Tension has returned to Umuahia, the Abia State capital, as soldiers, on Tuesday, laid siege to the Afaraukwu country home of the leader of the Indigenous People of Biafra, Nnamdi Kanu.
The soldiers arrived in the community on Tuesday barely 48 hours after the clash between the Army and IPOB members on Sunday, where three people were reportedly injured.
It was learnt that the soldiers returned to the state capital with about 10 Armoured Personnel Carriers and seven Hilux vans
The development created panic in the area, forcing shop owners to hurriedly close their shops.
The soldiers were also seen at the secretariat of the Abia State Council of the Nigeria Union of Journalists on Aba Road, Umuahia, where they destroyed laptops and other valuables.
A journalist at the NUJ secretariat told one of our correspondents that, “Soldiers stormed the press centre, claiming that they saw somebody taking photographs of them from the one-storey building office.”
The chairman of the council, Mr. John Emejo, confirmed the incident.
Emejor, who expressed disappointment with the incident, said a national officer of the union, Ezeogo Okoro, was slapped by one of the soldiers.
He said, “Our press centre was invaded by soldiers; two journalists lost their IPads and phones, while a national leader of the union was attacked.
“Our stand is that those involved in this attack on innocent journalists should be fished out and punished in line with the constitution of the country.”
When contacted, the Assistant Director, Army Public Relations, 14 Brigade, Nigerian Army, Maj. Oyegoke Gbadamosi, said he had asked the chairman of the council to send the photograph of the damage in the office to him.
Gbadamosi later expressed regrets over the reported attack on some journalists.
In a telephone interview, the spokesman said he was shocked to hear that military personnel invaded the NUJ secretariat.
Gbadamosi promised to look into the incident.
Ohanaeze calls for withdrawal of troops from S’East
Meanwhile, the Igbo socio-cultural organisation, the Ohanaeze Ndigbo, has called on the Federal Government to direct the military to stop its military operation in the South-East immediately.
The Ohanaeze expressed discomfort with what it called the invasion of the South-East by soldiers, operating under a code name Python Dance 11.
In a statement on Tuesday in Abuja by its President-General, Chief John Nwodo, the group stated that the military operation was aimed at intimidating the people.
The Chief of Training and Operations of the Nigerian Army, Major Gen. D. D. Ahmadu, had, on Friday, announced the commencement of the operation.
Nwodo said, “Nigeria, at this moment, does not need such deliberate and proactive escalation of tensions and crisis.”
He believed that there were more civilised and established ways to resolve the country’s democratic and security challenges rather than resort to the use of brute force.
Ohanaeze added, “In a democracy, the level of disenchantment expressed by the people of the South-East of Nigeria ought to have provoked a serious dialogue between our people and the federal executive and the legislature.
“History teaches us that continuous use of force to silence dissent and free speech will only accelerate the growth of dissent and dissatisfaction.
“The fundamental right to freedom of expression is critical to a successful democracy.
“Our people were shamelessly intimidated and harassed at checkpoints. Operation Python Dance 1 procured no arrests of criminals that were prosecuted for any of the criminal activities that Operation Python Dance II is supposed to address.
“Instead, it witnessed reckless and indiscriminate murder of self-determination agitators in Asaba, Aba, Nkpor and Port Harcourt, numbering up to 191 by the estimate of Transparency International and shattered public confidence of south-easterners in the Nigerian Army and the police.”
Nwodo described the invasion of Nnamdi Kanu’s home by soldiers as unfortunate.
He said, “We believe that it is a deliberate invasion of a quiet homestead, an act of provocation and a continuing policy of intimidation because crimes of monstrous proportions are occurring in other parts of Nigeria.
“Such crimes include ravaging killings by Fulani herdsmen in the Middle Belt; secret cult killings in Lagos and the South-West; bunkering and armed resistance in the Delta; wanton kidnappings and killing of military personnel in Kaduna State and environs as well as Boko Haram insurgency in the North-East.
“The Nigerian Army has never embarked on Operation Python Dance in any of the other five geopolitical zones on account of these incidents. Innocent civilians living in these other parts of Nigeria have not witnessed the type of invasion Umuahia witnessed on Sunday night.”
In a similar vein, the Owerri Branch of the Nigerian Bar Association, Civil Liberties Organisation, Igbo National Council and some residents of Owerri, the Imo State capital, described Operation Python Dance 11 as an act of illegality.
They, therefore, called on the National Assembly to reprimand and caution the Chief of Army staff, Lt. Gen. Tukur Buratai.
The Owerri NBA Chairman, Lawrence Nwaeketi, described Operation Python Dance as a declaration of war on the South-East geopolitical zone by the Nigerian Army.
The legal practitioner added, “The military is not saddled with the responsibility of making arrests. It is the constitutional responsibility of the Nigeria Police.
