The military 'show of force' in Umuahia as part of Operation Python Dance II (Egwu Eke II) took a dangerous twist, yesterday, forcing the Abia State Government to declare a three-day curfew in Aba, to ensure peace.
Over 20 soldiers derailed from the security maintenance of the programme, left their convoy, invaded the secretariat of the Abia State Council of Nigerian Union of Journalists, NUJ at 1 Aba Road, Umuahia and assaulted journalists.
In response to the security situation in Abia State, Governor Okezie Ikpeazu, in a statement after the State's Security meeting, which he personally signed, declared three days of curfew in Aba to maintain calm.
The statement read: "Abia State has for the past few days been the focus of security searchlight occasioned by the reported skirmish between some groups in the state, especially Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) with men of the Nigerian Army.
"Government notes and has observed the frenzy of activities of members of IPOB within Afara - Umuahia, the ancestral home of the leader of IPOB for some months now.
"Government is equally aware of the recent proclamation by the Nigerian Army of Operation Python Dance II within the South-East geopolitical region of Nigeria.
"The operation as declared by the Army is intended to check kidnapping, banditry, assassination, secessionist activities within the region, amongst other forms of criminal activities.
"The recent confrontation between the Nigerian Army and members of IPOB on Sunday, September 10, 2017, could presumably be attributed to the commencement of the said Operation Python Dance II.
"The Abia State Government unequivocally states that Abia is a component state of the Federal Republic of Nigeria and subscribes to the supremacy of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria and all other extant laws.
"While the Government of Abia State recognises the right of the Nigerian Army and other security agencies, to perform their statutory duty of protection of lives and property of Nigerian citizens, such duties must be carried out within acclaimed Nigerian and international standards of engagement with the civil populace, with due respect to the human rights of citizens and sanctity of human lives.
"The Abia State Government is committed to the protection of the lives and properties of its citizens and others residing and doing business within the geographical entity called Abia State.
"Abians and others living within Abia, are advised to remain law abiding and carry on their lawful businesses without fear, as efforts by Government will be made to reduce friction between the civil populace and military personnel in the state.
"Meanwhile, Aba residents are advised to observe a curfew from 6pm to 6am from today 12/09/2017 to 14/09/2017.
"Persons residing within the State are strongly advised to remain law abiding, while going about their lawful business without fear of molestation, and, not engage in any form of confrontation with military personnel or other security agents.
"The Government recognises the constitutional Right to Freedom of Movement for all Nigerians, but objects to the influx of people into Abia State for purposes of unsettling the enduring peace in the State.
"Finally, Abia State will cooperate with security agencies to maintain the rule of law and order in the State."
Soldiers' invade NUJ secretariat
Accusing the reporters of writing stories that are against them, the soldiers climbed the one-storey building where journalists were watching their 'show of force' from the balcony, attacked and smashed their handsets and an I-pad belonging to one of the journalists, Ezeogo Boniface Okoro.
Those assaulted included the FRCN Correspondent, Mr. Lawrence Nwokedi; the Oracle Newspaper Correspondent, Ezeogo Boniface Okoro; the Daily Times correspondent, Mr. Sunny Nwakanma; and the Authority Correspondent, Mr. Chidi Asonye who they took his mobile phone.
The soldiers held the journalists hostage for over 10 minutes, accused them of writing "nonsense" against the military, taking unauthorized "photographs" that debase the military and making mockery of their assignment in the South-East.
They also claimed that one of the reporters was recording the 'show of force' from the balcony, a claim debunked by the journalists who said that they were just watching the convoy like others who were doing so on the ground.
All efforts made by the journalists to explain to the soldiers that they were not recording the exercise failed as the soldiers descended on them and damaged their working tools.
While the over 20 soldiers that climbed upstairs cocked their guns, shoving, pushing and hitting the journalists, another equal number waited down stairs, causing panic among fear-stricken passers-by and shop owners in the building.
As the siege to the NUJ office lingered, some soldiers downstairs were said to have accosted a bus which female passenger was fiddling with her phone, smashed the windscreen of the bus, collected the phone from the helpless lady and smashed it.
How journalists were assaulted - Victim
Giving account of what transpired, one of the victims, Ezeogo Boni Okoro said: "At about 10.15am today (Tuesday, September12, 2017) a convoy of armed military personnel, apparently on a show of force in Umuahia, approached the Aba/Umuahia Road/Railway intersection, which is close to the NUJ Press Centre as I was just stepping into the office.
"Some of my colleagues were watching from the balcony, while I was watching from the window. As they were negotiating round the Tower to Bende Road, some of their trucks stopped and I noticed one of the soldiers pointing at me.
