Picture used for illustration only (not of event in Southeast)

By OBINNA EZUGWU

On Sunday, Ahmed Gulak, a chieftain of the All Progressives Congress (APC), became the first high profile victim of troubling escalation of insecurity in Nigeria’s Southeast.

A former aide to ex-President Goodluck Jonathan and one time self-declared national chairman of the Peoples Democratic Party, Gulak who was chairman of the APC committee that conducted a controversial primaries for Imo governorship election, was shot dead by gunmen while returning to Abuja from Owerri, Imo state capital.

“On the 30/5/2021, at about 07:20hrs, armed bandits intercepted and attacked a Toyota Camry cab carrying Ahmed Gulak and two others who were on their way to Sam Mbakwe Airport to catch a flight,” a statement from SP Bala Elkana, Imo Police Public Relations Officer on behalf of the state commissioner of policestatement said.

“Ahmed Gulak left his room at Protea Hotel without informing the Police nor sister agencies in view of the fragile security situation in the South East and Imo in particular. He left without any security escorts and while the cab driver took irregular route to the airport, six armed bandits who rode in a Toyota Sienna intercepted, identified and shot at Ahmed Gulak at around Umueze Obiangwu in Ngor-Okpala Local Government Area close to the Airport.

“The Commissioner of Police Imo CP Abutu Yaro, fdc has directed a discreet investigation into the matter as Tactical and Special forces have been deployed to cordone the area and arrest perpetrators.”

Gulak’s death is testament to the dangerous turn of events in the region. And has since taken ethnic and political colouration. The government in Imo has been keen on blaming political opponents. On Sunday evening, the police said they neutralized his assailants, and blamed his killing on the Indigenous Peoples of Biafra (IPOB). Meanwhile, the separatist group has denied involvement, arguing in a statement by its spokesman, Emma Powerful, that it had no reason to target the politician, as he was no threat to its quest for Biafra.

“We state without equivocations that IPOB knows nothing about the said assassination. In the first place, what threat did the late Gulak constitute to our cause to warrant his elimination? We had nothing in common with him and could not have in any way killed him,” Powerful said.

“Pointing accusing fingers at IPOB for this barbaric act is only meant to divert attention away from the real masterminds. This is the same way terrorists in security uniform commit various atrocities in South-East and turn around to blame IPOB for their crimes just to tarnish our global reputation.”

The latest round of incidents started on Friday evening, when an uneasy calm that had hitherto pervaded Owerri after days of tension, was once again broken by a rattle of gunshots that sent everyone at Naze Timber Market, popularly called Ogbosisi and the surrounding vicinity scampering for safety.

A team of policemen barged into a restaurant where two young men had gone to eat food, accused them of “being among” and after stabbing one severally with a knife, took them away, along with the restaurant owner’s 24-year-old son.

“I was in my shop, a run a restaurant at Ogbosisi. At about 5:30, all of a sudden, people started running,” the restaurant owner, a mother in her 50s, narrated to a local radio station, Ozisa FM, Owerri.

“I told my son who was assisting me in to shop to go and help me pound some palm fruits. He was at it when tension started. We looked outside and saw many policemen. They came in about eight Hilux vans. People were running. I told my son to go and continue what he was doing.

“After a while, two young men came into the shop and asked for food. I was about to get the food when the policemen came into the shop and shouted that we should lie down. We all lied down. Then they started beating the two boys. They told them that they were among, but the boys said they were not among. They removed one of the boys’ shirt and started stabbing him with a knife. The second boy who is Yoruba, started shouting that he is Yoruba.”

The raid had been prompted by the killing of two Air Force personnel attached to Air Force Regiment, Owerri by those the police identified as hoodlums.

“Two Nigeria Air Force personnel were killed at Naze Timber Market by hoodlums and that was why Police personnel are there to mop up arrest,” said the Imo State Commissioner of Police, Abutu Yaro.

