Noel Ezeribe left home for his shop on Friday, April 30, 2021, in his ‘new’ Toyota Camry car delivered to him just the day before. The shop, Shawarma and Fish Barbecue Spot, is located at Orlu Road, Akwakuma in Owerri, the Imo State capital. His wife, Juliet, who was four months pregnant with their third child, wished him a good day as she saw him off. But it was the last time she would see him alive.
Mr Ezeribe was killed while returning home in the evening in an encounter with soldiers at a military checkpoint along the Amakohia flyover of the city.
The remains of the 38-year-old were deposited at the Federal Medical Centre (FMC) mortuary, Owerri, while his car and personal belongings were sent to the state police command headquarters.
Mrs Ezeribe became wary after her husband did not return that night. His phone was switched off until the following morning when a police officer picked up his call and invited the family to the police headquarters.
Tobechi, the deceased’s elder brother, along with another sibling rushed there and found his car with “shattered back windshield, blood-soaked interior, mangled tyres as well as personal belongings.”
According to an affidavit filed against the army by Tobechi, which is part of the evidence in an ongoing case at the Federal High Court in Owerri over Mr Ezeribe’s murder, a team of soldiers from the 34th Field Artillery Brigade, Obinze, brought the items to the police.
“The deputy commissioner of police (operations) said the soldiers left a written statement that the deceased had refused to stop when he was allegedly flagged down and as a result the soldiers fired several shots and killed him,” the affidavit read.
On getting to the FMC mortuary, Tobechi saw the corpse had “two bullet holes at the back of his head and one at his right upper region, all of which did not pierce to the frontside.”
That marked the beginning of the ongoing suit between the Nigerian military and the Ezeribe family.
Gunned down, execution-style
Oguchi Unachukwu was to fly to Hamburg, Germany, on Monday, May 31, a day the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) had ordered the people of the Southeast region of Nigeria to sit at home in observance of the Biafra Remembrance Day, which the group had also declared.
Mr Unachukwu was reluctant to catch his flight but was swayed by the statement of the Imo State Governor, Hope Uzodinma, that citizens should discountenance the sit-at-home directive and go about their daily activities.
That assurance failed the Germany returnee as he was gunned down in the presence of his children and wife who were escorting him to the airport.
In a petition written through a lawyer to the governor, the wife of the deceased, Ijeoma Unachukwu, said: “When we got to the Airport checkpoint manned by the Nigerian Airforce, we stopped for the usual checks and cleared the vehicle off the road. At that instance, with no communication, offence or provocation, they shot my husband pointblank through the forehead, right in front of his wife and children.”
Connecting the dots
Messrs Ezeribe and Unachukwu were just two of at least 115 persons that Amnesty International documented as killed between March and June 2021 by security forces in their response to spiralling violence in Southeast Nigeria.
The Nigerian government had responded with a heavy hand to killings and violence widely attributed to the Eastern Security Network (ESN), the armed wing of IPOB.
But many relatives of the victims of attacks by security operatives told Amnesty International that they were not part of the militants that were attacking security agents.
According to several hospital sources, many of the corpses deposited by the police had bullet injuries, especially in Imo State where the crisis started from.
Late December, this reporter took an undercover trip to the FMC mortuary in Owerri to verify a public outcry that the morgue was overflowing with the corpses of male youth.
The authorities of the FMC refused to grant access, but a quick glance by the reporter revealed the frantic ambience in the facility.
One of the mortuary attendants was turning people away from the mortuary. Emmanuel Anyaele, an Owerri resident, said he was looking for the corpse of his brother, Ifeanyi, who he learnt was shot by security operatives. He said he found the floor of the mortuary littered with corpses.
“On Thursday, 3rd June 2021, I visited FMC mortuary. I surveyed the 35 corpses dumped there within the last few days, victims of runaway killers, military, police and unknown gunmen with no identification. Imo is bleeding,” the Catholic Archbishop of Owerri Archdiocese, Anthony Obinna, had said in an Oriental Radio interview.
Beyond the extrajudicial killings, security operatives were allegedly carrying out a repressive campaign which includes mass arrests, excessive and unlawful use of force, torture and other ill-treatment of largely innocent civilians, Amnesty reported.
