Many unarmed residents in the South-east of Nigeria have been killed by Nigerian troops deployed to check Biafra agitation in the region, findings by PREMIUM TIMES have shown.
The killings usually happen during raids on suspected camps of the outlawed Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) and its militant wing, Eastern Security Network (ESN).
IPOB is leading an agitation for an independent state of Biafra, which they want carved out from the South-east and some parts of the South-south.
On 30 August, for instance, three unarmed residents were killed when troops from 82 Division and 34 Brigade of the Nigerian Army invaded Orsu-Ihiteukwa, a community in Orsu Local Government Area of Imo State, south-east Nigeria.
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Army spokesperson Onyema Nwachukwu would later claim that those killed were IPOB members.
Two of the victims, Ugochukwu Obianeli and Nonso Izuegbu, were killed while they were moulding cement blocks in the community, PREMIUM TIMES gathered.
One other victim, Nicholas Onwughala, an elderly man, was shot in his legs by the troops at Eke Ututu Market in the community, according to sources in the community.
He died the following morning, 31 August, because of complications from gunshot injuries.
Like in other previous incidents, the troops carried out the attacks as part of an onslaught against suspected members of IPOB.
“Each time the troops come, they carry out shootings. And most times, they end up killing some innocent people, during shooting with the supposed ESN boys,” Chidi Ibekaeme, a resident of Orsu-Ihiteukwa community, told PREMIUM TIMES.
He said there had been no attack in the community until the troops began raiding suspected camps of the IPOB members in December 2021.
“I know of the three persons (killed by the troops on 31 August). Incidentally, one of them, Ugochukwu Obianeli, is my brother-in-law,” Mr Ibekaeme, a lawyer, said.
“We are living in fear. Each time we hear information that they are coming, we run away.”
Another resident of the community, Friday Nwajuo, narrated to PREMIUM TIMES how the troops killed two of the victims and labelled them IPOB members.
“We ran when we heard the army people were coming,” Mr Nwajuo began.
“Within 20 minutes, the soldiers came and started shooting. So, the two boys, who were labourers in a block industry, ran away for safety. All of a sudden, they stopped shooting.
“When they (the two victims) came out, they thought the soldiers had left. So, the soldiers saw them and shot them dead, thinking they were ESN members,” he narrated.
Again, on 17 September, exactly 18 days after, the Orsu-Ihiteukwa community in Orsu Council Area of Imo State and Orsumugho, another community in Ihiala Local Government Area of Anambra State, were invaded by the troops, killing two unarmed residents and razing shops.
Both communities share boundaries.
The troops were said to have invaded Orsu-Ihiteukwa again at about 4 a.m., with many combatant vans, armoured tankers, and military helicopters.
Residents said the troops were firing shots and detonating bombs, while the helicopters hovered over the communities.
The shootings and bombardments were said to have disrupted a burial ceremony, causing guests to run inside bushes for safety.
PREMIUM TIMES gathered that the operation was carried out in collaboration with members of Ebubeagu, a security outfit backed by the Imo State Government.
A resident, Ifeanyichukwu Edurumba, 23, was said to have been whisked away from his house at about 12 p.m. and dragged to the market in Orsu-Ihiteukwa where he was allegedly killed by the troops.
His uncle’s wife, Ifeoma Onyebuchi, who was staying with him, narrated to PREMIUM TIMES what happened.
“We were inside the house when we heard that army people were coming to the community. So, he (Edurumba) left his poultry farm and ran inside for safety. While we were inside, some people came and knocked on our door. They were a mixture of army people and Ebubeagu members, all in their uniforms.
“They ordered us to open the door when I asked who they were. They quickly broke the door and gained entry. The boy (Edurumba) ran under the bed with some children.
“One of them told us that if we don’t bring the boy, they will kill all of us. I told them the boy is an orphan and the only son of his late parents and that he is a poultry farmer and also an iron bender. I told them he didn’t do anything wrong.
“While I was talking, they went inside the room and dragged the boy out and took him away. They checked the boy’s poultry when they heard his chickens clucking. They later took the boy to Eke-Ututu Market and killed him,” she said.
‘They killed another boy’
Another resident, who said he witnessed the troops’ invasion, spoke with PREMIUM TIMES the following day, 18 September.
“They also killed one (other) boy in Orsumoghu, a neighbouring community here. I don’t know his name yet,” he said.
The man said he came face-to-face with the troops, while he was going to the market to buy an item, but that he hid from them for fear of being killed.
“They were burning houses and stalls. They used some hammers to break shops and took whatever they liked, such as beverages, and then set the shops ablaze.
“Whenever they (troops) come, they kill whoever they see, burn houses. If you come to this village now, everybody is crying. They have reduced us to rubble,” he said.
