The September 11 attack on the convoy of Senator Ifeanyi Ubah in Enugu Ukwu, Anambra State, underscored the dire security situation in the Southeast.
Two policemen, two of Ubah’s aides and a Department of State Services (DSS) operative were among the dead.
Parts of the Southeast, especially Imo and Anambra, have been reeling from incessant attacks by “unknown gunmen”.
The situation worsened following the April 5, 2021 attack on the Imo police headquarters and the correctional centre.
No fewer than 1,844 inmates were freed, some of them hardened criminals. Since then, police stations have been attacked and arms carted away.
A tale of murders
Before the attack on Senator Ubah, prominent southeasterners had been gruesomely murdered in the region.
Dr. Chike Akunyili, the husband of the late Minister of Information, Prof. Dora Akunyili, was killed along with eight others at Nkpor in the Idemili North Local Government Area of Anambra.
Director-General, Scientific Equipment Development Institute (SEDI), Enugu, Prof. Samuel Ndubuisi, was shot dead along with a police officer attached to him in Enugu.
The member representing Aguata state constituency in Anambra State House of Assembly, Okechukwu Okoye, and a former member of the state House of Assembly, Nelson Achukwu, were beheaded by unknown persons.
Traditional rulers and religious leaders were also not left out. Some of them were kidnapped and never seen again.
Many security operatives, particularly policemen at checkpoints, and others have been killed in the region.
Most villagers have fled their homes while those staying in cities have stopped going home. Those who go home hardly use their vehicles for fear of being identified, abducted or killed.
Security agencies are doing their best to bring the acts of violence to a halt, but in the process have also been accused of engaging in extra-judicial tactics.
For instance, many young men have had to flee many parts of Imo for fear of being arrested and detained indefinitely or killed.
The killings in the Southeast are courtesy of the people referred to as non-state actors, who are also euphemistically called ‘unknown gunmen’.
Anambra State Governor Charles Soludo said most of the gunmen arrested early in his administration were all Igbo.
“They are criminals, nothing else…All the people we caught are Igbos,” he said.
287 killed in five months, says report
The government’s response through aggressive militarisation, security crackdowns and mass arrests, of mostly innocent youths, has not helped the situation.
Innocent lives have been lost in the process, sometimes resulting in security operatives being treated with resentment by the citizens for this reason.
The rising death tolls from unprovoked attacks have become a thing of worry in the five states of the Southeast: Anambra, Imo, Abia, Enugu and Ebonyi states if not checked.
According to the data obtained from the Council on Foreign Relations’ Nigeria Security Tracker (NST) – a website that tracks violent incidents related to political, economic, and social grievances directed at the state or other affiliated groups – 287 people in the Southeast were killed between January and May 2022.
More recently and on a wider scope, a report released by a civil rights group, International Society for Civil Liberties and Rule of Law (Intersociety) last August, disclosed that no fewer than 1,360 persons were killed in Southeast between January 2021 and July 2022.
The group also stated that within same period under review, 51,000 people were rendered homeless with thousands of homes set ablaze in the region.
The deaths, according to the data from the two organisations, resulted from the activities of the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB), Eastern Security Network (ESN), armed robbers, kidnappers, unknown gunmen, and government security operatives.
And the killings seem not to be abating.
IPOB, which had been proscribed, claims to be non-violent, but security agencies have accused the organisation of being behind some of the killings.
But the organisation claims criminals were hiding under IPOB to commit the crimes.
How the situation worsened
The spate of killings in the Southeast, which has taken a more dangerous dimension lately, started in late 2020 when the unknown gunmen began to attack police checkpoints, killing security operatives and seizing their weapons.
They did not spare civilians with Hilux vans and VIPs with security aides. They snatched the exotic vehicles which would later serve as their operational vehicles.
The gunmen later upped their ante by attacking security formations and government facilities such as local government area headquarters, Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) offices and law courts.
In April 2021, the assailants took their attacks a notch higher by attacking Owerri prison headquarters and the Imo police command headquarters.
The above scenario, coupled with the Monday sit-at-home protests declared by the IPOB over the arrest and detention of its leader, Mazi Nnamdi Kanu, is gradually affecting the economy of the Southeast as many businesses are being forced to relocate out of the region due to insecurity.
Kanu was arrested in Kenya and brought back to Nigeria in June last year to face charges of treasonable felony brought against him by the Federal Government.