Meanwhile, the ESN and other armed groups that sprang up in their wake are also guilty. State government, residents, and security officials have accused them of armed robbery, murder of unarmed civilians, fatal assaults on the police and theft of weapons.
The Nigerian government put the number of security officers killed since the start of the unrest at 127, Amnesty said.
“The government’s poor management of the agitations that led to these problems bears enormous responsibility. However, the refusal of IPOB to eschew violence to press home its demands make it also culpable,” Confidence MacHarry, a security analyst at SBM Intelligence, told PREMIUM TIMES.
Given the wide interpretation of this crisis by the government, innocent residents often pay an extremely heavy price.
Between ‘Scylla and Charybdis’
The Greek classic: ‘Between Scylla and Charybdis’ best describes the ordeal of Chinonso Uba.
Mr Uba is a major distributor for the Nigerian Brewery and also owns a hotel along Okporo-Umutanze road in Orlu Local Government Area of Imo State. He had in late January 2021 received a phone call from one Alewa who informed him that Mr Uba was under the radar of the ESN.
Mr Uba said Mr Alewa, a ‘man of God’, told him that the ESN leadership in the area were not ‘happy with him for entertaining policemen in his hotel.’
The hotelier said he transferred N5,000 to Mr Alewa in gratitude for the information.
Such threats are very common in the area.
A few days later, Mr Uba was arrested by the police and taken to the State Criminal Investigation and Intelligence Department (SCIID) in Owerri where he would spend the next 27 days in detention.
He was later transferred to the police headquarters in Abuja.
“It was at the Force Headquarters that I learnt that Alewa was also arrested. The police said his phone was being tracked and our conversations recorded. They said he was arrested for harbouring ESN members at the back of his church. I was questioned on my relationship with the pastor and why I transferred N5,000 into his account,” the 41-year-old businessman explained.
The hotelier spent another three weeks at the Force Headquarters before meeting Abba Kyari, the disgraced deputy commissioner of police who oversaw the case at the time. “When I finally met Abba Kyari, he apologised for my long detention and said I would be released immediately as there was no indication that I associate with ESN,” he told PREMIUM TIMES.
Mr Uba was eventually released on March 10, 2021, but told to report at the Force Headquarters every Monday for the next six weeks.
On August 2, 2021, Mr Uba’s hotel, residential house, warehouse and distribution trucks were burnt to the ground by security operatives.
“Please I beg you, don’t come to Okporo on Monday. It is very dangerous,” Ngozi Okolie, a 52-year-old mother of four, advised this reporter. Her voice was already fragile and she was on the verge of tears.
The fear of sit-at-homes in Okporo is largely attributed to the horror of Monday, August 2, 2021, which has left a scar in the memories of residents.
Mrs Okolie’s husband, Aloysius, a mechanic, was shot dead by armed persons who attacked the community that day.
The assailants, who were said to be ‘ESN militias’, also destroyed many shops, including a casket market in the community, for violating the sit-at-home order.
“As soon as the militias left, the police and army arrived. They began targetting properties of individuals they believe have sympathy or are affiliated to ESN,” said Gabriel Ozoemena, who said he witnessed the developments.
Security operatives in about 15 vehicles, including an armoured personnel carrier, burnt down Ezeacho Hotel located on the Okporo-Mgbidi Road behind St Damian’s Hospital mortuary, eyewitnesses and several newspapers, including Punch newspaper reported. Two persons died in the attack, eyewitnesses said.
After Mr Uba’s hotel was razed, his residential house in Obor, a neighbouring community, his warehouse fully loaded with drinks, his distribution trucks and personal vehicles were also destroyed.
Mr Uba said he was in Owerri when he received a call about the attack.
“Initially, I thought it was ESN that launched the attack, but I learnt that those arrested in my hotel were taken to the State CIID in Owerri,” he said.
“One of my truck drivers arrested confirmed it was the police that led the attack along with some men in military uniform. The driver said the security agents were accusing me of harbouring ESN members in the hotel and that a DJ (disk jockey) playing in my bar was arrested for ESN activities.”
Mr Uba said he called the police in Owerri and Abuja who did not directly confirm the attack but said, “I was not the only one attacked. The heat of that day reached everybody.”
The police spokesperson in the state, Michael Abattam, did not return phone calls or respond to repeated text messages.
Meanwhile, according to the Punch newspaper, a police source confirmed the operation.
