Onitsha Traders, Criminality and the North-South Divide -By Victoria Ohaeri

Filed under: National Issues |
Victoria Ohaeri

Victoria Ohaeri


Whatever the case, I join many other Nigerians to condemn the relocation of Boko Haram terrorists to Anambra State in very strong terms.

Last week, Onitsha traders staged a peaceful protest against purported plans by the Nigerian government to relocate convicted members of the Boko Haram sect to prisons in the South-Eastern part of the country. The protesting traders deserve to be strongly commended for collectively making their stance on terrorism publicly known. If in the past, elders, associations, religious bodies, non-governmental organisations, political groups and state-run agencies in other parts of the country had toed the same line of public revulsion towards criminality like Onitsha traders have done, terrorism would never have festered, and gotten to this present horrifying level, which has now become too difficult to repair.

Very unfortunately, substantiated media reports show that the traders did not act based on mere rumour. Onitsha traders’ fears are well-founded: the likelihood that the relocation of confirmed terrorists will attract negative vices to the South-East is high. First, jailbreaks are recurrent phenomena in locales where such dangerous prisoners are kept. Where jailbreak attempts succeed, they might result in dangerous terrorists shifting the base of their criminal activities to new terrains, and in the process, infiltrating and disrupting the serenity in hitherto peaceful communities. Second, even where no jailbreaks occur, relocating convicted terrorists to another prison base will naturally attract visits from fellow sect members, family members, sponsors and sympathisers alike to the new location. Because of the guerrilla nature of terrorist activities, nocturnal meetings and clandestine terror operations are usually hard to uncover until it is too late. Third, terrorist operations are extremely lethal in nature – usually involving the use of weapons of brutality that cause mass deaths – which make them different from other forms of criminal activity. Therefore, no sane community would stand by and watch a calamity of such magnitude to be foisted on its people without raising an alarm. It is because of similar concerns of safeguarding public peace and security that impelled advanced nations to construct special (and isolated) detention facilities like Belmarsh Prisons and Guantanamo Bay for convicted and suspected terrorists. It is unusual to have confirmed terrorists transferred to other prisons in fragile and peaceful locations that lack the capacity to manage such high-profile criminals. For these reasons, the planned relocation of convicted Boko Haram members to the South East must be condemned in very strong terms.

We would recall that ex-Anambra State Governor, Peter Obi sometime in September 2012 supervised the demolition of a stately edifice at Ifite-Oraifite in Ekwusigo Local Government Area of Anambra State, belonging to a suspected kidnap kingpin, Mr. Olisagbo Ifedike, alias Ofe Akwu. The demolition came on the heels of Ifedike’s arrest by State Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) and the shocking discovery of sophisticated arms and ammunition concealed at the base of his building. I had then written and strongly condemned the demolition because it was not backed by any judicial pronouncement of guilt on the suspect. The only whiff of legal authorisation for the demolition was the governor’s unwritten proclamation directing that “any building used by kidnappers or belonging to a kidnapper would be demolished and the land confiscated by the state government”.

Beyond the legality of the demolition exercise, the shocking discoveries in Ofe Akwu’s home sent cold shivers down the spine of local community leaders, rural women, local youths, including the suspect’s relatives and family members. In unison, they expressed revulsion and anger towards the suspect, but lavished praise on the governor for taking such stringent crime control measures. Even associates and beneficiaries of Ifedike’s largesse publicly renounced him. Acknowledgement of any association with him is enough to attract ostracism, traditional sanctions, including banishment. Till date, children, mothers, adults, clerics continue to refer to his arrest and wealth seizure when admonishing erring youngsters to stay away from crime.

Ifedike’s story is similar to the exploits of the late notorious armed robber and kidnapper, Obioma Nwankwo, popularly known as Osisikankwu, who terrorised residents of Aba, Abia some years ago. Prior to his death, Abia State was a ‘no-go area’, as banks were routinely raided, while the rich and the poor were kidnapped, and murdered effortlessly. He was killed on December 12, 2010 following an ambush laid for him by soldiers of the Special Task Force from the 82 Division of the Nigerian Army, Enugu. His death was greeted with widespread jubilation and total condemnation of his atrocious acts. Even friends and allies denounced ever having anything to do with him. As far as many were concerned, Osisikankwu has brought shame to his family, and the community.

