Before the South-East descends into chaos – Punch Newspapers

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FROM the South-East in recent times, it has been bad news all the way. Amid the general insecurity across the country, the region is being sucked deeper into violence and igniting fears of a roller coaster descent into chaos.  A report that herdsmen slaughtered 13 persons in some communities in Enugu State was preceded a week earlier by the killing of a traditional ruler and four other persons by gunmen, and another attack on a political party’s rally in Ebonyi State by operatives of Ebubeagu, the regional security outfit. The governors of the region’s five states and the Federal Government should hearken to repeated calls to take concerted action to save the zone from looming anarchy.

In a country where violence, misery and lawlessness reign, the South-eastern states are managing to grab negative attention, surpassed only by the terror-afflicted northern states. The region’s residents are caught in the middle, victimised by violent state and non-state actors. They include murderous Fulani herdsmen, the so-called “unknown gunmen” affiliated with separatist groups, and heavy-handed military troops inflicting retribution on suspects, innocent civilians and entire communities alike in the course of fighting insurgency.

Most worrisome is the alleged misuse of Ebubeagu, the regional security outfit, by some state governors.

As The PUNCH has strongly recommended before, there is an urgent need for a collaborative action by all stakeholders to impose peace and prevent the South-East from going the way of the northern states.

In Enugu State, Fulani herdsmen attacked communities in Isi Uzo Local Government Area and killed 13 persons over four days. An attack on a police checkpoint in Agbani, Nkanu West LGA, by gunmen killed three policemen. At Ebebe Junction, Abakaliki, gunmen ambushed Ebonyi State Ebubeagu agents, killing two and injuring several civilians. In Imo State, Ebubeagu agents were accused of killing the traditional ruler of Obudi Agwa and two other persons in Oguta LGA. This echoed the alleged killing in July of 14 youths returning from a wedding in Awo Omamma in Oru East LGA by Ebubeagu.

Soldiers, policemen, public officials and prominent civilians are also fair game. Gunmen surprised a military patrol in Umunze, Anambra State, in September, killing five soldiers and a civilian. In a space of 72 hours in April, the terrorists killed 31 persons in Ebonyi and Anambra states, according to a media report.

The security forces have also been heavy-handed and sometimes indiscriminate. Reacting to the disappearance of a soldier early this month, Nigerian Army troops raided Amangwu community in Ohafia LGA, Abia State, leaving no fewer than 10 civilians killed and scores of houses razed. Over 1,000 residents have been displaced.   The International Society for Civil Liberties and Rule of Law claimed that the army, police, State Security Service, Nigeria Air Force and the Nigerian Navy agents killed 1,400 residents and razed 1,000 homes in 100 Igbo communities in the 14 months to January 2022. Even during all-out war, there are acceptable rules of engagement.

Resolving the problem requires an accurate understanding of the actors and factors fuelling the violence. As the army has acknowledged, criminals hiding under the agitation for an independent state of Biafra and membership of the Indigenous People of Biafra and its armed wing, the Eastern Security Network, have resorted to terrorism. They violently enforce a weekly sit-at-home order to protest the treason trial of IPOB leader, Nnamdi Kanu, by the Federal Government.

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The United Nations describes terrorism as any act “intended to cause death or serious bodily harm to civilians or non-combatants with the purpose of intimidating a population or compelling a government or an international organisation to do or abstain from doing any act.”  The “unknown gunmen” are therefore terrorists and should be treated accordingly.

The Federal Government should stop treating Fulani herdsmen-killers with kid gloves; they are also terrorists. There is a difference between the herdsmen carrying on the peaceful and legitimate business of cattle rearing within the law and those wielding AK-47 assault rifles, killing, raping, damaging farms and torching buildings; these are violent criminals that should be neutralised with maximum force. The South-East governors should rigorously enforce anti-open grazing laws and flush out illegal herders and occupants from the region’s forests.

It is appalling that after reluctantly bowing to pressure to establish Ebubeagu, some governors have turned them against the people instead of being a force to uproot insecurity. Protests against the oppression of the security outfit have been held across the zone, and the Ndigbo Unity Forum last month called for its disbandment.

Certainly, the political leadership in the South-East, especially the governors, has lost control. Instead of uniting to defeat the common enemy, they are engrossed in partisan politics. Security remains the primary purpose of any government; the five governors should provide it, working with federal agencies.

They should stop misusing Ebubeagu for intimidation, harassment and oppression of political opponents.  The Federal Government should clamp down hard on terrorism and prosecute suspects with dispatch. The security forces should partner with the communities, local and state authorities; profiling and victimisation of the communities make counter-insurgency operations more difficult as experience has shown.

Violence has become obsolete and counterproductive in self-determination agitations. In 2014, Scotland held a referendum to secure independence from Britain. Although it lost the vote, the Scots did not resort to terrorism but continues to explore constitutional means. Last week, the United Kingdom’s Supreme Court ruled against a new referendum without the national parliament’s endorsement; the Scots have returned to the drawing board.

The President, Major General Muhammadu Buhari (retd.), should stop responding to peaceful separatist agitation with repression. Agitation within the law is a legitimate right.  A state desiring to maintain the status quo should pursue policies of inclusion, autonomy, devolution of powers and responsibilities. 

The refusal to release Kanu after his discharge by the Court of Appeal is provocative.  When the government becomes lawless, it loses its moral authority to demand compliance with the law from others. All viable options should be explored to restore peace to the South-East. ,

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