The calm that returned to many parts of Nigeria’s south-east region following the re-arrest of the leader of the proscribed Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB), Nnamdi Kanu, appears to have been short-lived.
The violence in the region has now continued with the resumption of hostilities between the group and security operatives.
For a few weeks after Mr Kanu was re-arrested and brought back to Nigeria in June, there was relative peace in the region as attacks by the gunmen were halted.
However, the attacks have resumed, with many people, mainly members of IPOB’s security arm, ESN, killed in the past few weeks during clashes with security operatives.
The Acting Director, Defence Media Operations, Bernard Onyeuko, a brigadier general, at a media briefing on Thursday, disclosed how earlier that week, Nigerian troops and other security agencies operating in the South-east “neutralized one Commander and five other members of the ESN and IPOB during a fire-fight at Nkanu area of Enugu State while 13 other members of the secessionist group were arrested.
“One ESN commander was neutralised and another apprehended. Cumulatively, a total of 6 IPOB/ESN members were neutralized and 13 criminal elements were arrested by their own troops and other security forces operating in the Zone”, Mr Onyeuko said.
He said those attacked were allegedly involved in the killing of a District Police Officer (DPO) at Omuma Town in Orlu East LGA of Imo State.
The military spokesperson also narrated how security forces following intelligence report arrested one notorious ESN member named Obumneke Gabriel at Umueli Amaraku Town in Isiala Mbano LGA of Imo State whom he said was in possession of arms and ammunition during the arrest.
Another recent incident that indicates that the deadly attacks on security agencies in the South-east region may be far from over occurred on Friday in Imo State.
The police spokesperson in the state, Mike Abattam, in a statement on Saturday, said some gunmen attacked the Izombe Police Division at about 2:45 a.m. on Friday morning.
The official, however, noted that the police successfully repelled the attack and prevented the attackers from gaining access to the police facility.
Unfortunately, two officers were killed during the attack, Mr Abattam said.
Three of the attackers were killed and arms and ammunition recovered from them, according to the statement.
Some of the attackers fled with gunshot wounds, he added.
Earlier Killings in 2021
Government officials said between January and June, suspected ESN members killed dozens of security operatives and attacked at least 10 public buildings, including prisons and police stations. The police said ESN fighters killed 21 police personnel in Imo State alone.
In response, security forces have killed dozens of gunmen, as well as civilians, in areas where the attacks occurred. Amnesty International, a human rights group, estimated that the death toll from the violence within the same period in Anambra, Imo, Abia, and Ebonyi States might run into the hundreds.
IPOB’s lawyer, Ifeanyi Ejiofor, told PREMIUM TIMES that ESN was formed to protect rural Igbo communities against violent herders in the face of the government’s alleged abdication of its duties.
But ESN is doing much more than that, state governments, residents, and security officials said, accusing the group of criminal activities, including attacks on unarmed civilians, fatal assaults on the police and theft of weapons.
The ESN is believed to have morphed into a paramilitary unit with broader functions including enforcing IPOB’s mandates such as sit-at-home orders.
The group is believed to be acting under the command of Mr Kanu who jumped bail in 2017 and fled the country following the invasion of his home in Afara-Ukwu, near Umuahia, Abia State, by the military in September of that year.
Mr Kanu was re-arrested and brought back to Nigeria in June to continue facing treasonable felony trial at the Federal High Court in Abuja, Nigeria’s capital. He also faces charges of unlawful possession of firearms and setting up of an illegal security unit – ESN.
Mr Kanu’s arrest in June had thrown the separatist group into disarray, leading to a dramatic reduction in violence in the south-eastern region.
Attacks had been quite frequent across the region since the April 6 raid of the Owerri Correctional Centre during which 1,844 inmates were set free and the building set ablaze.
On April 24, gunmen set ablaze the Omuma, Oru East Local Government Area, Imo State country home of Governor Hope Uzodinma. IPOB, on the same day, also lost ESN commander, Ikonso, during a gun battle with a security force. Six other ESN commanders were also killed in the gun battle.
But following the re-arrest of Mr Kanu and a further clampdown on ESN members, many members of the group are believed to have gone into hiding while attacks on public buildings, especially police stations, halted.
Mr Kanu was also accused by some of his supporters of turning the organisation into a one-man show, alienating some of his most trusted followers, thereby leading to a leadership vacuum.
