The recent clean-up exercise by a military operation Python Dance II is unsettling not only Abia State, but the entire South-east region, writes Emanuel Ugwu
Governor Okezie Ikpeazu wore a stone-hard face when he imposed a dusk to dawn curfew on the ever bubbly commercial city of Aba, Abia State. His countenance was a true reflection of the security situation in the state over the past few days. The Abia chief executive had been out of the state on a foreign trip but upon his return, the peaceful atmosphere he left behind had taken flight.
The situation continued to degenerate as the hours ticked following clashes between troops of the Nigerian Army code-named Python Dance II and members of the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB), who are agitating for the restoration of Biafra as an independent nation.
In the clashes, IPOB members were at the receiving end as they confronted well-armed troops with a mission statement to stamp out what the federal authorities considered â€œviolent separatist agitationsâ€. The sheer bravado of the unarmed agitators was no match to the men of war as people were being killed.
Sensing that the situation was getting out of control, Governor Ikpeazu summoned an emergency meeting of the state security council, which was attended by heads of all security agencies in the state, the commander of 14 Brigade Ohafia, Maj Gen Abdul Khalifah Ibrahim, and the Commandant of Navy School of finance and logistics, Owerrinta, Abia State, Commodore Abdul Aminu.
While Umuahia was simmering, Aba was already boiling hence the governor restricted the curfew to the commercial city. The curfew was meant to last for three days, from Tuesday to Thursday but the governor later extended it to Friday. He acknowledged that the tense security and fast degenerating security situation in the state occasioned by clashes between the army and IPOB members â€œcould presumably be attributed to the commencement of the said Operation Python Dance IIâ€.
He also said he was aware of the â€œfrenzy of activitiesâ€ of IPOB members at Afaraukwu area of the capital city but noted that â€œWhile the Government of Abia State recognises the right of the Nigerian Army and other security agencies, to perform their statutory duty of protection of lives and property of Nigerian citizens, such duties must be carried out within acclaimed Nigerian and international standards of engagement with the civil populace, with due respect to the human rights of citizens and sanctity of human lives,â€ he said.
Though the military exercise code named â€œEgwu Ekeâ€ which translates to â€œPython Dance IIâ€ in Igbo language was targeted at the five Igbo speaking states of the South-east part of Nigeria, Abia became the focus of attention following activities of IPOB. The state, popularly known as Godâ€™s own state, is the home state of the leader of IPOB, Mazi Nnamdi Kanu, who hails from Umuahia, the capital city. Since his release on bail in April with very stringent conditions, Kanu has been staying at his ancestral home at Afaraukwu Ibeku located in the heart of the capital city of Umuahia.
He lives inside his fatherâ€™s compound, which is also a palace as the father of the IPOB leader, Eze Israel Kanu is the traditional ruler of Afaraukwu autonomous community. The palace became a Mecca following the IPOB leaderâ€™s return from detention. It became the IPOB headquarters hence Afaraukwu was playing host to thousands of IPOB supporters and sympathisers that daily thronged the area.
In all of this, however, the peace of Umuahia was never threatened as IPOB members were believed to have conducted themselves well. On its part, the commercial city of Aba hosts very fanatical IPOB members and sympathisers.
Things came to a head when the military authority, apparently on the order of President Muhammadu Buhari, launched the second edition of the python dance. The first edition took place 10 months ago and passed off without raking up much controversy despite condemnations by IPOB and some civil society organisation. The army high command said the operation Python Dance II was aimed at curbing criminal activities.
Deputy Director of army public relations, 82 Division of the Nigerian Army, Enugu, Col. Sagir Musa dismissed claims that the army was targeting specific group and individuals. He told journalists in Umuahia that the operation was aimed at stamping out identified criminalities such as kidnapping, armed robbery, and cultism as well as checkmate â€œviolent secessionist agitationâ€. The catch was on the issue of secessionist agitations. IPOB and civil society groups interpreted this as a ploy to use brute force to suppress the peopleâ€™s right to self-determination.
In a statement issued by its media and publicity secretary, Emma Powerful, IPOB said the federal authorities launched the python dance as smokescreen to â€œassassinateâ€ its leader and other IPOB members. It warned that the â€œkilling of unarmed civilians in the South-east including Kanu must not be accepted by Biafrans, both home and in the diasporaâ€.
The Biafra activists were not alone in kicking against the militarisation of the South-east.
A coalition of civil society organisations under the aegis of Eastern Consultative Assembly (ECA) equally viewed the intentions of the federal government and its military authorities with suspicion. In a statement signed by its secretary, Elliot Uko, the ECA, which has vigorously campaigned for restructuring of the polity, vehemently disagreed with the army on the aim of the military exercise, saying, â€œthe reptile dance was a veiled show of force to silence dissenting voicesâ€.
