The visit by five Northern governors to Rivers, Abia and Imo States in the thick of the recent security challenge in the South-east and South-south regions is a welcome development and in national interest. Emmanuel Ugwu reports
As the security situation in the South-east state of Abia degenerated penultimate, week following the clampdown on the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB), the entire nation was gripped with apprehension and justifiably so. A supposed military exercise code-named Egwu Eke or Python Dance II suddenly snowballed into clashes between soldiers of the Nigerian Army and members of the separatist group. Every Nigerian of good conscience was worried due to the bloody outcome of the clashes and the fear that reprisal attacks could erupt in other parts of the country.
A restive Hausa community in Jos, Plateau State had already arisen against the Igbo residents before the state governor, Simon Lalong quickly moved in and nipped the situation in the bud. Similar pro-active actions were equally taken by many other governors in the Northern part of the country, which have different levels of volatility and the propensity to embark on reprisals. The governors variously assured the south-easterners living in their states that their safety was guaranteed.
In the South-east, too, the states’ chief executives had also ensured that the lives of northerners were not endangered in anyway. In Abia State, which was the boiling point of the army operation against IPOB, the northerners living in Umuahia and Aba were already scared stiff. There was no case of attacks on them but many of them nonetheless took precautionary measures by seeking refuge at police and military posts. The deputy governor of the state, Sir Ude Oko Chukwu, visited the panic-stricken non-indigenes at their camps located at the Police Area Command and the Central Mosque in the commercial city of Aba.
The deputy governor’s entourage included the GOC 82 Division Enugu, Major Gen Adamu Abubakar; Commander 14 Brigade Ohafia, Brig Gen Abdul Khalifah Ibrahim and the then police Commissioner, Mr. Leye Oyebade. Acting on behalf of the governor, Oko-Chukwu donated N1.5 million to the Area command to feed those taking refuge with the police and at the Central Mosque, the same amount of money was given for the feeding of the northerners sheltered at the place of worship. In addition, he visited those being treated at the hospital for injuries and undertook to offset their medical bills.
While addressing the northerners at the Aba Central Mosque, the deputy governor assured them that adequate arrangement had been put in place to ensure their safety in the state. Similar gestures were however reported in other states of the South-east and South-south, particularly Rivers and Delta States, where there were reported clashes. In fact bloody clashes had erupted at Oyigbo local government of Rivers State, when IPOB members were said to have protested the invasion of the home of their leader by soldiers in Umuahia.
It was in the heat of this national apprehension that the Northern Governors Forum (NGF) decided on the need to send a delegation to the South-east and South-south zones to ensure that the already bad situation was not allowed to become a catastrophe.
The high-powered five-man delegation led by the governor of Borno state and chairman of NGF, Alhaji Kashim Shettima, set off from the North on Monday and headed the South side of the country, waving the olive branch. Other members of the delegation were Governors Aminu Tambuwal (Sokoto), Simon Lalong (Plateau), Aminu Masari (Katsina) and Atiku Bagudu (Kebbi). Their mission was peace and peace they preached.
Governor Shettima confessed that as the chief executives of their states, “We have a moral obligation” to ensure that peace reign in the country, because an atmosphere of anarchy and bloodshed would serve nobody any good. The urgency of their peace mission was underscored by the speed at which the delegation traversed the three states of Rivers, Abia and Imo – all of which they visited in a day. The first port of call was Port Harcourt, the capital city of Rivers State and from there, the governors arrived at the Government House, Umuahia in the evening before proceeding to Owerri, the Imo State capital.
The NGF chairman explained that the delegation was on a peace mission and was desirous of the fact that Nigeria should remain one united entity, adding that the governors had already visited Rivers to deliver the same message of peace. According to him, they were in Abia “to reassure the people that “we have faith in one Nigeria” and to show solidarity with Governor Ikpeazu and the people of Abia.
“We are here on behalf of Northern Governors to commend Governor Ikpeazu on his high quality leadership in handling the crisis in Abia. He rose to the occasion and declared curfew in Aba just as Governor Lalong also declared curfew in Jos to avert a reprisal attack on the Igbo. We are here to show solidarity. We have a moral obligation to ensure that Nigeria remains one. Nigeria is the largest conglomeration of black people in Africa and we cannot afford to separate”.
Shettima pointed out that a disintegrated Nigerian state would not serve the interest of any of the component parts, because each part of the country has its own weakness, which could be turned into strength if they lean on one another, reiterating: “We are here to remind Nigerians that we are better off as one. If we separate, where do we go? North is the Sahara desert and Chad basin cannot contain us, if we go South it is the Atlantic Ocean. South is too small for us and the mountains of East Africa with their so many challenges cannot accommodate us,” he sermonized.
