The shell of the Owerri City Prison has become a charred symbol of the attacks that are unfolding in southeastern Nigeria, arousing fears of renewed separatist violence and troubled memories of a civil war half a century ago.
At least 127 police officers and security guards were killed in the Powderkeg region this year and more than two dozen police stations were destroyed, according to local media.
The attackers are often referred to simply as “unknown armed men”.
Some officials now refuse to wear uniforms in public for fear, police sources and local residents say, while others request transfers.
“Our region is under siege. Nobody is safe anymore. The armed men can come and devastate our country at any time,” said Friday Okwor, a retired official in Owerri, the capital of Imo state.
In the most brazen attack on April 5, heavily armed men raided Owerri Police Headquarters and stormed the main prison with explosives, freeing more than 1,800 inmates.
In a region where separatist sentiments often flare up among the indigenous Igbo, officials point the finger at the forbidden indigenous peoples of Biafra or IPOB who are campaigning for a state of their own.
However, the situation is far from clear.
The IPOB says it is falsely accused of dividing the separatists who are already divided on strategy. Some southern leaders accuse rivals of sponsoring attacks in order to discredit them.
Nigeria is the most populous country in Africa with around 200 million employees, and tensions among more than 250 ethnic groups are often easing.
However, some local leaders are fueling ethnic fervor for political gain, critics say, especially as the 2023 election approaches to replace President Muhammadu Buhari.
Others accuse criminal gangs of using the IPOB name as a cover. Some see a frustrated hardline wing of separatists at work.
The Buhari government, under increasing pressure to combat insecurity in Nigeria, has ordered a police and army operation to halt the unrest in the southeast.
The story goes on
“We are very careful these days because of the rampant murders of our staff,” a local police officer told AFP, asking not to be identified.
“A lot of us don’t wear our uniforms until we get to the office.”
– Local complaints –
At least five polling stations with election papers were also burned down, no later than Sunday in Akwa, the capital of the state of Anambra.
“Almost daily attacks have turned Igboland into a theater of war,” said Vivian Okafor, a local who often uses the name Igbos to refer to the southeast.
“There are hardly any police to be found on the streets.”
While no group has taken responsibility, much of the blame has fallen on the IPOB, the separatist movement that seeks Igbo independence.
The IPOB has refused any participation.
However, those allegations have intensified since a group called the Eastern Security Network or ESN, allegedly an IPOB paramilitary wing, posted videos of uniformed recruits.
But Uchenna Madu, leader of another pro-Biafra group, the Movement to Update the Sovereign State of Biafra (MASSOB), said separatists should not be held responsible for the violence.
Separatist ambitions are sensitive in Nigeria, where some ethnic or regional leaders are pushing for more representation or even separate states, but no more than in the southeast.
More than a million Igbo people died in a 30-month civil war that broke out in July 1967 when Biafra leader Emeka Odumegwu-Ojuku declared a breakaway independent state.
Madu accused the government of promoting violence to discredit Igbo activism, especially as the Southeast seeks to produce a presidential candidate to succeed Buhari, a northerner himself.
“The game plan calls for blackmailing the Southeast to give up its desire to produce the next president,” Madu told AFP, surrounded by a handful of supporters in his hiding place.
“You want to create a climate of fear and insecurity in the southeast.”
He said his group would partner with the IPOB in protests on the self-proclaimed Biafra Day on May 30th and 31st in honor of those killed during the civil war.
Madu and an IPOB leader, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said security forces recently went door to door to arrest IPOB supporters.
Last week the police launched Operation Restore Peace in the southeast.
National police spokesman Frank Mba said the joint operation will “confront criminal elements, take the fight to their doorsteps and reorganize our cherished national values”.
Ebonyi Governor Dave Umahi has asked for silence, stating that perceived mistakes against Igbo people are at the root of the current violence.
He urged angry “youth” to express their grievances and added that they would be addressed through dialogue.
But he said the IPOB and ESN are a “child of necessity” as previous governments have done little to address grievances.
“You can see how this has multiplied.”
joa / pma / ri