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Urban legend and durable insecurity in South-East Nigeria

By Chidi Anselm Odinkalu
29 June 2023   |   4:47 am
On July 17, 2012, Peter Obi, then Governor of Anambra State, swore in five new commissioners. One of them was Chike Okoli, whom he assigned to the Ministry of Science and Technology where he would serve as commissioner until the expiration...


On July 17, 2012, Peter Obi, then Governor of Anambra State, swore in five new commissioners. One of them was Chike Okoli, whom he assigned to the Ministry of Science and Technology where he would serve as commissioner until the expiration of Mr. Obi’s governorship tenure in March 2014. Two months later, around May 21, 2014, Chike set out from the state capital in Awka to Nanka, his village in Orumba South Local Government Area (LGA) of the state. He never got there.

Somewhere in Agulu, not far from Nanka, Chike’s car was reportedly intercepted by men in a Sports Utility Vehicle (SUV), who abducted him. Despite having much of their ransom demand of N16 million met, Chike has not been seen or heard from since then. It was widely reported at the time that Chike was “abducted by unknown gunmen.”

41 days before Okoli’s abduction, then Inspector-General of Police, Mohammed Abubakar, went to Awka, where he declared that the state was the safest it had been in five years. Five years before this revelation by the Inspector-General, in April 2009, a campaign of violent crime leading to the death of over 30 persons in lethal fortnight, forced the House of Representatives to hold an urgent debate at the end of which it adopted a resolution expressing alarm at and asking for urgent measures to address the activities of “the men of the underworld in Anambra State.”

In the first six months of 2009, violent crime killed over 60 people in Anambra State alone. Abia, Anambra and Imo States in the South-east were among the top five in the kidnapping league table compiled by Nigeria’s security agencies in 2009. A report by the Voice of America in December 2009 attributed these trends in the South-East to “criminality and violence from the proliferation of armed gangs.” One year later, in the last quarter of 2010, Aba, the commercial centre in Abia State, was reported to be “in the firm grip of kidnap militia.”

Transnational crime gangs were the suspects when unknown gunmen attacked St. Phillip’s Catholic Church, Ozubulu, in Ekwusigo LGA of Anambra State, shooting indiscriminately at worshippers in an incident that killed at least 13 persons and injured many more in the early hours of August 6, 2017.

These instances do not by any means pretend to scratch the surface of the patterns of atrocity violence in South-east Nigeria. But they illustrate some features that have been lost, as the situation has become the stuff of a bifurcated, single narrative. Internally in the region, one prong to this narrative claims that the sources of insecurity in the South-East are external, caused mostly by armed herders. Externally, outside the South-East, much of the country perceives insecurity in South-east as the handiwork of the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB). Both claims are blinkered.

The latter prong of this single narrative has much of its origins in two developments and one tendency. One was the designation of the group as a terrorist organisation by an ex parte court order at the instance of the former Attorney-General of the Federation, Abubakar Malami, in 2017. The tactical objective, it seemed, was to isolate the group. The actual consequence was a strategic metastasis.

A second was the decision by National Security Adviser in his inaugural Annual Security Threat Assessment in 2017 to take a federal character approach to security threat analyses and boil down a resilient problem of insecurity in the South-East into an IPOB problem, putting the group on the same footing as Boko Haram.

These two developments derive from the tendency to turn every problem of insecurity in Nigeria into a revenue source for those supposed to manage them. The result is that no theatre of insecurity in Nigeria ever gets better. The Joint Task Force (JTF), in the Niger Delta, for instance, has been in existence since 1994. It was meant to be temporary.

These developments were foreseeably wrong-headed. Contrary to urban legend, atrocity violence in the South-East had been on the rise since the return to elective governance in 1999. In his 2007 book on Political Assassinations in Nigeria, Shehu Sani, the former Senator from Kaduna State, details over 50 crimes and victims of political murder which occurred in Nigeria in the first eight years following the return to elective government in Nigeria in 1999. The South-East and South-south easily out-ranked the other geo-political zones of the country with the highest number of assassinations.

As the disappearance of Chike Okoli in 2014 shows, the “unknown gunman” is not a recent moniker. When unknown assassins set upon the then Chairman of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) in Onitsha, Barnabas Igwe and his wife, Abigail, brutally killing both around September 1, 2002, IPOB was not in existence. Three years later, the former Governor of Anambra State, the recently deceased Chinwoke Mbadinuju, walked free on charges of having procured the double murder of Mr. and Mrs. Igwe. Their killers remain unknown.

In his 2023 Annual Security Threat Assessment, the National Security Adviser claims that IPOB attacks “led to the death of 77 civilians” in 2022, with 54% of reported incidents credited to the group being directed, however, at security agencies. Clearly, 77 persons killed is 77 too many, yet, this statistics should put perceptions of IPOB as an insecurity proposition in perspective.

By comparison, Obosi, the ancient town in Anambra State, which shares part of the commercial hub widely referred to as Onitsha, has been overtaken by an orgy of cult killings, which has killed nearly 100 young men over the same period. The Obosi killings have not merited the attentions of the NSA even though they have a much longer history; are much more deadly; involve more sophisticated weapons; and are linked to organised crime. The reason is simple: Obosi killings do not fit into the single narrative of separatism.

Of course, the violence in the South-East is not exclusive to non-state actors or gangs. The month before the Ozubulu Massacre, scores of bodies of dead young men were found floating on the Ezu River in Anambra State in a mass liquidation that appeared to bear the hallmarks of the Special Armed Robbery Squad (SARS).

At the beginning of a pattern that would define the millennium for many in that part of Nigeria, in the early hours of February 7, 2001, over 150 armed men of the Police Mobile Force attacked what was believed to be the national headquarters of the Movement for the Actualisation of the Sovereign State of Biafra (MASSOB), in Okigwe, Imo State, shooting at will at hundreds of unarmed activists. It was reported that dead “casualties of the raid littered everywhere.” In May 2008, MASSOB released a list of 2,020 of its members allegedly killed by Nigerian security agencies.

A major inflection point was the prison break in Owerri in April 2021, which freed over 1,844 prisoners, many of them violent and dangerous, from a facility not far from the office of the state governor, who was reportedly not far from the vicinity of the prison as the incident occurred. Quite miraculously, no prison officers suffered any casualties in the break. The aftermath of the prison break would witness an indiscriminate escalation in the South-East on a scale suggesting the partisan weaponisation of insecurity.

The Buhari regime approached insecurity in South-East Nigeria with peculiar prejudices, which did not much bother itself with knowledge or evidence. With the region excluded from strategic leadership of the security services, much of the decision making about how to manage exposure to insecurity in that part of the country lacked the benefit of informed insights.

Far from being helpful, the interventions by the Buhari lot did much to hinder efforts to find solutions to insecurity in the region. To be fair, the South-East was not the only region mismanaged under the Buhari mis-adventure. Over eight years, Muhammadu Buhari left every part of Nigeria worse than he met them.

As the country turns the page on a toxic eight years, there is an opportunity to re-think the metrics and methods by which it manages insecurity. In Nigeria, those who should end insecurity seem committed instead to making it durable. That must end.
Odinkalu, a lawyer and teacher, can be reached at chidi.odinkalu@tufts.edu