There was confusion Thursday when the Abia State Governor, Dr. Okezie Ikpeazu, announced that soldiers would withdraw from the streets of the capital city of Umuahia and Aba, the commercial nerve centre of the state by Friday, but was contradicted by the army command in Abuja, which said his statement was not true.
In a show of force called Operation Python Dance II, the Nigerian Army had deployed soldiers in Abia State, the home state of IPOB leader Nnamdi Kanu, whose group has been agitating for the break-up of Nigeria and the realisation of the Republic of Biafra.
Since the deployment of forces, deadly clashes have been recorded between the military and IPOB members in Abia and neighbouring Rivers State, with rising casualties recorded by members of the separatist group.
But even as Ikpeazu moved to restore some semblance of order in his state, tensions boiled over in Plateau State, where rumours that the Hausa community in Jos, the state capital, were planning a reprisal against Igbos nearly crippled commercial activities throughout Thursday, forcing the state governor Simon Lalong to impose an indefinite dusk to dawn curfew on the Jos/Bukuru metropolis.
Also, with the palpable tension felt nationwide, Vice-President Yemi Osinbajo promptly held a closed-door meeting with the Inspector General of Police (IG), Ibrahim Idris, in Abuja Thursday where it was agreed that policemen should be deployed across the country to prevent outbreaks of violence in other states of the federation.
Speaking on the withdrawal of troops from Abia at a press conference held at the Government House, Umuahia, Ikpeazu said the security situation “has become of great concern to both the government and the citizenry of the state”.
“After several interventions, I want to inform you that by tomorrow morning (Friday), there will be withdrawal of soldiers from the streets at Aba and Umuahia, apart from the pre-existing military checkpoints at various locations in the state,” he added.
Ikpeazu made the announcement after a meeting with leaders of market associations in the state as well as stakeholders from Umuahia North, Umuahia South, Osisioma, Aba North and Aba South Local Government Areas, which are all at the epicentre of the mounting security crisis in the state.
The embattled Abia governor warned that despite the expected withdrawal of troops, the state government would not tolerate agitators and protesters taking over the streets for any reason whatsoever.
He said he would be meeting President Muhamaudu Buhari to discuss possible ways of relaxing the military exercise in the state.
Ikpeazu also condemned the attacks on police stations and military posts in Aba and Umuahia, adding: “We hereby warn that we will no longer tolerate that and all other acts that are capable of causing insecurity in the state.”
“We have also observed illegal acts of throwing petrol bombs and setting up of bonfires to obstruct free movement along some roads by suspected miscreants and wish to warn that such acts should stop forthwith.
“To mischief makers who want to use Abia as their base, let me announce to you that henceforth, Abia will be too hot for you to carry out your wicked acts, as the government will work with the security agencies to ensure the protection of lives and property in the state without fear or favor. There will be no hiding place for you,” he asserted.
The governor disclosed that the security forces foiled attempts by hoodlums to burn the Ariaria International market at midnight on Wednesday, noting that their aim was to take advantage of the situation to cripple the economy of the state and cause widespread suffering.
He also said that attempts made to burn the police station at Ariaria were equally scuttled.
“My fellow Abians, it is in the interest of all our citizens and residents for full and total peace and security to return to our state immediately. No meaningful progress can be made in an atmosphere of violence and anarchy,” he said.
On the dusk to dawn curfew he imposed on Aba, which was extended to Friday, Ikpeazu advised residents “to fully observe the curfew in the city and ensure that they cooperate with the security forces to maintain peace and order”.
“I swore to protect the lives and property of all Abians and residents and that I must do. I therefore call on all to support our efforts at making sure that lasting peace prevails in our dear state,” he said.
Python Dance to Go Ahead
However, the Director of Army Public Relations, Brig. Gen. Sani Usman, in a statement late last night, said Ikpeazu’s statement on the withdrawal of troops from Aba and Umuahia Friday was not true.
He said: “The attention of the Nigerian Army has been drawn to some stories in the media that it is withdrawing its troops from Exercise Egwu Eke II (Python Dance II), crediting such information to the Abia State governor and the General Officer Commanding (GOC) 82 Division Nigerian Army.