"Simultaneously, I saw many soldiers jump down from two trucks and headed towards our office. Swooping on our office, one of them pointed at me and ordered me to give him my phone. I told him that I had no phone with me at that material time; he slapped me and ordered me to open my bag which I was carrying. As I was bringing the contents out, I brought out my Samsung Tablet 3, he snatched it from me and smashed it.
"They equally collected another phone from Sunday Nwakanma of Daily Times and destroyed it with their gun and made away with another phone belonging to Comrade Chidi Asonye of the Authority Newspapers."
Perpetrators must be fished out, punished - Abia NUJ Chairman
In his reaction, the chairman, Abia State Council of NUJ, Comrade John Emejor, described the incident as unfortunate and highly unethical and inhuman.
Stating that a national officer of the NUJ, Bonny Okoro, was beaten by one of the soldiers, he said: "Our press centre was invaded by soldiers; two journalists lost their I-Pads and phones, while a national leader in the office was attacked. Our stand is that those involved in this attack on innocent Journalists should be fished out and punished in line with the constitution of the Country."
Army expresses regret, assures of amicable resolution
The Army authorities were contrite over the incident, yesterday. The Deputy Director, Army Public Relations, Colonel Sagir Musa and the Army Public Relations Officer, 14 Brigade, Ohafia, Major Oyegoke Gbadamosi, expressed regret over the incident and promised to ensure amicable resolution of the issue.
Major Oyegoke Gbadamosi, who confirmed the incident, asked newsmen to send the photograph of the damaged NUJ office to him.
The Commander of the 14 Brigade, Brigadier General Abdukalifa Ibrahim visited the NUJ Press Centre in company of the commander of the Navy School of Finance and Logistics, Owerrinta, Navy Commander Abdulahi Aminu, to apologise to the media men.
Ibrahim described the conduct of the soldiers as "a disaster of unimaginable proportion" and tendered an unreserved apology to the journalists.
"The boys did not act on the authority of anybody, they have no reason to harass journalists", Gen. Ibrahim said and promised to replace the missing phone.
Kanu's home not under siege -- Army
Meanwhile, the Nigeria Army has denied that the home of the Leader of the Indigenous People of Biafra, Nnamdi Kanu was under siege.
According to Deputy Director, Army Public Relations and Information, 82 Division, Colonel Sagir Musa, no soldiers were deployed at the home of the IPOB leader.
Col. Musa, who spoke in Umuahia when he visited the Abia State Council of NUJ which was attacked by some overzealous soldiers, also said that the Operation Python Dance [Egwu Eke] was not targeted at anybody but aimed at tackling the security situation in the South East zone.
No cause for alarm - Abia CP
Reacting to the tensed situation in Abia State, the Commissioner of Police, Leye Oyebade, told Vanguard that there was no cause for alarm. "We are managing the situation. We know that people are apprehensive because they see a lot of military presence. It's a special operation approved for the South East.
"Military high command sensitized members of the public on what is going on. That is exactly what is going on now. Their presence should be complimentary efforts to support what we have been doing so far. We finished our security meeting and I advised the Governor to make a public announcement to assure members of the public that there is no cause for alarm.
"So far, we have not recorded any casualty. What is happening is that wherever they see the patrol vehicles, IPOB members threaten them with broken bottles. They should not see it that way. I assure you that we are on ground to ensure that all commuters and those going about their lawful duties are given free passage."
South-East govs, senators, Ohanaeze, IPOB, others react
Expectedly, the issue elicited immediate response from South-East governors, the zone's Senate Caucus, Ohanaeze Ndigbo, the Indigenous People of Biafra, IPOB, and other groups including the Civil Liberties Organisation, CLO and UK Roundtable.
Drafting soldiers to Afaraukwu is to kill Kanu -IPOB
The IPOB, however, disagreed with the Commissioner of Police, alleging that at about 3.02 pm, yesterday, 15 of its members travelling from Isiala Ngwa in Abia State to Umuahia to show solidarity to its leader, Nnamdi Kanu, were shot dead at an Army Check Point at Isiala Ngwa, while over 20 sustained various degrees of gunshot wounds.
IPOB also alleged that the drafting of soldiers to Afaraukwu, Ibeku Umuahia is to assassinate Mazi Kanu, claiming that the Operation Python Dance II soldiers directed Kanu's people in Umuahia to vacate the city in order not to be caught in a reprisal attack that may result from their killing of Biafrans in Umuahia.
IPOB in a statement by its Media and Publicity Secretary, Comrade Emma Powerful said: "Soldiers of the Nigerian Army and the Police have surrounded our leader's house today being September 12, 2017, to harm Kanu and other IPOB members who strongly believe and fight in the struggle for the liberation of Biafran people.
