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Why Deepening Tension, Aggravating Insecurity May Trigger Insurgency In South-East Nigeria

With members of the outlawed separatist group, Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) facing state repression and threatening to fight back, a new insurgency battleground may be in the making.

Tension on the rise

It is difficult to miss the signs. Ominous signals continue to dog the path of peace in communities across the Southeast states of Nigeria. A strange mix of events is tugging violently at the fabrics of peace across the zone. And the elements at play appear determined to unravel an already fragile situation. It is akin to putting life flame on dry gunpowder.

There is ample evidence that the overstretched tension in the relationship between security agencies and the Indigenous Peoples of Biafra, (IPOB), a group clamouring for an independent state of Biafra out of Nigeria, is already boiling over. There are fears that sooner or later, something could give.

IPOB publicly claims that its strategy of achieving self-determination is through a referendum and periodically calls out its members for symbolic marches across cities.

Nnamdi Kanu, the leader of an estimated one million member IPOB, mobilises his devoted followers by alleging and reinforcing a narrative that presents the Nigerian state as a harbinger of unbearable cruelty through official policies to the Igbo people that make up his Biafra. His message is simple: demonise the Nigerian state and paint a glorious picture of hope tied to actualization of Biafra.

Routinely fed with their leader’s inflammatory messages, IPOB members already see themselves as an estranged social and cultural group on their way out of a failed marriage with Nigeria. Kanu connects with these stock of followers through his daily broadcast on IPOB’s pirate radio channel, Radio Biafra.

His message, radically infused with promises of freedom and hope for his devotees also harbours fierce anger and derogatory profiling of his perceived adversaries. He has reportedly described Nigeria as a zoo. This demagogue, unsurprisingly, has built an image of himself as a true redeemer, out to deliver the Igbo race from its bondage in Nigeria, a self-appointed mandate that resonates deeply with his followers.

A mix of Kanu’s evident rebellious bent and state forces with a history of unrestrained brutality against manifestations of virulent individual activism was sure to trigger a full-blown crisis. It sure has. With state forces and the horde of Kanu’s devotees, the situation in the Southeast has been on a cliffhanger.

Grossly ill-equipped to meaningfully engage any upscale of critical activism against the governments, state forces have acted to snuff out Kanu’s growing influence as well as his incendiary rhetoric with the barrels of the gun. The government’s tendency is to tar activists and enemies of the state in the same brush.     

IPOB’s public processions and meetings have regularly been attacked with tear gas and live bullets. Avoidable killings have been recorded, and the list of victims is growing. Other instances of extra-judicial killings of members of the IPOB have been reported. Neither the state forces nor the Biafra agitators are ready to back down.

August 23, 2020 opened yet another page in the growing list of extrajudicial killings of IPOB members. It was early Sunday morning at Mbulujodo, a densely clustered and sprawling neighbourhood of Emene in Enugu state. Residents, particularly members of the huge Catholic community, woke up early to prepare for the 6 am mass.

The air was calm, bearing a fresh, balmy breeze. The noise and cacophony that usually characterised intense commercial activities in the neighbourhood had not resumed. Hordes of Christian devotees were making their ways to the various places of worship.

A dominantly Catholic community, most of those out in the streets at this hour were heading to the Saint Joseph Catholic Church on the old Abakaliki Road for the early morning sacred devotion. The imposing edifice housing the church dwarfs several other structures in the neighbourhood.

Four secondary schools, including St. Patrick Secondary School and the Girls Secondary School, line up the major road on the same street as the Catholic church. One of the schools, specifically the Community Secondary School, Emene, a few hundreds of metres from the Catholic church, is where members of IPOB were meeting that morning. There are different accounts of what the object of their meeting in that school that day was.

Community Sec. School, Emene, location of IPOB meeting.
Community Sec. School, Emene, location of IPOB meeting.

It was reported that IPOB members were at the school for training. Still, a member of the group who spoke to HumAngle said they were there for prayers in supplication for the success of the planned sit-at-home call against October 1, Nigeria’s national day. Members of the group were part of the busy crowd that poured into the streets that early morning as they assembled for their meeting.

Pascal Ikem, a Keke Napep transporter who later spoke to HumAngle recalled that before 8 am on that day, as he drove along the old Abakaliki Road, he noticed some truckloads of armed security personnel in the vicinity of St. Patrick Secondary School. Less than an hour after, hell was let loose in that community.

