By Immanuel Obeng’-Akroffi

Insecurity in Nigeria is increasing in scale, spread and sophistication. As of January 2022, a total of 1,486 people in the country were victims of insecurity. Out of this number, 915 were killed and 571 kidnapped.

While no state in Nigeria is immune from violence, security governance in Nigeria’s south-East is particularly worrying. The structures, institutions and personnel responsible for managing security and providing oversight at national and local levels have proven to be insufficient.

Before diving further, it is important that we look at the history and circumstances surrounding the ongoing security crises at hand. A good place and perhaps the most significant point of departure would be, an overview of the 1967 Nigeria civil war also known as the Biafra war.

The Biafra war is arguably one of post-independence Africa’s most divisive conflicts. The genesis of the conflict is linked to the action of Lt. Col Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu, the military governor of Nigeria’s eastern region, who declared the Republic of Biafra independent from Nigeria, fifty-five years ago (May 30, 1967).

The decision to break away was due to tensions between the Igbo ethnic group in the east and the Hausa group in the north. Grievances included; alleged corruption among public officials, the government’s failure to ensure equitable distribution of economic resources, and alleged attempts by northern elites to entrench the political hegemony of the Northern Region over the rest of the federation.

The breakaway republic comprised 9 states in Nigeria’s eastern region. The declaration of independence led to a civil war between the region and the rest of Nigeria, which opposed secession. Reconciliation talks were unsuccessful and Ojukwu and his followers broke away following violence against Igbos living in the north.

An estimated 1-3 million people were killed during the 30-month long war. The conflict ended in January 1970 when Ojukwu fled the country, and Nigeria reabsorbed Biafra with a ‘no victor, no vanquished’ policy.

What is Happening in the Southeast?

Since October 2020, groups of “unknown” gunmen have been targeting and killing people. The targeted killing have been directed especially at military and security personnel and other federal agents. There have been incidences of burning down police stations, Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) facilities, local government secretariats and the murder of a local legislator, Okechukwu Okoye in Anambra recently.

These ‘unknown’ gunmen often target security personnel at their stations or checkpoints. Personnel were killed, and their vehicles and duty posts are burnt. More than 20 police stations were attacked in parts of the southeast in the first five months of 2021, with many police officers killed. The most recent attack was at the Atani, Ogbaru Local Government Area in Anambra.

With more guns in their hands, attackers have become bolder and have branched into other criminal activities such as kidnapping for ransom in the zone’s five states. Attackers have also targeted government facilities such as the Independent National Electoral Commission offices, prisons and courts. Insecurity has been compounded by jailbreaks launched by the attackers, leading to more criminals re-entering society.

The dramatic surge in the activities of the criminals described as ‘unknown gunmen’ has not occurred in a vacuum. It is a result of separatist agitation and associated repressive state responses, coupled with the designation by the federal government of the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) as a terrorist organisation.

The deterioration of security comes amid a growing campaign for Biafran independence staunchly championed by the IPOB, led by Nnamdi Kanu, with a huge following of young people born after the Nigerian civil war. Their desire for an independent Biafra state is fuelled by a feeling of marginalisation and historical grievances against the government. The government has responded to separatist agitation through aggressive militarisation, security crackdowns and mass arrests of supporters and the youth.

The spate of violence in Nigeria’s southeast and the government’s inability to effectively protect life and property is taking a toll on almost all aspects of life, including socio-economic development. The violence also negatively affects the livelihoods of the poor, who are primarily engaged in the informal economy. Imo State is considered the heartland of the southeast, and its hospitality-driven economy is fast declining due to the increasing rate of violence.

Holistic solution 

An overly militarized response to the violence has not resolved the security challenges. The use of force may lead to the arrest and killing of criminals and stop their logistics and enablers, but it won’t remove the underlying drivers of violence. These underlying drivers include; generalised feelings of alienation, widespread youth unemployment, perceived political marginalisation, and repressive responses by state forces.

A holistic approach that prioritises strategic dialogue for dousing tension is needed. Such dialogue should involve the federal and state governments, IPOB representatives, traditional rulers, women’s organisations, youth groups, security forces and civil society organisations. These critical stakeholders need to discuss possible solutions to state-specific insecurity and their links to the broader dynamics of violence in the region.

Additionally, state governments should work on a zonal framework to articulate and pursue a robust development blueprint for the region. This should include targeted empowerment programmes, designed for unemployed youth to minimise their vulnerability to recruitment by separatist and criminal groups.

Finally, measures for addressing the socio-economic drivers of insecurity should be prioritised by key actors, particularly the state governments and the private sector. The organised private sector can support youth capacity building and skills acquisition, while state governments develop and fund regional development plans.

History repeating itself

History has a way of repeating itself in the most inconvenient way and seems to be the story of Nigerians and the Biafran experience. , – Most Nigerians have been told the story of the Biafra war, disregarding its cause and pretending that it was a war to protect Nigeria’s territorial integrity, instead of one fuelled by years of ethnic tensions and concerns over resource control

In a quest to forget its history, Nigeria has forfeited the opportunity to learn from it,  and this is something that continues to haunt the country. Decades after Biafra, the region is witnessing this past replicate itself in mini-episodes. And just like that, these incidents are being distorted and downplayed by the media.

But the truth is, it is impossible to erase the past, at least not completely. There may be attempts to try to distort it, and pretend that it never happened, but it will always be there. Its traumatic effects, evident in persistent ethnic animosities and distrust, continue to shape the narrative of Nigerian identity and the nation’s future.

A holistic response to the ensuing insecurity in the country’s south-east is vital to relieving separatist tensions and addressing local grievances, which should ultimately help rebuild trust in the federal government and restore peace and cohesion.

Photo: Emmanuel Ikwuegbu/Pexels