The recent court order outlawing the South-East security outfit, Ebubeagu, in Ebonyi, culminates months of public dismay over the group’s oppressive and overbearing activities in the state. Riman Fatun, a judge of the Federal High Court, Abakaliki, ordered the disbandment of the state’s component of the regional security agency due to its serial rights abuses, extortion, illegal detention, and misuse of firearms. It is a welcome reaffirmation of the efficacy of the judiciary in checking executive tyranny and defending the people’s rights, and the supremacy of the rule of law.
While the judicial scrutiny and control of the rogue agency and of the state governor, David Umahi, is gratifying, the underside is saddening; the South-East governors have in turn, trivialised, delayed, and politicised the raging insecurity across the region and the regional security imperative. Like Umahi, other governors in the zone only reluctantly established Ebubeagu, and thereafter have faced accusations of deploying it to harass their political opponents.
Ebonyi is typical. There have been allegations that Ebubeagu operatives displayed excessive arrogance, engaged in arbitrary and unlawful arrests and detention, and tormented perceived opponents and critics of the state government. Residents groaned in fear at its impunity.
The court ordered the state government to pay N50 million to an ex-Commissioner for Information in the state, Abia Onyike, after he was subjected to an ordeal by Ebubeagu personnel. The agents abducted Onyike and tortured him for over two hours. Unrepentant, in its response to the ruling, the state government arrogantly described it as miscarriage of justice, and “dead on arrival.”
Among other accusations, a pressure group, Ebonyi Transparency and Accountability Network, accused the outfit of relentlessly intimidating Umahi’s political opponents. It said, “We note that such a heinous act of intimidation, harassment, and threat to life under any guise makes a mockery of our constitutional democracy in which the protection of lives and rights of citizens should be guaranteed by security agencies. It also negates the underlying imperatives behind the establishment of Ebubeagu.”
The five South-East governors must be reminded of the compelling reasons for Ebubeagu’s establishment and its mandate. The region was and is still wracked by violence and criminality. Affiliates and splinters of the self-determination groups are waging a campaign of terror, kidnappers, armed robbers are on the loose, and the farms, highways and rural communities are assaulted by Fulani herdsmen who destroy farms and crops, rob, kidnap and kill residents and commuters, and rape women and girls.
After much foot-dragging, the South-East governors launched the region-wide agency in April 2021 with a mandate to coordinate the activities of vigilantes, curb rising violence in the region and complement the federal security agencies. A similar agency had been pioneered a year earlier in the South-West, codenamed Amotekun.
Umahi, who read the 15-point communiqué of a security summit held in Owerri, Imo State, said the outfit would be headquartered in Enugu, harness the arsenals of the region’s states and coordinate stakeholders’ support to battle criminality in the zone.
But in less than two years, Ebubeagu has been enmeshed in mindless controversies in some states and mired in politics. Its primary objective of taming crime has floundered.
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A 2017 report by Statista revealed that 4,214 crimes occurred there that year, making it the sixth most volatile state to live in the federation. Also, the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project stated that there were 38 crimes and violent events involving civilians and members of the opposition connected to the activities of Ebubeagu in the South-East between October 2021 and February 2023.
Its atrocious behaviour has rather expanded insecurity and provoked reprisals. In January, the pregnant wife of an Ebubeagu commander in Ama-Etiti village, Etiti community in the Afikpo Local Government Area of the state, Kalu Chima (Oyeku), was brutally murdered by gunmen. An eyewitness said the assailants dragged the lady out of the house and shot her in the neck and thereafter set the house on fire. An operative, Sunday Nwafor, was beheaded in Ekpelu community in the Ikwo LGA of the state.
Meanwhile, crime thrives in the region, with gunmen overrunning some communities, engaging in wanton killing, burning police facilities and terrifying residents with illegal sit-at-home orders.
Governors in the zone should be responsible, put politics aside, and check the festering violence. Some are unpardonably aloof. They must retool, fund, and empower the outfit to rise to the challenge of the region’s worsening insecurity. Misusing Ebubeagu as some have done is irresponsible.
Residents, led by community leaders, and opinion moulders, should take back their region by boldly seeking change and enthroning responsible governance.
More worrisome is that Ebubeagu’s appalling acts provide ammunition for opponents of the state policing clamour, who cite them as testimony of the dangers of encouraging regional policing in the hands of immature state governors.
But this is trite. The federal police are also often misused by public office holders. Besides, Nigeria is a federation and must operate like one, complete with fiscal autonomy and state policing. All other 24 federations in the world decentralise policing, Nigeria cannot be different. The challenge is fashioning unassailable constitutional and other legal safeguards to prevent misuse of the police at the federal and state levels.
Nigeria’s overstretched police force of 371,000 personnel is simply inadequate to provide security crimes across all communities, regions, and states. Current realities have proved the inadequacy of a single police force for a federation of 216 million persons with 250 ethnic nationalities spread over 923,768 square kilometres.
The indiscretions of some state governors in the South-East do not obviate the compelling need for regional and state police agencies. State policing is the answer to the security challenges facing Nigeria and in tandem federalism. The country should devolve policing to the states without further delay.
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