It might be an interesting exercise to compare and contrast the deaths of Osisikankwu and Mohammed Yusuf, the late Boko Haram leader murdered in similar circumstances. Not only that, allegations of patronage by, and the collusion of politicians in Osisikanwu’s reign of terror shares several characteristics with that of the slain northern cleric, Mohammed Yusuf. Several news reports and independent documentation are replete with first-hand testimonies and evidence linking a former Borno State governor with the activities of the sect. Prior to his arrest, Mohammed Yusuf was alleged to have masterminded several gory shootings and killings, especially during the July 2007 uprising in Maiduguri that claimed hundreds of lives, including several high- and low-ranking police officers. Yusuf’s controversial execution at the Police Headquarters in Maiduguri is widely believed to have been perpetrated by vengeful security operatives.

In sharp contrast to the celebrations that accompanied the arrest and killing of Ifedike and Osisikankwu in Eastern Nigeria, an Islamic sect-led insurgency and campaign of terror broke out in the North following Yusuf’s demise. Securing justice for the slain Yusuf is among the sect’s top demands. In demonstration of the angst resonating across the Northern region, his family representatives rushed to the courts seeking compensation from the Borno and Federal Governments, including the Inspector General of Police (IG) for the extra-judicial killing of their son. The court granted their wishes. A 100 Million Naira compensation was paid.

The disparate examples of Osisikankwu/Ifedike and Mohammed Yusuf demonstrate the wide gap that exists in the value systems across Nigeria, particularly the way crime is perceived in the Northern and Southern parts of the country. Again, it reveals the huge disparity in the levels of communal abhorrence, social revulsion, and retributive value placed on crime in the two jurisdictions. While the South-Eastern communities are more predisposed towards cooperating with security agencies to fish out undesirable elements, it is difficult to draw similar conclusions in other locations. Perhaps, a flashback to the nineties, during the days of Bakassi Boys best exemplifies the South-Easterners’ aversion to criminality. No day passed without news of violent bank raids, assassinations, ritual killings and highway robbery incidents in Aba, Nnewi and Onitsha. Akin to the ineffectual counter-terror interventions in Northern Nigeria, security agents were then totally helpless and overwhelmed by the gangsters. But determined to restore sanity and order in the clime, the traumatised indigenous communities, with the support of their various state governments galvanised the Bakassi Boys (BB Boys) vigilante group, and transferred the security management of the state to them. Within the shortest possible time, the BB Boys “sanitised” the crime-infested cities, forcing the bad guys to flee the region. The maximum support and cooperation the BB boys received from their host communities significantly aided the identification and extirpation of the criminals. Punishment – instant “justice” – was inevitable, irrespective of the status, caste or lineage of lawbreakers, especially those caught in the act. The legality of the BB boys’ operations is a topic for another day. However, relative calm endured.

The experiences from the South-East are not only worthy of emulation, but should also be replicated across the regions. Unlike in Anambra and Abia States where the respective state governors led the onslaught against criminal gangs, Northern governors and leaders have constantly come under heat for being tight-lipped or hesitant in condemning the activities of the Boko Haram sect. Even the occasional voices of reproof have been characteristically bland, and rendered in murmuring tones. This unfortunate trend remains significantly unchanged even when terrorist activities are increasingly grinding the Northern economy to a halt.

For counter-terrorism and anti-insurgency operations to be meaningful and effective, they must, first of all, start with a collective censure of the repulsive acts, and a shared willingness to have the perpetrators identified and punished. As Onitsha traders’ recent protests against the movement of terrorists to their backyard compellingly demonstrate, collective censure towards crime (terrorism) is a very important ingredient of citizens-state cooperation needed to effectively maintain law and order. Hardly do counter-terror strategies succeed without this sort of cooperation. On the other hand, the crime-fighters must also know that winning the support of the local population, among whom they prosecute a bloody military operation against embedded guerrillas, is a winning strategy, any day. That “support” must be earned, and not gained by a show of might. Whatever the case, I join many other Nigerians to condemn the relocation of Boko Haram terrorists to Anambra State in very strong terms. Ocherome Nnanna succinctly captured it when he stated that “the motive behind sending these violent Jihadists to Igboland stinks to high heavens.” And I concur.

Victoria Ohaeri is executive director of Spaces for Change (www.spacesforchange.org), a youth-development and policy advocacy organization based in Lagos, Nigeria. She can be reached on [email protected]