The Borno governor noted that Nigeria had come a long way as a nation with rich diversities hence the need to sustain the country’s unity, adding also that it was in the interest of all Nigerians to stay together and work for the building of a strong united nation. “We are here to also invite our South-east colleagues to also come to the flash points of the North to speak to Igbo living in the North,” he said.
To further solidify the ongoing efforts to seal the cracked wall of national unity, the NGF chairman invited the South-east Governors Forum (SEGF) to come up North and reassure easterners living in the north that all is well. Shettima said having stayed this long together, the diverse people of Nigeria should have by now melted their diversities to produce a nation without fault lines.
He cited the National Assembly, which has continued to serve as a melting pot of Nigeria’s diversities, noting that those of them that have been there were able to inter-mingle with other Nigerians from different parts of the country. He said people like him have come to see Nigeria as one and built alliances across the nation, adding that irrespective of the challenges of nation-building that Nigeria is contending with presently, there is no strong reason for the country to remain one.
The visit by the northern governors delighted Governor Ikpeazu, as it further helped to douse the tension that had arisen to a near-boiling point. He expressed his gratitude to the governors for coming to show solidarity with the people of Abia, saying “When this crisis started, I asked myself: what will my brother Tambuwal in Sokoto do if he is in my shoes or Shettima of Borno? I am delighted by this show of solidarity by our brothers from the North. We are one and I want to assure you of the security of all Abia residents,” he said.
Alluding to the crisis that Abia was plunged into following the clashes between the Nigerian army and members of IPOB, Ikpeazu assured the governors that the separatist tendencies of IPOB would not be allowed to cause the breakup of Nigeria. In his reckoning, those clamouring for secession are on their own and constitute an insignificant percentage of those they claim to represent hence, “We cannot allow infinitesimal few to separate us”.
The Abia governor further assured his northern counterparts that normalcy had been restored in the state, adding that Muslims had peaceful worship on Friday, September 14. The Muslim worship day followed 24 hours after soldiers stormed IPOB leader’s home at Afaraukwu Ibeku in the capital city of Umuahia. It was to the credit of the governor that there was no violent reaction to the invasion of Kanu’s home, which greatly agitated not a few residents given that the city had been very peaceful before the military clampdown.
Ikpeazu also took proactive measure by imposing a dusk-to-dawn curfew on the commercial city of Aba, which is more volatile than Umuahia. Though he lamented the economic losses the curfew would incur to the state, the governor said it was necessary to stem the tide of violence from getting out of control.
All through the week of tension, he engaged in frantic efforts to contain the situation as he held consultations and meetings with critical stakeholders, including heads of security agencies in the state, traditional rulers and leaders of market associations. He was also at the meeting of South-east governors in Enugu, where the decision was taken to proscribe IPOB as part of efforts to douse the tension.
Ikpeazu was later to explain that the proscription of IPOB helped to save the lives of 11.6 million Igbos living in the northern states, who could have been victims of reprisal attacks if the degenerating security situation was not arrested. He told journalists, when he visited the NUJ Press Centre to sympathise with the union over the invasion by soldiers that the measures taken by the governors really averted what could have become “a holocaust”, adding that their efforts was received by divine support.
“God has intervened in what could have been the greatest bloodbath in the history of the whole world,” he said, announcing that normalcy had returned to the state and that “doomsday prophets have lost the battle”, apparently alluding to insinuations that the security situation could have degenerated to the point of a state of emergency being declared in the state.
Normalcy has though returned to Abia the challenge now is to sustain the peace. To this end, Ikpeazu has extended the curfew at Aba to run from 10pm to 6am.
The Inspector General of Police (IGP), Ibrahim Idris also visited Abia and assured the governor and people of the state that the police would do all in their power to sustain the peace and ensure that it won’t take flight again.
Importantly, Ikpeazu’s promise that the Python Dance soldiers would leave the streets of Umuahia and Aba has been fulfilled. Even though the Defence headquarters, Abuja had initially disputed Ikpeazu’s claim that troops would withdraw from the streets, they are no longer seen on the streets.
For this cause, a peace walk/rally was held in Umuahia on Tuesday with residents celebrating the return of peace and demanding sustenance of peace. It was organised by Vision Africa International, a faith-based non-governmental organization, which operates Vision Africa Radio in Umuahia.
President of Vision Africa, Bishop Sunday Onuoha, while explaining the reason for organising the event said: “What we have done is to tell people that there is peace in Abia state (hence) people danced and celebrated peace,” adding that, “Let peace reign so that the poor and the mighty would live in peace”.
Tambuwal however lent credence to this statement for peace, when he emphasised the need for a united Nigeria, saying “Nigeria is not a mistake. Nigeria is a special creation and we all must continue to strive to make it work. And for us to continue to coexist harmoniously, we must have respect for each other. We must respect each other’s culture, because respect begets respect.”