By Olanrewaju OYEDEJI
IN June 2021, there were media reports about abuse of human rights, burning of homes, loss of properties and other atrocities allegedly carried out by Nigerian Army personnel in Ohafia, Abia state. The ICIR’s Olanrewaju Oyedeji visited Ohafia in Abia state to investigate the root cause of the crisis.
OHAFIA is a town in Ohafia local government area (LGA) of Abia State, Southeast Nigeria that is home to the third-largest military base in the country, named Goodluck Jonathan Barracks, after a former Nigerian president. The military base houses the headquarters of the 14 Brigade and 145 Battalion office complex.
The town comprises twenty-six villages with population strength ranging between 800,000 and 916,000 as of 2014. The villages in Ohafia include: Elu, Ibina (Ihenta), Nde Okala, Nde Anyaorie, Amuma, Amaekpu, Ebem, Nde Amogu, Okagwe, Nde Uduma Ukwu, Oboro, Nde Nku, Nkwebi, Amuke, Asaga, Ndi Uduma Awoke, Amankwu, Nde Ibe, Nde Orieke, Okon-aku, Amangwu, Ufiele, Eziafor, Abia, Akanu, Isiugwu. Ancient Ohafia people were renowned as mighty warriors for their bravery and exploits in battles in pre-colonial Nigeria.
How the crisis starts
Since the averted massacre of the Ohafia people in a planned face-off with the Royal West African Frontier Force (RWAFF) around 1901, not much has been heard about the town, save for the pockets of crime, including kidnapping that led to the establishment of the 14 Brigade in February 2011.
In June, ten years after the establishment of the military base, Ohafia was attacked by soldiers in an alleged retaliation after an officer was injured by a bullet fired at him by some armed men suspected to be members of the Eastern Security Network (ESN).
It was gathered that the incident occurred at Ebem park (the biggest motor-park in Ohafia) while some men dressed in mufti but armed with Dane guns which they fired at each other in an open display of resistance to firearms. One of them shot at a military officer who had come to buy goods at the Ebem daily market without any provocation.
The officer was said to have escaped the scene with injuries, and later several soldiers arrived at the Ebem Park which is about three kilometres from their barracks, dislodged all workers and occupied the premises for two weeks as they demanded information about the men who had shot at their colleague.
An unofficial source said it took an order from the headquarters of the Nigerian Army before the soldiers vacated the park, as the Ohafia command reportedly noted that the area was outside their jurisdiction.
A resident who spoke under anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue stated that when the gunshots from the gunmen were first heard, they (the townsmen) presumed that the shots were from the nearby Army or Police barracks.
- Bullet marks
“Immediately we saw that they were men in mufti, we ran away,” the eyewitness told this reporter.
The crisis escalates
After vacating Ebem Park, the soldiers reportedly set up roadblocks and invaded some villages in Ohafia such as Amangwu, which shares a border with Ebonyi State and is surrounded by forests and bushes, with only a few motorable roads. Residents of Amangwu are predominantly farmers and traders, and the soldiers believed that they were providing refuge for the gunmen.
The ICIR learnt that military personnel stormed Amangwu on June 11 in seven Army Hilux vans, shooting sporadically and throwing firebombs into shops and houses. According to multiple sources, the soldiers stayed in the village for two days before leaving on June 13.
A commercial motorcycle rider from Okongo who came to the community to drop off a lady was reportedly killed by the soldiers during the sporadic shooting.
- Burnt refrigerator
Multiple accounts from residents said the motorcyclist was hit by a stray bullet and escaped to a nearby building for safety, but the soldiers went after him, dragged him out and rained more bullets on him until he died. His kinsmen later retrieved his body for burial.
When this reporter visited the Amangwu market, only a few traders could be seen doing business, many shops had been destroyed.
“We were outside when we heard that men of the Nigerian Army were coming, soon we started hearing gunshots and we had to abandon our shops and run into the village,” a businesswoman Ucha Ndukwe, who lost five shops to the incident told this reporter.
“I just bought new stocks for my shop. I deal in palm oil and provisions, but by the time I came back, everything was already razed down. I did not even have a pin to pick,” Ucha who is a widow told The ICIR.
She said life has been mostly unbearable for her and her children since the incident.
Another resident, Nnachi Egbeke said his timely presence spared his house from being completely burnt down by the soldiers.
“I was inside the building opposite me when my house was set on fire, I had to run out despite this and when the Army official left my house, I started using the ladder in my house to salvage what I could. If I was not around, the house would have burnt down,” Egbeke told The ICIR.
Reacting to the allegation that members of the ESN sought refuge in the village, he noted that residents of the community do not know about the existence of gunmen in the area.
Yet another victim, Monday Ukpai lost her two-bedroom apartment and a stall to the incident. Two other aged women estimated to be in their eighties also lost their homes and are now homeless.
One of the women, Alikwu Ugba lost her two-bedroom apartment to the incident. She noted that the only thing she salvaged was her wrapper and native blouse which this reporter saw her wearing. According to her, she cannot even feed after the incident.
This reporter saw the charred remains of shops and homes belonging to residents and traced many of them who are now internally displaced and have lost their means of livelihood.
Detained by angry youths
Our reporter on an appointment to meet with the Eze (King) of Amangwu, was seized by six angry youths who accused him of being a spy for their attackers.
“You would not leave here today, we would ensure that you do not leave this community; that is how they came here and destroyed this community,” one of the youths said and our reporter was subsequently detained at a nearby building.
The youths believe that their homeland and aged parents have suffered irreplaceable loss and have become angry and afraid of another attack.
