Umahi, Ebonyi State Governor and Chairman, South-East Governors' Forum

From PETER OKORE, Umuahia

The mass movements of able-bodied youths from the far North to the Southern part of Nigeria in the night, for weeks now, have become worrisome to the citizenry and created fear of the unknown in the minds of many in respect of the peace and unity of this country. Most embarrassing is the fact that these movements take place at a time all states in the country are observing national lockdown and curfew.

Again, these mass movements are being allegedly sponsored by some northern leaders at this critical time of all inter-state borders closure to curtail the rate of spread of the dreaded corona-virus disease and in observance to COVID-19 protocols as directed by Mr President, Mohammadu Buhari. By this Presidential declaration, only trucks and vehicles conveying agricultural produce, pharmaceuticals and essential commodities should be allowed free passage at the borders.

But from what is happening at the borders in parts of the Southern Nigeria, these boys being transported from the North to the South, in long vehicles are people assumed to be Almajiris “going back to their states of origin”, in the opinion of the  Northern Governors Forum.  But pieces of evidence abound that these young boys are no true Almajiri’s, in the actual sense of it.

Sources say these boys are only used effectively by their elites during elections and National head-counts and nothing more. By culture and tradition, the Almajiri is alien to the Southern part of Nigeria. They have no place or meaning in the South. Therefore for the Northern governor’s forum to claim that the Almajiri are being moved to their states of origin in the South, has no basis or meaning, whatsoever.

They are no longer boys, but mature human beings, who should, as per their age-brackets of being 20 and above, and ought to be engaged in meaningful occupations and paying taxes to governments.  These are men who appear like soldiers: they look fit, trim and are often seen jumping down from the trucks and vehicles as trained people going for deployment or combat.

A University don, who contributed to this work, but refused that his name be mentioned in the report, remarked that over time, they have made suggestions at several discourses, that the Northerners should rise-up and deal with the Almajiri issue and make sure that children from the North are sent to modern educational institutions for learning, because we are in modern times. He regretted that because of the apparent advantage the elites in the North enjoy from having these people remain the way they are, they didn’t mind, until this pandemic broke out.

Now these neglected boys, in their horrible conditions, pose serious threats to their lives. Because of this danger they now constitute, the Northern governors want to send them back to their states of origin.

”We can’t continue to have children thrown into the streets to beg for food. And then, you continue to use them to do all manner of things. We hear Northern governors want to do something about the Almajiri. We cherish this move. But let these Northern governors solve this problem of Almajiri once and for all, using this opportunity. We hope they will not allow them back to the streets anymore when the pandemic ends. If they allow them back, it means that these elites are wicked and evil”.

There are various opinions regarding the nature and motives of these people. Some insinuate that these Northern young migrants are trained soldiers or terrorists displaced from North-east fleeing from combat, who are now heading for the South for re-deployment. Others allege that these boys are moving for another planned Jihad after that of Usman Dan Fodio in 1804 which did not get to the south.

Still, other commentators call them escapee Boko Haram soldiers moving South-ward to spark-off another mayhem similar to that of the North-East of Nigeria. By implications, the Almajiri, as these migrant young boys are mistakenly called, have no business coming to the South.

Again, the proponents further argue that even though the 1999 Nigerian Constitution, (as amended) allows for freedom of movements, such mass movements ought not to be at night and at a critical time of national emergency. It was reported that security agents deployed at the borders compromised and allowed free passage of these vehicles carrying illegal migrants, creating suspicion of the motive and raising fear of danger that looms in this country.

Such ill-motivated collaborative deals amount to absolute disobedience to the orders of the Nigerian Head of State, President Mohammadu Buhari, who is also the  Commander-In-Chief of the Armed Forces of the Federal Republic of Nigeria(C-In-C). Of course, the military have also noticed these  illegal movements of young boys from the far North to the South-East at this  time of national emergency (COVID-19 pandemic) and have  raised an alarm. The Defence Headquarters, DHQ,  rightly describes these young boys as armed bandits.

 Confirming the dangerous situation the migration of these youths coming to the South-East geo-political zone and the nation at large, the Co-ordinator of Defence  Media operations, DHQ,  Maj-gen John Enenche, was quoted to have raised the alarm in a media chat in Abuja, and explained that there has been an outcry over the mass movement of suspicious persons from a certain part of the country to the South, particularly, the South-East, despite the ban on inter-state travels.

 “There are also some fears in the North-West and North-central parts of the country that armed bandits could be escaping from states where the armed forces of Nigeria and other security agencies are presently conducting various operations, to other states. It is suspected that the violators of the inter-state movement ban could be on sinister mission”.  He, however, gave them hope that the armed forces have put pro-active measures in place to handle the situation. This hope is yet to be seen anywhere in the zone, especially in Abia State.

This probably, explains the insinuation that these migrants “have some sinister motives, or backings by some Northern elites,“ and that they know their destinations and purpose.  Those who hold these views, further query that, otherwise, why should these boys travel from the far  North in the night, without any personal effects or being intercepted by the security agencies at check-points along the whole stretch of roads, until they got to Eastern border-points, like in Abia State.

