Opinion: The Sacrilege In Imo State – By Comfort Obi

In the afternoon of Tuesday, October 19, an abominable incident took place in Imo State, Nigeria. It was unprecedented. A sacrilege, it churned the stomach and left us, at once, helpless and hapless and shell-shocked.

Most South-easterners have, for months, become shock absorbers. The number of gruesome murders, the rivers of blood,  the wickedness, callousness and heartlessness exhibited in the zone have left everybody frozen. Yet, the incident of October 19 shattered the ceiling, and left many numb and dumb.

You already know the story. But for the sake of this write-up, excuse a brief re-cap.

A group of Traditional Rulers, 15 of them, were at a Stakeholders Meeting at the Headquarters of the Njaba Local Government Council. They were there on the invitation of the Transitional Chairman of the Council, Emma Iheanacho.

These meetings are routine. And have become more so since the security situation in the State deteriorated, as it also did in other States of the South-east, and yes, Nigeria.

It is sad. The South-east used to be the most peaceful Zone in Nigeria. Imo State  especially. That accounts for the number of Hotels in Owerri, the State capital. There are over 100 of them. On weekends, especially, one hardly found any room space. They were usually booked full. People from neighbouring States trooped to Owerri to spend the weekend, and generally have fun after a difficult, stressful week. The entertainment industry, too, was super. Too many joints. Too many drinking parlours.  Occupants of the “red light districts” were not missing.

But no longer.

All these are in the past. The people remember the yesterday that was. The today that could have been. And they gnash their teeth in frustration.

Increasingly, because of the situation, the Government, from the State to the Local Government level, depend on Traditional Rulers to talk to the youths in their communities. They rely on them and members of their cabinet to keep the peace. They rely on them to monitor activities in their communities. They rely on them to detect any strange faces or strange activities. They rely on them to detect the bad boys. So, routinely, Traditional Rulers are invited  to these Stakeholders Meetings to be briefed and be debriefed. It was to this  meeting that the 15 Traditional Rulers were invited to before this sacrilege befell Imo State.

They had gathered in the Council hall. Prayers had been said. Kolanuts and garden eggs had been served. Drinks too have been brought out, and placed on the tables.

Not quite two hours into the meeting, a group of gun-toting young men stormed the venue. Their mission was simple. To kill. And to maim. Within a twinkle of an eye, they began to shoot. Aiming directly at the Traditional Rulers. Most of them made to run. But the type of traditional dresses they wear was a hindrance. Yet they managed. Some of them made it out. Others had bullets lodged in them. At least, three of  them  critically. One allegedly has a broken head. By the time the bad boys left, two of the Traditional Rulers – Their Royal Highnesses Anayo Durueburuo of Okwudor and Samson Osunwa of  Ihebinowere lay in the pool of their own blood, dead.

Sacrilege, abomination, a desecration of the land, people screamed. They are correct. Imo ancestors must be turning and weeping in their graves. The people of the State should be grieving. And they should be thoroughly ashamed of the situation. They ought to be running round looking for  a way to cleanse the land, and appease their ancestors.

Traditional Rulers are the custodians of the people’s culture. Growing up, we were taught not only to respect them, but we were taught to rever them. We were told they interface with our ancestors. That they are some sort of intercessors between our ancestors and us; the living and the dead. True or false, it was believed  for whatever it was worth.

But they, and the institution, have since lost that clout, that air of mystery around them. That aura. Like everything else – chieftaincy titles, honorary doctorate degrees – it has been thrown to the gutter. It has become an everybody’s affair, almost. There are too many autonomous communities, and so, too many Traditional Rulers, many of them without any clout at all. Many of them without any history. Or sense of history. Some of them living outside their communities. The institution, in some communities, have been reduced to nothing. Two for a kobo. It has been politicised. And Traditional Rulers have become pawns in the chess board of politicians.

Yet, in Igboland, there is a saying that no matter how small a village idol is, it is carried with two hands. Meaning, in this case, that no matter how unworthy one thinks a Traditional Ruler is, you still respect him. It is the office one is respecting, not the individual.

There is absolutely no reason, no excuse, no provocation strong enough, for the attack on the Traditional Rulers at Njaba which resulted in the mindless killing of two of them. Nobody has quite explained what happened. Not the Police. Not the Government.

Who were those so drug-driven that they dared desecrate the land the way they did? What point were they making? Was that part of the struggle? Was that part of telling Nigerians and the Nigerian Government that the Zone is marginalised, and so want out?  It is baffling. And has neither head or tail.

There are questions to be asked. And the first goes to the Imo State Police Command. In its immediate reaction through the Police Public Relations Officer, DSP Michael Abattam, the Command put the blame at the feet of the Chairman of the Traditional Chairman of the Council, Iheanacho. It said the Command had no idea of such a meeting; that nobody informed the Police, otherwise, it could have provided security. Just imagine that. We have descended to a level that the State Police Command must be told of a meeting of 15 Traditional Rulers for protection? But the Chairman has since put a lie to the claim made by the Command.