“This is not true. The Nigerian Army wishes to enjoin members of the public to disregard such rumours.
“For the avoidance of doubt, the Abia State governor in his speech stated that ‘there will be gradual withdrawal of soldiers on the streets of Aba and Umuahia from tomorrow’.”
Usman insisted that this should not be misconstrued as withdrawal of troops earmarked for the military exercise, insisting that the GOC 82 Division had said no such thing.
“Consequently, we wish to state that Exercise Egwu Eke II is commencing tomorrow as scheduled. Commanders have been instructed to ensure that all hands are on deck to take the exercise to its logical completion.
“We wish to state further that the successful completion of the exercise will dovetail into the various states’ security outfits till the end of this year.
“Members of the public, especially in the areas where the exercise will take place, are please enjoined to go about their lawful business.
“We wish to also state that we would not allow any individual or group to jeopardise the conduct of the field training exercise through unlawful or criminal activities,” he said.
Usman warned hoodlums and criminal elements to be law abiding and not cause any breach of peace.
“We hereby reiterate that our troops would conduct themselves in the best professional manner, abide by the rules of engagement and code of conduct in line with requirements of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria.
“Any act of indiscipline by any of our personnel will be decisively dealt with. While we enjoin all Nigerians to go about their normal business, the Nigerian Army urges all to support the troops as they carry out their constitutional duties and make Exercise Egwu Eke II a success,” Usman said.
Six Persons Killed in Abia
The army’s statement came on the heels of continuing bloody clashes in Abia, where four person suspected to be members of IPOB were reportedly killed, following the heavy gunfire that broke out around Kanu’s house.
The junior brother of the IPOB leader, popularly known as Fine Boy, gave the casualty figure to journalists after the smoke cleared, adding that many were wounded, while 15 persons were arrested by the soldiers.
He also added that the dog belonging to his father was also gunned down by the soldiers during the operation.
It was believed that the troops had made an attempt to arrest Kanu, whose whereabouts were unknown, but encountered some resistance from his followers at the residence, which doubles as his father’s palace. Kanu’s father is the traditional ruler of Afaraukwu, Umuahia in Abia State.
According to Kanu’s brother, the palace was “desecrated” and the award plagues belonging to Eze Israel Kanu, the father of the IPOB leader, were carted away by the troops.
Efforts to reach the army spokesman in Abia to comment on the operation targeted at Kanu’s home did not yield results.
Similarly, the spokesman of 14 Brigade Ohafia, Major Oyegoke Gbadamosi, declined to speak on the issue, while the Deputy Director, Army Public Relations 82 Division Enugu, Col. Sagir Musa, did not pick his call when he was contacted.
THISDAY also called the two lines dedicated to the Python Dance operations in Abia and nobody responded to the call.
The gunfire around the residence of the IPOB leader broke out at about 4.30 p.m., sending people running for their lives.
There was pandemonium with vehicles making abrupt U-turns and horns blaring as people made frantic efforts to escape from the scene of the shootings.
It could not be ascertained what the heavy shooting was all about but an eyewitness fleeing from the area said that soldiers broke into the compound of the IPOB leader and blocked all entry points.
The incident at Kanu’s house occurred after the killing of the two other young men by soldiers in Umuahia Thursday morning.
Eyewitness accounts said the two men, dressed in black and caps to match, were passing by when they were gunned down along Bank road, less then 50 metres to the gate of Government House, Umuahia.
The dead bodies were immediately picked up by the soldiers and dumped inside the army vehicle, apparently to conceal the evidence.
The third victim said to be a bank customer was hit in the arm by a stray bullet and was also whisked away by the troops.
By the time members of IPOB raced to the scene of the incident, after getting wind of the killing of their members, the soldiers had left the scene.
When THISDAY visited the scene of the alleged killing, a black cap said to have belonged to one of the victims was still lying on the ground.
The incident, which happened at about 9.30 a.m., led to panic as people started running helter skelter and businesses hurriedly closed. Banks in the capital city also closed their gates to customers.
A security man at the main branch of FirstBank in Umuahia told THISDAY that “we have closed for the day” when he was asked why customers were not being allowed into the bank.