 Eye-witnesses say that it is at these border-points that local vigilante groups force them to turn back to where they were coming from. Sources say that some of them rather than go back to the North, find their ways into bushes in Abia. Now various communities are sending signals that strangers should steer clear of their respective bushes and forests within some specific time.

At present, the local vigilante groups are having running battles with these bandits and trucks conveying them at the various border entry-points into the South-East. The hottest points are the Lokpanta, Isuikwuato, Ikwuano, Enugu, Onuimo, Afikpo, Akwa-Ibom/Abia border, Enugu/Port Harcourt and other major and minor border entry-points manned by combined local vigilante groups.

 Worried over the security lapses at border –points, the Abia state commissioner for Information, Chief John Okiyi-Kalu lamented thus: “We thank God that we are using what we have to get what we want.” Kalu spoke at the Ikwuano entry-point where a local vigilante group working with Homeland Security services at night intercepted and detained some of these bandits hidden amidst bags of rice in long Dangote trucks.

 For several weeks, the story had been same at these borders, with the security operatives having it hot with long queues of trucks and vehicles supposedly conveying hundreds of bandits into Abia state, in place of  Dangote goods from the North.  Funny enough, these vehicles are usually camouflaged with tarpaulin as if they are carrying goods. Other trucks and vehicles caught and detained carried goats on top of cages, while these migrants were hidden beneath.  Yet the drivers lied to security agents all along the routes, that they were only carrying goats, cement or rice only from the North.

The above experiences notwithstanding, there were other gimmicks adopted and later discovered by the eagle-eyed local vigilante groups that these trucks were carrying hundreds of human beings instead of  Dangote Cement or bags of rice to South-east states.

 Worried by this state of uncertainty, the South-East Governors Forum met at Enugu, Enugu state and Abakaliki in Ebonyi state, respectively and resolved to adopt what is described as “harmonized community policing strategy” in handling the security situation in the South-East, which has not yielded much till date.

  Their last meeting on this security challenge was attended by stakeholders from the geo-political zone including the host  Enugu State Governor, Ifeanyi Ugwuanyi, chairman of South-East Governors Forum and Ebonyi State, Governor, Engr. Umahi, their Imo State counterpart, Hope Uzodinma, Deputy governors of Abia and Anambra, Chief Ude Okochukwu, and  Dr Nkem Okeke, who stood in for their governors. Also present were President-General of the apex Igbo socio-cultural body, Ohaneze Ndigbo, Chief Nnia Nwodo; chairmen of traditional rulers council in the five states of the zone, representative of Christian Association of Nigeria, CAN, in the zone; South-East Traditional rulers and Captains of industry from the South East Zone as well as the Inspector-general of Police.

In the Communiqué issued at the end of the meeting, the stakeholders charged various State  Houses of Assembly in the South-East to enact a common security law in-line with the  security needs of the geo-political zone.  By ranking, if these Bills sail through at the various state Houses of Assembly, the formation will be likened to the  Amotekun security out-fit already in process in the Western  States of Nigeria.

The Governors forum, however, directed all Igbo living inside and outside Igbo- land to obey all extant Covid-19 orders such as Presidential directives on interstate movement, WHO, hygiene protocols, Presidential Taskforce and directives of South East Governor’s as well as directives of all Governors where they live and to further engage the NCDC to scale up testing of Coronavirus in the South East.

  Following the foregoing, the Abia State Inter-Ministerial Committee on COVID-19 held a crucial  meeting at the Banquet Hall of Government House Umuahia Chaired by Governor Okezie Ikpeazu (just before he fell  sick), and resolved to ensure stricter enforcement of inter-state border closure by calling on all local government chairmen, traditional rulers and Local vigilante groups to lead in monitoring the security of inter-state borders around their areas.

The State threatened to close all livestock markets  in Abia if any further report is received on human cargoes stowed away in vehicles transporting cattle and/or food items to the state. It  further warned all operators of commercial vehicles used for inter-state transport to halt operations or risk impoundment of their vehicles, closure of relevant parks without further warning and prosecution of the drivers.

 Not only that, the  Abia state government further met with the leadership of northern communities  resident in the state and implored them to strongly advise their members against inviting or receiving their kinsmen from other parts of the country into the state until the ongoing war against COVID-19 is won.

 In his contribution, the Secretary to the State Government (SSG) and Chairman of the State Inter-Ministerial Committee on COVID-19, Barr Chris Ezem, made it clear that by the Northerners allowing their kinsmen to sneak into Abia state now that inter-state borders are closed on the orders of the Federal Government, it would likely lead to endangering and exposing not only their lives, but also that of others to the deadly virus.

“We are worried that despite repeated warnings we continue to receive reports of northern youths stowed away in cattle and Dangote cement trucks bound for our state and other neighbouring  states. That is unacceptable to us and must stop forthwith. We strongly view these acts as sabotage against the war on COVID-19. If things don’t change, quickly too, we will ban trucks from  bringing cows into our state.

