When Hunters Become Hunted: How attacks on Police Stations in the Southeast leave Officers at risk and communities vulnerable— 10mins read
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By Olanrewaju OYEDEJI
THE Southeastern part of Nigeria has witnessed many attacks on police stations in recent months. Many of the attacks have led to the loss of lives, destruction of properties and weakening of the security system in the region. In this report, The ICIR tracks the attacks on police facilities in five Southeastern states – Imo, Anambra, Abia, Enugu and Ebonyi. Olanrewaju OYEDEJI who visited the states reports.
ABOH Mbaise in Imo State is no longer a community that anyone can freely visit. Motorists would not dare to take any passengers to the village, nor would the commercial motorcyclists venture that far.
“That place no safe. Going there na risk,” a motorcyclist told this reporter, explaining the tensed atmosphere in the area and how everyone, including police personnel, was avoiding the community.
On arrival, the building serving as the police station was desolate. Only the charred remains of the structure was left standing. Police officers numbering five sat in groups of twos under a tree inside the premises. Another policeman sat inside one of the abandoned vehicles, all of them looking dispirited.
The station was fenced in the front but the other sides were surrounded by tall bushes, trees and abandoned vehicles, which now have been converted to a makeshift office.
The officers were all dressed in mufti. It was part of the safety measure adopted in response to recent attacks. One of the police officers who spoke on the condition of anonymity expressed the frustration of his colleagues.
“As you can see, nothing is happening here; we are just here doing nothing,” he said. To drive home his point, he recounted the experience of a colleague, a policewoman, who was hospitalised for two months after the police station was attacked. His colleagues, who were reticent most of the time, confirmed the account of the attack against their station.
The police officers were not the only victims. The attack also had a telling effect on the residents of Aboh Mbaise, who now live at the mercy of criminals and can no longer sleep with both eyes closed. Police officers have stopped patrolling the streets.
A resident of Mbaise, who identified himself as Onyenachi, expressed shock at the burning down of the station that has now left the community vulnerable to attacks.
“The incident was so painful and disappointing because the police are our friend here; they perform the duty of ensuring safety. We are unhappy with the station’s destruction because when the stations are destroyed, our lives and (properties) are not safe,” he said.
Recalling the incident, a local trader, Chibuzor, told The ICIR that they (traders) were all seated in their shops on the day of the attack before gunshots rang out.
“We all started running away in different directions,” he said, adding that since then things have not remained the same again.
Locked up in their own safe space
Another police station located at Umulowo community in Obowo, Imo State, was attacked on February 5. Two police officers died in the attack.
When this reporter arrived at the station, located on the highway leading to Umuahia in Abia State, it was deserted. A petrol station and a few buildings could be seen nearby, but there was no sign of human presence. At the gate, the reporter asked to speak with the Divisional Police Officer, DPO, but a policeman in mufti said he was unavailable.
It was later gathered that the man earlier seen in civilian dress at the station was the DPO, but he preferred to remain unidentified. Everyone seemed to have learnt the need to hide identity to prevent an attack, The ICIR found out. One of the officers who died during the shoot-out was the orderly to the DPO, said the Police Spokesman, Ikeokwu Orlando.
“What do you want again, please do not disturb us. The Divisional Police Officer is not always around; visit the police headquarters,” a female officer uncomfortable with the reporter’s inquiry responded.
Her fear is justified.
Barely a day after Nigeria’s Vice President, Yemi Osinbajo, visited Imo State, assuring of governments resolve to stamp out terrorism, Ehime Mbano Police Station, located at Isiala Mbano, came under attack.
A one-storey building with over 10 offices and residential quarters was completely vandalised during the attack; vehicles were also destroyed.
The investigation found that the Ehime Mbano Police Station was built and donated by an indigene of the town. The government’s promise to fully equip the station to deliver quality service has not been fulfilled.
“Different people have been coming, but that is all we see. Will the government claim that they do not know that this place was burnt? Nothing happens, nothing,” one officer, who spoke to The ICIR anonymously said.
This reporter visited the armoury of the station and found it empty. It had been reported in the media that the hoodlums carted away rifles from the armoury. Still, a senior official debunked this claim, stating that the rifles were removed before the attack.
Our reporter counted at least 50 bullet holes on the buildings of the Ehime Mbano station, showing the extent of damage caused by the attack. Three vehicles were razed, while hoodlums allegedly carted away four motorcycles belonging to police officers, two generators and an administrative computer.
Contrary to media reports, the Imo police headquarters building was not set ablaze. And no casualty was recorded. Investigations, however, revealed that the Nigerian Correctional Service headquarters in Imo State was torched, inmates released and vehicles burnt. The ICIR could not verify the number of inmates that escaped.