Yero said the deceased officers had gone to a selling point around the area to buy food to eat, when they were shot dead.

Friday’s tension spiralled into the weekend, as security challenge continue to escalate across the Southeast -including the adjoining South South – once Nigeria’s most peaceful zone, but which has in recent months, become a tensed area. An undeclared war between a gang of gunmen suspected to be sympathetic to the IPOB, a separatist group agitating for separation from Nigeria, and security forces in the zone continues unabated.

“In Owerri this evening (Saturday evening) almost all the streets have been overrun by these police/ Army guys, No where is safe, but we are safe in Jesus name,” lamented Nwa Cellinus, @divergentscout a resident of the Imo capital, a once tranquil city that has become a crisis zone.

Elsewhere, on Saturday evening, some gunmen unleashed attacks on Nigeria Immigration Service Abia State head office located in the Ubakala axis of Enugu/Port Harcourt Expressway. The attack had come hours after the State Criminal Investigation Department in the state was razed by some shirtless gunmen.

Two civilians, young male tricycle driver and another young man were killed by stray bullets in the ensuing exchange. Civilians have been at the receiving end. Innocent bystanders have also been routinely shot by armed forces and many have been arrested and accused of being members of the killer gang, particularly in Imo, which has since become the epicenter of the crisis.

“We no longer sleep with two eyes closed,” Emeka Ugwu, a resident of Owerri told our correspondent on Saturday. “Everywhere there is tension.”

Orlu had been the hot spot. Confrontation between the gunmen who began attacking police stations in various states of the region earlier in the year, and security forces had led to destruction of life and property. But attention has since shifted to Owerri, the state capital, where the past few days have witnessed series of gun violence, either by cult groups or the killer squad and the security forces, as each camp continue to hunt down the other. Body counts are piling up, even as fear of the unknown pervade the atmosphere.

In Enugu on Sunday, a team of mobile police men arrested 57 aged men at church and accused them of belonging to IPOB. They were marched, hands in the air, staggering legs, in a single file like surrendering enemy soldiers in a war. And after hours of interrogation, were released because “no incriminating materials were found on them.”

The Anambra capital has continued to witness clashes between rival cult groups over control over parks, a violence that has led to the death of tens of people and further heightened the sense of insecurity a zone already witnessing a dangerous escalation of pro Biafra agitation. At the weekend, Anambra governor, Willie Obiano announced dusk to dawn ban on tricycle and mini buses in an effort to contain the crisis.

“Nobody knows where all these are leading to,” said a trader in Awka, Anambra State, Okwu Ozioko. “Daily we here gunshots. It’s just very worrisome.”

Fortnight ago, the Acting Inspector General of Police (IGP), Usman Baba declared war on the agitators and the gunmen and ordered their complete extermination without regard for conventional rules of engagement.

Dont 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. Dont wait for an order, he had said while addressing the Police Mobile Force and Special Tactical Squad of the Force in Enugu shortly after he launched, Operation Restore Peace, a special operation in response to the unfolding events.

What another 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, dont seat and wait for them to come; take attack to them and dont lose your arms to criminals.

The order soon attracted criticisms, especially because the IGP had not pronounced similar orders in the country’s North West and North Central where bandits mostly of Fulani extraction, have continued to wreak havoc, neither has he ordered shoot-at-sight in the North East, his own zone where more than a decade long insurgency has defied solution.

Heavy deployment of the military had also followed in the contagious zone of South East and South South where attacks have continued to happen, all of which have combined to heighten tension.

Last week, IPOB declared three-day mourning in honour of those killed during the Biafra war. Starting from Saturday, the mourning period is to culminate into a sit-at-home on Monday.

On Saturday, out of fear of the unknown, residents of the various states of the region started stockpiling foodstuff. Economic activities have continued to be disrupted. Transporters and food vendors particularly have been counting their loses.