It was reported that the armed security personnel stormed the IPOB meeting, ordered them to disband and leave immediately. The solemn calmness of the morning in Emene raced like a possessed animal in a sudden, wild switch into fierce, gripping tension. It was reported that the IPOB members, not seeing themselves to be in the wrong, called the bluff of the security personnel.

Some of the IPOB members reportedly told the security personnel to desist from intimidating them. It was further reported that there was restiveness from the group. The detachment of the security, by accounts of a witness who spoke to HumAngle, interpreted this as resistance.

Neither party was ready to stand down. But while one party came fully armed with rifles, shotguns and teargas, the other naively deployed their voices in the vain hope that their sense of right to assemble was strong enough to make the other party back off. They also reportedly taunted the security personnel.

This paper was told by eyewitnesses that the IPOB members shouted disrespectfully at the officers. Tempers rose, the young congregants got more agitated and disorderly. The security personnel on the ground called for reinforcement.

The sequence of what happened next is being disputed. Still, those who witnessed the resulting violence agree that gunshots rang out fiercely and persistently to cut short the sacred solemness of the morning fully. Billowing smoke from fired teargas canisters cast a heavy, silvery cloud over the air, enveloping the neighbourhood in sudden panic and agonising trauma.

Worshippers inside the church cathedrals choked under the overwhelming cast of acidic gas in the air. The accompanying smoke made visibility and escape for worshippers in the church a torturing experience. The crowd of the faithful still on the roads broke into hysteria, running in confusion, blinded by the cloud of teargas. Churches in the neighbourhood cut short their sessions.

When the sound of gunfire finally ceased, and the streets had been fully deserted, only the corpses of young men later identified as members of IPOB lay on the filthy road, the dusty earth soaking their spilt blood in grave testimony to the day’s horror. IPOB spokesperson, Emma Powerful issued a statement in which he put the number of his members killed by security officials at 21 with 47 others arrested.

Residents, evidently traumatised by the scale of the combat deployment and the resulting violence, expressed outrage and revulsion. Some who spoke with HumAngle in Emene did not understand why the security deployed such a level of state firepower against an unarmed group at a meeting location.

Residents do not recall seeing any visible threat traceable to the presence of the IPOB members in the community that morning. Security officials did not state what security threat the presence of the IPOB members constituted to justify the alleged highhanded use of lethal force.

Following the violence of the day, the 82 Division of the Nigerian Army in Enugu, the Nigeria Police Force, Enugu State Command, and the State Security Service (SSS) were indignant. Peter Afunanya, the spokesperson of the SSS said: “the Service lost two personnel in what was clearly an unprovoked violent attack launched by IPOB on the team.”

Apart from describing IPOB as “outlawed” in their separate statements the security agencies did not say what threat the group constituted. Several people that HumAngle spoke within several states in the South East, who hitherto saw IPOB and its leader, Kanu as irritants and a social nuisance seem to be reassessing their position.

It poses a dilemma and probably a plot twist in the evolving status of IPOB. With a chilling consistency in the deployment of lethal combat weapons against IPOB by state forces, observers are questioning whether the objective was to radicalise the group for full-blown violence.

According to an Amnesty International report of 2016, state forces were reportedly applying tactics “designed to kill and neutralise an enemy” in their combat engagements against IPOB members. HumAngle’s close monitoring of the situation in the Southeast suggests that continued deployment of lethal combat weapons against IPOB may backfire.

As state forces tighten the screw on IPOB members, some people have warned that a backlash may not be far-fetched. Individuals who are knowledgeable about events in the zone point at possible mood change. Particularly in Abia and Enugu states, there seem to be reasons to suggest that the situation may already be evolving into an explosive multiple-way crisis.

There are fears already in the Southeast that the Nigerian security forces are somehow turning what ought to be a sideshow into the main show. There are genuine fears that the tension between the security forces and members of the IPOB may yet conflate and turn uglier in a more intense and widespread scale.

Attacks on state actors by unknown men signal new twist

Already, a wave of ugly security incidents across some locations in the zone seems to validate this fear. In the aftermath of the attack of IPOB members by security forces in Emene last August, the security scenario seems to be altering dramatically. For instance, the 144 Battalion of the Nigerian Army located in Asa, Ukwa West Local Government Area of Abia State is already deploying troops against a nearby community.

Late in August 2020, two armed soldiers on official duty along Uzuakoli and Okohia communities were reportedly seized and summarily killed. Their weapons were taken, their corpses dumped by the roadside.

