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‘Dialogue, reconciliation will help avoid civil war’

As the violence in the Southeast worsens, PRECIOUS IGBONWELUNDU reports that stakeholders have called for dialogue, genuine reconciliation, reintegration and reconstruction to prevent another civil war

Until recently, the security challenges prevalent in the Southeast were farmer-herder conflicts, kidnapping for ransom, communal, land tussles, cultism and political violence. These issues, which sprung up occasionally, were usually resolved by state actors or traditional structures to prevent escalation.

Things, however, fell apart with the onslaught carried out by AK47-wielding herdsmen across agrarian communities in the Northcentral, Southwest and Southeast who went about raping women/children, killing farmers, setting their houses ablaze and grazing their cattle on people’s farmlands with reckless abandon.

For instance, no fewer than 52 persons were killed by herders last week in an Ebonyi State border community with Benue State. These criminals were said to have also killed 25 persons in Ngbo community, Ohaukwu Local Government Area in April, and 50 others murdered in Ebonyi State in May. Agrarian communities in Enugu, Anambra, Abia and Imo states have also had their share of deaths, rape of women and children by herdsmen attacks which have led to the abandonment of farming activities and cries of a possible food crisis in the region.

Calls for true federalism, state and regional police, resource control, national dialogue, among others have become rife just as protests against killings, kidnappings and agitations for secession especially in the Southeast, escalated.

The wanton killings, destruction by the criminal herdsmen and the seeming inability of the government to contain them led to the creation of the Eastern Security Network (ESN) by the Indigenous Peoples of Biafra (IPOB) shortly after the Southwest governors rose to the occasion and established Amotekun, a regional outfit to protect the people of the region.

However, that sigh of relief was short-lived as the Federal Government wielded its sledgehammer on the ESN and declared it illegal. This declaration led to the deployment of police and soldiers to the Southeast to deal with members of ESN, without putting measures in place to check the excesses of the criminal herders that necessitated their creation in the first place.

The presence of more armed policemen and soldiers in the Southeast coupled with allegations of arbitrary arrest, branding of young people as IPOB/ESN, extortion and extrajudicial killings of innocent youths gave rise to another wave of violence by so-called unknown gunmen, this time targeted at security operatives and facilities, which has left no fewer than 150 persons dead including civilian, security operatives and armed militias.

One of such cases was the alleged murder of a Germany-based Nigerian by security forces while on his way to the Sam Mbakwe Airport, Owerri, with his wife and children to return to their base. There is also the alleged killing and setting ablaze of the body of Samuel Okoro alias Gentle BIGGY, said to be a personal assistant (PA) to a human rights lawyer, Ifeanyi Ejiofor by a joint security team on Sunday, June 6.

Known as NHSS Tactical Team and comprising police, soldiers, operatives of the Department of State Services (DSS) and Nigerian Security and Civil Defence Corps (NSCDC), the team, according to the International Society for Civil Liberties and Rule of Law (Intersociety), burnt Okoro’s body inside a red 2013 Toyota Camry belonging to Ejiofor, who’s alleged to be IPOB’s lawyer.

Intersociety alleged that the security team executed the act about 30 minutes after leaving Ejiofor’s family house at Oraifite in Ekwusigo LGA, which was under siege between 2:30 am to 4 am on Sunday, adding that the security agents eventually shot Okoro dead, arrested four persons including the lawyer’s elder brother, Joel Ejiofor, driver, Felix Okonkwo, 55, gardener/ compound sweeper, Lawrence Ugochukwu Okafor, 20, and gateman, Ikenna Chibuike, 35.

According to Intersociety, Ejiofor’s elder brother has eventually pushed off a moving vehicle while the convoy was on its way to Awka, Okoro’s remains burnt with the vehicle while the other three domestic workers were branded notorious IPOB members on the wanted list by the agents.

In its analysis of insecurity presented at a multi-stakeholder forum organised by the Civil Society Legislative Advocacy Centre (CISLAC), a group, Nextier SPD said the first quarter of this year showed a noticeable increase in widespread violence and conflicts compared to the last quarter of 2020.

It said from its violent conflict database, about 724 people were killed and 802 kidnapped in 336 incidents, while in the last quarter of 2020, 384 people were killed, 510 persons kidnapped in 256 incidents. “The statistics portray an increasing wave of violence despite the Nigerian government’s efforts to contain these issues. The result is the emergence of non-state actors in some instances complement efforts the state security -Amotekun, Vigilantes- and some cases challenge- IPOB, ESN- the state.

“In the last five months, 55 attacks were recorded in the Southeast, ranging from communal clashes to farmer herders. The attacks have led to the death of over a hundred and fifty-five persons (155)…

“The new wave of insecurity indicates that the Nigeria Police Force expected to maintain law and order during the polls are as vulnerable as citizens… The increased deployment of soldiers to the region rather than quell violence has led to human rights violations and growing violence,” the group said.

Although these targeted attacks began with the ENDSARS violence last October across the country, they have continued unabated in the southeast since January. For instance, in Ebonyi State, Onueke Police Station in Ezza South LGA was attacked on January 8 leaving three cops dead. On February 4, the Police station at Isu Onicha LGA in Ebonyi was razed. Iboko Police station in Izzi was burnt on March 1, and three police officers were killed on April 14 along Onuebonyi Nwezenyi road, Abakalaki.

In Enugu, gunmen shot two operatives dead during an attack on Adani Police Station in Uzo-Uwani Local Government Area of Enugu State on April 21.

In Imo, at least five policemen were killed after gunmen attacked a police station in Imo state on April 26. There were several other attacks including those on the Police Command Headquarters and Correctional Centre on April 5; Umulowo Police Division in Obowo LGA on February 5 that killed two cops; Aboh Mbaise Police station was on February 25 and Ihitte Uboma station on March 9.

