South-East govs’ endless battle with insecurity

MUHAMMED LAWAL examines the unending security challenges in the South-East and how the governors of Imo, Ebonyi, Anambra, Enugu, and Abia states have tried to put a stop to the killings and kidnapping in the region

For the past eight years, Nigeria has been plagued with multifaceted issues of insecurity across the country. The need to combat kidnapping, killings, and destruction of property forced some state governors to create regional security outfits. There is no doubt that the northern geopolitical zone recorded several killings up till last year followed by the South-East geopolitical zone.

Rising violent crimes by criminal gangs particularly kidnappers, bandits, terrorists, and armed Fulani herdsmen have for years rendered many states insecure and unsafe for the people and smothered peace in the country.

In response to the disturbing development, on January 9, 2020 the South-West states, except Lagos State, established Amotekun, a regional security outfit. Though this was opposed by the Federal Government, the region had deemed it fit to manage the affairs of the security outfit for its sustainability.

At that time, the South-East inaugurated forest guards to secure the forests in the region and stop criminals from making them (forests) their hideouts, but this was not effective as the region continued to witness interminable attacks from suspected Fulani herdsmen. Residents of the region expressed dissatisfaction over their governors’ futile efforts to combat the incessant attacks by these criminal gangs.

While some of the criminal gangs acted as separatist groups agitating for Biafra, others kidnapped for ransom and killed their own for no reason. Most disturbing was the kidnapping and killing of monarchs. Recall that the traditional ruler of Otulu community in the Ezinihitte Mbaise Local Government Area of Imo State, Eze Joe Ochulor, was murdered in November 2023. The king’s lifeless body was found by the roadside in Mbutu community in the neighbouring Aboh Mbaise Local Government Area.

Amidst the security challenges that crippled economic activities, posed threats to life and property, and altered the peaceful co-existence in these states, on April 11, 2021, southeastern governors, in an emergency meeting at the Imo State Government House, came together for a security discussion. In this meeting, the setting up of a regional security outfit codenamed Ebubeagu was announced to subdue these challenges in the region. It was reported by The PUNCH that the announcement came in the wake of violent attacks on the Imo State Police Headquarters and the National Correctional Centre, all in Owerri, the state capital.

The governors had after a meeting directed the Attorneys-General and Commissioners for Justice of the five South-East states to work with the joint security committee to come up with the amendment of the existing state laws to reflect the new Ebubeagu security outfit.

The governors, in a communiqué read by the then chairman of the South-East Governors’ Forum and governor of Ebonyi State, David Umahi, said the security outfit, with its headquarters to be sited in Enugu, the Enugu State capital, would collaborate with the Nigeria Police Force and other security agencies in the region.

“Ebubeagu will work with the Police and other security agencies in her operations to protect lives and property in the South-East. The attorneys-general and commissioners for Justice of the South-East states have been directed to work with the joint security committee to come up with the amendment of the existing state laws to reflect the new Ebubeagu outfit,” the communiqué read in part.

However, before the creation of Ebubuagu, the Indigenous People of Biafra founded the Eastern Security Network to tackle the pervasive attacks by armed herdsmen in the region and to proffer remedies to the unsafe surroundings that made going and coming to the region disastrous.

The peace project

In all this, the House of Representatives believes that the establishment of a South-East Development Commission will restore peace in the region and bring an end to the endless violent incidents in the geo-political zone.

Saturday PUNCH reports that President Bola Tinubu, in Bende Local Government Area of Abia State, promised that he would use available resources to ensure lasting peace and security in the South-East. President Tinubu made the promise while unveiling the Logo of the Peace in the South-East Project, PISE – P, a strategic platform for the restoration of peace in the South-East region envisioned by the Deputy Speaker of the House of Representatives, Rt. Hon. Benjamin Kalu.

Also, the Chairman of the South-East Governors’ Forum and Governor of Imo State, Hope Uzodimma applauded Ben Kalu for the initiative of the peace project, noting that Ndigbo would embrace anything that would bring peace to the South.