Troops from the 144 Battalion saw this as the enemy drawing a line in the sand. The problem however was how to determine who the assailants were. Nevertheless, they narrowed their target on the nearby Owaza community. Truckloads of soldiers in war fatigue were deployed to the community.

Word reached the community that soldiers were advancing to take possible revenge on them on account of two of their members killed. When the troops arrived Owaza, the sleepy farming village had been deserted, men, women, young and the aged had fled.

Elders from Owaza recently dispatched a Save-Our-Souls petition to the Chief of Army Staff, Lieutenant-General Tukur Buratai, complaining that soldiers were “running the community out of town.” The Abia State Commissioner for Homeland Security, Dan Okoli, recently acknowledged that there was tension between the community and the Army but assured that the state government was already mediating in the matter.

Two days after the security attack on IPOB members in Emene, and days before the killing of the soldiers of the 144 Battalion, two Police officers on duty at the Awgu junction, along the Enugu-Port Harcourt expressway were reportedly murdered and their rifles were taken. Unknown assailants had killed them.

If these incidents are troubling, what reportedly happened subsequently in a few locations in Enugu seem even more gravely ominous. Some hundreds of metres from the entrance driveway into the Akanu Ibiam International Airport in Enugu is a military checkpoint, robustly fortified with sandbags and festooned in military camouflage.

Mounted on the part of the stretch of the old Abakiliki Road that commands a strategic surveillance advantage in both directions of the road in Emene community, the military post left no one in doubt about its unassailable security relevance.

But the seeming strategic advantage accorded the checkpoint failed when in September unknown men reportedly invaded it just as the tension in the region continued to spiral. The soldiers at the post, according to information available to HumAngle, were disarmed but their lives were reportedly spared. When this paper first visited the scene, the checkpoint looked abandoned. At its recent visit to the scene early in November it was discovered that the sand bags, signpost and the scaffoldings of the military checkpoint had been removed.

HumAngle has yet to confirm this, but it seemed that this particular incident at the army checkpoint forced the reported threat by Buratai to declare a state of emergency on the Southeast zone. The Ohaneze, the pan-Igbo socio-cultural group, swiftly issued a statement reminding the Army chief that he lacked the power to declare a state of emergency in any part of Nigeria.

Equally scary were the reported attacks, weeks before the incident at the Army checkpoint, on two other Police facilities in the state. Both Police facilities had their armouries reportedly emptied. The Police stations at both the Ogui Road in Enugu metropolis and the Union Police Division in Ugwuogo, Nike hold contrasting features. That both were attacked and the armouries breached within two days are telling.

Located at an isolated farming area, with the Nike-Opi highway by-pass cutting through its front approach, the Union Police Division in Ugwuogo, Nike was attacked on August 30. The station though looks considerably vulnerable. None of the parcels of land surrounding it has been developed. Its entire surrounding is covered in wild farm bush. Residents expressed concern but pointed out that invading and attacking such facilities by any group that is seriously motivated to harm does not surprise.

Ogui Road Police Barracks, Enugu.
Ogui Road Police Barracks, Enugu.

But it is a different kettle of fish with the Police Barracks on Ogui Road in the heart of the city. Sitting on a strategic piece of property in the centre of Enugu’s corporate hub, the Ogui Police station holds a unique status among Police facilities in the city. It is flanked by two iconic city landmarks, the sports stadium and the railway station.

Along that stretch of the city boulevard is dotted corporate offices, banks, boutiques, shopping plazas, restaurants and hotels. Moreover, the facility is a barrack with residential flats and rooms for different cadres of police officers. The attack happened on August 28.

HumAngle was informed that the state governor, Ifeanyi Ugwuanyi, became visibly troubled. He reportedly called a meeting of the state’s security council comprising heads of the different security and paramilitary formations and agencies in the state.

Following the meeting of the state security council on September 1, 2020, and its recommendation of joint patrols by the different security formations, Governor Ugwuanyi sued for peace. The Police have not disclosed if they have any primary or remote suspects.

With the security structures in some states of the Southeast coming under sporadic attacks by unidentified assailants, the statement by Powerful, IPOB spokesman in the aftermath of the security attack on his members in Emene takes a new and curious meaning.

In the statement, IPOB had declared: “We are surprised how Nigerian security agencies in their respective formations like Army, Police and DSS will be slaughtering our people without any provocation. The rampant killing of innocent members of IPOB will be reciprocated in due course…”  

Kanu seen as a threat and loose cannon by Igbo elites

There has been wide-scale repression of the IPOB members over the past five years by state actors. IPOB sees itself as “a peaceful movement committed to the peaceful restoration of Biafra.”

