A disagreement over bunkering between youths and soldiers in the Izombe community of Oguta LGA of Imo State, Southeast Nigeria, soon escalated into violence after one Chukwunonso Iherue of Umuokwu-Izombe was killed by soldiers who were in the community in response to a distress call.
Imo State is one of the oil-producing states in Nigeria, and Izombe is an oil-rich community, where oil bunkering is a recurrent feature.
Enraged by this action, youths at the scene allegedly overpowered the military personnel, took their guns, burnt their vehicle, and killed two of them. The situation led to reinforcements, which saw some soldiers allegedly enter the community in retaliation with over 18 Hilux vans carrying petrol, and three war tanks.
What followed was the burning of houses by the army, leading to the displacement of many who are now homeless.
Amanze (surname withheld) is one of the victims of the invasion. A bungalow) he inherited from his father —belonging to the family— was razed during the siege. As a result, he no longer has a roof over his head.
“My house was burnt down and my properties looted by the soldiers,” a traumatised Amanze told HumAngle, adding that he still has not properly evaluated what he lost.
“They came in the daytime with their armoured cars and so on. We ran away for our dear lives. That was what gave them the added advantage to penetrate and burn all the houses and loot in the community,” he alleged.
According to Amanze, over 80 houses were razed by the army during the invasion. “We are now like refugees. At night, we sleep in the bushes,” he said.
Although Hope Uzodinma, Governor of Imo State, visited the community and promised to help rebuild the burnt houses, Amanze is very skeptical. He thinks that the governor’s promise may just be another political gimmick.
“The governor came and promised to intervene, but we don’t know if he will fulfill his promise. The properties that were destroyed could amount to billions of naira,” he said.
Just like Amanze, Duruji Chukwemeka lost his three-bedroom bungalow and a mini-bus he used for commercial transportation during the invasion. “I now sleep in the neighbouring village with my family,” the father of six told HumAngle.
Narrating what led to the attack, Chukwuemeka said, ”On the eighth of this month (October), the military came to the village and killed one boy, as a result of a dispute among the youths, not even with the military. When they came in (the army), they singled him out and shot him.”
Continuing, he said, “when they killed the boy, the youths reacted. They took the soldiers to the house of our traditional ruler. The man wasn’t around. There were four soldiers, but two escaped. Their vehicle failed them. That was why the two soldiers couldn’t escape.”
According to him, the two soldiers were later taken to the scene where the boy from the village was shot, and they were killed by the youth, after their vehicle was set ablaze.
The agitated youths also seized the rifles of the soldiers, which created palpable tension in the community. However, the tension was doused following the return of the rifles to the army, after the governor of the state pleaded with the youths.
“The youths took about three rifles from the soldiers. So, when the governor came and pleaded, they returned the rifles. Since that time, there has been calmness in the village. Only that we are displaced, and it is still the rainy season,” Chukwuemeka said.
Another victim of the incident who pleaded anonymity said he lost his house and shop with goods worth about N200,000. The victim, who is a father of three, is now being housed by a good samaritan in a neighbouring village.
“Things are very difficult for me and my family now. We rely on relief materials from friends and faith-based organisations for survival,” he told HumAngle.
Governor directs inquest
Following the unfortunate incident, Governor of Imo State, Hope Uzodinma, directed an investigation into activities that led to the unrest.
In a statement, he said, ”In the past few days, we have experienced unrest at Izombe Community in Oguta Local Government Area of Imo State as a result of attacks launched by bandits on security formations whose duty posts posed a hindrance to their operations.
“While it remains the duty of the State Government to ensure security of lives and properties, criminality in any form would not be condoned and illegal oil bunkering remains a national economic sabotage which I would not grant an enabling environment to thrive, irrespective of who’s involved.”
“I have therefore, directed an immediate inquest in the activities leading to the unrest in order to unravel the circumstances that gave rise to this while I offer my sincere condolence to the families that have lost loved ones and properties to this ugly incident as I assure of Government’s commitment in getting to the root of this matter and ensure justice is served where necessary.”
However, about a month since the incident happened, there has not been any formal report from the state government on the unrest in the community.
Nigerian army blames IPOB
Reacting to the invasion of Izombe community by its personnel, Director Army Public Relations, Brigadier General Onyema Nwachukwu, accused the proscribed Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) of being responsible for the wanton destruction of properties in the community.