It added that the powers that be were not ready to listen to the voice of reason and yield to the demands by Nigerians for a just and equitable nation state but prefers the old policy of intimidating, terrorising and silencing the long oppressed people of eastern Nigeria.
According to ECA, with the launching of operation python Dance II, â€œthe Nigerian state has confirmed the rumours, that justice, equity and fair play, isnâ€™t anywhere near its mindset and that the continued oppression and intimidation of the people of eastern Nigeria through brute force remains her choice strategy of engaging the frustrations.â€
With the opposition, suspicion and controversy trailing the python dance operation, the stage was set for the scenarios that played out in Umuahia and Aba between Sunday, September 10 and Thursday September 14, 2017.
On the evening of Sunday there was a clash at Afaraukwu when soldiers reportedly surrounded the home of the IPOB leader. Eyewitnesses said there were sporadic gunshots and that some IPOB members sustained bullet wounds. Though army spokesman, Musa said the presence of the troops around the residence of Kanu was part of a routine exercise, the soldiers may have been there on surveillance mission.
But it was obvious that the troops were unwelcomed at that particular section of the state capital. IPOB members were said to have formed human shield and blocked the soldiers from making their way into Kanuâ€™s residence.
In his account, the IPOB leader said he was sleeping, when the soldiers disturbed him with siren and gunshot sounds.
â€œThey (soldiers) wanted to bulldoze their way into the palace but IPOB members formed human shield and resisted them. They wanted to break the shield and fired at three persons and wounded others before leaving. Everybody, including children was running away in confusion.â€
Nonetheless, Kanu was defiant and vowed that no amount of intimidation would make him abandon the struggle for Biafra independence.
â€œThey want to use force and beat us into submission, because they have lost the argument but they will fail. They want to trigger war but we wonâ€™t oblige them, because we are committed to our non-violent philosophy,â€ he said.
By Tuesday, when a large contingent of well-armed troops moved into Umuahia in a huge convoy of troop carriers, patrol vans and armoured vehicles, residents were struck with panic and apprehension. The army explained that the convoy was â€œa show of forceâ€ apparently to warn the Biafra separatists that the federal government was determined to put an end to their agitations by use of force.
Unfortunately, journalist in Abia became unintended victims of the military exercise, when the dancing python entered Umuahia. As the military convoy was negotiating its way at Abia tower roundabout onto Bende road, two of the troop bearing vehicles abruptly halted and about 20 stern looking soldiers spilled out and invaded the Press Centre of the Nigeria Union of Journalists (NUJ), Abia State Council.
What followed was a sad experience for the ten journalists, who were at the secretariat at that point in time. Some of the journalists were standing on the balcony of the building watching the spectacle of the army convoy but the soldiers alleged that they spotted some of them taking photographs. The overzealous soldiers ordered the hapless and fear-stricken newsmen to surrender their phones and tablets.
A national trustee of NUJ, Ezeogo Boniface Okoro, was beaten up by one of the soldiers, who specifically accused him of taking pictures, an accusation he vehemently denied. Without looking for evidence of pictures in any of the phones or tablets, the soldiers proceeded to smash the tools of trade of the journalists.
â€œI thought I was going to die,â€ said Lawrence Nwokedi, the state correspondent of Radio Nigeria, adding that the soldiers pointed ready-to-shoot guns at him and his colleagues.
Chairman of Abia NUJ Council, Comrade John Emejor, condemned the â€œdesecration of the Press Centreâ€, noting that the nationâ€™s democracy was imperiled if journalists would not be allowed to carry out their constitutionally guaranteed duties without let or hindrance.
Expectedly, the invasion of the Press Centre and assault on the journalists attracted harsh criticisms and condemnation of the Nigerian Army. This prompted the GOC, 82 Division to dispatch Col Musa to rush down to Umuahia and tender his unreserved apology to the NUJ. Even before then, the Brigade Commander, 14 Brigade had visited the Press Centre, assessed the damages done and promised to promptly replace the destroyed items.
Due to the negative publicity that the armyâ€™s misadventure had attracted, there was a lull in military activities the next day leading to a drop in temperature of the tense atmosphere pervading Umuahia.
But Governor Ikpeazu, in a bid to bring stability to the escalating security situation, held meetings on a daily basis with different stakeholders, including traditional rulers and leaders of market associations in the state. But on Thursday, hell was let loose as soldiers were back on the streets. By 9.30am, two young men were allegedly shot dead by soldiers along Bank Road, just a stone throw from the Government House. Eyewitnesses said the victims were just passing by when felled by the bullets.
The soldiers were alleged to have promptly picked up the dead bodies, dumped them inside their patrol vehicle and sped off. The pandemonium caused by the killing made the capital city to shut down abruptly. Banks and shops closed and the streets were deserted as people scampered to safety.