In Anambra, unidentified gunmen attacked a police patrol team along the Nimo-Neni link road in Anaocha LGA leaving one operative dead on March 18; two police officers, Inspector Ishaku Aura and Constable Uzoma Uwaebuka were killed in Anambra State, during a deadly attack by gunmen at the Zone 13 headquarters in Ukpor on April 19; two policemen were killed when unknown gunmen attacked Obosi Police Station in Idemili North LGA on May 6.

In Abia, a police officer was killed on February 1 following an attack on Omoba Police Station, Isiala Ngwa; two police officers were killed during the attack on Abayi Divisional Police Headquarters in Aba and three officers were killed on March 22 at Abiriba, Ohafia. Also, Uzuakoli Police Station was attacked, burnt and detainees freed on March 19, 2021.

Aside from the attacks on the police in the region, soldiers and other paramilitary agents have also been killed including five soldiers murdered at Ihiala on May 29 and a senior Nigerian Immigration Service (NIS) officer killed in Imo State also in May.

Speaking at the CISLAC’s multi-stakeholder consultative forum held at the Army Resource Centre in Abuja, Chairman, House Committee on Army, Abdulrazak Namdas emphasised the need to revisit the past to establish a pathway for the future. He noted that non-implementation of the agreed 3-Rs (Reconciliation, Reconstruction and Rehabilitation) after the civil war, worsened the plight of citizens in the Southeast as it led to retarded economic growth of the region, exacerbated poverty situation, created unemployment, zero windows of opportunity and a completely dislocated social and political consciousness of the people.

“The aftermath was the emergence of non-state actors like MASSOB, IPOB, Bakassi and a constant cry of marginalisation. We must find a political solution to the situation ravaging the region.

“We must exhort politicians that while seeking political powers or offices at the federal and state level, they should endeavour to play the game by the rules, demonstrate a spirit of sportsmanship, elevate politics beyond ethnicity and self-aggrandisement and ensure fulfilment of promises made during electioneering campaigns.

“This will reduce acrimonies and violence associated with politics which oftentimes create tensions and insecurity in the society.”

He said issues of chieftaincy and boundary disputes as well as communal conflicts, indigenes versus settlers squabbles, among others should also be looked into as triggers of violence in the region.

“These issues demand a multifaceted approach towards analytically and forensically unravelling the faces behind the attacks. We must find out their political messages or demands and then see if a middle of the road agreement can be worked out to put an end to these incessant attacks.

“This is because the use of military-style approach to try to extinguish asymmetric warfare or urban guerrilla movements that are just about taking shape is not sustainable over a long period.

“The adoption of carrot and stick approach might as well work in seeking a quick end to these cocktails of coordinated violent confrontation against strategic national security assets and forces.”

He also advocated the need for government to inspire hope in the people so that they can feel like a part of the system and know they have a future, stake in it.

Similarly, the Executive Director of CISLAC, Auwal Musa-Rafsanjani, blamed the violence in the region on years of repression and systemic injustice against the people that have left them permanently bruised and forever scarred.

He noted how years of extrajudicial killings targeted at young Igbo men, extortion by security agencies were etched in the minds of people, adding that though the current attacks on security agents/facilities were bad, repugnant, it would be a “barefaced lie to feign ignorance of how we got here.”

The CISLAC boss said the role of the security agencies, whether police or army, in the Southeast seems more like a force of occupation.

“Of course, one has no doubt that there are still good men and women in uniform doing their best but such individuals now exist only on the fringes. Their good efforts have been submerged in a sea of criminal activities of the mainstream, which thrive in the business of operating an elaborate extortion scheme in most parts of the country, but more so in the Southeast region.

“In some cases, they have also been accused of aiding and abetting crime…The horrifying reality of today is that there are not many options available to salvage the situation.

“The only way out is for the region’s political leaders to wake up from deep slumber. They should worry less about their political future and take firm and decisive actions. Anything short of that, we would be attempting to escape mythical monsters, and even the mere thought of that gives me goosebumps and leaves one perpetually in a funk,” said Musa-Rafsanjani.

A senior lecturer, Dr. Ben Nwosu, in his paper titled “resolving the cliff-hanger: a case for dialogue pathway from the rising insecurity in Southeastern Nigeria” recommended a neutral party, possibly civil society to engineer dialogue between the government and the agitators.

He called for effective security provisions for the country, lamenting the ease with which non-state actors have access to weapons and use the same for criminality.

He blamed the government for the emergence of the Eastern Security Network (ESN), noting that the government’s failure to proactively respond to murderous ravages of herdsmen in agrarian communities gave birth to a self-help approach.

He said: “The government’s response to these agitations (IPOB/ESN) tends to be fixated on one mode of approach namely use of force. This response template seems unmindful of the changing character of the dynamics at play.”

In his presentation, a researcher, Dr. Chris Kwaja, noted that the country was enmeshed in crises that manifest in three key ways- uncertainty around the economy worsened by corruption; weakening of inter-group relations and rising insecurity in the form of ethno-religious conflicts, armed banditry, insurgency and secessionist agitations, as well as sheer recklessness of the political elites whose vested interests are linked to a political culture that places a high premium on access to power without any concrete agenda for governance.

He said the way out was for the Nigerian state to reclaim its monopoly of the instruments of coercion and ensure its usage in a legitimate and accountable manner.

A Senior Policy and Research Analyst of Nextier SPD, Ndidi Anyanwu, urged the government to rethink its law enforcement strategies and galvanise actions towards building peace which include addressing the cause of the agitations.

She argued that the multi-stakeholder response must include exploring alternative options of mitigating insecurity and preventing the escalation of violence.

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