It was Monday, November 8, 2021. Chinedu Okoro was farming with the help of his wife and other workers when his wife noticed suspicious movements in the bushes.
She looked up to spot two non-natives, and immediately called her husband’s attention. On sighting them, Okoro knew at once what was brewing, and attempted engaging them in Hausa, a language he speaks fluently despite his Igbo origin.
With the popularity of herdsmen attacks on farmlands in Agbogugu, Awgu Local Government Area of Enugu State, he did not need to engage in casual introductions to determine their purpose. Only that he overestimated the benefits of speaking their language.
‘BULLET WILL ENTER YOUR BODY TODAY’
He said, “In Hausa, they told us ‘Ka jira ni, muna zuwa, harsashi zai shiga jikinki yau’, which translates to “Wait for me, I am coming, bullet will enter your body today.”
Frightened by this, he reached out to the Awgu Forest Guard commander, identified simply as Kingsley.
Kingsley advised him to take his family out of the farm immediately, before the herdsmen returned, as the guards could not provide immediate protection at the time.
Two days later, the community awoke to the remains of another farmer killed and dragged some metres away from his farm.
NO FOOD FOR WIFE, AGING MOTHER, FOUR CHILDREN
“When I arrived this community, no farming activity had been done for over a week for fear of becoming another casualty,” Okoro told FIJ.
Without any other source of income, his four children, wife and aging mother lacked food. Okoro agreed to return to his farm for the first time since the encounter, not to work this time but to show FIJ where the events took place.
We rode a motorcycle down a narrow path for over 20 minutes, having to use our hands to fend off twigs and overgrown leaves in our way. At some point, the road was so bad we alighted for our rider to manouvre his way through it while we walked behind.
That journey confirmed the huge distance of the farmlands from the community, and the route provided easy cover for anyone intending to perpetrate evil.
Getting to his farm was relatively easy; proceeding further to the scene of the other farmer’s death was a journey even the forest guards and neighbourhood watch leaders were scared to embark on.
RESIDENTS NOW FARM FROM HOME
Sunday Chukwu, Chairman of the Awgu neighbourhood watch, told FIJ that since herdsmen began attacking the community, its inhabitants had either been quitting farming or farming very close to home.
“My people don’t farm again. Nobody farms, except very close to the house,” he said.
“In the past, we did not farm very close to the house; we went into the bush. But now, with this present situation, it is not safe.
“They will use cows to enter your farm, and they rape women. Before a woman goes into the farm, she must be in the company of many other women.”
His unit, he added, had apprehended highway robbers on five occasions since its inauguration, but battling criminal herdsmen was tougher as they usually attacked farms after hiding in bushes and caves.
Kingsley corroborated the claims, saying the forest guards had also fallen victim, losing their phones on multiple occasions during bush raids in search of killer herdsmen.
BEYOND THE NEIGHBOURHOOD WATCH
Enugu State has battled bandits and herdsmen for over five years. In 2016, the Ifeanyi Uguanyi-led state government announced its decision to recruit 50 persons from each of its 470 communities into what it called the ‘Neighbourhood Watch’.
The primary aim of this group was to check herdsmen attacks and other criminal activities.
With training from retired military and police officers, the Neighbourhood Watch appeared to be the permanent solution to the rising crime in the state. But five years after the move, herdsmen, bandits and other non-state actors continue to trouble Enugu.
Uguanyi’s neighbourhood watch programme employed 50 residents from each community, with the purpose of having locals address their own security challenges as they were closer to the problems.
But lack of financial support and equipment meant Awgu did not benefit much from the scheme.
DEATHS, ABDUCTIONS, RANSOMS
In August 2019, suspected herdsmen ambushed and murdered Paul Offu, a catholic priest, on Ihe-Agbudu Road in Awgu.
On its Facebook page, the Catholic Diocese of Enugu said the reverend father was shot dead by “some hoodlums suspected to be the notorious and murderous Fulani herdsmen”.
This was not the first time the diocese would lose a catholic priest. Earlier in March, Clement Ugwu was murdered, and in July, Ikechukwu Ilo fell victim.
Again, in August 2019, Igwe Sunday Orji, traditional ruler of Obom-Agbogugu, and his wife were kidnapped around Ogbaku before Agbogugu junction, Awgu.
This incident occurred three days after Offu’s gruesome murder, indicating defiance to the police and neighbourhood watch security structures in the area.
The abductors shot indiscriminately before whisking the monarchs away. They would later demand N50 million ransom, a sum the police never confirmed was paid even after the igwe and his wife regained freedom days later.
