George Obiozor
Caricature image of Obiozor, Ohanaeze president

By OBINNA EZUGWU

The security situation in Nigeria’s Southeast, hitherto regarded as the most peaceful zone in a country increasingly beleaguered by terrorists and sundry bandits, has taken a dramatic turn for the worse, as a combination of evidently arming Pro Biafra agitators, bandits identified as Fulani herdsmen, and other non state actors, have given rise to a general atmosphere of insecurity. And observers say it could get worse, if not handled well and urgently.

In what is the latest of series of attacks on police facilities in the zone, gunmen in the early hours of Monday attacked Zone 13 Nigeria Police Headquarters at Ukpo, Dunukofia Local government, near Awka in Anambra State.

The gunmen struck around 4 am and wounded two policemen identified as Inspector Ishaku Aura and Uzoma Uwaebuka, but were ultimately repelled by the police who demonstrated superior fire power.

Same Monday, gunmen attacked another police station in Ezeakoli, Abia State, burning vehicles and freeing two inmates, in what some say is evidence of pro-Biafra agitation taking a different turn, even as speculations of plots to destabilize the zone have become rife.

The recent events are years in the making. When in 2012, leader of the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB), launched a pirate radio station, Radio Biafra, through which he propagated his Biafra gospel, he appealed mostly to a small group of disillusioned youths in the zone, and was mostly ignored by the country mainstream media, as well as the country’s then president, Goodluck Jonathan.

But Nnamdi Kanu soon came into the mainstream of political discourse, and achieved prominence in the country and beyond, following his arrest and detention by the then new government of President Muhammadu Buhari on October 14, 2015.

His continued detention despite court orders for his release, coupled with the continued extrajudicial killing of his supporters by the military, the police and other security agents, for holding protests in various states of the Southeast, ensured that he won more sympathy, more following, even as his reputation as political prisoner grew.

By the time he was released on bail two years later in 2017, he had achieved the status of a hero, and his following grew even stronger. Following his release, thousands trooped to his Afaraukwu, Umuahia, Abia State home almost on daily basis, to catch a glimpse of their new hero; the one who had promised them an independent Biafra nation, and had in their reckoning done enough to suggest he was no ordinary person.

In response, the Buhari government declared a military operation in September 2017, tagged Operation Python Dance 11; an operation that led to the killing of tens of people in Aba, Umuahia and elsewhere, in attacks by the security agencies. Kanu whose Afaraukwu home was the centre of the attacks, fled home and remained under ground until a year later in October 2018, when he resurfaced in Israel.

Killings of his supporters during protests in the streets and at their meeting venues continued even afterwards. But as opposed to dissuading them from their agitation, they remained more resolute, even as Buhari’s perceived marginalisation and militarization of the zone only helped to win more coverts for the Biafran course.

The agitators have evidently opted to bear arms, and have set their eyes on security agencies, with attacks on them becoming more frequent, what observers say the president’s actions, are directly responsible for; what could well be another big security headache for an armed forces already stretched to its near elastic limits.

In early January, the IPOB, through one of its facebook pages, Biafra Mirror, released a video showing more than a thousand young men being trained in an unknown forest. They were, the “5th battalion volunteer force” of the Eastern Security Network (ESN), a non state security outfit formally launched by Kanu on December 12, 2020.

The authenticity of the video could not be ascertained by BusinessHallmark. The IPOB is known to rely sometimes on propaganda. But what cannot be denied is that the ESN, whose recruitment and training began months before the official launch in December last year, according to several sources, now has a substantial number of men parading forests and bushes in the zone ostensibly in search of suspected Fulani herdsmen accused of carrying out attacks on communities and sundry criminal activities in the zone.

But recent events suggest the group is moving beyond forests. The chicken appears to have come home to roost. The zone’s streets have become danger zones for the country’s security agencies. Their places of abode have become targets of attack by elusive gunmen – suspected to be IPOB members – whose primary agenda seem to be accumulation of arms.

“The Nigerian state at the federal level has failed in its duty to provide necessary environment that will be conducive for security and peace in the South East,” said constitutional lawyer and chieftain of the All Progressive Grand Alliance (APGA), Bob Okey Okoroji.

“If you notice, the conduct of uniformed security agencies, the Army and the Police and other agencies deployed to the South East is nothing to write home about. They harass, they extort, they obstruct movements of people; they kill and generally make the lives of the people miserable.

“They act like armies of occupation. And the people have endured this operation for decades. The fact is that it started after the civil war, but it got worse under the Buhari government.”

Okoroji suggested that the unfolding events could be a direct response to the state of affairs, arguing that, “there is a limit beyond which people cannot handle endurance which has an elastic limit.”

Things appear to be coming to a head. The agitators, it would seem, have decided to take up arms in response, and the country’s Southeast appears set for a prolonged security upheaval.