Later in the evening when people started crawling out from their hiding places, heavy gunfire broke out at the Afaraukwu home of IPOB leader. The sound of gunfire rented the air for about 20 minutes. â€œIt was like a war zone,â€ a resident of Afaraukwu, who gave his name as Ezenwa told THISDAY, adding that they all fled their homes to safetyâ€ . at this time, however, the soldiers had finally broken into Kanuâ€™s abode.
As the smoke cleared, four IPOB members lay dead. The casualty figure could be much higher. IPOB said the four dead bodies were the ones they recovered as the troops had made away with several bodies. Kanuâ€™s younger brother, popularly known as Fine Boy, lamented that the soldiers had â€œdesecratedâ€ the place of his father and carted away all the award plaques displayed in the place. He said 15 IPOB members were taken away by the soldiers while his fatherâ€™s dog was also shot dead, apparently for challenging the troops it might have regarded as intruders.
When journalists visited the scenes, the tell-tale was evident. From the junction of the street leading to Kanuâ€™s abode, there were blood stains. Inside the palace was riddled with bullets. The Sienna SUV that Kanu usually rides in was shattered with bullets. His driver said bullets started raining on the vehicle immediately he drove in that evening. Many believed the soldiers had thought that the IPOB leader was in the vehicle.
Three other vehicles including an Isuzu jeep belonging to Kanuâ€™s father were all riddled with bullets. Inside Kanuâ€™s bedroom, the scene was chaotic. Everything was turned upside down. Windows and wardrobe were shattered by bullets and doors torn apart. IPOB members who survived the onslaught were later seen mourning their fallen colleagues.
A community leader told THISDAY that bodies of victims had been taken to the mortuary, adding that a team of young men had been sent into the surrounding bushes to search for possible bodies of victims â€œbecause bullets were flying in every direction and some people had run into the bushes to hideâ€.
Certainly Afaraukwu community has lost its serenity. Even the vegetation bears witness that â€œwarâ€ came. A lot of the residents are still afraid to return home and businesses remain closed. This is not to say, however, that some of the soldiers including innocent passers-by did not sustain injuries too as a result of the confrontation by IPOB members, who reportedly shelled the military with all sorts.
The storming of the palace of the traditional ruler of Afaraukwu was an ironic turn of events as it happened just as Governor Ikpeazu announced that the troops would be withdrawn gradually from Friday. However, with some of the developments of late Friday evening, governments, both at the state and federal might have begun to come round the Biafran challenge.
The military, after allegedly raiding the home of Kanu and discovering a large cache of arms, designated the group as a terrorist association. The Defence Headquarters said IPOB had metamorphosed into a â€œmilitant terrorist organisationâ€ and that it reached this conclusion after professional analysis of recent developments in the South-east.
This position was contained in a statement by the Director of Defence Information, Major-General John Enenche, who advised parents, especially unsuspecting residents of the South-east and other Nigerians to guard their wards against joining IPOB.
â€œThe Independent People of Biafra (IPOB) group, which has posed to be a security challenge in the country, has been metamorphosing from one stage to the other. After due professional analysis and recent developments, it has become expedient to notify the general public that the claim by IPOB actors that the organisation is non-violent is not true, hence the need to bring to public awareness, the true and current state of IPOB.â€
But apparently sensing the implications of such a designation of their people, South-east governors and other leaders also met Friday evening and quickly announced the proscription of the group instead of being labeled terrorist, thus saving several of their people from being killed needlessly.
At an enlarged South-east Governorsâ€™ Forum meeting in Enugu, attended by all the five governors from the zone, the Igbo leaders suggested to Kanu a more civilised way to press home his demands as against the current approach.
Those at the meeting were the chairman of the forum and Governor of Ebonyi State, Dave Umahi; Abia State Governor, Dr. Okezie Ikpeazu; Governor Willie Obiano of Anambra State; Governor Ifeanyi Ugwuanyi of Enugu State and the Deputy Governor of Imo State, Chief Eze Madumere, who represented Governor Rochas Okorocha.
Also in attendance were the Deputy Senate President, Senator Ike Ekweremadu; the President of Ohanaeze, Chief Nnia Nwodo; the General Officer Commanding (GOC), 82 Division of the Nigeria Army Enugu, Major General A.B. Abubakar.
The communiquÃ© after their meeting read: â€œIn view of the prevailing security situation in the South-east and its attendant consequences, the South-east Governors Forum hereby resolves as follows: All activities of IPOB are hereby proscribed. IPOB and all other aggrieved groups are advised to articulate their position on all national issues and submit to the Committee of Governors, Ohanaeze Ndigbo and National Assembly members from the South-east zone, through their chairman, South-east Governorsâ€™ Forum. All Governors of South-east zone are to ensure compliance in their respective states.â€