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Date Published: 05/07/10

Onovo and Rising Insecurity in the South East By Joel Nwokeoma

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At the last meeting held by the last Inspector General of Police, Mr. Mike Okiro, with senior police officers, on the eve of his departure last July, DIG Ogbonna Onovo (as he was then) was reported to have expressed his “resentment” at the criminal acts of kidnapping and brigandage that “have plagued the South East”.

This was particularly so against the backdrop of the records available to the police hierarchy then, which indicated  that “ kidnappers and hostage takers in Nigeria collected ransom of over $100 million between 2006 and 2008 from relations of hundreds of foreign workers and local people” abducted within that period

A government report in the month of July 2009 had noted that the South East had become “the kidnapping region of Nigeria”, with more abductions than any other region in the country, including the Niger Delta, since the first incident occurred in Anambra State on March 19, 2007, when two foreigners suspected to be Chinese, working at a car assembly plant in Nnewi as well as some of their Nigerian counterparts, were abducted by gunmen..

The consequence was that socio-economic activities in the region were affected negatively leading, inevitably, to economic hardship to the people. Investors were scared away, while the people felt too insecure to interact and socialize. This resulted in a significant reduction of business activities with very dire consequences to the national economy.

 If, however, the disturbing reports of the acts of criminality in the South East in recent weeks are anything to go by, it appears the high expectations by many that things “might change for the better as soon as Onovo takes over as IG and hits the ground running” are, after all, still unrealized.

A senior police officer had particularly enthused in a newspaper interview, after the hand-over ceremony, that Onovo had “mapped out plans to curb the acts if not for anything, but for the fact that he comes from the troubled South East and also because he is the first person from the region to occupy the office of the IG”.

That “plans” had been mapped out and blueprint drawn-up and implemented by the police might not be in doubt. What is, however, not difficult to fathom is the ineffectiveness of the strategies adopted so far to confront the disturbing security challenges in the region in particular, and the country as a whole. As the Igbo proverb goes, it is either the razor is blunt or the barber is incompetent!   

Perhaps, it is this realisation that informed the widely reported condemnation of the police by the former Minister of Police Affairs, Dr. Ibrahim Yakubu Lame, in March, over its “failure” to address, among other things, the “increase in current rate of crime across the nation”.

According to the visibly enraged former minister, “The time has come for the Nigeria Police High Command to review its strategies in order to perform its duty” because “no responsible government would fold its arm and watch helplessly as its citizens are being maimed or cut down in their prime where there is a police force in place.”

Since the minister spoke, the situation has worsened, if daily reports of the seeming take-over of the entire South East region, from Abia to Ebonyi and Anambra to Imo, by armed robbers and criminals are taken into consideration. And, what is more, the helplessness of the police in the midst of all this is surely something every concerned person should worry about.

For instance, last April, armed robbers numbering about 30 in a convoy of about four vehicles, including sports utility vehicles (SUV) and a Hummer, drove into the rustic town of Okigwe in Imo State, where they raided over six banks on Owerri Road in broad daylight, unmolested. A newspaper reported that “the operation, which started around 3pm and lasted for about two hours (and), brought business and other activities in the town to a standstill as residents scampered for safety”

To “celebrate” their breakthrough, the rampaging criminals reportedly turned the area into “a war zone”, shooting sporadically into the air for hours. Yet, there was no trace of police presence anywhere all through.

The hoodlums were said to have started their shooting spree at Ihiala in Anambra State via Orlu and Isiala Mbano in Imo State, and berthed at Okigwe. By the time they were through, 17 lives had been reportedly lost, including two soldiers, five policemen and some hapless civilians. And, as they retreated to their base after their operation in Okigwe, through Orumba in Anambra, they abducted the wife of Chief Chukwuemeka Ezeife, former governor of Anambra State, Mrs. Onyedi Ezeife.

It obviously calls for serious concern that  two states could be so easily over-run by hoodlums without a whimper of resistance from the police. Laughably, when the Okigwe Area Commander, Mr. Paul Aliu, was contacted by a journalist during the unfortunate incident, he was reported to have simply said, “Please, I am in the bush for operation. I don’t have anything to say now.” Busy, indeed, you may say! Only he could tell which operation he was involved in when his men were being gunned down mercilessly by some rampaging bandits.

On another occasion last week, this time in Nnewi, Aba and Port Harcourt, no fewer than 11 policemen were killed in different  operations by dare-devil criminals. According to reports, which were confirmed by the Area Commander in Aba, it was gathered that the “gunmen numbering six and riding on three motorcycles, emerged from nowhere and opened fire on the policemen, killing three of them instantly”. It is a trite fact that a police that cannot protect and defend itself cannot secure the people.

Interestingly, not too long ago, the IG had authorized the deployment of over 200 anti-terrorist personnel to the South East as a measure to stem and “arrest the spate of kidnappings which had become rampant in the region.” At a meeting convened to discuss the worrisome security challenges in the zone, attended by other senior police officers between the ranks of commissioner and above, Onovo observed that “the spate of kidnapping in the zone is becoming shameful and embarrassing security agents”. Ironically, while the region is arguably the most policed, in terms of police check points, it is the most unsafe and insecure in the country!

  It is noteworthy that the Federal Government has been concerned enough to have summoned the governors of the region to a high-level meeting in Abuja last Tuesday, where they were mandated to “improve security of lives and properties of their states or be held responsible for any further breach of the peace.” But, it speaks volumes that the police under Onovo have failed to stem increasing insecurity in Igboland, his homestead. .

However, much as the police could be blamed for failure to repel criminality in the South East, the state governors, except, perhaps, that of Enugu, have not been helpful either. By their actions and inactions, they have unwittingly bred criminality in the region. It is not for nothing that experts link the poor governance in the region to the rising insecurity evident therein, with large army of unemployed youths swarming the various cities and towns. Also, the militarisation of politics in the region, seen more as business than avenue for public service, has lent a hand.

Obviously, something has to be done, and swiftly too, if Igboland must not, slowly and surely, become a failed zone in a failing state! All hands must be on deck to save the people from themselves.

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