Worrying security situation in Igboland

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by OBINNA EZUGWU      |     

There is no longer any point in pretending about it: Nigeria’s Southeast region is witnessing rise in insecurity, and it’s a tinderbox ready to explode. Imo State, specifically Orlu, has been in the news for the past few weeks. Confrontations between the country’s military and operatives of the Eastern Security Network (ESN), have led to loss of lives and property. It could yet get much worse.

From Abia, through Ebonyi to Enugu, police stations are being attacked by unknown gunmen who reportedly cart away arms and sometimes kill police officers. The frequency of the attacks suggests they are coordinated, the million dollar question is, by who? The answer, of course, will have to come from the security agencies themselves, but some facts about the attacks are difficult to ignore. The attackers appear to have no business with the local population, and no interest in money, but just arms. Certainly, something sinister is cooking, it’s been years in the making and more than anyone else, President Muhammadu Buhari is to bear the blame.

Many have accused Nigerian soldiers, as well as other security agencies, rightly so, of being heavy-handed when confronting perceived security threats in Igboland, something that they don’t quite muster in other climes where such is more desperately needed, and the Orlu episode only served to reinforce this point.

In Orlu few days ago, residents woke up to witness military helicopters flying repeatedly over their roofs, with gunshots fired sporadically in war fashion by military personnel in desperate search of ESN operatives known, by the way, to inhabit the forests. But barely a week afterwards, President Buhari said the reason negotiation with bandits ravaging his home state of Katsina, Zamfara, Niger and other states of the North, was the preferred option, is that force could not be deployed since the bandits live among communities.

Pampering criminals of any kind should never be encouraged, but there is a sense of injustice one feels when, after battling tension in one’s community because soldiers practically declared war on an armed outfit that periodically visits the community, only to hear a week later, that the reason a far more vicious bandits are being allowed free pass to unleash mayhem, is that people in another community could not be subjected to the kind of treatment one’s own community had just been subjected to.

Since Buhari came to power with his 97 percent versus 5 percent logic, Nigerians have practically been divided into first class and second class citizens, or better put, into the beloved and the despised. The first class citizens get away with everything, but the second class citizens get away with nothing. What followed immediately the president settled down in Aso Rock, was the unleashing of the full weight of the military on flag-carrying pro-Biafra agitators in the Southeast. Instructive, by a president who had argued prior to coming to power, that using force against heavily armed Boko Haram terrorists who had killed many Nigerians and destroyed properties worth billions, as opposed to dialogue, was an injustice against the North. Apparently, the agitators of the Southeast, being people of 5 percent, don’t deserve dialogue, but full weight of state apparatus, even if their only offence is carrying flags to scream that they want their own country.

But a father who decides to divide his children into the despised and the barely tolerated, knows he is only asking for a homestead full of rancor and violent confrontations. Obviously, the children who have been made to believe they can get away with anything, will grow wild, knowing that their would be no consequences for their actions. This is precisely why bandits are becoming increasingly daring. And on the other hand, those who have been treated as though they are worthless, will grow very resentful, and will never be interested in peace. This explains the rising security concern in the East. The over pampering of criminal elements in the North, is what has brought the region to its current level of insecurity; the heavy handed approach to agitators in the East, is what is now mutating into serious security challenge.

The justification for the preferential action on the part of the government, has always been that one group threatens the sovereignty of Nigeria, but the other are mere criminals, but it’s one that falls flat on logic. A group of bandits armed to the teeth and are carving out territories, are by far bigger threat to sovereignty, than those carrying flags to demand their own country. But Nigeria, sadly, is not a place where spades are called by their name, which is why the country is now at the crossroads.

The simmering security challenge in the Southeast, needs to be tackled urgently, but there is yet another problem. Effective policing in any environment, needs the buy-in of the local population, but at the moment, this appear to be lacking totally in the Southeast, and indeed the South South where militants are also now threatening to resume hostilities. And of course, the reason for this is not farfetched: Both regions have been grossly over policed since Buhari came to power.

Sometimes last year, I did a piece in which I pointed out that on my way to Enugu from Lagos, I counted 65 manned Military, Police, Customs and Road Safety checkpoints – or more appropriately, extortion points – from Shagamu in Ogun State to Enugu, and another 15 checkpoints from Enugu capital to Nsukka, just a few kilometers journey. And those did not include checkpoints that were at the material time, unmanned, but which were a handful, too.

This over policing, of course, has little to with fighting crime, but extortion and subjugation. The Ohanaeze Ndigbo and other groups based in the region, have called attention to the menace, but usually, they are ignored and the situation is continually justified as necessary for fighting crime, even though the region remained the most peaceful part of the country.

It is instructive that in Orlu, for instance, where there have been heightened security challenges, accounts from residents suggest it all started with the ESN operatives targeting police checkpoints known to extort the populace. Nothing justifies such attacks, and those behind it should be brought to justice, but the point is that when ‘criminals’ come to fight security agencies that are viewed by the people as oppressors or even worse criminals, it would be a big challenge catching the original criminals. This is because, like I said, effective policing of a community requires the buy-in of the community.

The danger with the imminent breakdown of law and order in the Southeast, is that the armed men are targeting mainly security agencies, perhaps trying to suggest in the meantime, that they are not after the civilian population. Thus, the population would largely feel it’s not their business, and that could cause things to quickly get out of hand.

One is aware that usually, the convenient response to any security challenge in the Southeast, is heavy deployment of the military and police. It is this aversion for constructive engagement, that has brought us here. The agitators carrying flag yesterday to face bullets, may have realised that it is foolhardy. But instead of going away, it appears that they have also decided to acquire the same bullets. The prognosis is foreboding. The only viable solution now is constructive engagement, more force may only prompt more resistance, and for a country already battling insurgency in the Northeast, banditry in the northwest, simmering militancy in the South South, rising ethnic tensions in the South West, full blown insurgency in the Southeast is the last thing it wants.

Obinna Ezugwu, [email protected]

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