Mr Uba estimated the losses he incurred to the tune of N800 million.
“ESN is targeting me from one end and the police who are supposed to protect me are attacking me from another end,” he said.
This reporter heeded Mrs Okolie’s advice and waited until the next day to visit Okporo (Tuesday). A commercial town, Okporo seemed normal and busy at first glance.
However, talking to residents and visiting specific areas, it did not take long to realise the calmness masked a simmering tension in the town.
Everyone along this busy road on the periphery of Mgbidi, another commercial town, knew someone who was affected. And everyone was afraid that it might happen again.
Mrs Okolie took this reporter to her late husband’s near-empty shop which she manages since his death. She said the death of her husband, Aloysius, popular known as ‘Oluwa,’ had made life difficult for her family. Her four children could no longer attend school due to a lack of funds, she said.
At the casket market, one of the coffin makers, Emeka Agbu, said about 15 shops were razed that fateful Monday. He confirmed it was the ‘militia group ESN’ that unleashed the terror.
Meanwhile, it was almost impossible to get the victims or any of the residents to give an insight into the situation in the area. Nobody trusted anybody, so it was considered dangerous to openly discuss the security crisis in the area, talk more of mentioning the ESN.
This reporter was fortunate to meet Mr Uba’s younger brother, Chinedu, who took him deep into the Umutanze-Obor axis in his truck.
As Chinedu turned into a narrow untarred road, he told the reporter he opted for the alternative access – a connection of roads that crisscrossed the three communities – because it was dangerous to use the main entrance at that time of the day.
Roadblocks mounted with heavy bamboo trees were at every short interval in the road. Chinedu said ESN members are normally stationed at the checkpoints to confront those violating the sit-at-home orders.
But the entire area was deserted. You hardly saw a soul on the road even in the markets.
The first gory sight witnessed was the palace of the traditional ruler of Obor community, Ralph Ekezie, said to have been burnt by ‘unknown gunmen’ who accused the monarch of not speaking in favour of the ESN.
Chinedu warned the reporter not to take pictures or interview anybody so as not to attract attention that could be dangerous. “You cannot enter here if you are alone,” he said.
Chinedu took the reporter to a snaky bushy road which he said leads to the alleged hideout of ESN members.
“The long-term impact of this is the likelihood of deadlier groups emerging and spreading far beyond,” Timothy Avele, a security expert, said.
“And it will be difficult to hold government or security agencies responsible as they mostly blamed citizens for not providing intelligence information on the gunmen’s activities. Hence the tag of calling them unknown gunmen simply means no one is held responsible for these atrocities.”
The insurgency in Nigeria’s Southeast was initially tagged the Orlu crisis because it originated from the area which had assumed a role as the stronghold of resistance and became a hotspot of violent clashes between security forces and suspected ESN fighters.
IPOB, a separatist group seeking an independent state for the Igbo ethnic group from Nigeria, formed the ESN in December 2020 as a reaction to the Igbo’s perception that they are targeted by Fulani herders, whom they accuse of grazing on farmlands and committing crimes against local residents. The movement then morphed into a paramilitary unit with broader functions especially to repel attacks by security forces.
The separatists were initially unarmed and were victims of massive extrajudicial killings by the armed forces and police between 2015 and 2016, a PREMIUM TIMES investigation had uncovered.
And since the proscription of IPOB as a “terrorist organisation” by federal court order in 2017, more violent clashes have occurred between the separatists and security operatives, leaving heavy casualties mostly on the side of the group.
The last straw perhaps was in August 2020 when the police stormed an IPOB meeting in Enugu and killed 21 members. Two police officers also died in the incident. Following the incident, IPOB called on its members to start practising ‘self-defence.’
The late January 2021 attack on a Hausa-dominated market in Orlu by masked gunmen, which left at least 10 persons dead, including four soldiers and two women hit by stray bullets, as well as the immediate background to them, offered the largest measure of the increased violent crisis in the area.
Following the attack, Imo State Governor Hope Uzodinma imposed a curfew and, based on his invitation, the 81 Division of the Nigerian Army sent reinforcements joining forces with the police and other security agencies.
By air and land, security operatives launched attacks in the region in a bid to dismantle what is largely considered the ESN operational base. The conflict escalated after the ESN repelled the initial push by the Nigerian Army. IPOB ended the initial crisis by announcing the withdrawal of ESN from Orlu.