The Correctional Service headquarters, which is just a minute away from the Police headquarters and the Government House, has now been taken over by soldiers.
A resident of Ehime Mbano named Charles narrated how the attackers shot at themselves to show that no police bullet could penetrate them before starting the operation.
“They came with Highlander vehicle and started shooting themselves to show that guns could not penetrate them. People started running helter-skelter as the hoodlums set the station ablaze,” he recalled.
After the incident, police officers began to take precautions. Many of them have shed their uniforms; they come to work in mufti and stay there till they close for the day.
“After that attack, we have not been seeing police officers in uniforms. The presence of the policeman in uniform scares the hoodlums away but right now, we are living at the mercy of God,” Charles said.
Police Public Relations Officer, Ikeokwu Orlando, declined comments,saying that he could not speak on the situation.
Ebonyi State is not left out in the spate of destruction and disorder that overwhelmed the security apparatus of the Southeast.
The state was hit by multiple incidents of attack between October 2020 to date. Now fear is palpable as many residents are afraid to move freely in their communities. This reporter saw the expression of abandonment, anger, mistrust and failed promises in the eyes of residents interviewed.
At the Central Police Station in Abakaliki, the state capital, evidence of the destruction of the police station was still present, six months after the attack. At least five vehicles were burnt including major offices at the station. During the visit, not a single officer was seen near the station, now overgrown with weeds. Opposite the relic of the police station is the police school where 60 children of officers have withdrawn for fear of being targeted. No police officer wants to continue to have their children exposed to danger, especially when the police authorities told the principal to engage the services of local security as the state has a shortage of policemen.
“The way everywhere is, the hoodlums may come around and murder them. Week-in, week-out, we have been attacked by criminals here because there is no security,” she stressed.
The situation is not different at Iboko, Izzi Local Government Area of Ebonyi State, a peaceful settlement where residents are predominantly farmers.
On March 1, gunmen attacked the Iboko Divisional Police Station at about 1.00 am using firebombs that destroyed a part of the building and several vehicles. When this reporter visited the station, the carcass of three police vehicles and four motorcycles were seen in front of the station.
Also, police equipment belonging to the station was destroyed; this contradicts the government’s claim in a press release that minimal damage was done to the facility after attacks.
A senior police officer (names withheld) serving in one of the police facilities in the state lamented the poor welfare for officers and total neglect by the government.
“We are being killed like fowls; nobody cares about how we feel again, our colleagues are being killed daily, nobody is talking about that. Are we not human? We are expected to die for the country, but a police inspector collects a paltry sum of N88,000 monthly, and we know how much politicians collect,” the officer lamented.
“If we can be posted to our hometowns, it would be better so that when people want to attack a station, they will know that the person they are attacking is the son of the soil, not that we just come here from different places and get killed on a strange land,” he added.
The complaint of the police chief was reinforced by the killing of the police officers at Onueke Police Station.
The ICIR identified the three slain police officers as Inspector Juliana (female), Sergeant Chilaka, and Inspector Danansumi Jumba (on special duty). Operational vehicles were also destroyed.
There was also an attack on Onicha Police Station in Isu, which followed the same pattern – part of the building was razed by fire, and about four burnt vehicles were seen at the premises when our reporter visited. Police personnel were seen in mufti sitting under a tree chatting, and there was no official activity going on.
All these have had a telling effect on farming activities in the affected areas. A farmer in Onicha named Chuks told our reporter that, but for the attack on the police station in the area and the heightened state of insecurity, he should have been on his cassava farm.
“We cannot go to farms. As you can see, we are farmers. We are not certain, maybe (whether) we would come back alive, you don’t know what will happen, we do not know what (the) federal government is doing to protect our lives,” he said.
“There is a promise of the government to protect lives and properties, and they are not doing it. The protection of lives and properties is why we voted, but we cannot see anything of such,” he added.
The PRO, Ebonyi State Police Command, Loveth Odah,said that the state was working hard to ensure safety and security despite the unfortunate incidents.
Died in active service
The story of Williams Sunday mirrors the challenges faced by the police officers in the Southeastern. Williams Sunday, 41, was an Inspector before his death. He was attached to the Umoba Police Station in Abia State where he met his tragic end on February 2.
According to various accounts, Sunday, who was promoted to the rank of Inspector in December 2020, was attacked around 3.00 am. By the time he was discovered, his head had been severed from his body. Close associates described him as a committed officer and his tragic death has caused pain and low morale among his colleagues.
The Umoba Police Station in Abia has reportedly been abandoned since the incident and remained locked up when filing this report.
Sunday, left behind three boys (Micheal, Samuel and Praise ) his wife, siblings and an aged father.
