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Southeast Nigeria’s Separatist Hideout Nicknamed ‘Sambisa’ After Boko Haram Sanctuary

Stricken by lack of funds, outlaws with links to a separatist movement escalate criminality in Southeast Nigeria.

Ugwuolie market square in Ozubulu town, Ekwusigo Local Government Area (LGA) of Anambra State, became the flashpoint of four kidnap occurrences by armed persons between Friday, Feb. 26, and Sunday, Feb. 28, 2022.

The town has not been a stranger to violent crimes, often blamed on disagreements among foreign drug merchants with ancestral links to Ozubulu, but recent kidnap occurrences suggest a different catalyst. The sequence of full insurgency in Southeast Nigeria is no more in doubt.

In the weeks running through February, several kidnap cases and other violent crimes also occured in Ihiala town, Ihiala LGA of the state. The armed persons were routinely on the prowl, kidnapping and killing. Ekwulobia and several other major towns in Anambra have been caught up in the killing and abduction. The rampaging in Anambra and elsewhere in Southeast Nigeria, according to insight from people who are familiar with the pattern, have tended to reflect the operations of armed groups and outlaws under the camouflage of the Eastern Security Network (ESN) as well as the activities of cultists. The ESN is the armed wing of the proscribed separatist group, Indigenous People of Biafra, IPOB.

In a neighbouring community to Ihiala, a family whose identity HumAngle agreed to protect, lost its patriarch in Oct. 2021. The remains of the dead are stuck in the morgue despite attempts by the offspring to get the burial done quickly. Because of deteriorating security issues in Southeast Nigeria, the family has shifted the burial twice. Not having the resources to hire the services of robust security protection to cover such a traditionally three-day event in the village, this family has been reeling in the trauma of its compounding losses and distress.

It finally set the burial for March 2022, leading to travels to the village for preparations. On Feb. 25, as a female family member travelled to the community ahead of the ceremony, kidnappers trailed and picked her up. The family has been thrown into a bedlam of double jeopardy. The kidnappers have demanded N3 million ransom and ruled out any negotiations. Although the orgy of killings across the states of the Southeast has not abated, kidnap cases have become targeted and persistent.

The kidnappers are on the watch out for people visiting their homes in villages for family events, particularly burials. They seem to have an intelligence network spread across the communities. Late in January, a burial planned at Umuike Ukpor attracted a family member from Europe. His case, however, appeared to bear some compassion. The kidnappers demanded N200,000 and confessed to their victim that they were members of the ESN troops and had been stricken by lack of funding arising from the arrest of their leader, Nnamdi Kanu.

The stretch of interior roads from St. Joseph’s Catholic Church, Awka-Etiti in Idemili South LGA, to another St. Joseph’s Catholic church, Iseke, in Ihiala LGA, all in Anambra, serves as a preferred bypass for motorists who seek to avoid part of the chaotic and choking experience on the Onitsha–Owerri highway. That bypass, according to villagers, has become a Golgotha to untimely death or near-death experience for those who ply it as the ESN have taken over that vicinity. 

Similarly, the Ukpor–Lilu–Orsumoghu–Azia–Mbozi road that cuts traffic away from the suffocating experience of the Onitsha–Owerri highway is another dead end, taken over by ESN warlords. It was on this road that Chief Gab Ofoma, an Nnewi chief and accomplished businessman based in Port Harcourt, was cut down in prime last month as he rode in his SUV car from a weekend visit to Nnewi back to Port Harcourt. The violence and killings seem to have spiked, particularly after the Christmas and New year festivities.   

‘Sambisa’ of Southeast 

Several LGAs cutting into two states —Anambra and Imo— according to information available to HumAngle, have been transformed into criminal hubs locally referred to as Sambisa’ — the Southeast’s equivalent of the dreaded Sambisa forest in Northeast Nigeria. Notably are the forests in about three communities in Ihiala LGA, namely Lilu, Mbosi, Azia; Ihiala town, Ukpor, Iseke in Nnewi South LGA; as well as Awka-Etiti in Idemili South of Anambra. There is also Orsumoghu, a community in Orlu LGA of Imo State. The forests and the adjoining communities have been taken over by ESN/IPOB insurgents and other suspected criminal cells.

Nigeria’s Southeast “Sambisa” forests/HumAngle

The southeast ‘Sambisa’ covers some of the areas that form parts of the Iyowa, Udoji, and Osomari forests. These forests have better concealment due to the thicker nature of the tropical rainforest trees in the area. 

