By OBINNA EZUGWU
When, on May 30, 2016, a combined team of police, civil defense corps and soldiers opened fire on members of the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) who had gathered in their numbers at Nkpo, an outskirt of Onitsha, Anambra State to mark the Biafra day anniversary, more than a hundred were killed. It was a tale of sorrows, tears and blood.
Mr. Ekene Nwede, 30, a father of two, escaped death on the evening by the whiskers. “I lay down on my stomach as bullets flew all over the place,” he recalls as we sat down in a pub at Ogidi. “I crawled, using a fence as my shield to be able to escape.”
Actual figures of those killed in that particular incident remains unknown, and nobody has been able to say for certain the number of young men felled by the bullets of men of the armed forces for holding protests in Onitsha, Aba, Enugu or elsewhere in the Southeast.
In a November 2016 report, global human rights body, Amnesty International said the number of agitators killed between August 2015 when IPOB leader, Nnamdi Kanu was arrested and August 2016 were at least 150, but that it is “likely higher.” Ekene says the number people killed the very day was more than 200.
“It was a massacre,” he says. “I can say that at least 200 were killed. But because they would kill and take away the bodies, you can’t say for certain. There was blood all over the place. And as I later learned, they lined up dead bodies at Onitsha barracks. They also would go to hospitals were the injured had run to, take them away and kill them.”
Ekene whose parents are from Ikwo in Ebonyi State, was born in Onitsha and was riding ‘Okada’ until the Willie Obiano administration slammed a ban on ‘Okada’ operation in Onitsha, Awka and Nnewi. He now survives and feeds his family by doing sundry menial jobs.
“Biafra,” he tells me, “is the only hope. This country is useless and frustrating. Nothing is working, it’s just useless. We should have our own country; we will keep fighting until we get it.”
Like the case of Ekene, frustration with the state of affairs in the country is the key driving force of the pro-Biafra movement. There are millions who are graduates but have no jobs, the mass of young people who have lost hope in the country, and who fantasise about better days in Biafra and have since resolved to make it happen, at least Nnamdi Kanu who is mostly believed to possess prophetic powers, had declared that Biafra must come.
The Buhari government has only helped to strengthen this resolve, to heighten the feeling of injustice and make the Biafra quest even more popular with the heavy handedness of the security agencies and sundry actions of his government seen to be targeted at the Southeast and the Igbo in general.
On Sunday last week, a combined team of security agencies, for the umpteen time invaded venue of a meeting by the agitators at Emene, Enugu State and opened fire. When the dust had cleared 21 young men and two officials of the Department of State Services (DSS), lay dead.
It is a pattern that has continued. The aim, for the president and the security agencies under his command appear simple: to crush the spirit of Biafra rebellion and cower the restive youths by instilling fear through violence.
But it has continued to achieve the opposite. With each attack on protesters, a feeling of injustice is renewed, anger is fuelled, and frustration is heightened. The agitators are becoming more daring in their protests, and their sympathisers are growing.
“#EnuguMassacre: Whoever takes the life of an #IPOB member, takes the life of an IGBO and shall thus ultimately account to NDIGBO. It’s not a threat; it’s a fact. Everybody in Eastern Nigeria who disagrees with the fratricidal mess that has become Nigeria is an IPOB member,” wrote activist and lawyer, Aloy Ejimakor, @AloyEjimakor
“The Yoruba has, in moderation, said his. The Fulani has, in extremism, said his. Let me now, as an Igbo, say my own, and here it is: Whoever takes the life of an IPOB member is taking the life of an Igbo and therefore will ultimately account to Ndigbo. It’s not a threat; it’s a fact.”
Outrage over the continued killings has continued, fuelled in part by the fact that while the government is negotiating with bandits who are killing people in the Northwest, and releasing surrendering and captured Boko Haram members as repented terrorists, it only elects to rain live bullets on IPOB agitators who are by comparison, unarmed.
“Negotiate and dine with armed bandits in the North. Shoot South East youths for having a peaceful meeting. Please convince me that Buhari is truly President of ALL!” wrote activist Henry Shield Nwazuluahu, @henryshield
“The APC government can decide to invade a community or family meeting anywhere in the South East and spray live bullets on everyone in attendance. All they need to do is simply claim (without proof) that they are IPOB members. I say again, the South East is under attack!”
“For the Buhari regime, members of IPOB pose a greater threat than Boko Haram and ISWAP. Buhari & his surrogates have shown more hatred for IPOB than the murderous herdsmen and so-called bandits,” wrote rights lawyer and activist, Inibehe Effiong, @InibeheEffiong.
In the Southeast, there is uneasy calm.
Last week, this writer travelled to the zone to feel the pulse of the populace. It was a trip that revealed another source of anger. The journey from Lagos State to Onitsha, Anambra State was painful as it is frustrating, not because of bad roads, but because of the numerous road safety, customs, police, SARS and military checkpoints on the road, far more than what is obtained in the Northeast where there is Boko Haram insurgents and Northwest where bandits are making life unlivable for the populace. Here, there is a checkpoint on almost every pole, manned by fierce looking, heavily armed security agents who block off the entire stretch of the road leaving only a tiny portion where only one vehicle can pass through after being checked and sometimes, extorted. The result is long, frustrating hold ups. It is like a war zone.
