Residents of Orsu Ihiteukwa Community in Imo State, Southeast Nigeria, say they have been subjected to untold trauma due to sustained military operations in the town and their neighbouring communities on the boundary with Anambra State.
The Nigeria military has laid siege on Orlu and Orsu areas of Imo State following a violent clash between them and suspected members of Eastern Security Network (ESN), a vigilante group formed by the Nnamdi Kanu-led outlawed separatist Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) in January.
Kanu has maintained in his online broadcasts that ESN activities are centred on bushes where herdsmen destroy farms, kill and rape women, but the state government accuses the group of unleashing terror on innocent civilians.
The IPOB leader said ESN was formed due to the security agencies’ failure to protect farms and farmers from marauding herdsmen.
During the clash between ESN members and the military in the Orlu area, an unknown number of lives were lost and properties destroyed. As a result, the state government imposed a curfew on nine local government areas affected by the crisis.
Although the curfew has been lifted, soldiers have occupied the area. They have mounted checkpoints on the Orlu-Ihiala road, Orlu-Owerri road, Orlu-Akokwa road, and some hinterland parts.
HumAngle learnt that the military, which stationed Armoured Personnel Carriers and truckloads of combat-ready soldiers, are said to be looking for ESN members and their camps.
Earlier in the week, the Nigerian Air Force carried out aerial surveillance of the area using helicopter gunships.
Chima Okoye, a resident of Orsu, told HumAngle that the military operation had upset the area’s peace and caused panic among the local population.
Okoye said the operation was concentrated in Orsu-Ihiteukwa and Lilu community in Anambra State, but people in other nearby communities, such as Awo-Idemili, Eziawa, Umuhu-Okabia, Ihitenansa, Asa-Ubirielem, Amaruru, Orsumoghu and Iseke, were living in fear.
He said innocent young men carrying out their lawful businesses were being harassed and intimidated by soldiers.
Okoye said his community was peaceful and law-abiding and wondered why such a military might should be visited on the people.
“It has been hell in Orsu Local Government Area. Soldiers come here to terrorise our people unnecessarily, whereas there is no firm security threat, no kidnapping of school children, no terror attack, and nobody cried to them for any help.”
“We are peace-loving people. There is no war in Orlu or Orsu, but why should the army display this unwarranted onslaught on us?”
“Our children cannot go to school, we cannot go to our farm or church because we are not sure of our safety, the military helicopters are just flying over our roofs,” Okoye said.
Another resident, Mrs Jane Nnodu, also said the people had been living in fear.
She wondered what crime they committed and called on Governor Hope Uzodimma of Imo State to prevail on the soldiers to withdraw from the streets and allow the people to live in peace.
Nnodu said the people were traumatised and depressed by the military presence.
“We are not at war with anybody, we don’t need this tension they are putting us through,“ she said.
Another resident, who pleaded anonymity, said the military should direct energy to places where it was needed and leave the people alone.
The resident alleged that the origin of the clash between ESN and the army was the former’s refusal to allow herdsmen gain access to a forest the state government donated to them in Umutanze and Okporo communities in the area.
The resident alleged that the military onslaught was meant to dislodge ESN members so that the herdsmen could go into the bush and occupy it.
“It is sad that this operation is taking place while the government is looking the other way.
“There is no security threat in Orlu and Orsu. The army is supposed to protect us and not to invade and occupy our space,” the resident said.
Nigeria Bar Association condemns military action
Meanwhile, the Nigeria Bar Association (NBA), Orlu branch, has described military activities in the area as a brutal violation of the people’s rights to peace and collective existence.
Mr Chinedu Agbordike, the Chairman of NBA, Orlu branch, urged the government to halt the operations and withdraw as there was no war or distress in the area.
Agbordike said he was yet to see the record of success or arrest of ESN members since the army occupied Orlu for about a month.
He said the people’s economic activities had been retarded due to the restriction of movement.
He said a fish pond and property belonging to a farmer in Lilu had been destroyed in the process.
Agbordike said tracking and neutralising ESN required intelligence gathering to minimise physical and psychological attack on civilians instead of through violent operations.
“The military is deliberately fueling lawlessness. They have decided to terrorise and traumatise peace-loving people in the guise of looking for few ESN members who are not in markets or homes.”
“The NBA Orlu condemns this act of intimidation, humiliation and flagrant abuse of people’s right to decent life and livelihood by the army who have occupied Orlu since Jan. 25.”
“Though the curfew has been lifted, the people of Orlu and now Orsu have not known peace, the streets are blocked by the military at almost every (short) distance.”
“Orsu is a budding economy, but it is being destroyed, people cannot go to church, they can’t go to market, children can’t go to school.”
“The last time we checked, there was no war in Orlu, no war in Orsu, there is no need for military occupation in the area.”
“We call on the military to stop the needless attack on Orlu/Orsu people and withdraw the operations immediately and apply more intelligence gathering in tracking whosoever they are looking for,” he said.
Agbordike also called on the Imo state government to take visible steps towards protecting the lives of the people.
We Invited the Military Operation – Imo State Government
The Imo State Government says it invited the military to quell possible attacks on the people by ESN.
In a broadcast, Mr Cyprian Akolisa, the state Attorney-General and Commissioner for Justice, said that ESN members occupied a forest in Umutanze and had become violent since they were sacked from their camp.
Akolisa accused the ESN of killing policemen and innocent civilians, adding that allegations that ‘innocent people were being killed by the military’ were aimed at shifting attention from the truth.
The commissioner said intelligence reports revealed that IPOB planned to attack Orlu people and the government under the pretext of looking for Fulani herdsmen.
“So, we asked ourselves, what is the colouration that IPOB is trying to give this onslaught in Orlu?”
“That was why our government decided to invite the military to flush out IPOB and their so-called ESN.”
“We discovered that there was a camp which IPOB established at Umutanze, Orlu, and we sent police to dislodge them; it happened that they attacked the policemen and killed two of them.”
“It was after they killed those policemen that the government had to bring in the military.”
“It was not easy for the military to push them out of that place, but the military succeeded.”
“That was why they came on a reprisal attack and killed the innocent ones,” Akolisa said.
He added: “They also relocated to Udah in Orsu LGA, a camp at a boundary between Imo and Anambra states. The place is a very depressed groove that no one can easily enter.”
“For the past two weeks, surveillance was monitoring that place, and there were more than 200 people being trained in that camp.”
“The military had to deploy their arsenal to diminish the IPOB people there. We can’t fold our arms for these boys to continue to kill people every day.”