Wednesday, 4th October 2023

Amotekun: How Forest Guards Initiative Was Killed In Southeast

By Lawrence Njoku, Southeast Bureau Chief
19 January 2020   |   3:06 am
It took the unveiling of the controversial Western Nigeria Security Network (WNSN) codenamed Operation Amotekun by the Southwest governors for the Southeast zone to realise it

It took the unveiling of the controversial Western Nigeria Security Network (WNSN) codenamed Operation Amotekun by the Southwest governors for the Southeast zone to realise it had nursed similar ideas.

The regional security network, a response to the rising insecurity in the western zone, was set up with the intention of complementing activities of police and other paramilitary organisations in the fight against crimes, among others.

No sooner had the initiative been launched than Ebonyi State government rose up, claiming the regional security outfit was the idea of the Southeast zone.

The state’s Commissioner for Internal Security, Stanley Emegha, saidgovernors and leaders of the Southeast zone, had had elaborate and far-reaching security meetings on how to curtail insecurity in the region, stressing that the Southwest “only borrowed a leaf from its Southeast counterpart, in its establishment.”

Emegha disclosed that Southeast governors and leaders, last year, appointed Gen. Obi Umahi to coordinate the security architecture of the region, saying much was being done to mitigate all forms of insecurity in the land.

Perturbed by rising wanton killings, incessant clashes between residents and herders, kidnappings and other related crimes in the zone, Southeast governors had met in Enugu last year. The meeting, which came soon after the 2019 general elections, had resolved to float an integrated security network to oversee the zone.

The arrangement would involve setting up of Forest Guards in the states and a centre for South East Integrated Security Monitoring/Intelligence gathering to be centrally located in Enugu. It would also involve a joint security patrol and daily air surveillance. Obi Umahi, a retired Army General was appointed to coordinate the initiative.

Chairman of the forum, Governor Dave Umahi said after the meeting: “The Forum has resolved to key into the Federal Government’s community policing programme and that Forest Guards would be established in each state and roads cleared up to 50 metres into the bush to have a clear view of roads ahead.
“That the governors reviewed the security situation in the zone and in response to the emerging security challenges decided to set up a committee and a Centre for South East Integrated Security Monitoring/ Intelligence gathering to be centrally located in Enugu.
“The security committee will also address the safety of fuel pipeline route to Enugu depot to ensure that pumping of petroleum product in Enugu depot resumes in the shortest possible time.”
How The Idea Was Killed

THE security proposal seems to have fizzled out, however, as it has not got a mention since then among the governors. Investigations by The Guardian showed that lack of commitment, disagreement over funding and uncertainty over the election, among other considerations, largely derailed the idea.

It was gathered that after the meeting, each of the state governors returned home to subject the idea to further scrutiny and agreed to improve on what was on the ground in line with interest and needs of their states. For instance, Anambra State believed there was no need for Forest Guards when it had already improved security with the services of the local Vigilante. The state said there was continuous air surveillance by security officials, and that its security network was the best in the country.

The state Commissioner of Information, C. Don Adinuba told The Guardian that, should the rest of the zone adopt the arrangement on the ground in the state, there would be improved security in the zone.

He said: “I don’t think it is necessary to establish Forest Guards, when the local vigilante in the state is providing the services. Our security network is effective, and we are working with other security outfits to ensure the protection of life and property. There is constant air surveillance, which started in the state long ago. That is why you hardly hear about herders and farmers’ clashes or other forms of crime in the state.”

Abia State government did not also think Forest Guards would serve the state’s security needs. Governor Okezie Ikpeazu, after his first term in office, promised to set up a full-fledged ministry, tagged the Ministry of Homeland Security to tie up all loose ends in the security system.

He said the Ministry would have as its main focus, mainstreaming activities of Fulani herdsmen and other violent crimes, with a view to safeguarding the people, and that it would ensure “no inch of Abia territory remains unpoliced”. The Ministry has taken off as promised, with the appointment of a Commissioner.

In Ebonyi State, government continued to strengthen what was on the ground and ensuring the presence of local vigilante in all communities of the state, even as it scaled up information networks on crimes.

Enugu State governor, Ifeanyi Ugwuanyi had, however, followed through, when he announced that the state would recruit 100 locals in each of the 17 local government councils to work as Forest Guards. Government also rolled out patrol vehicles to assist their operation. This was at the height of insecurity in the state that led to various killings and kidnappings of people, including Catholic priests.