Ebubeagu, ESN at loggerheads

However, things became awry when facts emerged that Ebubeagu had been rejected by the pro-Biafra group, saying the government outfit would be an extension of the conventional security agencies, warning that “one must give way for the other.”

On May 9, 2021, the IPOB’s spokesperson, Emma Powerful, described Ebubeagu as an imaginary outfit that won’t work, adding that the governors should not be trusted. He said, “When our people needed them for protection, they were nowhere to be found. Instead of standing to be counted, they were rather waiting for instructions. And now that their masters have instructed them on what to do, that is why they hurriedly announced the imaginary outfit. We know their mission. The outfit will be an extension of the Nigerian security agencies to spy on our gallant Eastern Security Network and other pro-Biafra groups,” Powerful said

Also, on May 9, 2021, the late former governor of Anambra State, Chukwuemeka Ezeife, said, “This cannot be left to any group except the elders. Those of us who can be called the elders in the whole of the South-East need to work hard, and very hard. We had wanted it long ago, not Ebubeagu but a central regional security system like Eastern Security Network.

“The ESN eventually came because there was no such central system; now that we have a central system, the best thing we can do as elders is to get the governors and IPOB together in whatever way we can do it without offending any group, and work out an arrangement whereby the ESN and Ebubeagu could cohabit.

“The point is really clear; everybody likes the ESN, but you know the ESN is not from an elected government. It is not a people’s movement as such because we voted for the people in government. We didn’t vote for IPOB but we are grateful to them for what they have done to help save our lives. But Ebubeagu, on the contrary, can be said to be a people’s security outfit because it was set up by the government elected by the people.”

Ebubeagu’s disbandment

This security outfit established by the South-East governors allegedly turned out to be a menace in the states. They had been suspected to be involved in several killings across the states. This, however, led to people criticising them for terrorising the communities as they could not live up to their main expectations.

Recounting the ordeal of the government security outfit, a survivor of the July 17, 2022 killing at Awo Omamma in the Oru East Local Government Area of Imo State, Nnamdi Nnanna, narrated to The PUNCH how operatives of the state-owned Ebubeagu security outfit allegedly shot seven of his brothers dead in his presence.

Recall that on July 20, 2022, the family of two siblings killed alongside 12 others on July 17, 2022, while returning from a traditional wedding at Awo Omamma in Oru East Local Government Area of Imo State, had called on the Inspector-General of Police, Usman Baba; and the state governor, Hope Uzodimma, to ensure justice was done in the matter.

Again, the Ndigbo Unity Forum told governors of the South-East to immediately disband the Ebubeagu vigilance outfit set up to checkmate the activities of suspected criminals because of the incessant, unwarranted, and extra-judicial killings of innocent and unarmed youths in the zone.

On February 14, 2023, the Federal High Court sitting in Abakaliki disbanded the South-East security outfit in Ebonyi State. According to the court, the disbandment of the security outfit was a result of human rights abuses, extortions, illegal arrests, and the use of firearms.

Govs’ efforts for peace

On July 28, 2019, the South-East Governors’ Forum announced that it would launch forest guards in the states to fight insecurity in the zone. This was stated at the end of the meeting where they agreed to set up a committee and a centre for the South-East Integrated Security Monitoring/Intelligence Gathering to be centrally located in Enugu.

On August 10, 2023, in a bid to foster peace in the region, five governors of the South-East states met at the Government House, Enugu State. One of the key agenda of discussion was the Monday sit-at-home enforced in the region by the IPOB and the demand for the release of Nnamdi Kanu, the leader of the separatist group, IPOB, who has been in custody since June 2021.

Recently, the governors of the five South-East states of Abia, Anambra, Ebonyi, Enugu, and Imo states and some monarchs were expected to meet in Umuahia on Friday 29, 2023 to unveil the ‘Peace in South East Project’. Governor Uzodinmma, who leads the governors in the region, was present at the meeting to give the support of the governors to Ben Kalu’s peace project.