When The ICIR contacted the Abia State Police Public Relations Officer, Geoffrey Ogbona, on the incident, he confirmed our findings on the death of Inspector Sunday, but he declined to speak further.
An indigene of Umoba, Ndubuisi Micheal, urged the government to urgently revive the police station to boost security in the area.
“The police station helps a lot in keeping the environment safe. This attack was not carried out by the indigenes, rather strangers (non-indigenes residing in the community). Government should help us get the police station back. I feel bad that this incident happened,” Micheal appealed.
Other police stations attacked in the Southeast region include Uzuakoli Police Station in Abia State; Mgbakwu and Ukpo Zone 13 police stations in Anambra State; and Adani, Emene and Amechi-Idodo police stations in Enugu State. Most of these police stations were unfenced, making it easy for the attackers to gain access.
The total value of damage could not be immediately confirmed, but money estimated at millions of naira has been lost given the level of destruction in the attacks.
However, the Police Public Relations Officer in Anambra State, Tochukwu Ikenga, said the attacks in the state had been targeted at police personnel and infrastructure.
“The alleged attacks are not on the infrastructure; we have been getting information on attacks. It is an attack on police personnel,” Ikenga declared. He said the police authorities have plan to take care of the officers’ welfare. Speaking about measures taken by the state government, he said the state recently came up with a directive to ban tinted vehicles and covered plate numbers and has supported families of those who lost their lives, with a cash sum of N1 million each, adding that the command was coming up with a package for them too.
The police spokesperson also charged residents and indigenes of the state to collaborate with the government in tackling the crisis, noting that police officers are also important to be safeguarded.
Residents sue for unity, justice.
In an earlier report titled: EndSARS Protest That Left Imo Communities Desolate and Traumatised, The ICIR exclusively reported stories of killings occasioned by the retaliatory attacks on communities in Nwaruebi and Orlu, Imo State by men of the Nigerian security forces. Some of the people who spoke with this reporter blamed the crisis in the Southeast on the way #EndSARS protest was handled.
A resident in Aboh Mbaise, Imo state, who sought anonymity, said: “We have had peace here before the EndSARS protest came. Many persons were killed, but no justice, even the way the police used to operate in the region, used to make us uncomfortable.”
Another resident from Ehime Mbano pleaded with the state governments in the region to unite everyone and doused the anger ravaging the land.
“We want the state governments to do something about the anger in the region; they should work with everyone because we do not have any other place to go to.”
Efforts to reach the Police Headquarters Force Public Relations Officer Frank Mba was unsuccessful. He neither answered his calls nor responded to messages.
Experts speak on negative impact of attacks
Security experts spoke to The ICIR on the impact of the attacks on governance in the country and recommended a reform of the police and justice system in the country.
A retired colonel in the Nigerian Army, Ademola Lawal, reminded the people of the Southeast that policing remains key to maintaining social order. He expressed worry that the attack which shows mistrust between the people and the government may further make life more difficult for the citizenry.
The breakdown of law and order as is currently being witnessed portends grave danger for any society, particularly in a democratic setting, he said, stressing the need to rebuild the people’s trust in the security apparatuses and confidence in the justice system.
“First of all, we must address impunity in the country; we must make sure that the police itself is very professional and properly reformed. “Loss of confidence in the police is the cause. Only the police themselves can restore confidence by ensuring that their personnel perform with the utmost professionalism,” Lawal advised.
He also harped on the need to mop up all arms in the hands of private individuals and ensure good governance at all levels in the country.
Another security expert and editor of Global Sentinel, a security-focused magazine, Senator Iroegbu, also identified mistrust and a broken civil-military relationship as the reason for the unprecedented level of boldface attacks on security facilities and personnel.
“These happenings question the level of civil-military relations, and security agents are human too. It shows a breakdown of trust, which may be an extension of the EndSARS issue whereby some people are still aggrieved. Although it does not justify the crime, it is a call to look inwards on where something went wrong,” Iroegbu said.
According to him, the recent attacks also point to a leadership vacuum both at the federal, state, and local government levels, resulting in a state of anarchy. On what can be done to curb the situation and restore order, he suggested long, middle and Short term approaches to solving the problem. He said effective communication with the citizens is required to understand people’s grievances.
“Community policing, state policing and restructuring; are issues that should be included in the process. There is a need to reach out to agitators even who are not recognised by law because whether they like it or not, they seem to have foot soldiers,” he added.
Iroegbu also said the formation of a new security outfit Ebube Agu would be more effective if groups such as MASSOB and others can also be engaged to prevent rivalry and mistrust.
The Southeastern governors earlier set up a security outfit code named Ebube Agu in a bid to fight insecurity in the region, yet attacks on police formation continue to date.