They are on the western extremes of the communities between Anambra and Imo, and are made up of thick natural trees packed closely with short plants. 

The thick tropical rainforest environment supports a wide range of games and wildlife. It provides an ideal cover to conceal extensive human activities within them. Like the infamous forest area in the northeastern Borno State, the southeastern replica also provides a haven for the local non-state actors to operate in the communities near them.

There are fewer hills in the southeast ‘Sambisa’. The landscape is commonly flat, around 100 metres. The three forests cover about 147 square kilometres of area, which is about three times smaller than the Sambisa forest reserve in the northeast. This 15,000 hectares still offers thick forest land, which provides cover and landmass for the local separatist camps. 

The forests are situated west of the towns. They are connected to the towns through the fringes of these communities, serving as both entry and exit points between the communities and the forest areas.

Some of the communities, particularly Lilu, are deserted and only the presence of a few women who sell alcoholic drinks and cigarettes to the gang members are visible. HumAngle sources within the vicinity revealed that heaps of granite, limestone chippings, and massive mud have been deposited on parts of the public roads to block off vehicular movements within the community roads that lead to their camp. Also, several posh vehicles litter the vicinity. They may have been a pointer to the status of the victims they have eliminated or may have gravely hurt in recent times.

Towns under IPOB’s sovereignty, Anambra and Imo states, Southeast Nigeria. GIS: Mansir Muhammed/HumAngle

The petrol filling stations in Ukpor ostensibly serve the fuel needs of the criminal cells. In the neighbourhoods of the communities, including the ones that have been deserted and the others still harbouring residents, the sight of any emblem of the Nigerian state on any vehicle is an instant death sentence on the occupants. Luxury cars like SUVs do not need to bear any emblem or insignia of the Nigerian state to attract their wrath, confided a local who is familiar with their routine operations.

This is one of the outcomes of the exploding criminal cells running riot across Southeast Nigeria. Other hubs exist in other states, particularly in Enugu where the governor, Ifeanyi Ugwuanyi, recently took measures to ban motorbikes and tricycles from operating in three LGAs, including Nkanu West, Nkanu East, and Enugu South. A recent security operation in the state, following the attempts by members of these gangs to disrupt the recent Local Government election, led to the breaching of their camp in the forests of Obeagu in Enugu South LGAocal Government.

Funding hiccups and internal power struggle

HumAngle has obtained information that IPOB affiliates in North America, a major source of funding for the operations of Kanu’s Biafra project, have been shaken by a lingering power tussle over the control of its Dollar-denominated treasury. Prominent names that have featured in the power tussle for the control of the organisation’s huge income are two ladies, Nelly Ofoegbu and one Madam Oyibo, who allegedly registered and presented themselves as trustees to Umu Eri Aro Areli in the USA for the purpose of mobilising fund for IPOB.

HumAngle understands that following Kanu’s arrest in Nairobi, Kenya, last June, his organisation has suffered financially and that the steps taken by Ofoegbu and Oyibo were intended as an interim measure to vault over the funding challenges created by Kanu’s absence. But they have been accused by Biafra activists in North America, specifically Mazi Nonso Okoye, the Ontario (Canada) coordinator, of working to promote personal interests. This is allegedly in connivance with Simon Ekpe, Uche Mefor, Kanu’s erstwhile second-in-command, George Onyeibe, Obidi Obienu, Clifford Iroanya, and Asari Dokubo to undermine Kanu and IPOB. HumAngle had severally reported on the power tussles within IPOB.

Arising from the internal crises, regular channels of funding the activities of IPOB and ESN with its “unknown gunmen” franchise, are suspected to have been disrupted considerably, forcing the gangs into kidnapping for ransom. This eventually triggered the new wave of violence and criminality slicing through the Southeast like a hot metal on butter. The pattern of the renewed violence has left operators in no doubt about the wholesome criminal design and motive. 

Additional reporting by Mansir Muhammed.

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Obiora Chukwumba

Obiora Chukwumba is a multi-faceted media professional with proven track records in newspaper and magazine production, wire reporting, broadcast content production and film regulation. He studied Mass Communication at the Institute of Management & Technology, IMT, Enugu. He holds an M.Sc also in Mass Communication from Benue State University, Makurdi and a PhD in Media Arts from the University of Abuja. His media career started with the African Concord.

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