The dire security situation is particularly worrying because the structures, institutions and personnel responsible for providing security, management and oversight at national and local levels are lacking in the region.
Apex Igbo socio-cultural group, Ohanaeze Ndigbo Worldwide, described the attacks and killings as worrisome, fearing that the current generation of Igbo is bequeathing an environment that is a killing field to its younger generations.
Spokesman of Ohanaeze Ndigbo, Alex Ogbonnia, who spoke with The Nation in Enugu following the attack on Ubah, said “The recent attack on Senator Ifeanyi Ubah and the killings in the Southeast are worrisome. They’re very far from the norms and values for which Igbos are known.
“In the past, the Igbo killing was hardly known. In fact, any such action was meted with ostracism as a punishment. So the rate at which Igbos are killing now is worrisome.
“When we talk about handing over values to our younger ones, is it the environment that is a killing field and filled with violence that we will be handing over?
“Ohanaeze condemns in its entirety these killings. We also sympathise with the deceased.”
Why acts of violence do not make sense
Immediate-past Senate minority leader and member representing Abia Central Senatorial District, Senator Enyinnaya Abaribe, said the killings and the general insecurity in the Southeast were now forcing businesses to relocate to other safer regions.
Abaribe said it would be very difficult for the Southeast to survive with the killings and general insecurity.
“What is happening in Southeast is a tragedy. Every Monday people sit-at-home or what they call ‘Holy Monday’. What is holy in making people suffer like this?
“IPOB has said countless times that they are not the ones enforcing the order. We don’t know who is enforcing it nor does it seem like we have a way to solve it.
“I went with Ike Ekweremadu and two Bishops to the DSS to see Nnamdi Kanu and he told us ‘I have never said people should sit at home.’”
“I told him that nobody believes you outside, because people have said they don’t like it but they keep sitting at home.
“There is no way we are going to survive like this. You are sitting at home and the people who you are doing these things for are in Lagos and in Abuja and everywhere and they don’t care. And you are here killing your own.
“Aba is known for bringing and opening containers of imported goods on Mondays. So, the problem we’re having today is that because of the sit-at-home and the killings, people now go to Port Harcourt, Uyo and Calabar to open their containers.
“They’re leaving Southeast and moving out to Lagos. When we all leave, who will you blame? The captains of industries are no longer there.”
He lamented that the insecurity of the Southeast had assumed the biggest problem of the region.
“Insecurity in Southeast is the biggest problem we are facing now. And the sooner we tackle it the better for us. Even if you are seeking a separate country, why would you destroy your place with your hands?
“You need to have a viable country and not a scattered one,” he said.
Cause of the killings
While the majority of the residents of the region believe that the cause of the rising killings is agitation for a Republic of Biafra occasioned by the perceived marginalisation of the region, others are of the view that unemployment and general poverty are the major drivers of the violence.
According to a report by the Institute for Security Studies (ISS), the dramatic surge in the activities of the criminals described as ‘unknown gunmen’ was “a result of separatist agitation and associated repressive state responses and the designation by the Federal Government of the IPOB as a terrorist organisation.”
It adds: “The deterioration of security comes amid a growing campaign for Biafran independence staunchly championed by the IPOB, led by Nnamdi Kanu, with a huge following of young people born after the Nigerian civil war.
“Their desire for an independent Biafran state is fuelled by a feeling of marginalisation and historical grievances against the government.”
The report was written by Oluwole Ojewale, Regional Organised Crime Observatory Coordinator, Central Africa; and Freedom Onuoha, a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Political Science and Coordinator Security, Violence and Conflict Research Group, University of Nigeria (UNN).
Will violence affect general election?
There are fears that the rising killings in the Southeast pose a serious threat to the 2023 elections in the region, economic development and social stability.
But a former Attorney-General of Imo State, Prof. Francis Dike (SAN) said the killings are not political in the sense of members of opposing political parties targeting their opponents.
He insisted that the killings would not affect the 2023 elections.
Dike said: “You don’t cut your nose to spite your face. If the elections are free and fair, Nigeria would never remain the same again in terms of backwardness.
“I think the killings are not political in the sense of Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) members targeting All Progressives Congress (APC) or Labour Party members.”
He believes the killings are a consequence of security failures.
SAN blames unemployment
A Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN) and Chairman of the Council of Legal Education, Chief Emeka Ngige believes the major cause of the crisis is unemployment.