The troops, according to him, razed over 30 shops.
He said it disheartened that the Nigerian government would claim to be protecting lives and property, but turned around to order security agencies to kill residents and destroy their sources of livelihood.
Video clips which captured burning shops and motorcycles were circulated on different WhatsApp groups.
In one of the clips, a victim, Anselem Ohaachosi, whose shop was said to have been burnt down, lamented the frequent invasion of the community by troops.
“Yesterday, 17th of September 2022, a gang of Nigerian soldiers came to Eke-Ututu, Orsu-Ihiteukwa, destroyed peoples’ shops, properties (and) lives. They set my shop ablaze,” he said.
Mr Ohaachosi used to sell phones and phone accessories. He said all the items in the shop had been destroyed by the troops.
He said he went into the sales of phones because he could not find a job after graduating from Imo State University.
“Look at how they rendered me useless in Orsu-Ihiteukwa. The cost of what they damaged here is nothing less than N10 million. How can I start life afresh?”
Mr Ohaachosi said the troops were shouting, “Say no to IPOB” during the raid.
“Am I an IPOB member? Did they see any mark on me? I graduated from Imo State University and I am also a holder of a post-graduate diploma in education. I am an educationist. They have to pay for all these,” Mr Ohaachosi said.
Another clip showed helicopters hovering in the sky.
In another clip, apparently shot the following day, 18 September, people, whose shops were not affected during the operation, were seen hurriedly packing their goods out of the shops.
The invasion of the two South-east communities by the troops has attracted condemnations.
The military did not comment on the incident.
Governor Hope Uzodinma of Imo State would later defend the attack, claiming that the troops raided and burnt some shops in Eke-Utu Market in Orsu-Ihiteukwa Community, because materials used for manufacturing Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) were allegedly discovered in the market.
The governor claimed that suspected “bandits” operating in the area use the IEDs to fight security operatives and that an army officer, on duty in Orsu Awo-idemili community, died last month (August) from an explosion.
Mr Uzodinma incorrectly claimed that no life was lost in the attack. The governor was silent on the troops’ invasion of Orsumugho, a community in Ihiala Local Government Area of Anambra State.
Not the only attacks
But those were not the only times that the Nigerian troops would kill unarmed residents in the region and tag them members of IPOB.
In April, on Easter Sunday, troops from the 34 Artillery Brigade invaded Ihioma community in Orlu Local Government Area of Imo State, killing scores of residents and razing houses.
There were two contrasting stories around the attack. Some residents said the killings were done by gunmen, while others accused the military of being responsible.
PREMIUM TIMES gathered that the troops targeted unarmed civilians in reprisal after some gunmen attacked soldiers in the community.
The attack on the residents of the community led to the hashtag #OrluIsBleeding which trended on Twitter for days.
“This is the popular Ukwu Aki or Inland Guest house (which) has been razed down by the military forces.
“They have been shooting since morning. Shooting and killing innocent people, burning peoples’ shops and properties. That’s what we witnessed today. So, we are not happy,” said an unidentified resident in a video clip posted on Facebook by the social media user, Success Obum.
In the video clip, residents were seen scampering for safety while sounds of gunshots rented the air. Some residents were also seen weeping and lifting the corpses of their loved ones killed in the attack.
“How can the government deploy its security agencies to destroy people celebrating their Easter? We are sad. Since night, nobody has slept in this area. Nigeria military forces (are) shooting every damn thing they see,” the resident added.
But military authorities denied the allegation, claiming only IPOB members were targeted by the troops during the operation.
The troops killed one IPOB member during the operation, the army spokesperson, Mr Nwachukwu, claimed.
Mr Nwachukwu, a brigadier-general, claimed gunmen were seeking to whip up public sentiments by circulating “a doctored video” on social media.
Again, Nigerian troops, between 28 and 29 June, invaded Ossomala, Umunankwo and Obeagwa communities in Ogbaru Local Government of Anambra State, killing scores of unarmed youths, according to sources from the communities.
The heavily armed military forces were said to have been mobilised from Ogbaru Naval Base and Onitsha 320 artillery Regiment in over 20 trucks to hunt down suspected IPOB members, but they ended up opening fire on the residents.
Although military authorities did not respond to the allegations, residents said the military forces claimed those killed in the attack were IPOB members who had attacked some soldiers in the area.
The killings led to the hashtag #Ogbarumasscre which trended on Twitter for weeks, with gory images.
PREMIUM TIMES in 2016 published a detailed report on the massive extrajudicial killings in the South-east.
The report captured how a group of soldiers stationed at the Head Bridge Market, Anambra State, on 17 December 2015, opened fire on jubilant crowds who had poured out into the streets of Onitsha, the commercial capital of the state, to celebrate a court ruling in favour of the release of Nnamdi Kanu, the detained IPOB leader.
