly, the State Government responded that only the police have answers to the lingering problem in Imo. State Commissioner for Information and Strategy, Declan Emelumba said “the police should be able to tell you who are behind the incidents, are we still talking about attacks on police stations in Imo, the state is now peaceful as you can see.”
However, in the wake of the unrest in Imo, the State Government had accused its detractors, especially former governor of the State, Rochas Okorocha of having a hand in the problems. The allegation had since been doused by Okorocha who equally blamed Governor Uzodimma of lacking the leadership role to curtail agitations by pro-Biafra groups.
But in an interaction with elder statesman, Chief Emmanuel Iwuanyanwu, he exonerated the IPOB from the unrest in the State.
Iwuanyanwu strongly believed that the problems were caused by foreigners who want to jeopardize the efforts of the government.
He said: “Make no mistake about it, most of these problems we are facing now is caused by foreigners, these herdsmen who are killing helplessly are not the type of Fulani we used to know in Nigeria, they are foreigners.
“Look at what happened the other day at the correctional centre, the hoodlums came and left and you want to tell me that everything is right, who is fooling who?
But contrary to fingers pointed at IPOB/ESN as the masterminds of insecurity in parts of South East, the group has insisted that they do not bear arms.
Media and Publicity Secretary of the group, Emma Powerful explained that its security outfit was established to resist attacks from killer herdsmen in the forest.
Like in Imo, Ebonyi Governor, Chief David Umahi has blamed hoodlums and desperate opposition leaders for the security crisis in the state.
Umahi said contrary to the belief in some quarters that the IPOB and its security arm, ESN were responsible for the killings of security agents and burning of government facilities in the state that desperate opposition leaders from Ebonyi were indeed behind the mayhem.
ººHe alleged that some desperate opposition politicians were sponsoring hoodlums, thugs and bandits to be causing crisis just to discredit his government and to score cheap political points.
The Governor who spoke when the Assistant Inspector General of Police in charge of zone 9, Etim Okon, paid him a courtesy visit at the Government House, Abakaliki last week, urged the police boss not to look beyond opposition leaders in the state in their search for the culprits, insisting that intelligence before him pointed to their direction.
He called on the security agencies to go them in the interest of the security and peace of the state.
Umahi said: “Let me condemn very seriously the killing of security agents in this state. I have said it severally that burning of police stations and INEC offices will never help anyone. Yesterday, two INEC offices in Ezza North and Ebonyi local government areas were razed, and there was also an attempt to burn a filling station that I owned before now two days ago, and attempted assassination of the Publicity Secretary of APC.”
He stated that the allegation by the opposition in the State that the killing of the police was masterminded by the Ebubeagu security outfit, meant that they knew about the killings
“So, don’t look far. These are the people fighting you, these are the people killing you. These are the truths. If you want to find out, go to their Facebook and check,” Umahi told the AIG.
He added that the crisis in the State was because he defected to the All Progressives Congress (APC), warning that “There must be healthy opposition, but there should be no opposition in security.”
However, three of the persons accused by the Governor; namely, Ali Odefa, Linus Okorie and Chidiebere Egwu, have since dismissed the allegation describing it as false and politically motivated.
They claimed that Umahi made the allegation against them because they refused to defect to the APC Meanwhile, the Imo State Police Commissioner, Yaro, has read the riot act to officers and men of the police command to fish and netrualize the ‘unknown gunmen’ from their hideouts in the state warning that unprofessional conducts on the part of officers and men will not be condoned.
He also warned that any acts of cowardice on their part in the course of their duties will be severely punished by the police high command.
Yaro also ordered that every tinted vehicle without permit and vehicle number plates with exception of those belonging to the Government House, the Chief Judge, the Speaker of House of Assembly and the Deputy, be stopped and thoroughly searched.
Speaking while distributing patrol vehicles to the Operation Search and Flush teams, he pointed out that it is the responsibility of the police to protect the people and the state from criminals.
“You must find the gunmen wherever they are in the state, neutralize them and add their armory to that of the government. You have the duty to maintain and enforce peace in the state,” the CP charged.
Not minding, leading Igbo groups including the Ohanaeze Ndigbo, Nzuko Umunna, Alaigbo Development Foundation (ADF) and the Association of South East Town Unions (ASTU) have condemned the purported ‘shoot-on-sight’ order to the army, noting that it was a declaration of war on the Igbo and another genocide.
Nzuko said that “A shoot-on-sight directive is tantamount to an order to extra-judicially exterminate innocent citizens as there is no telling who might be part of the collateral unintended casualties. Throughout history, such military strategies or policies have always run the risk of going contrary to all accepted conventions and protocols on the rules of engagement, particularly the Rome Statutes
“In fact, it can be read as genocide where as in this case, there is clear and evident danger of such action resulting in high casualties”.