Tension remains high. On Saturday, the gunmen attacked a military checkpoint in the Ihiala area of the state. Five officers were said to have been killed. In the aftermath, security operatives blocked the movement of vehicles at Onitsha Head Bridge, causing heavy gridlock which prevented vehicular movement in or out of the southern gateway.

The same Saturday, the gunmen razed the Atta Divisional Police Headquarters in the Njaba Local Government Area of Imo, before proceeding to the Atta Magistrate and High courts to set them ablaze. The same day, Izombe police division in Oguta Local Government Area of the state also came under attack. Attacks on police facilities have continued since the beginning of the year.

On Sunday, Alkana said the gallant officers of the Imo police command killed four bandits who attacked the Oguta station. But there no end in sight.

More recently, offices of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) have also been burnt in a development that observers say, now threatens the 2023 general election, more so, the Anambra State governorship election coming up in November this year.

Earlier on Thursday, soldiers killed five suspected members of the Eastern Security Network (ESN), the armed wing of IPOB, set up according to IPOB leader, Mazi Nnamdi Kanu, to pursue Fulani herdsmen carrying out attacks in the zone. The outfit which was launched by Kanu in December 2020, has since been fingered by the police in the ongoing attacks.

Announcing the development in statement on Friday, the Deputy Army Public Relations Officer, Lt. Colonel Charles Ekeocha, said 6 Division, in conjunction with Keystone, DSS and NSCDC led by Brigadier-General MD Danja conducted clearance/raid operations at suspected IPOB/ESN camp in Agbochia Forest along Pipelines Road Ogali/ Kom-Kom boundary between Eleme and Oyigbo local government areas of Rivers State.

During the clearance/raid Operations, the team came in contact with the IPOB/ESN members. However, during the firefight, 7 x IPOB/ESN members were neutralized and 5 x suspects were arrested.

Items recovered during the clearance/raid include: Communication gadgets, assorted cell phones, army uniforms arms and ammunition were also recovered.

Also recovered from the camp two AK 47 rifles, two G3 rifles, one locally made machine gun and one G3 magazine. Also recovered were include three rounds of 7.62mm special,10 rounds 7.62mm , 51mm NATO, one cutlass, five Baofeng handheld radios with chargers and 10 black berets.

But recent events, many say, are years in the making. When in 2012, IPOB leader, Kanu 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 countrys then president, Goodluck Jonathan.

But 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 Buharis 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. It is 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, which the security agencies had failed to tackle.

Speaking on Channels TV on Sunday, Abia State governor, Okezie Ikpeazu, suggested that the inability of security agencies to tackle the menace of herders who have formed terror gangs in the region, kidnapping residents, raping women and preventing farmers from going to farms, caused the separatist group to form ESN.

While condemning the formation as being against the law of Nigeria and therefore not acceptable, Ikpeazu emphasized that the separatist exploited a vacuum left by security agencies.

But recent events suggest the group is moving beyond forests. The chicken appears to have come home to roost. The zones streets have become danger zones for the countrys security agencies. Their places of abode have become targets of attack by elusive gunmen whose primary agenda seem to be accumulation of arms. Kanu, while denying the gunmen, has continued to insist that the confrontation between security agencies and ESN, was triggered by the former’s attack on the latter for fighting herders in the region.

Opinion leaders in the zone say the current situation was brought about by the government itself, especially the government of President Muhammadu Buhari who they said excessively militarized the area.

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.

The leader of IPOB, Kanu, while not linking the recent attacks to his group, argues 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. At the weekend, a group of Yoruba nation agitators, forcibly opened Idiroko Border, one of Nigeria’s borders with Benin Republic, which has been closed by the Buhari government since 2019 to contain smuggling. The agitators seized a rifle from a custom officer and shot into the air. Sunday Adeyemi, alias Sunday Igboho, who is leading the quest for Oduduwa Republic, commended the action of the agitators arguing that the Buhari government shut borders in the South, but left those in the North open.

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, Kanus 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.

 

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