"We the indigenous people of Biafra, IPOB, and its leadership worldwide under the command and leadership of Mazi Nnamdi Kanu, wish to bring the attention of well meaning Nigerians and the entire world that Nigerian Government led by President Muhammadu Buhari and Nigerian Army and Police in Nigeria have drafted their men to Mazi Nnamdi Kanu's house in Afaraukwu Ibeku, Umuahia, Abia State to kill him..
"On September 10, 2017, being a Sunday, the Nigerian Army killed our members in Umuahia, and on Monday, September 11, 2017, the soldiers in Nigerian Army uniform attacked Mazi Nnamdi Kanu's convoy at Ubakala junction on his way to an official assignment. The Nigerian Army fired live bullets at his vehicle including his convoy... "
IPOB further alleged that "the soldiers of Operation Python Dance are now seriously embarking on forceful abduction of Biafrans, brutalizing anybody seen with Biafra insignia, whether it is in their vehicle or houses and called on the international community to prevail on the Nigeria Government to leave Biafrans alone."
Call off python dance now, Ohanaeze tells FG
Disturbed by the developments, the Ohanaeze called on the Federal Government to, as a matter of urgency, direct the military to call off Operation Python Dance 11.
In a seven-point statement in Abuja by its President General, Chief John Nnia Nwodo, the Ohanaeze said if Nigeria as a country must move forward, it must avoid deliberate and proactive escalation of tensions and crisis. He picked holes in resolution of issue of self determination with brute force.
According to Ohanaeze, if such act of intimidation was not discontinued immediately, it would be left with no alternative than to conclude that this was a containment policy aimed at the South East to intimidate the people from freely expressing their anger at their marginalization and treatment as second class citizens.
Nwodo's statement read: "On September 8, 2017, Major General D D Ahmadu, Chief of Training And Operations of the Nigerian Army, announced an exercise called Operation Python Dance II, which he said was going to take place in the five South Eastern states to address 'rampancy of assassinations, attack on security personnel, theft of weapons, violent agitations, armed banditry and kidnapping.'
"Operation Python Dance 1 has been on for quite a while in the South East. Whilst Operation Python Dance 1 lasted, major roads, entries and exits of important cities in the South East had zigzag check points supervised by members of the Nigerian Army. They turned out to be toll gates used in extorting money under gun point from helpless motorists. Our people were shamelessly intimidated and harassed at these check points. Operation Python Dance 1 procured no arrests of criminals that were prosecuted for any of the criminal activities that Operation Python Dance II is supposed to address. Instead, it witnessed reckless and indiscriminate murder of self determination agitators in Asaba, Aba, Nkpor, and Port-Hacourt numbering up to 191 by the estimates of Transparency International and shattered public confidence of South Easterners in the Nigerian Army and Police.
"Operation Python Dance II announced to be launched for the five South Eastern states whose crime rates by Police statistics are not the highest in the country, turned out to focus on a tiny suburban road leading to the home of Mazi Nnamdi Kanu, the IPOB Leader.
"Last night, that road was visited by a combined team of Police and Military personnel with Armoured Personnel Carrier (APC) and armed personnel. Video posts from IPOB and the Nigerian Army did not indicate any act of disobedience before the invasion of this suburban environment. Contradictory versions of the encounter in this location came from both the Military/ Police and IPOB. Sporadic shots were fired at innocent civilians who had no firearms. Stones and bottles were pelted at the APC and military personnel. Which of the attacks preceded the other is not clear, but one was clearly disproportionate to the other and violated rules of military engagement in situations of this nature.
"Ohanaeze Ndigbo considers this development as unfortunate. We believe that it is a deliberate invasion of a quiet homestead, an act of provocation and a continuing policy of intimidation.
"Crimes of monstrous proportions are occurring in other parts of Nigeria. Such crimes include ravaging killings by Fulani herdsmen in the Middle Belt, Secret cult killings in Lagos and the South West, bunkering and armed resistance in the Delta, wanton kidnappings and killing of military personnel in Kaduna State and environs as well as Boko Haram insurgency in the North East. The Nigerian Army has never embarked on Operation Python Dance in any of the other five geopolitical zones on account of these incidences. Innocent civilians living in these other parts of Nigeria have not witnessed the type of invasion Umuahia witnessed last night.
"Ohanaeze Ndigbo is left with no alternative than to conclude that this is a containment policy aimed at the South East to intimidate our people from freely expressing their anger and angst at their marginalization and treatment as second class citizens. In a democracy the level of disenchantment expressed by the people of the South East of Nigeria ought to have provoked a serious dialogue between our people and the Federal Executive and the Legislature. History teaches us that the continuous use of force to silence dissent and free speech will only accelerate the growth of dissent and dissatisfaction. Fundamental Rights of freedom of expression are critical for a successful democracy.
