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Fears, optimism in South East as exercise golden dawn gathers momentum

By  Lawrence Njoku (Enugu), Charles Ogugbuaja (Owerri), Uzoma Nzeagwu (Awka) and Gordi Udeaja (Umuahia)
16 October 2021   |   3:03 am
The current special military operations launched by the Nigerian Army in the Southeast geo-political zone of the country did not come as a surprise to many observers.

The current special military operations launched by the Nigerian Army in the Southeast geo-political zone of the country did not come as a surprise to many observers. Such operations had been launched in the past in the zone, especially towards the end of the year. The first of such exercises that came in 2015 was codenamed Operation Iron Fence and targeted at curbing the activities of armed robbers, hooligans and kidnappers.

In 2016, the Army launched Operation Python Dance I in the zone also aimed at fighting armed robbery, kidnapping, cultism and other related vices. It lasted for one month.

The following year, 2017, Operation Python Dance II was launched. Coincidentally, the agitation for secession by the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) was becoming vigorous then, just like now. In the course of the operation, which had its base in Umuahia, the Abia State capital, soldiers invaded the residence of the IPOB leader, Mazi Nnamdi Kanu. Kalu successfully escaped unhurt and fled the country. He remained in a foreign land until he was arrested and brought back to the country some months back to the chagrin of his supporters who now appear to have vowed to ensure his freedom. This has resulted in heightened insecurity in the entire zone, to say the least.

To address the situation, the Nigerian Army launched the current Exercise Golden Dawn about a fortnight ago. The operational base is at Emene in Enugu State. The Chief of Army Staff, Lt. General Farouk Yahaya, who kicked off the exercise, said it was in response to emerging threats to the continued unity and development of the country.

He stated that the military operation would run until December 23, this year, adding that it would also consolidate the cordial relationships between the Army and its host communities as well as combat kidnapping, armed robbery, pipeline vandalism, banditry, terrorism and emerging threats by gunmen.

“Exercise Golden Dawn will checkmate the menace of kidnapping, attack on government structures and security agencies, assassinations, among others in the South-East,” he said. He explained that Enugu was chosen to host the exercise “because of the happenings here.”

Gen. Yahaya added: “You can say it is because of the successes we have been recording here just like we are recording across the strata. We also know that we have elections coming in Anambra State and we want to send a message to the criminal-minded that they must allow peace and security to reign. They must allow the democratic process to take place. We will not tolerate any act that will violate them because those acts are not constitutional. It is our mandate to maintain civil authority and that is why we are here. These elements are warned to desist from creating tension in their own interest and submit all their arms and ammunition to our troops as we are determined to engage anyone found to act otherwise.”

According to him, the joint military operation would involve the Police, Nigeria Security and Civil Defence Corps (NSCDC), Federal Road Safety Corps (FRSC), Nigeria Customs Service, Department of State Services (DSS) and other stakeholders. The agencies are expected to harness their skills and competences to restore peace and order in the zone.

The General Officer Commanding 82 Division of the Nigerian Army, Major General T.A. Lagbaja, who corroborated the views of the Chief of Army Staff, added that the exercise would bring an end to the activities of gunmen in the Southeast zone.

“Criminal elements in the region, particularly those who operate as gunmen, especially in Anambra, Ebonyi and Imo States, are therefore warned, in their own interest, to desist from their nefarious activities and surrender all the illegally acquired weapons and ammunitions forthwith or be met with appropriate action by own troops,” the GOC said.

The Commander, 302 Artillery Regiment (General Support), Onitsha, Col. Abdulkarim .B. Usman, while also launching the operation in Anambra, said the Army was ready to tackle insecurity in the state and foster inter-agency cooperation.

He listed the threats to peace in the state to include secessionist agitations by the Movement for the Actualisation of Sovereign State of Biafra (MASSOB), the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) and Eastern Security Network (ESN), banditry, kidnapping, cultist activities, land disputes clashes, communal clashes, chieftaincy issues clashes, assassinations and youths restiveness.

Indeed, before the launch of the special operation, there was apprehension in parts of the region following the rising spate of killings, hostage-taking, attacks on security facilities and security officials/snatching of their arms and many others.

Day after day, it became increasingly difficult to see regular policemen, who used to be everywhere on the streets mounting checkpoints. They recoiled into their stations for fear of being attacked by gunmen.

In Enugu, no fewer than four police stations were razed and many operatives killed. The attack was extended to facilities belonging to the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC). The commission’s offices in Udenu, Igbo-Etiti and Awgu local councils of the state, and its headquarters in Enugu, were torched.

Also, some policemen on duty at checkpoints were killed in Nkanu West, Nsukka, Ezeagu, Isiuzo and Enugu East local councils. While the attacks raged, shops were burgled with several food items and cash carted away by the hoodlums.

At the moment, the spate of insecurity in Enugu seems to have been compounded by the weekly Monday sit-at-home ordered by IPOB to protest the continued detention of their supreme leader, Kanu. Although the leadership of the organisation had backtracked twice after enforcing the exercise, which commenced on August 9, the zone still wears the look of a ‘ghost town’ every Monday. The residents remain indoors fearing that hoodlums who enforce the sit-at-home order might attack them if they step out.

In fact, the one that was observed last Monday, being the first since the launch of the Exercise Golden Dawn, saw the entire streets of the zone empty, with no economic activity. Banks, markets and other businesses remained under lock and key.

At least two persons were killed in Enugu State, while a commuter bus and a tricycle were set ablaze by hoodlums attempting to enforce compliance with the sit-at-home order in the state.

In Imo, since this year’s Easter Monday when gunmen in their scores invaded the Owerri Correctional Centre situated on Okigwe Road and freed about 1,800 inmates, the state has literarily not known peace.