The leader of IPOB, Kanu, while not linking the recent attacks to his group, equally argued that the so called unknown gunmen are those who are responding to what he called, “unspeakable evil” of the army and the police in the region.

“The unspeakable evil of the Nigerian Army and the Nigerian Police created this monster that is now consuming them,” he said. “The ‘see no evil, hear no evil’ brigade, are accomplices.”

Analysts say Buhari could have avoided what is now shaping up to be a gradual implosion of the country, with growing number of people in the Southwest and other parts of the country, also demanding to pull out of the Nigerian state.

“It is a very sad development. I condemn it and I feel bad about it,” said Chief Anselm Njoku, leader of the Southeast APC forum in Lagos. “Having said this, I believe that the Buhari government could have avoided the situation by giving the Southeast a sense of belonging. That way, Kanu’s message would not resonate.”

Njoku warned that even as things have gotten to this point, the solution remained constructive dialogue, as according to him, deploying force as has been the case, would only escalate the situation. The government should approach the issue with wisdom and use the carrot and stick approach,” he said.

Okoroji also made similar argument, insisting that the situation does not call for more deployment of troops to suppress the populace, as doing so will only help to escalate the situation.

“But regarding the security challenges that we are now having in the Southeast, I hope that the government would realise that it is not a case of for deploying the troops,” he said.

“Whoever are the handlers of the so-called presidency should apply more international standards in dealing with security challenge of this nature; otherwise the consequence will be grievous and unmanageable for the country generally and for that region in particular.

“There is no place on earth where you deployed troops to address social unrest. That is the job of the police. But, of course, the police have been downgraded and it aided its own downgrade by its corruptive practices. That is what resulted in the #EndSARS protest, which caused many to have deficit of confidence.

“Having said this we have heard reports about Fulani herdsmen invading the forests of Eastern Nigeria and Southern Nigeria generally where people have been driven out of their farms just as it has been happening in the Middle Belt.”

Okoroji also argued that the invasion of the zone by Fulani herders from different parts of the continent was partly responsible for the response being witnessed.

“The invasion of these so-called herdsmen, whose illegal entry into the country has been facilitated by the Nigerian government, is a major source of the security issues in the South East,” he said.

“There has been speculations as to who is behind the attacks, what we now call unknown gunmen. I am not in a position to make any informed statement in that regard, because I don’t have sufficient intelligence. But I believe it is all part of the people’s response to the security challenges.

“People are taking their destiny into their own hands. The Army and the Police whose duty it is to provide security and protect in territorial integrity of Nigeria have not done their job and I think it is this failure that has brought us to this point.”

Indeed, the gunmen, since baptised Unknown Gun Men (UGM) are only one part of a security challenge fast reaching very worrying proportions. Recent attacks on communities in Ebonyi and Enugu states by assassins identified as Fulani herdsmen, point to the multi faceted nature of the emerging challenge, even as some stakeholders have suggested that there might be a kind of sabotage in the whole affair.

In early April, what had been weeks of the gunmen launching attacks on police posts and carting away arms, reached a crescendo when in the early hours of Easter Monday, gunmen stormed the Owerri facility of the Nigerian Correctional Service (NCS) and the adjoining police formations, set the facilities on fire and freed 1,844 inmates, 35 of who refused to escape, and about 80 later returned.

And the following day, while the police, the Imo government and people of the state were still struggling to come to terms with the attack, the gunmen stormed another police station, the Ehime Mbano Local Government Area Divisional Police Headquarters in the state, set it on fire and freed inmates.

Not done yet, the gunmen at about 1am on Thursday attacked the Mbieri Divisional Police Headquarters situated in the Mbaitoli Local Government Area of the state, releasing suspects in custody.

In Imo particularly, there had been series of confrontations between the military, the police and the gunmen suspected to be members of the Eastern Security Network (ESN), the newly formed Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) in the Orlu area of the state which had led to destruction of lives and livelihoods and the heavy deployment of military personnel in the area.

Following Monday’s attack, former Inspector General of Police, Adamu Mohammed who still had his job at the time, fingered the IPOB and its (ESN). Addressing police officers after inspecting the damage from the attack, the then IGP said there is “no hiding place” for the IPOB members.

President Muhammadu Buhari, on his part, in a statement issued by his spokesperson, Mallam Garba Shehu, described the attack as a “deadly insurgent attack” and “an act of terrorism.”

But IPOB in a statement by its spokesman, Emma Powerful, denied any involvement in the attacks. “IPOB and ESN are known group not unknown gunmen. ESN is in the bush chasing Fulani terrorists, why linking IPOB and ESN to this attack. IPOB and ESN were not involved in the attack in Owerri Imo State and the recent attack on Onitsha-Owerri road at Ukwuorji junction,” Powerful said in the statement the following on Tuesday.