At the Afaraukwu area of Umuahia where the home of IPOB leader is located, residents had deserted their homes leaving only IPOB members stationed around Kanu’s residence.
In anger, IPOB agitators marched to the residence of the departing state Commissioner of Police Leye Oyebade who had already packed his luggage and was about to move to the state police command headquarters to hand over to his successor, Anthony Michael Ogbizi.
Oyebade was said to have remonstrated with the IPOB members on the need to maintain peace.
In Aba, hoodlums were reported to have razed the Ariaria police station and attempted to break into three ATMs located in different parts of the city.
Police sources said that the hoodlums made away with some television and air conditioners from the station.
A policeman reportedly lost his life in the incident, but the death could not be confirmed.
The attack on the police station caused panic in the area, as people scampered to safety while heavy gunfire rent the air.
Traders at the Ariaria International market, located opposite the burnt station did not open for business. Roads were also deserted as banks, markets and other business centres shut their doors to customers, even as soldiers and policemen patrolled the streets.
Along the expressway, hoodlums set up bonfires but were quickly removed by policemen and soldiers. However, the soldiers stationed at the Bata and Osisioma Ngwa junctions appeared to have heeded the directive of the state government and military authorities not to harass innocent residents.
The soldiers Thursday allegedly frogmarched residents who refused to raise their hands while passing through the military checkpoints.
When contacted, the Abia State Police spokesman, DSP Geoffrey Ogbonna, who confirmed the destruction of the Ariaria Police station by suspected hoodlums, stated that the situation was brought under control as security was beefed up in the area.
Army to Probe Rights Violation
Reacting to allegations of gross human rights violations and a video, which went viral showing soldiers beating suspected Biafra supporters with sticks and making them to roll in the mud on Umahia-Aba expressway, the headquarters of 82 Division Nigerian Army said it would investigate the incident
A statement issued Thursday by Col. Musa said the military authorities were aware of the trending video clip and the issue was being investigated in order to ascertain the source and the actors in the clip.
“We do not condone any act of indiscipline in the conduct of our operations and training exercises,” he said, assuring the public that “any claim of rights violation would be investigated and when confirmed, appropriate disciplinary action would be taken against the erring personnel”.
He pointed out that “our code of conduct and rules of engagement are quite clear and any officer or soldier that infringes on any of such directives, if found guilty, will face full wrath of the military justice system”.
However, the army spokesman stated that the 82 Division was also aware of the planned misinformation and propaganda arrangement by the secessionists Biafra group, IPOB, adding that “they (IPOB) intend to churn out prerecorded video clips aimed at discrediting the Nigerian Army and causing disaffection among the citizens of this country”.
He alleged that IPOB had resorted to using bogus, manipulated and photo-shopped photographs as well as video clips.
“The public should be wary of such mischief, scrutinise and report same to the Nigerian Army or any of security agencies.
“The division wishes to reassure the public that it is determined to ensure the safety of lives and property in its area of operational responsibility, particularly the entire South-east geopolitical zone as enshrined in the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria,” Col. Musa said.
Plateau Imposes Curfew
Meanwhile, rumours that the Hausa communicty in Jos, Plateau State, were planning a reprisal against Nigerians of South-eastern origin led to serious tension in the city and nearly crippled commercial activities throughout Thursday.
Refusing to take any chances, the situation compelled Simon Lalong, the state governor, to impose an indefinite dusk to dawn curfew on the Jos/Bukuru metropolis.
Shops owned by Igbos in the city centre were kept locked in the morning hours Thursday for fear that they might be attacked and looted by hoodlums.
The tension however gave way in the afternoon, as the shop owners who were hanging around later opened to customers.
But at about 5 p.m., the city was thrown into utter confusion, as traders at Terminus market scampered for safety. It was later gathered that there was a little fracas between some Hausa youths and their Igbo counterparts, which was quickly nipped in the bud before it could escalate.
A statement by the governor’s Director of Press and Public Affairs, Mr. Emmanuel Samuel Nanle, said: “The governor of Plateau State has expressed great dismay and shock at the sudden build up of tension in Jos metropolis on account of the conduct of some disgruntled elements, who have decided to throw the metropolis into confusion on account of their negative reaction to the agitation by the Independent People of Biafra (IPOB) in the South-east.