It took several pleas from women in the community, elderly men and the timely arrival of the Eze(King) for our reporter to regain his freedom from the youths
Amangwu traditional ruler shares his experience
The traditional ruler of the Amangwu community, His Royal Highness, A. A Obobi, in an interview with The ICIR noted that he was inside his chambers when he heard that the Nigerian Army were advancing the community
“I was inside my palace when I learnt that the Nigerian Army officials were taking over the community, I could not go out because I did not want to be injured, even though some youths tried to stand their ground but houses were burnt by the soldiers, we lost properties amid wanton destruction.
“By the time men of the Army were leaving, they had destroyed 28 houses and we have lost properties worth over 50million naira,” Obobi said.
When this reporter told him of the allegation that Amangwu accommodates an ESN camp, he denied any knowledge of such, saying he was not aware.
“Many persons left the community due to the attack, women and children had to leave due to the incident of the attack and when some persons came back, we learnt that the men of the Nigerian Army were planning to come back and people moved out again,” he narrated.
The traditional ruler also confirmed the death of the motorcyclist and noted that he was making efforts through the local government council to reach out to the state government to investigate the incident and compensate the victim.
Earlier, Monarchs in Ohafia issued a communique condemning the attack and insisting that youths of the town were law-abiding and deserve protection, not intimidation by security agents.
“We do not know any “Un-known Gunmen” in Ohafia. The security agencies know the characters and personality profiles of deviant elements in the community. They should devise means of arresting such personalities rather than stigmatising all youths and residents of Ohafia.
“The continuous lock-down of commercial and social activities in Ohafia Community has completely paralyzed economic activities and well-being of Ndi Ohafia. The Siege at Amangwu Ohafia has turned the people of Amangwu into internally displaced persons (IDPs) in their land,” the communique by monarchs signed by Professor E.U.L Imaga, Udumeze Ohafia/Ezieogo Elu and other members of Council of Monarchs stated in part.
Nigerian Police, Army react
When this reporter reached out to the Spokesman of the Nigerian Police in Abia state, SP Geoffrey Ogbonna, to confirm if the police was aware of the Nigerian Army operation in the community, he declined comments saying all enquiries should be referred to the Nigerian Army.
However, the Nigerian Army has confirmed it carried out a joint “clearance operation” in the area but said reports that the operation was a retaliation attack after an officer was shot by gunmen were false.
“The true position is that troops carried out routine clearance operations in line with the rules of engagement and respect for fundamental human rights of the citizens aimed to restore socio-economic activities which were hitherto disrupted by criminal activities of IPOB/ESN elements who attack security agents and government infrastructures,” a statement by the former Director Army Public Relations, Mohammed Yerima released on June 14, said.
The statement added that troops of the Nigerian Army working in conjunction with personnel of Nigeria Police and other security agencies leveraging on timely and accurate intelligence provided by patriotic citizens were working tirelessly to restore normalcy to troubled areas and to rid the state of criminal elements.
Newly appointed Director Army Public Relations Onyema Nwachukwu, who assumed office on June 16, told The ICIR that the clearance operation was carried out based on credible intelligence, to restore socio-economic stability, law and order, which the law-abiding citizens have been denied as a result of the atrocious activities of the ESN.
- Destroyed vehicle at Amangwu
Nwachukwu noted that there was no invasion of the locality and that peace had since been restored in the community.
State government pledges to redress violation
Speaking to The ICIR, the Commissioner for Information in Abia state, John Okiyi Kalu noted that the state was ready and willing to ensure that justice is served as a way to protect the rights of their citizens.
“This government has zero-tolerance for human rights abuses or extra-judicial action of any kind. Any place we have that we will take it up to defend our citizens to ensure that there is dignity upheld and all is working well,” he noted.
- Burnt vehicle
Below are names exclusively obtained by The ICIR of some of the victims of the Ohafia military invasion and their losses for which they are now seeking compensation:
|1||Ofai Uduma||1 beer parlour, 1 deep freezer, 50 chairs, 130 crates of beer, 1 generator|
|2||Mrs Ucha Ndukwe||5 rooms, fridge, provisions, 50 crates of beer|
|3||Mrs Mecha Onuka||1 room stocked with foodstuff, stockfish, dry fish and condiments|
|4||Obinna Kalu||One motorcycle, 5 windows|
|5||Mrs G.E Ume||1 Mercedes, One Peugeot, 2 windows|
|6||Elder Chima Iroha||5 windows|
|7||Elder Egwuonwu Iroha||6 bedroom house and parlour and Household property|
|8||Kalu Okorie||Chemist Shop Stocked with drugs|
|9||Mrs Eke K. Ugba||1 Toyota Car|
|10||Ikechi Ukwa||1 Toyota Car|
|11||Ndi Ekea Compound||1 door, 5 window|
|12||Arua Uchendu||1 car windows, glasses|
|13||Orieke Okorie||1 motor cycle|
|14||HRH A.A Obobi||1 door, four windows|
|15||Kalu Nchege||4 Windows|
|16||Ndi Awa Compound||1 door, two windows|
|17||Figo Okwara||4 bedroom and 1 parlour|
|18||Erem Kalu||4 bedroom and 1 parlour|
|19||Okorie Okwara||1 room house|
|20||Chief Onwuka Omaka||2 bedroom house|
|21||Mrs Alikwu Ugba||2 bedroom house|
|22||Mrs Monday K Ukpai||2 bedroom house|
|23||Mr Nnachi Egbeke||2 bedroom house|
|24||Ugba Omaka||1 bedroom house|