Abia State shot into the centre of the country’s attention on Tuesday 11 September, as a host of security developments linked with the Indigenous Peoples of Biafra (IPOB) group raised a new set of concerns over the military’s conduct and the Federal Government’s strategy towards dealing with an increasingly growing secessionist movement.
A detachment of soldiers from the Nigerian Army surrounded the Afaraukwu country home of the leader of the Indigenous People of Biafra, Nnamdi Kanu on Tuesday afternoon, arriving in ten armoured personnel carriers (APCs) and seven Toyota Hilux vehicles and causing panic in the area as shop owners were forced to close their businesses almost immediately.
It was not immediately clear what the objective of the military’s presence was or if the brash, tough talking Nnamdi Kanu, firmly entrenched in his opposition to the current Muhammadu Buhari administration was arrested or confined to the outer limits of his home. In a statement on Tuesday, Mr Kanu’s lawyer, Ifeanyi Ejiofor, accused the Nigerian government of placing the separatist agitator under house arrest.
According to Mr Ejiofor: “Just to notify the world that my client’s (Nnamdi Kanu) house is presently under siege by the trigger-happy soldiers acting under the direct instruction of Chief of Army Staff. He has been placed under house arrest at the moment while shooting sporadically into the air.”
This latest deployment of soldiers comes a little less than 48 hours after a clash between the Army and IPOB members on Sunday evening, which left at least three people injured according to the military, and some casualties according to the group and multiple other sources. In response, Abia State Governor, Dr Okezie Ikpeazu, declared a three-day curfew in Aba, the state’s commercial capital.
Ikpeazu said the operation by the Army was ordered by the Federal Government, as part of a ramp up of its Operation Python Dance II within the country’s South-East geopolitical region and that Abia as a component part of the country could not raise objections to it.
The statement, personally signed by Ikpeazu read in part, “Abia State has for the past few days been the focus of security searchlight occasioned by the reported skirmish between some groups in the State, especially Indigenous People of Biafra with men of the Nigerian Army.
“Government notes and has observed the frenzy of activities of members of IPOB within Afara – Umuahia, the ancestral home of the leader of IPOB for some months now. Government is equally aware of the recent proclamation by the Nigerian Army of Operation Python Dance II within the South – East geopolitical region of Nigeria.”
Ikpeazu said in the statement that he was aligned with the Army’s operational goals of checking rising incidences of kidnapping, banditry, assassination, secessionist activities within the region, amongst other forms of criminal activities and said the recent escalation of clashes between government forces and IPOB was linked with Python Dance II formations moving into the state.
“The recent confrontation between the Nigerian Army and members of IPOB on Sunday, 10th September 2017, could presumably be attributed to the commencement of the said Operation Python Dance II. The Abia State Government unequivocally states that Abia is a component State of the Federal Republic of Nigeria and subscribes to the supremacy of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria and all other extant laws.
Ikpeazu did call for some sense of reasonableness between all parties, saying his government “recognises the right of the Nigerian Army and other security agencies, to perform their statutory duty of protection of lives and property of Nigerian citizens,” but called for such duties to “be carried out within acclaimed Nigerian and international standards of engagement with the civil populace, with due respect to the human rights of citizens and sanctity of human lives.”
The statement advised all Abians to remain law abiding and carry on their lawful business without fear, as efforts by his administration will be made to reduce friction between the civil populace and military personnel in the State and said the curfew, which would run from 6 pm to 6 am daily from Tuesday 12 September to Thursday 14 September was instituted to guard against “the influx of people into Abia State for purposes of unsettling the enduring peace in the State.”
In a related development, some soldiers reportedly invaded the Abia State Council office of the Nigeria Union of Journalists on Aba Road, in the state capital, Umuahia, destroying laptops, smartphones and other work paraphernalia. Witnesses at the secretariat, including a Daily Times correspondent, said that the soldiers claimed they saw somebody taking photographs of them from the office building.
In a detailed written account made available by the NUJ, Ezeogo Boniface Okoro, a correspondent for The Oracle Today newspaper, a regional daily based in Onitsha, Anambra and one of the union’s officials, described how at about 10:15 am, a convoy of military personnel on a ‘Show of Force’ movement in Umuahia approached the Aba/Umuawaya Road/Railway Intersection close to the NUJ press office.
The account goes further as saying that “as they were negotiating round the Tower to Bende Road, some of their trucks stopped and I noticed one of the soldiers was pointing at me. Simultaneously, I saw many soldiers jump down from two trucks and headed towards our office.”
“Swooping on our office, one of them pointed at me and ordered me to give him my phone. I told him I had no phone at that material time, he slapped me and ordered me to open my bag which I was carrying. As I was bringing out the contents, I brought out my Samsung Table[t] 3, he snatched it and smashed it. They equally collected another phone from Sunday Nwakanma of Daily Times and destroyed it with their gun”
The NUJ confirmed that those assaulted included a Federal Radio Corporation of Nigeria (FRCN) correspondent, Mr Lawrence Nwokedi, Mr Okoro, Mr Nwakanma, as well the correspondent for the Authority daily, Mr Chidi Asonye.
The soldiers held the journalists hostage for over ten minutes, accused them of writing “nonsense” against the military and taking unauthorised “photographs” that debase them and made a mockery of their assignment in the South East. They also claimed that the reporters were recording the ‘Show of Force’ march from the NUJ balcony, a claim denied by the journalists who said they were simply watching the convoy like a host of bystanders who were watching at street level.
John Emejor, the NUJ chairman in the state, confirmed the incident, saying that “our press centre was invaded by soldiers, two journalists lost their IPads and phones, while a national leader in the office was attacked.
“Our stand is that those involved in this attack on innocent journalists should be fished out and punished in line with the Constitution of the country.”
The Assistant Director of Army Public Relations, 14 Brigade, Major Oyegoke Gbadamosi, said he was aware of the incident and had asked the NUJ chairman to send photographic evidence of the damaged done by the soldiers to the NUJ office to him. However, in yet another confusing twist, Sani Usman, the national army spokesman, could not offer any confirmation when contacted, telling the online blog, TheCable that he was unaware of the incident.
Okoro had written a hard hitting account for his paper of the army’s Sunday evening incursion into Nnamdi Kanu’s ancestral home, calling it an “invasion” and quoting a source as saying that the army’s actions were said to have been based an intelligence report which advised the Federal Government to arrest Mr Kanu for breaking the bail conditions granted him by the court on April 27, 2017, and try him for treason.
Mr Kanu and three others are still facing trial on allegations of treason among others. In April, the presiding judge, Binta Nyako, who gave the bail order to allow Mr Kanu attend to his ailing health condition, had required him not to be seen in a crowd of more than 10 people and firmly warned him that there should be “no interviews and no rallies,” requirements that Mr Kanu has disregarded on multiple occasions.