“Consequently, the governor has directed an immediate imposition of a curfew from dusk to dawn (6 p.m.-6 a.m,) within the Greater Jos-Bukuru metropolis until further notice.
“The deployment of security personnel to all flash points within the metropolis has also been directed to ensure compliance with the curfew order and to avert any further breach of law and order.”
The governor assured the citizens that the security and welfare, as the primary concern of government, was assured. He enjoined all citizens to go about their business with the assurance that their safety was guaranteed.
He further appealed to all religious and community leaders, neighbourhood vigilantes and law-abiding citizens to ensure that nobody is allowed to take advantage of the unfortunate situation to engage in criminality.
“The governor wishes to restate that Plateau State remains home to all citizens of Nigeria, irrespective of their religion and ethnic extraction or political persuasion. He therefore enjoins all peace loving citizens to ensure that nothing is allowed to upset the hard earned peace in the state,” the statement said.
THISDAY also gathered that Lalong summoned all religious and tribal leaders and all security chiefs in the state to a meeting Thursday night to appraise the situation.
Osinbajo, IG Meet
Just as the Plateau governor moved to avert a crisis in his state, the vice-president and IG held a closed-door meeting at the Presidential Villa, Abuja, where they resolved to prevail on political leaders to intervene in the security situation in the South-east.
Answering questions from State House correspondents after the meeting, Idris said his meeting with the vice-president dwelt on two issues, viz: the need to provide security across the country which he said would involve the deployment of policemen and the need to mobilise political leaders to intervene in the clashes between soldiers and IPOB members.
“The highlight of the meeting with the vice-president was to obviously ensure that our provision of security in the country is intact. Obviously, one is to deploy policemen across the country.
“Two, we are in touch with the state governments, trying to mobilise the political leadership to be able to intervene where necessary on how to reduce the tension in the South-east,” he said.
He also said there was no tension ahead of the forthcoming celebration of Nigeria’s 57th independence anniversary on October 1, insisting that the atmosphere was tension free.
“I don’t think there is tension in the country. Which country, this Nigeria? No. Nigeria does not have tension. At least, you are in Abuja. You have gone around. There is no tension,” he said.
Idris also denied the allegation by the Rivers State Governor, Nyesom Wike, that members of the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) were involved in a series of kidnappings in the state, describing it as nonsense.
Idris, however, noted that Wike reserves the right to express himself especially as a governor.
MASSOB Leader Speaks
In a related development, Ralph Uwazurike, leader of the Movement for the Actualisation of the Sovereign State of Biafra (MASSOB), has said that the activities of IPOB were negating the rules of engagement of the Biafra struggle.
Uwazurike expressed the view in Owerri Thursday, adding that the activities of Kanu could only lead to an unplanned war, which was against the Biafra struggle.
He said the interest of the Biafra movement was to secure the interest, lives and property of Igbo people and not to start another war.
Uwazurike said Kanu’s major interest was to destroy the agenda of MASSOB.
Uwazurike was reported to have said by the News Agency of Nigeria (NAN) that the hallmark of any freedom fighter was to submit to arrest.
“A real freedom fighter submits to arrest but Kanu has told his members to burn down the country if he is rearrested, a true indication that he was paid to destabilise MASSOB,” he said.
Uwazurike blamed the federal government for making Kanu popular, adding that “if the government had ignored Kanu, the situation would not have escalated”.
He attributed Kanu’s popularity to the relevance accorded him by the federal government and called on all Igbo leaders to condemn the activities of IPOB, as it had no agenda.
“The IPOB has no agenda and I advise Igbo leaders to condemn its activities.
“Nnamdi Kanu has no agenda and he is only thriving on the relevance given to him by the government. I recruited him and I know his capacity and he is not a leader.
“I have 25 steps towards actualising Biafra and Kanu does not have even one agenda,” he said.
Uwazurike condemned the attacks on Northerners over the ongoing military exercise in the South-east.
According to him, any attacks on Northerners would be counter-productive, as many Igbos are resident in the North.