It is quiet now in Afara-Ukwu community of Umuahia, Abia State, where two weeks ago, it was a mecca for vociferous members of the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) who thronged the community to pay homage to their leader Nnamdi Kanu.
Gone now is Nnamdi Kanu, whose father’s house was the headquarters of the group, gone now are the pro-Biafran agitators. And gone too are the red, green and black insignia of the now proscribed group.
Those who are left are the ones trying to piece together their lives and bury their deads. One of such people is Chief Okechukwu Odemele, a traditional prime minister of the community, whose sister was killed in the clash between soldiers and members of IPOB.
“That day I was running to save my life likewise those of my children,” he said. “My children were shouting ‘daddy, daddy we can’t see ooo.’ I couldn’t breathe because of the tear gas that was fired. It’s was a day I will never pray for [a repeat] in life”
He survived and his children did. But his sister was not so lucky. “For the past one week the family is yet to get over her death,” he said.
In the last one week, Chief Odemele has not slept in his house. His children have not gone back to school because schools haven’t resumed yet and he is worried because the traditional ruler of the community, who happens to be Kanu’s father, has been missing since the encounter.
“The disappearance of the traditional ruler till date is of great concern to the community,” the chief said.
Prior to September 14, there was a routine to life in Afara-Ukwu. The increasing prominence of IPOB had added colour and vibrancy to the community, even if some members of the community were not in support of the separatist group.
But on that day, men of the Nigerian Army while conducting a training exercise dubbed “Operation Python Dance II” (or in Igbo Egwueke II) made their presence known in what the army said was a “show of force.” The show which began at the city centre soon spread to the axis where the Kanu’s reside and according to residents, trouble started when members of IPOB blocked the FMC-Word Bank Road in Umuahia metropolis at about 6.00-6.30pm denying access to members of the 145th Battalion of the Nigerian Army.
The soldiers fired warning shots in the air to disperse the crowd and the IPOB members retaliated by throwing stones and broken bottles at the soldiers, injuring one of them, Corporal Kolawole Mathew, and a female passerby. The situation quickly escalated from there.
“What we saw was terrible as if we were in a warfront,” Chief Odemele said. “The sound of the guns in this community, the elderly among us are yet to recover from the shock. It was a terrible sight to behold because bullets flew everywhere. If you visit the building of Nnamdi Kanu’s father who is our traditional ruler, it’s as if the building is at the centre of warfront. The palace was vandalized. The traditional stool was desecrated by the troops.
“The economic life of the community as I speak to you is paralyzed, the tricycle driver now refused to convey passengers to the community he prefers going empty rather than taking anybody to the community because they are afraid of what happened,” he said.
Although the introduction of “Operation Python Dance II” by the Nigerian Army was reportedly to tackle such security problems such as armed bandits, cult clashes, communal clashes, kidnappings, cultism, farmers-herdsmen clashes, and violent secessionist agitations, in the South-East zone of the country, the impact of the exercise, especially on some residents of Abia State will probably remain for a long time in their memory.
Daily Trust on Sunday recalls that in November last year, the army had launched “Operation Python Dance I” in the five South-East states, and later re-launched “Operation Python Dance II” which was designed to last from September 15 to October 15, 2017.
Deputy Director, Army Public Relations, Nigerian Army, 82 Division, Enugu Colonel Sagir Musa, who addressed newsmen at the Correspondents’ Chapel Secretariat, Enugu said, “Primarily, these are the targets of this exercise,” emphasizing that, contrary to views held in some circles, the Python Dance operation was not chiefly initiated against the IPOB, but mainly to curb crime and criminality in the area.
According to Col Musa, military exercises anywhere in the world are meant for training purpose, adding, however, that “Where possible, it will dovetail into real military operation. What do I mean here? Part of the training exercise of Python Dance is the issue of preparing soldiers on how to prepare and man check-points, road-blocks, and we need to refresh the troops. Show of force is also part of it,” he said.
Again, the army spokesman said: “Now if soldiers are on this kind of exercises, suddenly along the road they see a vehicle carrying arms, for example, or somebody is kidnapped, certainly we will obstruct with the view to getting him (the victim) rescued and recovering the arms, and ensuring that justice is done. Now that’s why I said, though it is a training period, though it is an exercise, it can, however, dovetail into real military operation. Or if there’s communal crisis; when we’re on this exercise, certainly, we’re not going to fold our arms for it to continue; we will intervene. So this is what the exercise Egwueke II is all about.”
But whatever good intention behind the introduction of Python Dance, the fallout of the clash between members of the IPOB and soldiers in Abia State, especially in Afara-Ukwu, community, Umuahia North Local Government of Abia State and Aba, the commercial hub of the state, has left a bitter aftertaste for many residents.
When our correspondent visited the Afara-Ukwu community, he found houses, markets and schools deserted with most residents having fled to nearby Olokoro community, leaving in their wake an eerie silence that is a sharp contrast to the noisy nature of the community, the Biafran agitators and their leaders. Because there are so few people in the community, one could stand at the entrance to the community and see the last building in it.
Residents who have returned are living in fear because they are not sure if the soldiers will return to raid the community again. Those who have the courage to sleep in their houses go to bed quite early and as shops in the community are still closed, they now have to visit neighbouring communities for provisions.
