SOLDIERS of the Nigerian Army, deployed under ‘Operation Udoka’, are forcing travellers in the South-East to disembark from vehicles at numerous checkpoints that litter the region, checks by The ICIR have shown.
On getting to any of the checkpoints manned by heavily armed soldiers on major highways in the region, vehicles – both commercial and private – would stop to discharge passengers. The passengers, mostly travellers, will then trek across the checkpoint. On getting to a considerable distance beyond the checkpoint, they will stop and wait for the vehicle that was conveying them.
The driver will then move the vehicle past the checkpoint to meet the waiting passengers, who will subsequently return to their seats in the car.
The journey will continue until the vehicle gets to the next checkpoint, where the process will be repeated.
The ICIR’s correspondent, who experienced the situation while travelling across the South-East states, noted that the development frustrated motorists and travellers in the region.
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During a trip from Enugu to Umuahia, Abia State capital, on Friday, July 21, the commercial bus boarded by The ICIR correspondent was made to stop and discharge passengers at eight different checkpoints.
At each of these checkpoints, passengers – both young and old, male and female – had to come down and trek to the other side to wait for the vehicle.
Interestingly, vehicles and passengers are not searched at the checkpoints. But The ICIR correspondent observed that the heavily armed soldiers were alert as they watched the passengers walking past the checkpoints.
During the morning period, when a lot of people are travelling, the checkpoints are usually crowded with so many passengers who disembarked from several vehicles. The vehicles, mostly buses, which had discharged the passengers, will also queue up. They wait until the passengers have walked past the checkpoints before driving through, one after the other, to pick up their passengers.
The ICIR correspondent observed that when the volume of traffic at the checkpoints is high, some passengers have difficulty identifying the particular vehicle they boarded.
However, The ICIR further noted that motorists, especially commercial transit bus drivers, and travellers, are not happy with the development.
The repeated disembarkation at numerous checkpoints is not only stressful, it also wastes time, making the journey last much longer than it should.
The journey from Enugu to Umuahia, which ordinarily should be less than one hour, lasted more than two hours.
“Is this a war zone? It is only in war zones that you can witness this,” an aggrieved passenger muttered as travellers waited for their vehicle to move past the checkpoint and pick them, to continue the journey.
Many passengers expressed anger at the situation. A passenger, who said she has gotten used to the situation, being a regular traveller on the route, explained that she starts her journeys two or three hours earlier than usual in order to meet up with appointments. “If not, you will not arrive on time. You have to add extra one or two hours in order to meet up,” the woman told other travellers.
An old woman, who complained of arthritis, could barely walk across one of the checkpoints and had to be supported by sympathetic co-travellers.
Insecurity in South-East: Operation Udoka the solution?
A report published by The ICIR in January ahead of the 2023 general elections highlighted the high level of insecurity in the South-East.
The situation stabilised a bit during and immediately after the elections, but insecurity in the region again escalated after an Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) faction led by Simon Ekpa ordered and enforced a one-week sit-at-home, from July 3 to July 10, to demand the release of IPOB leader Nnamdi Kanu.
In many towns and communities, individuals who ventured out to attend to business or other engagements were attacked. Lives were lost, and properties were destroyed.
Concerns over further escalation of insecurity heightened after Ekpa declared a two-week sit-at-home in the South-East, starting from July 31, 2023, to August 14, 2023.
Operation Udoka is the Nigerian Army’s response to the insecurity in the South-East. In Igbo, the language spoken in the South-East, ‘udoka’ means ‘peace is greater’, or ‘peace is better’. The operation, under the control of 82 Division of the Nigerian Army, Enugu, has troops drawn from military and paramilitary formations.
The mandate of the Operation, as stated by former Chief of Defence Staff Lucky Irabor, is to “flush out the criminal elements disturbing the peace and socio-economic well-being of the South-East”. Top on the agenda of Operation Udoka is nullifying the sit-at-home orders in the region. After Ekpa ordered the two-week sit-at-home, the Chief of Army Staff, Taoreed Lagbaja, a Major General, ordered the troops to seize control of areas where pro-Biafra agitators enforce the sit-at-home order throughout the South-East states.