Three people died instantly while five more bodies were discovered meters away from the scene, bringing to eight the number of people killed on the spot.
Of the wounded victims taken to hospitals, four later died, bringing to 12 the number of deaths in the incident.
From Onitsha to Aba, Enugu to Umuahia, people faulted the deployment of “maximum force” during the military operations in the South-east, which has led to the extrajudicial killings of an unknown number of defenceless civilians across the region.
Human rights organisations like the Civil Liberties Organisation, the Intersociety for Civil Liberties & Rule of Law, Amnesty International, Center for Human Rights & Peace Advocacy, and Forum for Justice, have for years been documenting cases of extra-judicial killings in the South-east.
Between August 2015 and February 2016, about 170 “unarmed citizens” were shot dead or critically injured while about 400 others were arrested, charged or detained without trial, according to rights groups.
Statistics made available to PREMIUM TIMES by the rights groups within the stated period show, for example, that four people were killed in Awka and Onitsha on 30 August 2015; 13 were killed in Onitsha on 2 December 2015; 12 were killed in Onitsha on 17 December 2015; eight killed in Aba on 18 January 2016; six killed in Aba on 29 January 2016 and 22 killed in Aba on 9 February 2016.
The military usually follows a familiar pattern – after an incident, a press statement is quickly issued where the victims are labelled IPOB members. The Nigerian media, without any probe, would run the one-sided statement.
The military authorities, in most cases, would refuse to respond to questions from reporters, afterwards.
And the victims’ relatives, apparently from poor and vulnerable backgrounds, would grieve behind closed doors, knowing how difficult it is for them to get justice.
More extrajudicial killings
A report by the International Society for Civil Liberties and Rules of Law revealed that between July and August, the military and other law enforcement agencies secretly massacred hundreds of defenceless civilians in Imo, Anambra and Benue, and tagged them, terrorists.
In the report, released on 2 September, the group said part of their findings showed that the military has been working with armed herdsmen to terrorise the eastern part of the country and Benue State.
The group, while commenting on the 30 August attack in the Orsu-Ihiteukwa community, Imo State, said they were not surprised that the army “falsely labelled the victims as IPOB/ESN terrorists”.
Emeka Umeagbalasi, the board chairman at the intersociety, who coordinated the report, said the group “shall not sit by and watch innocent citizens being mowed down by soldiers and other security forces with reckless abandon”.
The military dismissed the report as a “concoction and evil propaganda”. It said the intersociety was sponsored by IPOB to destabilise Nigeria.
Human rights groups kick
Amnesty International Nigeria, like many other rights groups, has repeatedly condemned extra-judicial killings by security agencies in the South-east.
“Instead of launching proper investigations into these killings, security and government officials are often quick to claim victims were caught up in shoot-outs or simply label them members of the ESN, the armed wing of IPOB,” Osai Ojigho, the director of Amnesty International Nigeria, said in a statement in July.
The group was reacting to the killing of seven young people who were returning from a wedding ceremony in Imo State. They were allegedly killed by operatives of a government-backed security outfit, Ebubeagu.
Amnesty called on the government to put an end to the patterns of extrajudicial executions, by “carrying out a prompt, impartial and independent and effective investigation” into the killings and other human rights violations in the region.
Approach against IPOB questioned
Many have criticised the approach of Nigeria’s security agencies in fighting IPOB-linked unrest in the South-east.
One expert suggested the “carrot and stick approach” as the way forward.
“You have to offer a carrot, that’s dialogue for IPOB members and, then, use a stick, which is force, if the dialogue fails,” said Nnamdi Anekwe, a security expert.
Mr Anekwe said it was the same approach that was adopted in resolving the Niger Delta crisis.
Mr Nwachukwu, the army spokesperson, did not respond to calls seeking comments on the allegation of extra-judicial killings by the military.
He did not also respond to a text message enquiring how troops are able to distinguish between IPOB members and innocent residents during operations in communities.
“The best approach would have been to investigate and interrogate arrested suspects, not shoot them. But soldiers do not interrogate, they just attack,” Joseph Ngwu, another security expert, said.
“Even when there is an allegation of criminal activity against people, such information could be ill-motivated and, therefore, needs to be investigated first,” Mr Ngwu added.
Mr Anekwe told PREMIUM TIMES that without gathering intelligence through arrested IPOB members and “technical sources,” it would be difficult for security operatives to differentiate between the separatists and innocent residents during operations.
“Usually, if they go to a civilian area, they don’t fire, until they are fired upon. And they will make sure they use minimal force in protecting themselves,” Mr Anekwe said.
“So, in such circumstances (returning of fire by troops) innocent people may come in between those fires – that’s collateral damage.”
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