But it’s not just the Lagos-Benin-Onitsha road. Across the Southeast and South South, police and military checkpoints – more of extortion points – are a torment part of what is increasingly fueling resentment.
“If you live in the Lagos/Abuja bubble, and merely fly between both cities, you won’t notice: The growing number of military/police checkpoints in certain parts of the country. Simmering anger at the checkpoints,” noted popular social media commentator, Onye Nkuzi @cchukudebelu on Tuesday.
“We’ve had several administrations in power, but none I can recall of, have been as determined as this one to mismanage Nigeria’s diversity. There’s no point talking nonsense about “economic revival” when the fundamental basis of nationhood is currently under assault.”
In a petition to president Muhammadu late last year, the President-General of Ohanaeze-Ndigbo, John Nnia Nwodo noted that there were at least 60 checkpoints from Lagos to Onitsha, and numerous in the Southeast and that the development was fuelling anger in the zone.
“Evidence available to us indicates an unusual number of military, paramilitary and police checkpoints in all routes leading into and within Igbo land. To be precise, our report presents the following gory picture: there are 60 (sixty) checkpoints between Lagos and Onitsha (a major route for Igbo traders) thus: Lagos to Ore = 24 checkpoints, Ore to Benin = 23 checkpoints, Benin to Onitsha =13 checkpoints. Just in Enugu State alone, the checkpoints are uncountable,” Nwodo had said.
“The interpretation of Igbos is that these checkpoints which in the main concern themselves with extorting money from numerous Igbos passing through them are mere toll gates. The nonchalant attitude of the Federal Government and heads of security agencies give the impression that the erection of these “toll gates” is deliberate, extortionist and intended to subdue the will of the people.
“In some instances, these security agents attend these “toll gates” with POS (Point of Sale) machines which they use to force travelers who have no cash but possess debit cards to forcibly transfer cash to their private accounts.
”It’s noteworthy that in all other routes leading out of Igbo land to other parts of Nigeria, checkpoints of the nature that characterize the routes into Igbo land are nowhere to be seen.
“Your Excellency, measures of this nature and the apparent indifference of the Federal Government continue to make our people feel discriminated against in our national polity. It is for this reason that I plead with you to use your good offices to bring to an end this discrimination, intimidation and extortionist practices of our security agents on all routes leading into and within Igbo land.
“We have continued on our part to appeal to our young men and women to restrain their anger and outrage in order to ensure that they do not resort to self-defence.”
In Onitsha, Enugu and elsewhere in the zone, the dominant topic is the Emene incident, and many who spoke to this writer sounded rather defiant.
The concern that the agitators may resort to carrying armed in self-defense has been further rekindled. Kanu, the IPOB leader whose word is law for several of his followers had declared in the aftermath of the killings that, “From today, anywhere the Nigeria Police, Army or DSS is involved in the killing of any unarmed civilian in Biafra-land, we will kill them too. That thing they’re looking for, they will get it.”
On Monday, a day after the Emene incident, hundreds of agitators trooped out in Aba and Onitsha in defiance protest. Two days later, they also trooped out in Enugu. The Biafra El dorado promised by Kanu is enticing, and the high handedness of the security agencies is strengthening resolve. It’s a combination that could cause an explosion of armed confrontation.
“The thing is that if they continue to suppress the agitators with force of arms, they may end up compelling them to start thinking of taking up arms. And it will not do anyone any good,” says Chief Abia Onyike, spokesperson for Alaigbo Development Foundation (ADF).
“The federal government should engage the agitators and other groups seeking self determination in dialogue to find out what they need. And as far as ADF is concerned, what we want is the reconstitution of the Nigerian federation into autonomous regions. The level of injustice inherent in this existing system is unacceptable.
“Brutal force cannot suppress some of these self determination movements. It requires a lot of dialogue, engagement to be able to achieve that. The government of Nigeria is being run on the basis of discrimination against certain ethnic nationalities.
“The agitation has been further fuelled by the Buhari government. Since the coming on board of the present government in 2015, it has become clear that it had a lot of policies tailored against the Igbo people. The Igbo were marked for discrimination and marginalisation. It then gave fresh impetus to the agitations, and that’s what IPOB is all about. If you don’t want to accommodate us in the Nigerian federation, then why not allow us to go our separate way?”
The army has meanwhile, alerted troops in the wake of the growing tension. The authorities at the 82 division in Enugu in a signal on Wednesday, placed troops on high alert following the incident at Emene.
The Army in the signal dispatched to different formations and unit commanders of the division asked troops to be at alert and avoid individual movement in uniforms outside the barracks.
The force warned troops to avoid losing their weapons to criminal elements, adding that commanders must sensitise their men to maintain high alert.
“Following the killing of two DSS personnel at Emene and subsequent attack on Keystone Station at Awgu LGA by suspected IPOB members in Enugu State, I am directed to place troops on a high state of alert,” the signal warned. sThis is necessary to avert any attack by IPOB members on troops location in the AOR (area of responsibility). Furthermore, on no account must troops allow their weapons to be taken away by criminal elements.
“Commanders at all levels must make deliberate efforts to sensitise troops under command to maintain alertness and avoid individual movement in uniforms outside the barracks for now. Please treat very important and act.”