He said the Police was aware. He said he duly informed the Officer in charge of the Security Team in the area, identified as ASP Nwankwo, of his meeting with the Traditional Rulers. He said he asked for security coverage. He said the Officer promised he and his team would be there. He said that true to the Officer’s words, he and his team came. But, an hour into the meeting, the Officer told him they were leaving because his Commander at the State Police Headquarters asked him to report to Owerri with his team. The Chairman said  he argued with the Officer, told him they couldn’t possibly abandon them midway. No dice.

The team left, promising to be back. As if he had a premonition of danger, the Chairman said he waited, and called the Officer  again, asking where they were, why they were not back. But the Officer said their Commander had still not released them. Not long after, the gunmen struck.

The questions, then, are: Who knew what? Why did the Security team leave midway? Did the head of the team tell their Commander where they were and how desperate the Chairman was for the provision of Security?

What very  important, or urgent assignment did the Commander call them for? Did he send them somewhere else, or did he just keep them at the Command Headquarters doing nothing? Was it a coincidence that the gunmen struck when the team was no longer there? Was there an informant, monitoring the situation on ground, and relating same to the gunmen as to when to strike? And, why did the Chairman not speak to the Commander, or a higher Police authority?

Whatever, somebody needs to answer these questions. Good a thing the Police have started investigations. Difficult as such investigations are, they should hurry up with it and make public the findings of their preliminary investigations. There are too many loose ends.

The next question is: Who “dunnit” and why?

As usual, there are a number  of speculations, a couple of them, absolutely ridiculous.

One speculation, again, as usual, put it at the feet of IPOB/ESN. Again, IPOB has washed its hands and that of its militant wing, ESN, off the incident. These days in the South-east, a lot of atrocities are committed under the camouflage of IPOB. People settle scores in the name of IPOB. One hardly knows what to believe, or who to believe, or which is which. That is the danger of this sad situation. It is fluid.

Another speculation said the Traditional Rulers were attacked because they were in support of Governor Hope Uzodimma’s invitation to the Military to flush out criminals in the area. If true, the question is: Why would anybody be against an order to flush out criminals? People should worry only if innocent people are deliberately targeted. An adage says: “If you are not carrying a load, don’t walk as if you are carrying one.” Only the guilty are afraid. Traditional Rulers are bound to support any move to rid their communities of criminals. They want peace for the progress of the people and their communities.

Then, there is this other angle that a couple of the Traditional Rulers were engaged in tussles over their stools. If so, were all of them engaged in the tussle? Why target all of them? Were the two who were shot dead involved in any such tussle? Their devasted and mourning communities have not said so. All that is public is how good they were.

The other speculation is that it was carried out by, you guessed it, Fulani Herdsmen or rogue IPOB/ESN. If so, where were the genuine IPOB/ESN, and well, Ebubeagu, when these people came and wreaked this havoc? Is that not their essence – to protect the people of Alaigbo?

A couple of Traditional Rulers had been kidnapped in parts of the country – the North-east, North-west – but they hardly kill them. A couple of them had also been kidnapped in the South-West and South-south. They don’t kill them. They release them after collecting ransom money. Only one Traditional Ruler in the South-west has been killed in a tango with  kidnappers along the road.

Why is that of Imo different?  The situation in the State is worsened because some people are playing politics with it. They have reduced it to APC/PDP “wahala.” They think the killings are an indictment of the Government in power. They think it is their business. But it is not. It is everybody’s business. One never knows who will be next. That is why evil should be condemned in all its ramifications.  It is our people that are being killed. It is our blood that has turned to rivers. It is the future of our children that is at stake. It is their lives that are being toyed with.

What happened in Njaba will never happen in the North, South-west or South-south. They have respect for their Traditional institution. Why is the South-east different?  It is this disrespect for our Traditional Rulers that would make the Attorney General of the Federation and Minister for Justice, Abubakar Malami, look the Igbo in the face, and say that IPOB members were part of those who looted and razed the Palace of the Oba of Lagos in October 2020, during the #EndSARS protest. True?

Now, many people from the South-east are scared of their Zone, scared of their communities and villages and homes, their kindred. Everyday, it is one ugly, blood-cuddling  story or the other. It is blood, tears and sorrow. Christmas is fast approaching, and there is no joy there. Nobody is looking forward to it. South-easterners in the Diaspora are nervous about coming home. Many of those who want to come have decided to stay back in Lagos. They can’t cope with the tension, the stress, the sit-at-home orders, the insecurity. So, they stay back in Lagos, and grow the Lagos State economy, while the economy of the South-east goes downhill.

Who cursed the Zone this badly?

There is an urgent need for a re-think. This “gra-gra”, this “zogbuo-zogbuo” is not it.

Other Zones are laughing, and making a caricature of the South-east. Is that what the people of the Zone wish themselves? The other day, the Arewa Youths Forum wished the South-east 10 more years of sit-at-home orders. Should the South-east chorus Amen to that wish?

But back to the Traditional Rulers. The Imo State Police Command owe the people two things: What really happened that day? And a quick, transparent investigation of the sad incident. It is such a shame.

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