The abduction of Udeh Okoye, a Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) youth leader, in Ohumagu, Abogugu in September proved a solution was far from the region. Like many others, Okoye was abducted on his farm by masked men.
And as is common with abductions across the country, no confirmation was made on whether ransom was paid or not for his release. Okoye regained his freedom days later.
For Offu, Orji and Okoye, the police, Neighbourhood Watch and forest guards were unable to help them at the time. All three incidents occured in Agbogugu, a small community in Awgu, Enugu, but the culprits were never found.
All these were worrying, considering that in addition to the 25,000 Neighbourhood Watch operatives, the Enugu State government recruited 1,700 forest guards, a vigilante outfit, in August 2019 to help curb kidnapping and violent crimes across its 17 local government areas.
NEIGHBOURHOOD WATCH, INDISCRIMINATE PAY
Neighbourhood Watch members in Awgu told FIJ they use dane guns and other obsolete hunting tools to protect the community.
Herbert Ekwe, a member of the watch, berated the government’s whimsical disposition to pay that saw “only two members” receive salaries among 20 in his ward.
“They pay us, but not all,” he said.
“Two people are selected by the state government to be paid out of 20 members per ward. One person was given a gun by the state government, and three motorcycles were provided.”
Ekwe said prior to the state government’s support, the watch had been functioning without support until August 2021. Back then, in February 2021, his ward was called to address gunmen attacks on highways. This problem persisted through the year.
FIGHTING HERDSMEN WITH DANE GUNS
Chukwu Jonathan, commander of the watch in Isu-Awaa, another village in Awgu, told FIJ that since he assumed leadership of the group in 2017, the biggest challenge has been herdsmen crisis.
Jonathan said: “The one that has been a trouble to our ribs has been herdsmen destruction of crops on farms.
“So many times people come to report and say this is what they face in their farms. Whenever we visit them we see the menace, the damages.”
Jonathan’s team had encountered kidnappers before, and had to fight with local dane guns against the assailants’ more sophisticated weapons.
“We did not give them a chance,” he told FIJ. “When they saw that we did not give them the chance, they moved to Agbogugu, before they killed the reverend father [Offu].”
He said the watch in Isu-Awaa was not paid until August, 2021, confirming Ekwe’s earlier claims.
“Government woke up and put some of us on stipends; paying us every month to see that we smile and improve. But some of my men are not being paid; we are just doing charity work.
“We don’t have even arms. The governor promised us he would provide guns and motorcycles, but all to no avail.”
One operational vehicle was donated to his ward, though. In that ward, only seven out of 100 operatives in Isu-Awaa were being paid.
Jonathan was quick to point out that most of the bandit attacks and abductions were perpetrated by locals and natives.
He said on one occasion, he seized some of their ammunition, hard drugs and liquid concoction which fell during pursuit. Days after, he got warning signs and threats from some other locals who were urging him to return the items or face the consequences.
Jonathan never returned the items, instead daring the bandits he had battled for years.
The accounts of Herbert Ekwe, Chukwu Jonathan and Sunday Chukwu, men who led teams to combat bandits and herdsmen, suggested that while there was an inherent threat of bandits in Awgu, gunmen and bandits were locals from Awgu and neighbouring communities.
ESN, MILITARY GO TO WAR IN AWGU
On Monday, November 1, 2021, two videos of soldiers shooting indiscriminately and burning a house suspected to be a hideout of the Eastern Security Network (ESN), trended on social media. But the military denied this, claiming it had only conducted a midnight raid of Isi-Ngwu, Mgbowo, on the day.
FIJ fact-checked the claim and proved the army was there on Sunday evening when soldiers burnt down a house while chanting cuss words in Hausa.
FIJ visited the affected house, which was now in ruins in the middle of Isi-Ngwu. Although it was surrounded by bushes, a caving roof, shattered windows and black walls testified to the events of that fateful Sunday.
Residents told FIJ they did not know anything about the previous occupants of that house. The building had stood there for a while with no eventful action until the raid.
Inside the house were multiple brands of now-empty alcoholic drinks properly arranged in a corner.
12 BOTTLES OF LIQUOR
Asides these various brands, one particular tiger nut and ginger cream liquor in small containers littered the rooms. There were 12 bottles of the consumed substance.
Abubakar Abdullahi, Acting Deputy Director, Public Relations of the 82 Division of the Nigerian Army, issued a statement claiming the military arrested two leaders of ESN and the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) from that area.
He, however, refused to comment when FIJ asked him about details of the raid.
The Nigerian government has proscribed IPOB and ESN as terrorist groups. The ESN, formed on December 13, 2020, HAS since been accused of multiple attacks and murders across the south-east.