But the hateful and inflammatory content of its leader, Kanu’s, messages has failed to convince a wide range of Igbos as well as other Nigerians that a rational desire for peace drives the group’s agenda.

Indeed, critical and respected pan-Igbo platforms such as Ohaneze and Aka Ikenga have openly denounced their seemingly unbridled, reckless profiling of individuals and groups. Recently its members in Germany ambushed and beat up Ike Ekweremadu, erstwhile Deputy President of the Senate at a cultural event.

IPOB proscription

Long before Ekweremadu’s scare in the hands of IPOB members, governors in the Southeast had figured out that with Kanu’s growing popularity with youths in the region, their continued leverage on political power would come under steady erosion.

To save themselves and perhaps their hold on political power in the zone, the governors saw it necessary to publicly disown Kanu amid his fight with the Federal Government. With agitation by his members growing and the government in Abuja unable to shut him down, the governors sided with Aso Rock and outlawed his group.

It seemed to serve as a relief to the governors who would rather not have the group’s irritable presence. On September 16, 2017, at an emergency meeting of the Southeast governors at the Enugu State Government House, IPOB was proscribed.

IPOB approached the Federal High Court in Abuja, asking for an order reversing its proscription. The Acting Chief Judge of the Federal High Court, Justice Abdu Kafarati upheld the proscription order.

The governors particularly framed IPOB as a terrorist group. This seemed curious and totally out of character or precedence. Long after the jihadi group, Boko Haram had taken responsibility for the bombing of churches, markets and schools in parts of Nigeria, governors from Northern Nigeria still publicly argued against categorising them as terrorists.

The policy position of the Southeast governors contrasted sharply with what was at play late 2011 and early 2012 when a debate was going on in official circles in the United States over designating Boko Haram as a terrorist organisation, following the jihadists declaration of affiliation with Al-Qaeda. 

Northern leaders including state governors and particularly Sanusi Lamido Sanusi, who at the time was the governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN), initiated a formidable pushback arguing that the Boko Haram phenomenon was the result of “the very uneven nature of distribution of resources” in Nigeria. 

Sanusi argued that “the 13 per cent derivatives going to oil-producing states of the South” had a direct link with “the rising level of violence of Boko Haram.” 

Having first proscribed and declared that IPOB was a terrorist group, state forces have seemed to work backwards to completely radicalise the group in the manner that fits the terrorist toga. At a point, the governors explored ways of creating a regional policing framework as a step in stemming the deteriorating security challenges in the zone. Gaps were visible in the limited activities of community-based vigilante groups operating in the states. 

In the course of consultations with stakeholders in the zone, the governors sat with relevant organisations, including Ohaneze to design and examine the concept. The meeting rose with everyone believing that all five states in the zone were on the same page. The governors were to develop the exact statutory framework for such a setup.

Upsurge of kidnapping and tension between farmers and herders

Several communities in the zone are assailed by tension created by the suspected involvement of herders in kidnapping and violence against farming communities. So the regional policing structure was to be designed to address it.

While HumAngle was investigating this report in the Southeast states, Mr Tony Udegbu, the state Secretary of Nigeria Red Cross Society and a former Vice Chairman of Agwu Local Government Area, Enugu state was kidnapped, September 30.

Family members and friends who are part of the negotiation for his release told HumAngle in Enugu that they suspected that Udegbu’s captors were “herdsmen” from the north. Such growing suspicion and accounts of criminal conducts associated with herders have further aggravated tension.

Some individuals who spoke with HumAngle expressed disappointment that the Police and the governors of the states in the zone have refrained from approving the use of arms by community-based vigilante groups across the region. They complain that they have been rendered sitting ducks in their homes in the face of formidable armed assailants.

A serving Police officer who spoke with HumAngle on condition of anonymity said that the colouration of security challenges in the Southeast states was getting “very complex.” He said that he served as a senior officer of the Police in some Local Governments in Borno state where, according to him, governors worked together with the Police to “arm community vigilantes as a critical layer of the security architecture.”

He advised governors in the zone to apply a similar model to those of the states in the Northeast with the Police maintaining oversight on the vigilante groups. The Southeast governors were probably the first to moot the idea of zonal policing structure. HumAngle was informed that the governors suddenly backpedalled on the project.

An insider who is conversant with what he described as the ‘elite political survival strategy’ that altered the trajectory of the vision told this paper that, coming at a time when the IPOB leader’s recalcitrance was a growing threat to governors, an expressed fear by one of the governors was that they lacked the capacity after setting up the structure to fully shield it from a possible IPOB hijack.