Nwachukwu claimed that Chukwunonso, who was killed by soldiers in the community, was a convict among escapees from the Owerri Correctional Centre.
“Following the recent unfortunate incident in Izombe Community of Oguta LGA of Imo State which was characterised by arson and wanton destruction of properties by members of the outlawed Indigenous Peoples of Biafra (IPOB), it has become pertinent to state the facts of the matter and set the records straight for the benefit of the general public. At about 9 a.m. on Friday 8 October 2021, troops of Ex Golden Dawn Sector B received a distress call regarding the criminal activities of one Chukwunonso Iherue, a convict who was among the escapees from the Owerri Correctional Centre on 5 April 2021. Iherue was armed with a pistol and was threatening, intimidating and inciting persons in the Izombe community to support the proscribed IPOB terrorists group,” he alleged.
Continuing, he said “… it is on record that late Chukwunonso Iherue masterminded the attack on Izombe Divisional Police Headquarters on 14 May 2021, during which four of his gang members were neutralised. Similarly, he masterminded the attack on the same Police Divisional Headquarters on 13 Aug 2021 where 3 policemen paid the supreme price. Again on the 1st October 2021, Iherue and his gang members were seen parading Izombe Community, flying the Biafra insignia while threatening and instilling fear in the people, thereby creating tension in the community. When troops attempted to arrest him, he escaped with the help of some persons. Since then, troops have kept a close watch and have been on his trail. On receipt of the distress call, troops deployed to the scene and attempted to apprehend the suspect.”
According to him, Chukwunonso was killed as he engaged the soldiers with his pistol in a frantic attempt to escape.
“Youths in the community then mobilised a large number of suspected IPOB members armed with automatic weapons, and bearing IPOB insignia. The group opened fire on Nigerian army troops, killing two soldiers in the process. In an effort to avoid civilian casualty and collateral damage in the community, troops tactically withdrew from the area. Unfortunately, the suspected IPOB members ran amok, setting ablaze houses and other properties belonging to those perceived to be against them.”
“Consequently, a reinforcement team was deployed to Izombe and the security situation was immediately stabilized, while peace has since returned to the community. It was however observed on arrival at the community that the criminal gang also burnt our troops’ Hilux van in addition to other public and private properties,” he said.
To ameliorate victims’ suffering, the Imo State government, some days after the incident, sent relief materials worth millions of naira to Izombe.
Some of the victims who spoke to HumAngle acknowledged receiving the relief materials, but want the state government to do more, especially with regards to the rebuilding of their houses that were burnt down.
Hope Uzodinma, governor of Imo State, has promised to constitute a bilateral committee that would comprise of government officials and the leadership of the community to fashion out modalities to commence project “rebuild Izombe” and also offer compensation to the affected homes.
The governor made the pledge when he visited the community to assess the level of damage recorded. Uzodinma who said he was saddened at the gory sight of destroyed properties and loss of innocent citizens, attributed the incident to “the recklessness of few bandits who have chosen to foment mayhem without recourse to morality.”
The governor said, “In the wake of this crisis, I called on the military to sheathe their sword and allow the innocents to enjoy their peace while the government intervenes and today, during my interaction with the traditional rulers and the good people of Izombe Community, I admonished the Youths of Izombe from taking to arms as a means of livelihood let alone attacking constituted authorities.”
“While it’s quite disheartening that the innocents had to bear the consequences that arose from the actions of a few, I called on the community leaders to assist the government in flushing out these hoodlums as we work towards the restoration of peace, law and order in the community.”
HURIWA calls for impartial investigation
Human Rights Writers Association of Nigeria (HURIWA) called for an impartial investigation of persons behind the alleged killing of the two soldiers.
The rights group condemned the actions of the irate youths of Izombe but added that the action of the Nigerian Army was unlawful because they engaged in extrajudicial killing when they should have reported to the police to take action.
“HURIWA charges the Chief of Army staff, Lieutenant General Yahaya Faruk, to escalate his announced programme of professionalisation of the Armed Forces and to work out ways and means of ensuring that henceforth soldiers do not resort to self help measures such as invading a community whereby any of their members are killed on the line of duty or even for committing atrocious act of extrajudicial execution of a citizen and for the invading soldiers to extend this revenge mission to adjourning communities means that these are crimes against humanity,” the group said in a statement.
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