Although there was no formal launch of the outfit or training for those recruited for the operation, the government assured they would work with the police and other security agencies to protect life and property. The Guard’s operation in Enugu seems to have fizzled out, as nothing is heard about it any longer. Sources said it came as an adhoc measure, and that there was inadequate preparation for its takeoff. As such, it was not programmed to succeed.

Aside individual perception of the states, there is also the challenge of how to fund an integrated security network in the zone. A source explained that each state government was expected to contribute monthly to a pool of funds that would be established for funding the group’s activities. It was disclosed that none of the governors was willing to contribute, making it difficult to set up an operational office and procure other facilities that could aid their operations.

There was the other challenge of the governors not being sure of retaining their offices after the elections, following the petitions in the tribunals and other electoral cases in court. Almost all the governors, except Willie Obiano, had a case in court trailing their election.

Ugwuanyi was said to have ventured into the security arrangement the moment he ascertained that his opponents in the election were not ready to go to court, while Ebonyi, Abia and Imo preferred that election petitions be sorted out first. Ikpeazu and ousted Imo governor, Emeka Ihedioha were said to have held seriously to this position. Ihedioha never attended the meeting, while he was governor.

A Familiar Terrain?
IT was not the first time an elaborate idea that could impact the Southeast zone was jettisoned. Several others, by past and present governors of the zone were also never implemented. Their meetings in Enugu always ended up with resolutions that would never see the light of the day.

The governors of the zone have been meeting since 1999. To add some bite and ensure their full participation and attendance at meetings, they sometimes resorted to rotating their meetings within the five states of the zone. Each meeting always ended with a resolution of what they would do for the zone.

In 2018, one of the laudable decisions reached by the present crop of governors that elicited joy from citizens was the move to jointly pull resources to construct a ring road linking states in the zone. It was projected to cover 430 kilometres to boost the economy and enable ease of transportation of goods and services.

The decision was in realisation that the generality of the people is into commercial activities and that the many arable lands used for agricultural purposes could better be utilised, should there be motorable roads that cut into the hinterlands. Aside the ring road, there was also the pledge to build an ultra-modern specialist hospital in Enugu to cater to the people’s health needs. They also promised to intervene in the gas pipeline project and Aba Independent Power Project to boost the zone’s energy needs.

The governors noted then that when the projects are implemented, they would encourage entrepreneurs to invest in the zone, as well as provide employment for the teeming youths, the majority of who are likely to remain in the zone for paid employment.

Sources said the governors took the decisions to check alleged rising agitation among the youths, as the majority of them were joining pro-Biafra agitators, due to lack of meaningful engagement in productive ventures.

Unfortunately, the decisions followed the way of others in the past, which were not implemented. Then Director-General of the Governors Forum and now Secretary to Enugu State government, Prof Uchenna Ortuanya, told The Guardian that the projects were on course, stressing that a feasibility study had been commissioned to ascertain cost and tracks that could house the venture.

Two years after, the Southeast ring road is yet to be constructed. There is no improvement in electricity supply. The ultra-modern specialist hospital has remained a dream. The zone’s economic situation has not improved. The youths are still finding life too difficult, as there are no jobs. Migration out of the Southeast is still rampant and is the highest in the country. No new industry has come on stream or rehabilitated.

A civil rights activist, Emeka Ugwu, said rising insecurity was fast eroding the zone’s development plans. He stated that residents should not continue to live in fear and move with caution, even within the zone and wondered why the governors failed to jointly undertake projects in the zone

He said Southeast is in dire of need of protection. “We must look for what to do to give our people this protection, as they struggle to eke out a living, due to the absence of paid employment in the region,” he said.

Mazi Chuks Ibegbu, Ohanaeze Deputy Publicity Secretary, also agreed that the time had come to “match words with action,” adding “We need to set up a regional security network in the Southeast since the Federal Government seems to have failed to do so.”

Nonetheless, Ohanaeze Ndigbo has continued to hail the decision to set up a security outfit by Southwest governors. Ibegbu said the initiative was a big challenge to Southeast governors, and that they should invest in a regional security outfit like their counterparts, as a way of protecting the people and their investments.

The Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) has also pledged its support for the initiative, stressing that it was ready to provide the manpower to enable it to succeed.