“There are also reports that your members are not abiding by our COVID-19 regulations on compulsory wearing of face masks, social distancing, provision of materials for hand washing as well as directives on operation time for markets in the state. That must stop now or we will take drastic measures, within the law, to protect all citizens and residents of the state”.

Responding, the Sarkin Hausawa of the State, Alhaji Yaro Danladi, and Chief Imam of Aba, Alhaji Idris Bashir, respectively, expressed appreciation to Governor  Ikpeazu, for his focused efforts to protect the state from COVID-19. They promised to take necessary measures to stem the tide of migration from the north into Abia state during this period as well as ensure that members of their communities in the state abide by all the guidelines issued by the COVID-19 committee.

Speaking in an interview, the Traditional ruler of Uzi-Amizi autonomous community Olokoro in  Umuahia-South L.G.A, of Abia State,  Eze Cyril Ogbenna passionately appealed to the three of government in the country not to create a vent or encourage issues that might lead to another war or civil unrest in Nigeria.

Eze Ogbenna, who was a former PRO in the Abia Traditional rulers council, opined that smuggling of the so-called Almajaris to the Southern part of the country by Dangote trucks undermines the unity and peaceful co-existence of Nigerians. He, however, called for the adoption of a serious surveillance system to checkmate the perceived unimpressive activities of the truck drivers and their mentors.

Eze Ogbonna said, “They (these boys from north look like terrorist because I know the size and age bracket of Almajaris, having lived in the North, precisely in Zaria, Kaduna State. From the way they were jumping down from one of the intercepted vehicles, you will notice that they are able-bodied young men and well trained for actions yet unknown.

If this continued, our states might not be safe. In Abia State, Umuobia-Olokoro in particular, Dangote has a warehouse which is very close to the seat of power; no-one else enters there to know what is going on there. Anything can happen in that warehouse. I am suggesting that our trusted and reliable security personnel to always have a peep at the warehouse to know what is stored there. It is for our safety. I have heard that the so-called Almajaris jumped down from one of the intercepted trucks and ran into the bush here for some ulterior motives. As illegal migrants, they could be at the mercy of local hunters.

“Nobody is praying for trouble to besiege our dear nation. I fought the Nigeria-Biafra war and I know that the bush is always dangerous for the enemy. It is high time for Alhaji Aliko Dangote, founder and Chairman of Dangote Group to publicly clear his name from the fears and allegations that he is financing and sponsoring the smuggling of these so-called Almajiris”.

 In his own contribution, the traditional ruler of Oriendu autonomous community, Umuahia -North L.G.A, of Abia State, Eze Philip Ajomiwe disclosed that the local vigilante of his community  has intercepted numbers of hearse trying to enter the state through their land border.

Eze Ajomiwe who shares a border with White-uboma in Imo state narrated that it has been a battle since the state government banned inter-state vehicular movement. He asserted that many vehicles now avoid the major Onuimo expressway and try to sneak into Abia state through the Ihite-uboma-Oriendu autonomous community route.

His words:”A lot of vehicles want to pass through my community from Imo State. It has been a battle. The local vigilante here working with security operatives are working round the clock to ensure that the directives of the government on land borders closure is strictly adhered to.

 “Through their surveillance and dedication to duty, we have impounded fifteen vehicles that defied government directives and handed same over to COVID-19 land borders taskforce. Last week we intercepted two hearses that wanted to sneak into the state from Lagos State without legitimate clearance letter”.

 On his own, the President of a private –owned Radio station, Vision Africa International, Bishop Sunday Onuoha has hosted the Muslim community in Abia State, under the auspices of this year’s  Eid-el-Fitr celebration to drum home the need for peaceful co-existence and unity in Nigeria. He expressed worries over the present plights of the Almajiris and alleged maltreatment meted to them; insisting that pushing them to other states is not a better option.

 Bishop Onuoha, who is also the Co-Chair Interfaith Dialogue Forum for Peace pointed out that the nation will not thrive and get to its promised land unless Nigeria abolishes state of origin. He hinted that “state of origin” does not exist in the United States of America, decried that many leaders attached the issue of religion to matter of public interest, which according to him caused brawls, fights, hatred among Nigerians.

 He, therefore, advocated that idea of “my state of origin” should be abolished to enable Nigeria to reach its land of El-dorado

Responding, the Chief Imam of Muslims in Abia state Sheik Aliyu Ukaiwo, the Jewish leader, Arabia Shimo Kefa, Hajia Yusuf Aishatu Abubakar appreciated Bishop Onuoha for bringing every religion under one umbrella, adding that it will further expand bonding.

Respectively, they pointed out that peace is the secret of success, lauding Bishop Onuoha on his move to ensure a peaceful Nigeria and unruffled global village. The Muslim leaders called for religious tolerance and the need to live at peace with one another.