Inflaming Passion for Violence in the South-east

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Mohammed Adamu,
Mohammed Adamu

Emmanuel Ugwu writes that the senseless killing of a commercial motorcyclist, Chimaobi Nwaorgu, by a soldier attached to an army checkpoint has elicited angry reactions both in Abia State and beyond, as Governor Okezie Ikpeazu was livid with anger when he visited the family of the deceased at Ezido Na Ife village in Umuokereke Ngwa, Obingwa local government area

It was another end of a hectic business day for Chimaobi Nwaorgu, a commercial motorcycle operator (Okada rider) on Wednesday, August 7, 2019. The 30 year-old father of two was heading home expecting a welcome embrace from either his two children or his wife heavy with pregnancy for baby number three. There was not going to be any welcome for him. Instead a soldier’s bullet cut short his life, sending him to the land of the dead even before his family could welcome him back from the day’s toil.

As pathetic as it was, the cold-blooded murder of citizen Nwaorgu has one again brought to the fore the brazen display of impunity by some elements in Nigeria’s security agencies, with a penchant for taking lives at the slightest provocation. The killing of the Okada rider right in his compound is even more bizarre given that the motive was linked to extortion that has become a major feature of security checkpoints in the South-east geopolitical zone. According to a family member, the deceased was killed for defaulting in the payment of N100 bribe that every Okada rider was compelled to pay on a daily basis at the Ohanze military check point. On that fateful day, Nwaorgu was said to have been flagged down when he reached the army checkpoint and was asked to pay his daily ‘contribution’ as well as the arrears. In fact, the Okada man was said to have defaulted for some days with excuses of bad business. The army personnel at the checkpoint were said to have kept a register of all Okada riders that pass through the area and each motorcyclist’s contribution was meticulously recorded every day. Apparently Nwaorgu had wanted to be smart and avoid parting with N100 as he sped off when the soldier in charge was distracted while collecting money from other Okada riders that came by.

The soldier was said to have flown into a rage when he discovered that Nwaorgu had run away without dropping his money at the checkpoint not only for that day but for the other days he had defaulted. The angry soldier immediately commandeered a motorcyclist and mounted a hot pursuit of the fleeing defaulter. The pursuit eventually ended when he caught up with the Okada rider as he entered his compound. Already worked up, the soldier alighted from the motorcycle and without any remonstration fired a shot at Nwaorgu from the back hitting his head. Certain there was no chance of survival for his victim the soldier turned back and mounted the motorcycle that brought him for the deadly mission and was taken back to his duty post.

The senseless killing of the motorcyclist quickly spread and youths of Umuokereke took to the streets with the corpse and violently registered their displeasure. There was pandemonium in the environs as the youths moved to the army checkpoint and sacked it, burning the barricades with soldiers helplessly watching the situation in pangs of guilt. The angry youths further took the corpse to Opobo junction, Ogbor Hill, Aba, where they also set fire to the police checkpoint and patrol van. Unlike the army personnel at the checkpoint that were weighed down by guilty conscience to react, the police fired tear gas to disperse the protesting youths, who had also erected barricade along Ehere, Umuola and Ukaegbu roads as they paraded the corpse. The police were later joined by a convoy of military vans and they arrested some of the youths.

The killing of citizen Nwaorgu elicited angry reactions both in Abia and beyond. It was one cold-blooded murder too many, people said. The state governor, Dr Okezie Ikpeazu was livid with anger when he visited the family of the deceased at Ezido Na Ife village in Umuokereke Ngwa, Obingwa local government. He was accompanied by the state Commissioner of Police, Mr. Ene Okon and the Aba Area Commander, ACP Opara and other senior police officers. Ikpeazu described the killing of Nwaorgu as “wicked, malicious, unprofessional and cowardly,” adding that it was unthinkable that a security personnel paid and sustained with the tax payers’ money would turn round to kill the same person he is supposed to protect. The situation, according to him, was all the more pathetic when considered that the trigger happy soldier embarked on a 25 kilometre chase of the deceased and shot him from behind at point blank just because of N100.

“This is one murder too many,” the governor said. “We will do everything possible under the law to get to get this murderous soldier and bring him to justice. Whatever it takes, we will do. We will go to Abuja or any other place to ensure that this soldier doesn’t go scot free. This is my position and this is the position of the government and people of Abia state.” Governor Ikpeazu, like many other stakeholders in the South-east has every reason to point out the lamentable paradox of the army checkpoints in the zone, especially when they bring death instead of protection.

Unfortunately the initial response of the military authorities at the 82 Division of the Nigerian Army, Enugu was a feeble attempt to exonerate its personnel and cover up the misdeed. The Assistant Director of army public relations reportedly posted a statement on their Facebook account, saying that the killer of Nwaorgu was a cultist dressed in army T-shirt. The Police Public Relations Officer (PPRO) of the Abia State police command, Mr. Geoffrey Ogbonna also confirmed that the army had denied that its personnel was responsible for the death of the motorcyclist but added that the police had launched its own investigations.

The hasty denial by the Army failed to stick more so as the identity of the killer soldier with the rank of a corporal had already been known by the time the denial was posted. Things moved very fast for the Army to sustain its weak position hence it later changed tune and announced that it would probe the killing. That was when the outrage became overwhelming with several human rights and civil society organisations calling for proper probing of the incident and demanding for justice for the deceased and his family.

Military checkpoints became a common sight in the South-east about eight years ago when the zone experienced an upsurge in criminality, especially kidnapping. The military operations paid off as the kidnappers were routed. But the presence of the army personnel at checkpoints ran into controversy ever after when soldiers were accused of doing things outside their operational duties. The allegations included extortions, rights abuses, dehumanizing treatments of civilians and deliberate creation of traffic holdups thereby making travelling an agonizing experience in the zone. Governor Ikpeazu had cause to warn the army last year to stop subjecting Abia citizens to degrading punishments at checkpoints following complaints of people made to roll on the ground, frog jump, and mercilessly flogged for whatever reason.

In December, last year the International Society for Civil Liberties and the Rule of Law released a damning report in which it stated that extortion by security agencies in the South-east was a huge business grossing over N100 billion between August 2015 and December 2018. While it said that the police netted a huge chunk of N78 billion the military made N6 billion from the racket with soldiers taking the large share while the paramilitary agencies collectively collected N16 billion in the unholy business of extortion. Though the Army had quickly denied the involvement of its personnel in the checkpoint and roadside bribery and extortions facts on ground are not in their favour. The army spokesman when the report was made, Sani Usman, a Brigadier General had described the report as false, insisting that “the Nigerian army is very professional and has clearly established rules of engagement and conduct and as such cannot be associated with tissues of lies.” But with the killing of the motorcyclist at Umuokereke for not paying N100 at Ohanze army checkpoint the extortion allegations have further reinforced making the Army denials untenable in the present circumstances.

It is left for the Army high command to redeem its image in the South-east by strictly enforcing adherence to operational duties by its personnel manning the checkpoints across the South-east. Several pro-Biafra groups as well as human rights groups in the zone have had cause to demand for the dismantling of the checkpoints, describing them as ubiquitous signs of army of occupation. For now, all eyes are on the Army to do the needful and punish the killer of Nwaorgu to serve as deterrent to other would be trigger happy extortionists.