However, only time will tell if the project will be instrumental to finding a lasting peace in a region that has suffered so much kidnapping and killings for a long time.

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Lending his voice on the matter, the National Publicity Secretary of Ohanaeze Ndigbo Worldwide, Dr Alex Ogbonnia, noted that insecurity was not peculiar to the South-East, adding that there should be a change in the security architecture of the country.

Ogbonia said, “I want to point out that the insecurity in the South-East is not peculiar to the region alone. You can see what happened in Plateau State where about 150 were massacred in what we can call genocide. If you go to the North-West, it is similar. The only place I can say is safe now is the South-West. All over Nigeria, you can see certain levels of insecurity.

“I want to thank God that we have not heard sad stories across the South-East states lately. It has been free from killings and other forms of news. For now, people are still enjoying themselves. As of now, there is no record of any threat to life.

“I can also assure you that (Nuhu) Ribadu started working but it has not been functional at the central level, but at the state level, it was functional. Ribadu was functional at Ebonyi State, Imo State. The only difference is the nomenclature because, in Enugu State, we still have vigilantes, and the same thing in Anambra State.

“But what we are working on is the central command structure, Ebubeagu in the whole South-East. I can tell you that every state has its own system. On that basis, they have a lot to provide a certain level of security in the states. What is happening across the country today; one cannot say that it (insecurity) is peculiar to the South-East alone. I am also confident that this new set of governors has come with service to the economy and security. They are working out plans to build a central structure to have central coordination.

“Above all, what Ohanaeze is calling for is the three or four levels of security architecture, where we will have such security structure at the state and local government levels and a place like the university. This is one of the characteristics of a federal system. It is only in Nigeria that we have a central policing with Civil Defence which is in the central command. This is not appropriate for a federal system. What we are asking from the Federal Government is equity and fairness.”

Commenting on the issue of insecurity in the South-East region, the National Vice Chairman of the Labour Party in the South-East, Innocent Okeke, said that the level of insecurity in the South-East was disturbing.

He said, “The governors come together to tackle insecurity and I don’t think they are sincere to themselves. In the beginning, they came together and said they formed Ebubeagu and it later became a nightmare in the South-East. However, Ebubeagu was proscribed in Ebonyi State and it is not in action in Anambra and Abia States. You can only find Ebubeagu in Imo State.

“You can’t say it’s a regional thing, only Imo State is operating Ebubeagu. The same Ebubeagu in Imo State has turned into a larger-scale disaster because 65 per cent of the killings and insecurity recorded in that area are caused by these men. My take is that the security situation in the South-East demands that the governors come together to declare a state of emergency on this security issue.

“In declaring a state of emergency, they have to partner with the Federal Government, and their first request should be to review the policing institution that has been destroyed across the states. In Imo State, apart from maybe circulation in Owerri axis, you don’t find a police station anywhere functioning. There is nowhere you can achieve security and better policing if the police formation is not working well. So, if they do not come together with the Federal Government to seek to rebuild all these institutions, then what are they talking about tackling insecurity?

“Again, they are using their non-state actors and militia to battle the people who are causing trouble. I don’t think it’s yielding the needed dividends. They need to come together as a regional government and agree within themselves to have a common ground to tackle these menaces. I think some of them are enjoying it because they see it as an avenue for them to cause confusion and rig elections at any time just like what happened in Imo State when they made the people afraid to come out.

“In Nigeria, we know the state we are in, where injustice and marginalisation are the order of the day. So, people have the right to say this is what we are facing and the government must call people and say, ‘Okay, we listen to you; how do we go about this?’ It is not when the people scream and shout that you will now return fire for fire and the things will escalate. The issue of IPOB is not something that is out of control. If the state and federal governments come together, they will settle it.

“Finally, the release of Nnamdi Kanu will go a long way in relaxing the issues in the South-East and also open the door for reconciliation, and tackling of insecurity.”