But by then, the crisis had spilt over to other parts of the Southeast, prompting the military to launch an offensive in the entire region.
While the initial Orlu crisis subsided, the battleground shifted to neighbouring Ihiala Local Government Area in Anambra State with the forests of Lilu, a border town between both states, allegedly becoming the new operational base of the outlawed group.
This brought about the heavy militarisation of the area and once again, the residents are feeling the brunt.
Between November 2021 and February, at least three fatal auto-crashes occurred at Azia Junction along Onitsha-Owerri Expressway of Ihiala town, claiming over 20 lives. Residents attributed the accident to the many police/army checkpoints on the hilly road.
During a visit to Ihiala Road in January, the reporter saw a major gridlock with travellers ordered to alight from their vehicles and walk the stretch of the checkpoint.
About two months after Nnamdi Kanu, the IPOB leader, was arrested by Interpol in Kenya and extradited to Nigeria, the separatist group declared the sit-at-home order every Monday to press for his release.
There was relative adherence to the order in the entire region as many Igbos who have resentments against the Nigerian government are eager to show solidarity to the cause.
But as such things are known to transform and with no known IPOB leader in Mr Kanu’s stead, the directive started suffering diminishing returns. Residents started lamenting the economic hardship that accompanied it. But the separatists who initiated it have lost control and cannot pull it back.
Despite several statements by IPOB suspending the sit-at-home order, it is still partially observed, especially in the group’s strongholds such as Orlu and Ihiala.
Hoodlums, breakaway factions and others outside the original IPOB, have capitalised on it to terrorise the populace and engage in criminal activities.
After the killing of a top ESN commander known as Ikonso on April 24, 2021, by the Nigerian Army during a raid in Imo State, the separatist group grew weaker, although they maintained a unified front, denying any involvement in criminal activities.
“They replaced him with who? Don’t mind this gossip. There is no other leader we have than Nnamdi Kanu”, Emma Powerful, IPOB spokesperson, told PREMIUM TIMES in response to speculations that Mr Kanu had been replaced.
But militants and other criminal groups have escalated the war, attacking prisons and releasing inmates, as well as attacking other public officials and facilities.
“The state exists to provide security for its citizens. People will only take orders from those who can enforce their will. The military’s indiscriminate use of force is not winning it any friends”, Mr MacHarry of the SBM intelligence said.
During ground reporting in Imo and Anambra, some residents expressed concerns with the activities of the ESN, affirming they were increasingly getting involved in violence and criminal activities. Yet, many are still in solidarity with them, not necessarily with IPOB but the idea of Biafra, accusing the government of political marginalisation and failure to check herders’ aggression.
The current crisis in the Southeast is an offspring of a previous attempt by the region to break away as the Republic of Biafra, which had led to a 30-month-long bloody civil war from 1967 to 1970. More than one million people, mostly civilians, died during the conflict.
Yet, the response of the Nigerian state oscillates between neglect of the problem and counterproductive heavy-handed counterinsurgency measures that recognise little distinction between ESN militias and populations who have had to endure the crisis.
“Nigeria’s security forces are famed for their excessive use of force. However, it is hard to establish if there are entire communities that are sympathetic to the separatists, but it goes beyond sympathies,” Mr MacHarry explained.
Mr Avele, the security expert, said the sentiments of the southeasterners slanting towards the agitation is understandable. “Bad as it may seem, the local communities and even the political elites feel that’s the shortest and surest mean to be reckoned with by the political centre. Call it a bargaining chip and you may be closer to the truth. Sadly, it’s the civilians, especially the local communities that bear the brunt.
“A political solution is the only way out. I can assure you that if the Southeast is given either a presidential or vice-president slot in the forthcoming election, then the insecurity will die a natural death. Sadly, even if Nnamdi Kanu is released tomorrow, the attack will continue because politicians have already hijacked it,” the security expert said.
For Saka Agbasiere, a businessman in Ihiala town, “What is fueling this crisis is the fact that every single south easterner feels marginalised. We are not in the federal character, there is unemployment and inequality in terms of appointments and developments. Until these things are addressed, this crisis will continue.”
(Support for this report was provided by the Centre for Democracy and Development).
Page produced by Ezekiel Oyero