“The Chief of Army Staff has handed down clear directives to the 82 Division of the Nigerian Army operating in synergy with other security agencies to ensure robust patrols to dominate all flashpoints and emplace measures to ensure citizens are free to go about their legitimate businesses,” Director, Army Public Relations, Onyema Nwachukwu, a brigadier general, told Punch.
In line with its mandate, the presence of troops of Operation Udoka at numerous checkpoints in the South-East is aimed at ensuring security and stabilising the region.
While residents, particularly those undertaking trips on highways, express annoyance at being made to disembark from vehicles and trek at military checkpoints, a security source, who did not want to be named because he was not authorised to speak on the matter, told The ICIR that passengers are ordered to come down from vehicles because of several instances where unknown gunmen in vehicles attacked military and police personnel at checkpoints.
“The Army and the Police Force have lost men in these surprise attacks whereby hoodlums in vehicles launch guerrilla attacks at checkpoints. It has happened several times, so to avoid more losses, passengers have to come down before vehicles are allowed to pass checkpoints,” the source said, adding that there has been a drastic reduction in attacks on military and police checkpoints since the measure was put in place.
South-East residents divided over heavy military presence
While other passengers in the vehicle boarded by The ICIR correspondent during the trip from Enugu to Umuahia on Friday, July 21, were grumbling over the repeated disembarkation at military checkpoints, another passenger, who identified himself as Chigozie Ofoegbu, expressed support for the action of the troops.
Ofoegbu, who said he is a trader, noted that the security measures taken by the soldiers are necessary. “We all know why they (military) are doing this,” he said, adding that heavy military presence has made the highways safer for residents and travellers.
A prominent Igbo leader, who asked not to be named, also justified the action of the troops.
“If you allow people to stay inside the vehicles at a checkpoint, maybe somebody will start shooting at the military personnel. All these are happening because of the high level of insecurity in our land, and our youths, our people are behind this. That is why we are calling on those behind this to have a rethink. In the South-East today, there are checkpoints everywhere. Stepping down from the vehicle at different checkpoints is annoying, but let’s have empathy. Let’s put ourselves in the position of the other person who is doing his job, manning the checkpoint to ensure the safety of other people,” the Igbo leader said in an interview with The ICIR on Saturday, July 22.
Leader of Nzuko Igbo, a pan-Igbo socio-political group, Okechukwu Obioha, condemned the action of the troops manning the checkpoints. In a chat with The ICIR on July 22, Obioha expressed anger at the heavy military and police presence in the South-East.
He blamed the insecurity in the South-East on ‘enemies’ of the region.
“This is not obtainable in any other part of the country. The South-East is now a police state. About four years ago, the South-East was the safest place in Nigeria. So enemies of the South-East now introduced unknown gunmen and other problems just to make sure there is restiveness in the region,” Obioha said.
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“How come, despite all these checkpoints on the highways, kidnappers still operate and abduct people? We don’t really know what is happening. If you observe, you will notice that they don’t even search the vehicles at the checkpoints. They only ask passengers to come down and walk past. What about the drivers? A driver can also attack them, so why are they not searching drivers and the vehicles? What if there are things hidden in the vehicles? These things don’t make any sense to me,” he asked.
Enugu-based rights activist Olu Omotayo, in an interview with The ICIR, noted that the military had to adopt strategies to avert attacks by unknown gunmen.
Omotayo, President of Civil Right Realisation and Advancement Network, ((CRRAN), pointed out that motorists and passengers were allowed to pass freely at the checkpoints in the past.
“This is happening because of the insecurity in the zone. In the past you will just drive past these checkpoints, but there was a day I was going to Agbani (in Enugu), and I discovered that people were asked to come down and walk past the checkpoint. From what I gathered, it was a response to attacks on checkpoints by unknown gunmen. Some people will just drive past and open fire, and in that process, many security agents have been killed. So that is the reason, from what I gathered.”
“If there have been casualties on the part of the military, it is not unexpected that they will devise strategies to survive,” he added.
Omotayo expressed hopes that normalcy will return as the security situation in the region improves.