He said: “All these things are being caused by unemployment. The youths are unemployed and their minds are going into bad behaviours.
“They are now looking at venting their spleen on those they regard as being the cause of their problems, their oppressors.”
Ngige believes the killings would not stop the people from participating in the 2023 elections.
According to him, the people’s resolve to come out to vote would deter the killers.
He said: “The killings will not stop people from participating in the elections. If the people resolve that they are coming out to vote, they would outnumber the unknown gunmen.
“The unknown gunmen will even come out to vote. They can’t stop the Southeast from voting. All they are doing is just intimidating the people.
“The 2023 election is an opportunity for Southeast to express their wishes through the ballot box. Nobody can stop them. The only challenge we will have is if the election is not well organised like when you come to a polling station you won’t see the presiding officers and INEC officials. But if it is about the turnout in that election, they can’t stop us.”
Taming the killings
Ngige was emphatic that the killings cannot be stopped until there is employment anchored on good governance.
He said: “The only thing that can stop it is if the youths who are doing these killings become thugs for politicians; they would make some money. At the end of the elections, they would be discarded. They would be used and dumped.
“So, the solution to the whole thing is employment. All these things are being caused by unemployment. The youths are unemployed and their minds are going into bad behaviours.
“They are now looking at venting their spleen on those they regard as being the cause of their problems, their oppressors. Or they would go into other illegal ways of making money such as kidnapping and all those things. That’s why we are having insecurity more in the Southeast now.
“If after the elections, the next government that comes emphasises on creation of jobs, more industries, most of these youths will be gainfully engaged and all these killings and other security challenges we’re facing may abate.”
Blaming the Southeast governors for what he called the failure of governance, Dike said their inability to form a workable security group had led to an increase in attacks in the region. He said the governors with their repressive responses to peaceful agitations, had refused to adopt any people-oriented solution to quell the killings because of their selfish political goals.
His words: “If the Southeast governors had formed something that is in defense of the people before and after IPOB formed ESN, it would have succeeded and the situation would not have been like this.
“But, the governors we have here are incompetent and inefficient. They are stooges and puppets who are always quick to please their masters in Abuja against their people.
“Southeast governors are always waiting to be told what to do before they do it. If our governors in the Southeast understand the meaning of the word, federation, they would not wait for Abuja to tell them when to do.
“I want to tell you that if the governors think that the killings should continue and that they can still remain in office without elections, that will be impossible because there will be an interregnum.”
Ngige called on the residents of Southeast to use the 2023 elections to change the situation by electing people who would be responsible to them as governors.
Ohanaeze Ndigbo also attributed the killings to a combination of criminality resulting from unemployment and poverty as well as the feeling of marginalisation.
According to Ogbonnia, the state of things in the Southeast was caused by sheer criminality and aggression, resulting from the alleged alienation and marginalisation of the region.
He said: “We make bold to say that the level of violence in the Southeast is caused by two key issues: criminality and aggression resulting from alienation and marginalisation.
“What is happening now is an effect of misgovernance. All over the world, the moment you have anger in the society, unemployment and poverty, the result is what you are seeing.”
Ojewale and Onuoha called on the state governments in the Southeast and the Federal Government to change their approach to handling the situation.
According to them, the use of force may lead to the arrest and killing of criminals and stop their logistics and enablers, but would not remove the underlying drivers of violence.
They, therefore, advised that a holistic approach that prioritises strategic dialogue for dousing tension was needed, adding that such dialogue should involve the federal and state governments, IPOB representatives, traditional rulers, women’s organisations, youth groups, security forces and civil society organisations.
“These critical stakeholders need to discuss possible solutions to state-specific insecurity and their links to the broader dynamics of violence in the region.
“State governments should work on a zonal framework to articulate and pursue a robust development blueprint for the region. This should include targeted empowerment programmes designed for unemployed youths to minimise their vulnerability to recruitment by separatist and criminal groups.
Measures for addressing the socio-economic drivers of insecurity should be prioritised by key actors, particularly the state governments and the private sector.
“The organised private sector can support youth capacity building and skills acquisition, while state governments develop and fund regional development plans.
“Lastly, the Federal Government should support infrastructure development and promote policies to revive ailing industries.
“A holistic response to insecurity in Southeast is vital to relieving separatist tensions and addressing local grievances, which should ultimately help rebuild trust in the Federal Government.”