More South-East villages and communities are presently being deserted, going by the violent clashes between Nigerian security operatives and separatist groups such as the Indigenous People of Biafra and its security arm, Eastern Security Network.
SaharaReporters spoke to a number of affected persons who have left their villages and communities in Imo and are presently staying put at Owerri, the state capital amidst increasing fatal clashes between the police, the army and the ESN officials or those sometimes generally described as unknown gunmen.
Some victims noted that the affected villages in Imo include Oguta and Ohaji/Egbema communities; others are in Orsu and Orlu local government areas as well as Oru East and Oru West LGAs, and Agwa and Izombe communities where there have been continuous military raids on the suspected hideouts of the militants.
In Anambra, residents are moving from communities in Aguata and Njikoka LGAs to the state capital, Awka or major towns such as Onitsha.
Speaking with SaharaReporters, a resident and businessman, Joe Chukwu, said, “I have not been able to go to my village in the past three months. The military has been raiding our youths on a weekly basis, now, everywhere is deserted. Most farming activities have stopped.
“I had to move my things in January and I relocated to Owerri. I have been here since. It is true that people in Orlu, Orsu and neighbouring communities are moving to Owerri.”
“Same in Anambra, people are leaving the villages, because they are becoming the battle ground. You can only remain in the village if you are ESN or IPOB or you are ready to be raided by the army. Attendance in most of the churches and schools in the villages has dropped significantly. For two months, I have been in Onitsha and I don’t plan to visit my village for now,” another source stated.
“Apart from Owerri, there is hardly any other place free from military raids in Imo State. Even people from Mbaise and Okigwe are finding their way to Owerri. The cost of living is now higher and more people are trooping in, daily, including security officials. People cannot sleep overnight without apprehension in any other town,” a resident, Nweze Johnson, said.
SaharaReporters had on April 20 reported that the Nigerian Army deployed its personnel to some Imo State communities to carry out raids, discreet searches and arrests of youths and residents suspected to be linked to the IPOB and the ESN.
Multiple sources had told SaharaReporters that the military personnel, suspected to be led by the 34 Artillery Brigade, Owerri, since Sunday have been arresting male residents and youths, particularly in Oguta and Ohaji communities, and putting them in vans from where they are taken to unknown destinations.
“We have been getting distress calls from our relatives and people in communities like Ohaji, Osu, Agwa and Izombe surrounded by army personnel. They have been abducting some male youths. It is an abduction because nobody among those arrested knows their offence, where they are taking them to or able to communicate with their relatives before they are taken away. The military are forcing them into their vans,” a source had stated.
“A few women are among the victims being raided too. Some of our women who went to farm have not returned since. People from Oguta, Ohaji communities, who have relatives in Owerri town are fleeing because the army wants to turn our villages into deserts. What is all this search because of IPOB and ESN? Is it by emptying our villages that you arrest IPOB and ESN? Won’t people go to their farms again?” a resident had said.
Imo State has been a hotbed of violence and killings which got to a head on April 5, when the notorious gunmen attacked the state police command headquarters, and freed no fewer than 1,800 inmates at the headquarters of the Nigerian Correctional Service, Owerri.
The gunmen also attacked the office of the State Criminal Investigation Department of the state police command, freeing suspects there.
The attackers burnt all the vehicles parked at the command headquarters and freed all the suspects in almost all the cells at the SCID.
SaharaReporters had reported that the gunmen went with 10 vehicles, and also attacked soldiers stationed at Umuorji along Owerri–Onitsha Expressway.
Earlier, four police divisional headquarters were attacked in February. They include Obowo, Aboh Mbaise and Ihitte/Uboma, divisions.
Unknown gunmen on March 20 also razed the Isiala Mbano Police Divisional Headquarters located at Umuelemai in Imo State.
The gunmen had invaded the divisional headquarters armoury and freed suspects in the detention facility and carted away arms.
While some have identified the IPOB and ESN as the culprits, the state government had said the gunmen were being used by aggrieved politicians, while the IPOB has repeatedly denied any involvement in the attacks.
SaharaReporters had also on Monday reported that even policemen deployed to the South-East states of Imo, Anambra, Abia, Ebonyi and Enugu states are currently deserting their stations, and now prefer to go to work in mufti the few times they choose to go.
SaharaReporters had learnt that it is also increasingly difficult for policemen to arrest suspects in neighbourhoods or to keep their suspects in cell, as is the custom before cases are charged to court.
It was gathered that most policemen, particularly those who are not Igbo indigenes, are desperately seeking redeployments amidst fear of being caught in the middle of an attack by “unknown gunmen.”