"Ohanaeze Ndigbo therefore calls on the Federal Government to call off this phoney Operation Python Dance II. Nigeria at this moment does not need such deliberate and proactive escalation of tensions and crisis. There are more civilised and established practices to resolve our democratic and security challenges."
South East Governors set up 7-man Committee
In response, South-East governors have set up a 7-man committee to investigate the ugly incident and report same to the Forum during its meeting on September 15, 2017.
In a statement by the Director, Media and Communication, South East Governors' Forum Secretariat, Mr. Michael Udah, the purpose of setting up the committee was to enable the governors find lasting solution to the incident and forestall further or future occurrences within the zone.
According to Udah, who debunked the reports in some social media that the South East Governors condemned the alleged attack or invasion, added that the governors were working assiduously to bring peace and stability to the zone and indeed the country at large.
"I, Michael Udah did not tell any medium both social or print media that the Governors condemned the incident but that the South East Governors were working to bring peace in the South East and the country as a whole. The Governors had swiftly set up a 7-man Committee to investigate the incident and report same during the Forum's next meeting on September 15, 2017," he said.
South East Senators call for restraint, respect for people's rights
Also, the South East Senate Caucus condemned the show of force and Operation Python Dance 11.
In a statement in Abuja by its Chairman, Senator Enyinnaya Abaribe, the caucus also took a swipe at the alleged military incursions into the country home of Kanu, saying such action suggests will-full personalisation of the operation and deliberate abuse of the people's fundamental right.
The South East Senate caucus said it was sad that the military decided to carry out the action at a time the caucus had engaged the IPOB leadership and even extracted firm commitment from them that its agitation will be strictly non-violent and in conformity with international best practices.
Senator Abaribe said: "We had hoped that our ongoing engagement with the group be given a chance, and here we are, with a hurried military action deep into a highly populated area with high propensity for casualty, which occurrence would rather escalate the already tense situation.
"It is more worrisome that the Military operation 'python dance 2' restricted to the South East in a peace time, has no doubt fouled the environment and sent strong signal that the region is under siege, which should not be so in a democracy.
"We, therefore, urge extreme caution, and advise the Military to de-escalate the situation and choose the best operational modus that will not only guaranty the safety of Nigerians, but also enhance national unity."
"Nigeria is not at war, people are only exercising their constitutional and universally guaranteed rights. So far, they are carrying on in a manner that have never given room to violence which could warrant a wholesale military expedition."
Abaribe said the caucus sympathises with the wounded and reiterate the call for dialogue as a panacea to the lingering agitation.
Punish perpetrators - CLO
Reacting to the invasion of the NUJ office, Chairman, Civil Liberties Organization, CLO, Aba Unit, Professor Charles Chinekezi, described the situation as a return to the dark days when journalists were harassed and killed for doing their jobs. He called on President Buhari and the Chief of Army Staff, Lt. General Tukur Buratai, to fish out and punish the soldiers to serve as a deterrence to others.
Operation Python Dance 11 looks like army occupation--S'East Elders forum
Also, the South East Elders Forum, SEEF, condemned the shooting at Afaraukwu and turning the South East geopolitical zone to a war theatre.
A statement by the Convener of the forum, Dr Dozie Ikedife, said: "Military exercise should not appear like expeditious or punitive Army turned against peaceful and law abiding citizens. In the democratic dispensation, the army has full command at the barracks and war fronts, but South East geopolitical zone is not a war zone. Let them ensure that in their exercises, there are no civilian casualties or accidental discharges. While the military exercises lasted, it should not and must not appear like Army against civilians."
Withdraw the troops - Fani-Kayode urges FG
A chieftain of the Peoples Democratic Party, PDP, and former Minister of Aviation, Chief Femi Fani-Kayode, called on the Federal Government to urgently withdraw military men sent to the South-East on Operation Python Dance II.
The ex-minister in a statement, lamented that behaviour of the military against a defenceless and unarmed civilian population in Abia state was reprehensible.
He said: What has Nnamdi Kanu or indeed the Igbo people done to warrant this primitive show of barbarism and force? We are on the brink of a total breakdown of law and order and a prolonged and bloody armed conflict.
'I urge restraint on all sides and I call on President Muhammadu Buhari to withdraw the army from the East and leave Nnamdi Kanu alone. Terrorising your own people with soldiers is not the act of a courageous man ... . We call on the international community to bear witness to what is unfolding in Nigeria and we will hold the government responsible and accountable in the event of any loss of life."