One of the upside of the operatioin, residents said, is the disappearance of hoodlums who once made life unbearable in the area, resulting in a drop in crime rates as Police Public Relations Officer, DSP Ogbonna, confirmed.
However, many houses have been riddled with bullet holes after the confrontation, especially those close to Kanu’s residence.
A motor parts dealer who identified himself as Emenike Nwadilobi said though a large number of people in the community are not in support of Kanu and IPOB’s Biafra agitation, he described the confrontation with the troops as a bloody battle.
“When I came back from the market, I saw the military everywhere with guns, armoured Personnel Carrier (APC), and there was sporadic shooting and people where running for safety. I believe this is a war and not an exercise. It is very painful because it took me over four years to erect a three bedroom flat and look at the wall of my house, destroyed by bullets, the aluminum windows in my house were also destroyed. I hardly sleep in my house. I find somewhere else to sleep because of fear,” Nwadilobi said.
Since the clash, there has been no clear figure of casualties with claims and counter claims. The IPOB alleges that a massacre has taken place but witnesses and authorities have denied these claims. Some casualties have been recorded no doubt but there is no official figure. Even the military is claiming ignorance over this.
““Now, your question, how many people were killed? It’s a question I cannot answer because I don’t know. The point is that I knew there are issues with the social media trending. But they are all those things you cannot and you will never ascertain the death of somebody on the content of social media. It’s doubtful and even the press release they (IPOB) initiated, you saw that they were a lot of propaganda issues whenever there were military operations,” Col. Musa said.
He dismissed IPOB’s claims as attempts to discredit the military and said videos being circulated on social media about incidents that might or might not have happened during the clash will be investigated.
“We are going to investigate it. We are thoroughly scrutinizing it and if we find any soldier of the Nigerian Army taking part in it, we have to deal with the issue decisively. We have our rules of engagements guiding military operations. And any soldier who flouts the rules will face the consequence,” the colonel said.
However Onitsha-based International Society of Civil Liberties and the Rule of Law says it has identified four people killed during the clash.
Speaking to journalists in the Anambra State capital, Chairman of the group, Nze Emeka Umeagbalasi, said, “From our own report at the source, there was a midnight raid in Aba and a lot of people were killed by soldiers on Operation Python Dance II. A lot of people ran away and slept in the bush and a lot were injured. It is a fact, not fiction. From investigation, we have four of the names of those killed. They have recovered bullets used and abandoned during the raid. So, if the military tells you it did not invade, it is false.”
While the rhetorics go on, traders in Aba, the commercial nerve centre of Abia State are counting their losses.
Mrs Nkiruka Akomas, who sells perishable items such as vegetables, recalls that on the Saturday that preceded the crises in the state, she went to the market where she bought okra, fresh tomatoes and pepper in large quantities to make supplies to her customers. But sadly, after the clashes the next day, the Abia State Governor Okezie Ikpeazu imposed a curfew, thereby making it extremely difficult for her to sell her goods. She said she had lost both her perishable goods and her capital as a result.
Mr Kufre Okon, a tailor, who specializes in sowing clothes either for traditional marriage or white wedding ceremonies, narrated how the crisis and the subsequent curfew made him unable to meet up with deadline for customers to pick up their clothes and some customers whose clothes were ready had a hard time collecting their clothes. “The crisis caused me to lose a lot of money,” Okon said.
Softening the blows
In an attempt to bring a humane face to “Operation Python Dance II”, the military is offering free medical outreach to people in the South-East and would be engaged in repairs of roads, schools and other infrastructures across the region.
“The Chief of Army Staff has therefore directed that a contingent of durable mechanism be imbued in the overall planning and execution of the exercise to achieve a hitch-free yuletide for the entire region,” Col. Musa said.
He said the medical outreach is aimed at gaining the support and understanding of the locals on what the exercise is all about.
“This will further cement the existing mutually cordial relationship between the Nigerian Army and the civil populace particularly in the areas of our operations,” Musa said.
The medical outreach programme has just been concluded in Ebonyi State while Enugu State will be the next area to benefit.
Python Dance in Owerri
Owerri, capital of Imo State has had it share of stern-faced soldiers as part of the operation in the South-East.
Our correspondent was informed that the presence of armed soldiers has caused fear and anxiety among some residents, particularly on the Okigwe Road Junction Owerri axis where soldiers are stationed
A resident, Mr Lawrence Nwachukwu who spoke to our correspondent on the phone said, “I heard the soldiers have come into Owerri. But that doesn’t mean that they are harassing everybody they see. No. They are only after troublemakers and those who are holding or wearing the IPOB/Biafra insignia since the group has been proscribed. When you have such items and you walk towards the location of soldiers, it means you are looking for trouble because you may not know the kind of order their commander gave them.”
Another resident of Owerri, Duru Chidozie said that the presence of soldiers in the capital has caused a change in the city.
“All the insignia of IPOB are nowhere to be found on the streets and roads of Owerri. The soldiers were stationed in some strategic locations such as Owerri-Port-Harcourt Road, Owerri-Aba Road. The soldiers are also at the Owerri-Okigwe Junction as well as inside the metropolis. But the aggressive soldiers are gone. That’s the situation here in Owerri,” he said.