JUST IN: My encounter with ‘unknown gunmen’, and how ₦1000 saved our lives

“Why are you travelling while there’s a sit-at-home order?” three men charged at us as they stopped our 18-seater Peace Mass Transit bus around Akatta village, Orlu in Imo State on Tuesday, August 8, 2023.

It was 8 a.m. and barely an hour into our 8-hour trip from Umuahia to Lagos. We believed they were Unknown Gunmen who had been terrorising the Southeast in the name of fighting for the release of Nnamdi Kanu leader of the proscribed Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) group violently calling for the secession of Southeast Nigeria from the country….CONTINUE READING

Within a twinkle of an eye, all the excitement trailing my first visit to Lagos suddenly evaporated. I lost every hope of survival. In a theatrical manner, the eyes of the men darted in different directions as though they were looking out for any potential threats. Their terse voice did not suggest it was child’s play. We knew we were in trouble. There were no other vehicles coming from either direction of the highway.

I’ve seen social media footage of how UGM attacked and killed innocent residents who ‘flouted’ their sit-at-home order, these were enough to justify my apprehension.

Despite the warnings against traveling through the Southeast due to a two-week sit-at-home order issued by Simon Ekpa from Finland on July 11, 2023 (expected to be observed from July 31, 2023, to August 14, 2023, excluding weekends), I proceeded with my planned trip to Lagos for the compulsory in-person training I had deferred for two months due to the risk of expulsion from the six-month course over failure to appear in person.

The recent move by Southeast political leaders to tackle the security challenges posed by the activities of the IPOB and its armed faction, the Eastern Security Network (ESN) may have also built some level of confidence in me that all was well on the highways. On August 10, 2023, the five Southeast governors held an emergency security summit in Enugu, aiming to address IPOB’s actions, notably the sit-at-home order, which is reported to cost the region $10.495 billion annually since its initiation following the arrest of its leader, Nnamdi Kanu, in July 2021. Although three out of the five governors in attendance are new in office, this wasn’t the first of such security summits.

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In October 2021, regional political leaders, including former Chief of Army Staff Azubuike Ihejirika, along with traditional and religious figures, had gathered for a closed-door session at the Government House in Enugu. However, despite these efforts, insecurity in the area appears to have gotten worse, pushing thousands of residents below the poverty threshold and resulting in the deaths of over 1500 individuals.

Unknown Gunmen
On August 8, 2023, Alex Otti, Governor of Abia State, launched “Operation Crush” a joint task force composed of various security formations. “I urge our citizens to support this operation with actionable intelligence. Landlords, market leaders, and community heads must not harbour criminals,” he said during the ceremony. photo credit: Alex Otti

As expected, Umuahia, the capital of Abia State, where I have lived for over 10 years, was bustling with commercial activities that Tuesday morning when we left for Lagos, until we crossed the Imo River into Imo State. Suddenly, streets looked deserted, markets were empty, roadside shops were locked, and only a few school-age children were seen on the street playing football. The eerie silence deepened upon entering Orlu.

Orlu, considered Imo State’s second most developed town after Owerri, the capital, had suffered several attacks during the peak of the ‘Unknown Gun Men’ activities in 2021. The Orlu Senatorial zone, comprising eleven Local Government Areas with nearly three million residents, had served as the hub for the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) and humanitarian agencies during the Nigeria Civil War in 1967.

However, since the demise of Ikonso Nwachineke, the ESN commander infamous for targeting police barracks and government buildings in Imo State, particularly Orlu, the area has turned into a battleground. Attacks, such as the assault on a police station in Orlu in August 2021 that claimed the life of a police inspector, and subsequent incidents like the Easter bloodbath in April 2022, further fueled the unrest. The clash between unknown gunmen and security forces in these incidents resulted in numerous casualties.

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Unknown Gunmen
Since Ikonso Nwachineke, commander of Eastern Security Network (ESN) was killed by the Nigerian military in April 2021 at Orlu, the area has been a battleground. Photo Credit: @TheBiafrachild

Given this history of security crises, my anxiety increased as we navigated the deserted streets of Orlu. I queried the driver’s choice of route—why Orlu instead of the usual Udo-Mbaise, which leads to Owerri, the capital of Imo State.

Not long after my query, we ran into three men who had mounted a blockade on the road and ordered us out of the bus.

We fumbled on our seats as some passengers began to attempt to disembark from the bus. Beside me was a young mother with her baby, who I assumed to be less than three years old. Inside the bus, there were more than six men in their late 20s and early 30s, but there was a deafening silence, punctuated only by the commanding voices of our captors.

“Why are you traveling during a sit-at-home order?” they asked our driver as they ordered us to lie on the road. They threatened to torch our bus.

“We’re going to set it on fire as a stern reminder not to defy the sit-at-home order again,” they demanded as they forcefully opened the door.

It looked like it was the end of the road in our earthly sojourn. We didn’t take the threat as a joke, considering that in July, gunmen had killed two policemen in Aba and set their patrol vehicle ablaze.

After nearly half an hour of intimidation and threats of collecting our phones, they demanded ₦1000 from each passenger, leaving me wondering how many other vehicles traversing that route faced similar ordeals.

When they eventually released us, I couldn’t stop wondering how it was likely that they may have taken us captive to demand millions in ransom from family members or even assassinate us – if ₦1000 notes hadn’t been paid as ‘ransom’ for our dear lives.

But I kept asking, were they really UGM or some unemployed young men taking advantage of the disorder Nnamdi Kanu and Simon Ekpa have brought upon the Southeast?

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unknown gunmen
From Left: Prof Charles Soludo, Governor of Anambra State; Dr. Alex Otti, Governor of Abia State; Hope Uzodinma, Governor of Imo State; Francis Nwifuru, Governor of Ebonyi State, during an emergency security meeting in Enugu on August 10, 2023

A resident of Orlu who spoke anonymously to Neusroom acknowledged the harassment and extortion by sit-at-home enforcers as daily challenges. However, he declined to comment further when asked about efforts by traditional rulers to identify these enforcers.

It may be prudent to conclude that, to effectively address the insecurity crisis in the region, the youth, and traditional institutions leaders must first condemn the actions of ESN and IPOB and resolve to collaborate with security agencies.

During a security meeting in Abia State in August 2023, Assistant Commandant General of the Nigeria Security and Civil Defence Corps (NSCDC), Philip Ayuba, highlighted a lack of community cooperation. He lamented that, in their efforts to gather information from communities, there was a dearth of voluntary information regarding those involved in criminal activities.

Could residents of Orlu, like others in the Southeast, be withholding information about the activities of ESN and IPOB, who undoubtedly coexist among them, due to fear, compliance, or even sympathy?

As with all terrorist organisations, be they driven by religious or freedom-seeking motives, the aspiration for secession from Nigeria—a goal shared by 80 percent of Igbos—has seemingly blinded many Igbos to the harsh reality that their region is now engulfed in conflict.

Maike Knoechelmann, a Professor at Simon Fraser University’s Criminology department, posited that Boko Haram’s persistence over 14 years can be attributed to the Nigerian government’s misclassification of the group as solely ideologically driven, ignoring its ethnic underpinnings and affiliations. Knoechelmann pointed out a critical challenge in dealing with Ethnic Terrorism, namely that any military action against such a group could backfire, intensifying local animosity toward the government and potentially bolstering support for the radical group while fueling recruitment….CONTINUE READING

This, regrettably, is what I have noticed as a keen observer of the insecurity issues in the Southeast.