Critical Conversations

Eastern Security Network: Tackling The Yeast of Rebellious Biafran Separatism

Some months ago, a Public Historian and Writer, Dr. Udu Yakubu, published an article in The Journal titled, “Buhari Needs Emergency Powers to Tackle Insecurity.”

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In that article, Udu Yakubu noted with clear precision that “Fighting a counter-insurgency war will require a lot of resolve by the government to see the battle to a clear and logical conclusion”.

He added almost prophetically that, “If Nigeria does not multiply her human power and firepower; she would continue to live with insurgency, banditry and sooner or later contend with more insurgencies from other parts of the country, and the real threat of extinction”.

Barely one year after, this prediction came to pass as new groups of insurgents, kidnappers, bandits, and separatists have been emboldened by the survival of Boko Haram and ISWAP to pick up arms in different parts of the country.

One of the most deadly groups that have emerged from the ashes of Boko Haram’s doggedness is the Eastern Security Network, the para-military wing of the banned Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB).

The group has become one of the most destructive armed separatist groups in the country today. Their key targets are police stations, offices of the electoral commission, correctional facilities, government offices, as well as the personnel working in those offices. Many lives have also been lost with properties worth billions of naira destroyed.

The current crisis in the Southeast is seen by most analysts as a form of response to the perceived failure of the social contract between the state and a segment of the population. This thought is derived from the theory that social stability is based on a hypothetical social contract between the people and the government.

People accept state authority so long as the state delivers services and provides reasonable economic conditions. With economic stagnation or decline, worsening state services, and limited opportunities for employment, the social contract breaks down, and violence breaks out. Hence, high and rising levels of poverty, perception of marginalisation, and a decline in state services would eventually gravitate into greater conflict unless the parties involved choose the option of dialogue.

In the Southeast, IPOB formed the ESN in December 2020 as a reaction to the perception that Igbos were being targeted by Muslim Fulani herders, whom they accused of grazing on farmlands and committing crimes against residents. The movement subsequently metamorphosed into a paramilitary unit with broader functions.

Earlier in August 2020, violence had escalated between the IPOB and the Nigerian government. This started with the death of 21 IPOB members and two policemen during a violent confrontation when police interrupted a meeting of the banned association.

The Federal Government started seeing ESN as a serious threat to its authority and deployed the army to locate and destroy all ESN bases. In January 2021, intense fighting broke out in the town of Orlu, Imo State. The military confrontation lasted for seven days until ESN declared a unilateral ceasefire and both sides withdrew from the city.

Shortly after the Orlu Crisis, IPOB gave a 14-day ultimatum for open grazing to be banned, threatening to deploy the ESN to enforce the ban if the authorities did not do so. However, the ESN did not even wait for 14 days; as their operatives attacked a Fulani camp in Isuikwuato, Abia State, killing their livestock and burning down their houses.

From this period, it was a steady slide from one form of terrorist attack to another. Within a few days, the danger of spill over into other parts of the former Eastern Region became evident. In response to the military operation in and around Orlu, there were threats to attack all oil installations in the south-south region.

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Suspected Biafran separatists killed four policemen at a checkpoint and took off with their weapons on 24 February 2021. Another four policemen were killed in Calabar the next day. On 26 February, a police station was attacked and two policemen were killed in Cross River State.

It is in this critical sense, that government needs to be proactive to prevent the situation in the northeast from playing out again here.

Boko Haram started in the North as a little yeast of opposition. The Northern governors then, using religious sentiments, handled the situation with kid gloves. Today, it has become a menace the region would need more than a miracle to curb.

A similar development is brewing in the East and the governors are behaving exactly like their northern counterparts. This group has already shown the intent of becoming a very deadly organisation. They are now burning police stations daily and yet are cheered on by some people within and outside the country. it is only a matter of time that those supplying Boko Haram with weapons would fully infiltrate the eastern region and escalate the crisis to sell more weapons. All actions henceforth will have consequences.

Following President Muhammadu Buhari’s recent meeting with the military service chiefs and the inspector General of Police, It is quite soothing that the Nigerian military is moving some troops from Borno State, where they have been engaged with Boko Haram and other terrorist groups, to the South East to counter “bandits” and the regional separatist organisation, the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB), along with its security force, the Eastern Security Network (ESN).

The army and police have already sustained a remarkable number of casualties in the Southeast, so aircraft—including combat helicopters—will be “deployed to conduct massive raids” on the hideouts of “criminals” from the IPOB and ESN. Operation Restore Peace to confront the IPOB and ESN will now be in full swing.

As the government is utilising military and police force, there is still need to also explore the political dimension in the counterinsurgency campaign. The massive use of helicopters and other aircraft could result in growing civilian casualties, thereby feeding the very separatist movements that the government is seeking to contain. While it is vital to react strongly against the resurgence of Biafran separatism, care must equally be taken to avoid exacerbating the current ethnic tension that is gradually building up. Nifty balancing powers would be needed to ensure that the war against separatists in the Southeast is effectively contained.