On that same day, the hoodlums had also marched to the Imo State Police Command Headquarters, opposite the Government House, Owerri, where they used explosive devices to set scores of vehicles parked in the premises ablaze.

The hoodlums did not stop there. A few days later, they went to the ancestral town of Governor Hope Uzodimma, Omuma, Oru East Local Council and torched his house. A security man protecting the facility was killed while two vehicles parked in the premises were burnt.

The hoodlums perpetrated another dastardly act when they blindfolded a woman, brought her out in Orji, near Owerri metropolis, and executed her.

The activities of the hoodlums also led to the death of a former Political Adviser to former President Goodluck Jonathan, Ahmed Gulak, who was assassinated on his way to the Sam Mbakwe International Cargo Airport, Owerri.

These developments forced residents of the state, especially those in Owerri and environs, to be closing their businesses before 5 p.m. and quickly retiring to their homes as a safety measure.

There had also been an orgy of violence in Anambra State, which incidentally would be having a governorship election on November 6, this year. This included the killing of five policemen during an attack on a Divisional Police Station in Ajali, Orumba North local council of the state. Even late last month, gunmen killed Dr. Chike Akunyili, the husband of former Director General of the National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control (NAFDAC), the late Prof. Dora Akunyili. And just last Tuesday, gunmen attacked Odata Secondary School in Ihiala, Ihiala local council of the state where the All Progressives Grand Alliance (APGA) was holding a political rally ahead of the governorship election in the state.

The Anambra State Police Command’s Public Relations Officer, DSP Tochukwu Ikenganyia, had confirmed the attack, saying operatives of the state Police Command successfully repelled it.

Meanwhile, the security agencies have been on the trail of the criminal elements and many of them have been neutralised in recent times. Exercise Golden Dawn is, therefore, coming as an additional measure by the security agencies to checkmate the activities of the hoodlums and their backers.

Although it might seem too early in the day to assess the impact of the exercise, a resident of Enugu, Chief Stephen Ugwu, told The Guardian that it was a welcome development.

“It will try as much as possible to instill fear in the group that has taken over governance in the Southeast and has been dictating the pace for others. It is sad that residents have been living in fear in this state. Our children don’t go to school again on Mondays. We no longer do our businesses on Mondays. Does it mean we will continue this way? One thing I will want to see restored as soon as possible is the way we have been living in this state every Monday. Let the people be allowed to go about their normal way of living. It does not mean we don’t support Biafra but, it is sad when we are doing so at the detriment of our children and future,” he said.

Asked whether he feels more secure since the operation took off, Ugwu said: “My brother, the truth is that I don’t stay outside beyond six in the evening. It was not like this before. A lot of things have changed. I have not seen members of the military carrying out the operations, but I know they are there.”

An Enugu-based public affairs analyst, Great Obioma, however, stated that he was already feeling the impact of the exercise.

“The bad boys are on the run and attacking from the fringes and areas where they feel are porous. You can see that our policemen are gradually regaining their confidence and patrolling in the night and even returning to checkpoints. That’s a good way to start and I am confident that by the time we get to December, the situation might have improved,” he said.

However, in Anambra where well-armed military and police operatives were seen at intervals jointly patrolling the streets and highways in the state, a resident in Awka, Mr. Okechukwu Nwadiogor was of the view that military intervention might not be the solution to the insecurity problem in the state and entire Southeast.

He argued that Exercise Python Dance I & II launched and executed in past years did not solve the security problems of the zone, urging the military to relate peacefully with civilians in order to have a successful exercise in the region.

To a housewife, Madam Angela Nwosu, the impact of the military exercise was not being felt yet. She, however, expressed hope that it would restore peace in the state.  

“With the launching of the exercise last week, criminals may have gone under ground but it is hoped that sanity will return to the state,” she said.

In Imo State, there has been disquiet after some soldiers of the Exercise Golden Dawn and youths of Izombe community in Oguta Local Government Area clashed last week. According to reports, there was a heated argument among some youths and when some soldiers arrived the scene, they ordered them to lie down. One of the youths who was said to have attempted to run away was allegedly shot dead by the soldiers. After the incident happened, the soldiers were said to have gone to the palace of the monarch, Eze Pius Muforo, to take refuge. But the enraged youths, who had mobilised, stormed the place and killed two of the soldires after dispossessing them of their three guns and stripping them naked. The Hilux van driven by the soldiers was also set ablaze by the rampaging youths.

The action of the youths triggered the ire of their colleagues who reinforced from the 34 Field Artillery Brigade, Obinze, near Owerri. They stormed the village and burnt down about 70 houses, 25 vehicles and 25 motorcycles. Crops were also destroyed.

The development left many of the affected residents in awe. A victim of the arson, James Imo, who spoke with The Guardian, recounted his losses and appealed to the government for assistance.

Imo said: “We have lost many things. I don’t know how to say it. This is horrible. Government should help us. Let these soldiers leave us alone.”

Although the governor has visited the community and urged the military to be calm, residents of the community still move about in fear.

The atmosphere in Abia State is similar as residents have been apprehensive over the coming of Exercise Golden Dawn because of their experience during the past Operation Python Dance II.

Although they were used to seeing security agents, including soldiers, on patrol following heightened secessionist agitation in the Southeast, they feel that the commencement of a full-scale military operation in the state may spell doom for them.

The Guardian observed that residents moved about freely as more military check-points have not been mounted to indicate that a new operation is in force as at the time of filing this report. In fact, many residents said they were not aware of Exercise Golden Dawn.

A retired headmaster, Elder Kanu Chukwu, who resides in Ovim in Isuikwuato Local Council, said the community played host to the Nigerian Army Language Institute and was already used to military presence. “I have not heard of Exercise Golden Dawn,” he said.