As if to lend credence to IPOB’s position, the Imo State governor, Senator Hope Uzodinma, while appearing on Channels TV Politics Today on Wednesday, alleged that the attackers were imported into the state from outside by those who want to destablise his administration.

The attacks are increasingly generating controversies, even as apprehension is growing in the Southeast, not helped by the activities of suspected Fulani herdsmen in the zone.

Two weeks ago, on Monday, March 29, suspected herders attacked four communities of Egedege, Umuhuali, Obegu and Amezu in Ishielu Local Government Area of Ebonyi State, killing at least 20 people and abducting some women.

Last week, the herders who are said to have laid siege on Igga community in Nsukka area of Enugu State, reportedly killed a farmer leading to tension in the area. There have also been reported attacks on Northerners, particularly in Imo.

Fortnight ago, seven traders of Northern extraction were said to have been killed in Orlu town and Umuaka in Njaba Local Government Area of Imo, which had prompted the police to guard Northern settlements.

Last week, the governors of the zone – some of whom have remained keen on blaming political opponents for the emerging insecurity – after a meeting with zonal heads of security agencies and the leadership of Ohanaeze Ndigbo, announced launch of a zonal security outfit, Ebube Agu

In a statement via Mr. Powerful, the IPOB dismissed Ebube Agu as an outfit set up fulfill all righteousness, or to spy on its own security network, the ESN to curry favour from “their Fulani slave masters.”

For that reason, Powerful said, youths from the South-East must shun it, adding that “anyone who neglects this warning and thinks he can hide under the cloak of Ebubeagu to spy on ESN should be prepared to join his ancestors.”

The group has, however, kept sealed lips on the identity of the unknown gunmen, but Kanu continued to tweet messages that tend to support their actions, even as they remain popular among supporters of IPOB in the zone.

In the interim, the uneasy calm in the zone has been disrupted by latest attack in Anambra, as police officers continue to remain targets of attacks. On Wednesday last week, the unknown gunmen killed three police officers who were on stop and search duty along Ogoja/Abakaliki Expressway in Izzi Local Government Area of the state.

The same Wednesday, Kanu, IPOB leader alleged that the DSS was planning to start attacking banks to blame the attacks on IPOB. Subsequently, the security agency gave intelligence report to the effect that the separatist group was planning to attack banks in the southeast, with a view to raising money to buy arms.

Indeed, on Thursday, gunmen attacked a branch of an old generation bank in Abagana, Dunukofia LGA, Anambra State, shooting sporadically into the air, dispersing bank customers and passersby.

The gunmen, numbering about 10, in a black Honda Pilot Sports Utility Vehicle (SUV) were said to have shot in all directions, causing panic, while also hoisting Biafra Flags at the bank’s gate when all had fled. But instructively, didn’t attempt to steal money from the bank.

After the attack, Mr. Powerful issued a statement alleging that the “DSS is propelling this wicked propaganda to blackmail Eastern Security Network and IPOB, and dent our global reputation.”

Powerful insists that “IPOB and ESN are not criminals and have no plans or agenda to touch any institution, particularly banks. We are not looking for money to buy arms because we produce our arms locally and cannot attack or kidnap anybody for ransom.

“We don’t inflict pains on the people we are fighting for their freedom. DSS must stop this rubbish and engage their time on something more meaningful. This poor script cannot fly. ESN has never left its mandate which is to defend Biafra land against Fulani terrorists and killer herdsmen.

“All banks in Biafra-land must be wary of the DSS because it is possible they are planning to sponsor attacks on banks and turn around as usual to blame it on IPOB and ESN.”

With the emerging trend, speculations that there might be some kind of underhand plot to destabilize the Southeast have become rife.

Chief Abia Onyike, spokesperson for Alaigbo Development Foundation, argued that the attacks were being carried out by hired mercenaries, whose main objective, according to him, is to create tension in the zone and therefore have an excuse to carry out military invasion.

“I believe that what is going on in the Southeast is the hand work of hired mercenaries. I feel that they are just trying to use them to create tension in the zone with a view to having an excuse the overrun the region and possibly use a military to attack the region. That is the way I look at it,” Onyike said.

“Because after all, the region had been peaceful all along and I see no reason why people from the South East themselves will be the ones that would organise such senseless attacks on police formations in the zone. I don’t believe that IPOB can do that. I don’t believe that ESN can do that.

“So the question is; which group is behind the attacks? That is what the Nigerian security agencies should try to find out. It would be wrong for them to and start invading communities. After all, they have not been doing anything about the murderous activities of the Fulani herdsmen.

“No matter the number of people they murder all over Nigeria, the herdsmen have never been prosecuted. And the Attorney General of the federation is not worried about the blood-letting occasioned by the herdsmen who are armed with AK-47. That is what the Federal government should be dealing with right now.”