Emma Powerful, spokesman of the IPOB, has always jumped in defence of the groups, daring anyone to prove their involvement in any attacks, and accusing the government and media of painting them in bad light.
Daniel Ekea, Enugu State Police Public Relations Officer, told FIJ the police were working to fish out crime perpetrators, but declined making specific comments on Awgu.
THE POLICE HAVE NO ANSWERS
In November 2021, ESN grounded six communities in Ihiala, Anambra State, disrupted elections and sacked residents from their homes.
The police had no answers. Residents could not farm; those who could afford it, fled, while others hoped for the best. This was three years of the Awgu situation dropping like an atomic bomb on Ihiala.
The communities under its control were Azia, Lilu, Ubuluisiuzor, Orsumoghu, Isseke and Mbosi in Ihiala Local Government Area of the state.
Remi Adeoye, Deputy State Commissioner of Police in charge of Operations, said election materials could not get to these communities for a supplementary governorship election due to “security concerns”.
He said this on November 9, a day scheduled for a supplementary election in the LGA due to a postponement of the same election originally scheduled for November 6.
With hundreds of security personnel in this singular LGA on that Tuesday, elections still failed to hold in those areas. The primary reason for the first cancellation and a supplementary election decision was violence and crisis that rocked the election on November 6.
IN IHIALA, PEACE IS LUXURY
On November 11, two days after Charles Soludo was declared winner of the state governorship election, FIJ revisited Ihiala to see, firsthand, what residents were experiencing while the rest of the state was oblivious.
Of the six communities overrun by ESN in Ihiala, Lilu and Orsumoghu were battlegrounds that witnessed the most actions as heavy gunfire characterized the average day in these areas.
FIJ had earlier reported how soldiers shot an unidentified man and left with his body. Such was the norm in this area, and residents had grown too familiar with the daily warfare between the army and the ESN.
In Mbosi, a town gradually becoming a ghost town as daily gunfire exchanges between soldiers and ESN threatened the survival of average dwellers, many had left the community for refuge in safer areas, while those who could not afford it, prayed for the best.
NOWHERE TO GO
Closed shops, empty farms and abandoned houses characterized the once-peaceful Mbosi.
Gregory Okonkwo, a septuagenarian farmer, said the crisis had lingered in the area for two months. He lived his whole life in Mbosi, and was unable to leave with his very large family, as not only did he not have the resources to do so, he had nowhere to go.
“Since two months, we don’t know what is happening. We hear sounds of guns from everywhere as if we de fight war,” he explained.
“Sometimes, it is the army, other times it is the ESN. We see them physically; the two sides.
“Where can we run to? This morning, na hin we de discuss. Yesterday they shot at about 8am, everybody disappeared. They are killing innocent people.”
He condemned the indiscriminate and reckless use of guns by both sides, which had led to the loss of innocent lives.
“They are killing people anyhow. Before you shoot, you should see your enemies, but if random people are moving around, they get hit by stray bullets.”
Okonkwo lamented the toll of the crisis on the welfare of residents. He was unable to farm to feed his household, and even took off his shirt to reveal his visible ribs.
RUN, RUN, RUN
Uju Okeke, another Mbosi resident, sat in despair, staring at nothingness when I met her.
She had been told by neighbours that another gun battle was imminent, and that she needed to quickly run away from the area with her aged mother.
The previous morning, her mother had suffered hypertension, and sought medical care from a hospital.
Okeke was more frightened of the army than the menace it was fighting. She said whenever soldiers engaged ESN members, they had their guns pointed towards pedestrians and bystanders instead of pointing their guns in the air to shoot warning shots.
“If na alerting gun, you go shoot am up, but this one, dem go just de shoot am straight,” she lamented.
Her complaints about the army’s methods matched Okonkwo’s experience, and the shooting I witnessed of a man in the same area on election day.
In Ihiala, and in many parts of Anambra and other South-Eastern states, it is difficult to capture the military on camera as soldiers frown at this.
When I filmed soldiers forcing road users to walk past a checkpoint in Ihiala with their hands raised in surrender-fashion, and their phones in their pockets, a soldier threatened to cut me open with a dagger.
When contacted, Abubakar Abdullahi again declined to comment on the conduct of the army, same as Emma Powerful, who was asked about the activities of the ESN in the area.
“The government must find a solution,” says Okeke. “We cannot continue living in fear. We cannot continue running away from our homes.”
Produced in partnership with the Centre for Democracy and Development (CDD) with support from Foreign and Commonwealth Development Office (FCDO)
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