“Money disputes and accusations that he didn’t consult key stakeholders over the formation of an armed wing did not go down well with many,” said the BBC Igbo’s Chiagozie Nwonwu, who interviewed Mr Kanu in 2019, while in exile.
One of those who fell out with Mr Kanu and left the organisation last year was his former deputy, Uche Mefor, a member of the group who took over when the leader was previously incarcerated.
While the Nigerian government and many Nigerians have expressed joy at the re-arrest of Mr Kanu, many others have questioned the legality of the process through which he was arrested.
For instance, the Nigerian government has not officially disclosed the country Mr Kanu was arrested in before he was brought back to Nigeria. Mr Kanu was also not formally extradited from any country with many Nigerians including Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka saying he was ‘kidnapped by the Nigerian government and illegally brought back to Nigeria.
However, Mr Kanu, through his lawyer, Aloy Ejimakor, said he was arrested in Kenya. He said no warrant of arrest was shown to him or even mentioned. The lawyer also claimed that the IPOB leader was held incommunicado and chained to a bare floor for eight days in a nondescript private facility in Kenya.
Again, at the continuation of his trial on July 26, the SSS failed to produce Mr Kanu at the Federal High Court in Abuja.
While government lawyers cited “logistical problems” for Mr Kanu’s absence, his lawyer told the court that he had been unable to access his client in ten days and that he believed his client’s life was in danger.
The case was adjourned till October.
Controversial Sit-at-home order
To demonstrate that it is still influential in the south-east despite the incarceration of its leader, IPOB called for a sit-at-home protest in south-eastern Nigerian cities to pressurise the government to release Mr Kanu.
The group through its spokesperson, Emma Powerful, on July 30, asked residents of the five south-east states to observe August 9 as “Ghost Monday” to force the federal government to release Mr Kanu. He added that the “total lockdown would continue every Monday from 6:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. until Kanu is released unconditionally from detention.”
But the IPOB leader’s younger brother, Kanunta Kanu, in another statement, said something different. He explained that the group arrived at the decision to suspend the order, after “listening to pleas from well-meaning individuals and groups that the order be suspended to allow students in Igbo land to participate in the NECO examination.”
“IPOB has listened to pleas from well-meaning individuals and groups within and outside Biafra land that we consider the fate of our children who will be involved in the NECO Exam and based on that, we decided to shift grounds over the sit-at-home order,” he said.
Meanwhile, the governments of Abia, Enugu, Anambra and Imo states as well as the police commands in the south-east asked residents to ignore the IPOB order and go about their legitimate businesses, with the police promising to provide security to resist the order.
Abia State Governor, Okezie Ikpeazu, in a statement, called on residents to ignore the sit-at-home order, adding that the state government was in contact with Nnamdi Kanu’s family and was monitoring the situation to ensure that the IPOB leader got a fair trial.
Similarly, the chairman of Enugu Capital Territory Development Authority(ECTDA), Josef Onoh, said there was no constituted authority that declared any Monday a resting or work-free day and assured residents of the state capital that there will be no molestation of anybody conducting genuine business in the state.
On its part, the Anambra government directed workers in the state to ensure that they are in their duty posts or be prepared to lose their August salary.
The Imo State Commissioner of Police, Abutu Yaro, said the command would back the residents of Owerri and other parts of the state with security operatives in order to resist IPOB from forcing them to sit-at-home.
Despite the assurances by the government, many banks, shops and markets were shut last Monday (August 9) in many parts of the south-east in compliance with the sit-at-home call by IPOB.
The exercise, however, turned violent in parts of Imo and Anambra as gunmen suspected to be members of the ESN moved around to enforce the order.
There were shootings in Orlu local government of Imo and a building was reportedly set ablaze in Isiala-Amadim village, Amaifeke, in the same area, the Guardian newspaper reported.
Two commercial buses were also torched at Ngwogwu, in Aboh Mbaise local government of Imo. The buses were headed to Umuahia and Owerri respectively. At least three people are believed to have died in that incident.
Some buses were reportedly forced to return to Owerri.
In Nnewi, the industrial hub of Anambra State, two persons were reportedly shot dead by security operatives who had accosted them for trying to mount roadblocks in the area.
Many residents, who observed the sit-at-home order, said they would rather obey than put their lives at risk.
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