“There is no external aggression in the South-East. The military should first arrest the Arewa youths who are threatening the peace and unity of this country by giving a quit notice to lawful citizens of Nigeria.”
The President of the CLO, Wisdom Durueke, described the military exercise in South-East as “uncalled for.”
Also, in a statement in Owerri by its National President, Chilos Godsent, INC urged President Muhammadu Buhari and the National Assembly to, as a matter of urgency, mandate the Army to stop Operation Python Dance.
Ikpeazu declares three days curfew in Aba
In the meantime, the Abia State Governor Okezie Ikpeazu has declared a three-day curfew in Aba, the commercial hub of Abia State, starting from Tuesday (yesterday) to Thursday, September 14.
The curfew, the government said, would last from 6pm to 6am.
Ikpeazu, who spoke with newsmen at the Government House, Umuahia, noted that the state had noticed the skirmishes between some groups in the state, especially IPOB members and men of the Nigerian Army.
He urged residents of the state to remain law-abiding and go about their lawful business without fear of molestation.
Ikpeazu warned the people against confrontation with military personnel or other security agents, saying the military operation was meant to check criminal activities in the state.
He said, “The operation, as declared by the Army, is intended to check kidnapping, banditry, assassination, secessionist activities within the region, amongst other forms of criminal activities.
“The recent confrontation between the Nigerian Army and members of IPOB on Sunday, 10th September, 2017, could presumably be attributed to the commencement of the said Operation Python Dance II.
“While the Government of Abia State recognizes the right of the Nigerian Army and other security agencies to perform their statutory duty of protection of lives and property of Nigerian citizens, such duties must be carried out within acclaimed Nigerian and international standards of engagement with the civil populace, with due respect to the human rights of citizens and sanctity of human lives.”
One killed as troops, IPOB members clash in Rivers
In another dimension to the face-off between soldiers and IPOB members, one person was feared killed on Tuesday as soldiers clashed with the secessionists at the Timber area of Oyigbo Local Government Area of Rivers State.
Some eyewitnesses within the area said shop owners, motorists and passersby fled the vicinity after guns boomed between the two groups at about 11.30am.
It was gathered that trouble started when some IPOB members began to gather at Timber in the Oyigbo LGA with a view to embarking on a journey to Umuahia for a solidarity rally in support of their leader, Nnamdi Kanu.
Sources said while the Biafran agitators converged on the place with Biafran flags and other materials like caps and mufflers that bore Biafran colours, a group of soldiers moved in to disperse them.
The PUNCH learnt that the IPOB members resisted the action of the soldiers by insisting that they would wait for some of their colleagues before moving to Umuahia.
The situation, according to a source in Oyigbo, degenerated as soldiers and some IPOB members engaged one another in a shootout.
On the Oyigbo expressway, a police van was said to have been torched during the clash while an unidentified person, who was said to have been hit by a bullet, died on the spot.
Also, the popular Nkwo Oyigbo market was deserted as traders locked up their shops as early as noon in order not to be caught in the crossfire.
A security source alleged that some IPOB members burnt down a mosque during the incident.
However, a source, who took active part in the Oyigbo incident, gave another version of the story, saying IPOB members had planned to move to the residence of their leader, Kanu, in Umuahia based on the directive of Uche Mefor, known as the second-in-command to Kanu.
It was learnt that some IPOB members began a violent protest within Oyigbo that sent almost everybody running away from their shops.
Soldiers were also said to have mounted guard at the railway section of the area to ensure that residents from the North were safe.
Spokesman for the 6 Brigade, Col. Aminu Iliyasu, maintained that there was no clash between soldiers and IPOB members.
“I am in Bayelsa now, but people have been calling, telling me that there is a situation in the Oyigbo area. But I don’t know exactly where this is happening.
“But one thing is certain, no soldier was deployed in Oyigbo and asked to stop IPOB members from travelling to Umuahia,” Iliyasu said.
The State Police Public Relations Officer, Mr. Nnamdi Omoni, confirmed the tension in Oyigbo, but was silent on the groups involved in the clash.
He, however, said the police were still gathering information on the level of casualty during the clash.
Senate S’East caucus cautions military
However, the South-East Caucus in the Senate, on Tuesday, criticised the ongoing military campaign in the south-eastern states code named Operation Python Dance.
The caucus lamented the military invasion of remote villages around Umuahia, particularly the alleged incursion into the country home of Kanu.
Chairman of the Senate South-East Caucus, Senator Enyinnaya Abaribe, in a statement, stated that such actions suggested wilful personalisation of the operation and deliberate abuse of the people’s fundamental rights.
Abaribe said, “It is more worrisome that military operation, Python Dance 2, restricted to the South-East in a peace time, has no doubt fouled the environment and sent strong signal that the region is under siege, which should not be so in a democracy.
“We therefore urge extreme caution and advise the military to de-escalate the situation and choose the best operational modus that will not only guarantee the safety of Nigerians but also enhance national unity.”