That view, according to the insider, caused a chill and unanimous adoption of an urgent strategy of recanting its earlier vision. He said that it came as “a damning awakening” for the governors.    

Having earlier sold the idea of a Southeast policing structure and strategy to stakeholders like Ohanaeze; the governors began to beat a swift retreat on that path. They called for a “south-east geo-political zone security summit” on February 12, 2020, at the Base Event in Enugu.

In retrospect, said one of the stakeholders who spoke with this paper, the first disturbing signs showed when the programme of the summit and guest list indicated that the matter had been thrown open to “all Dicks and Harry” from outside the Southeast zone.

The governors placed the objectives they planned to use the summit to achieve close to their chest. The agenda and choice of rapporteurs for the summit did not fully give out the design until the plenary session when, according to someone who attended, “they unmasked the masquerade.”

The well-attended summit was suddenly steered along a path of disavowing any further commitment towards a regional policing structure and platform. Some stakeholders found this incongruous and not representative of the structure they had conceived, considered and adopted at earlier sittings with the governors.

The President of Ohanaeze, Chief Nnia Nwodo, and other stakeholders reportedly staged a walk-out at the event. The walk-out seemed to suit the new agenda being pursued by the governors. Some stakeholders feared that the governors were selling the Southeast short.

Without anyone to raise further objections, the governors issued a communique that took into “cognizance the existing security initiatives instituted by the governors… such as the Vigilante Groups, Neighborhood Watches, Forest Guards, Farmers/Herders Committees, the Homeland Gate Keepers etc. which are in conformity with the Community Policing strategy, the state governors have accepted and adopted Community Policing as an effective tool in bringing policing to the grassroots.”

Several years earlier, on December 2, 2015, 11 IPOB members who were demanding for the release of their leader, Kanu, were killed by security agents at Onitsha, Anambra state. Kanu, at the time, was in detention by the state. There have been other chilling accounts of the unrestrained killing of members of the group in cities across the Southeast of Nigeria.

On February 9, 2016, security agents killed six members of the group who were part of a procession in Aba, Abia state. On May 30, 2016, the Biafra Remembrance Day, a calendar event observed annually by the group was turned into a gory, brutal campaign by security agents. IPOB had scheduled a rally in Onitsha for the event.

On the eve of the event, according to a report by Amnesty International, “state forces raided homes and a church where IPOB members were sleeping.” Witnesses reported gory, extra-judicial killings. Sustained aggression by state forces against IPOB members is routinely documented.

On September 30, the eve of this year’s stay-at-home order, a symbolic, if not cynical repudiation of Nigeria’s independence anniversary celebration, state forces raided homes of members of the IPOB. Emmanuel Bassey Ekomiba, Akwa Ibom state’s head of media for the group and Sunday Okoro, another member, were arrested and detained in Uyo, the state capital.

On February 29, 2020, John Chukwuma, IPOB state coordinator in Delta state, Sunday Asaka, the state provost for the group and eight other members were arrested. Officials of the group fear that the Police in the state may have extra-judicially killed them. These accounts have overcast an already complicated security situation in the zone with fierce ominous flashes.

With the seeming unravelling of the security fabrics in these states, what seemed to be the triumph of the personal interests of the governors just last February is looking more of a pyrrhic accomplishment now. Obviously mirroring a related scenario, Nnamdi Obasi, a senior adviser with the Crisis Group recently told Premium Times:

“Attacks on Police stations and looting of armouries are particularly dangerous developments… Weapons falling into unidentified and unaccountable hands will only aggravate the already very worrisome security situation.” Is Southeast Nigeria throttling into unrestrained security crisis and possible insurgency?

Inevitably, when finally Pandora’s box of insurgency is opened in the Southeast it will go on record as the most carefully heralded and officially orchestrated killing field. And the time does not look far away.

No part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed or transmitted in any form or by any means without proper attribution to HumAngle, generally including the author's name, a link to the publication and a line of acknowledgement.

Obiora Chukwumba

Obiora Chukwumba is a multi-faceted media professional with proven track records in newspaper and magazine production, wire reporting, broadcast content production and film regulation. He studied Mass Communication at the Institute of Management & Technology, IMT, Enugu. He holds an M.Sc also in Mass Communication from Benue State University, Makurdi and a PhD in Media Arts from the University of Abuja. His media career started with the African Concord.

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