- By Damian Ugwu
On Sunday, September 1, 2002, the Chairman of the Onitsha branch of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA), Mr. Barnabas Igwe, and his wife, Abigail Igwe, were on their way to visit a family friend at the Awada Layout area of the commercial city of Onitsha in Anambra state when a group of assailants attacked them with machetes and shot them several times, then ran them over with their vehicle. According to the police, the perpetrators did not steal anything from the victims.
In the days preceding the killing, Igwe and other close colleagues who had denounced abuses by the state government received direct threats from senior officials in the Anambra state government. The threats were explicitly linked to criticisms by Igwe and his colleagues of the state government’s failure to pay the salaries of government workers for several months. The lawyers had given the government a 21-day ultimatum to pay the salary arrears or resign.
At the time of their murder, the Anambra state Vigilante Services (AVS), also known as the Bakassi Boys, were effectively in charge of security and were said to have driven away criminals out of Anambra’s major cities, explaining why fingers were naturally pointed in the direction of the state government as the mastermind of the gruesome murder.
The Bakassi Boys were initially created by traders to fight rampant crime in the large market towns of Aba but were soon later hijacked by state governments, which added partisan political ends to their objectives and armed them with dangerous weapons (including firearms) without police checks. The group makes routine public spectacles of some of the crime suspects they capture, often parading them naked through the streets, chopping body parts into pieces, and later burning them to the cheering of crowds. In Anambra state, the group was legally recognized through a special law adopted in August 2000.
Human rights groups said the Bakassi Boys employed extremely brutal, ruthless, and arbitrary methods to fight crime, citing the extrajudicial execution or mutilation in public of thousands of people by the group.
However, on the other hand, the Nigerian media and some members of the public applauded them because they have “succeeded” in bringing down crime levels in the southeast, a feat the police could not match. The majority of the people were expectedly happy and even turned a blind eye to the fact that many of their victims may be innocent and that even those guilty have a basic right to due process. Among the “criminals” who were either killed or driven away from their states were known political opponents of the state governors.
Setting themselves up as self-appointed judges, juries, and executioners, the Bakassi Boys killed scores of people after putting them through their form of “trial,” which in some cases revolved around the group’s claim to use “magic” to ascertain whether individuals are guilty or innocent
Among the people who tasted the brutality of the Bakassi boys was Hon. Ifeanyi Ibegbu, the former minority leader of the Anambra State house of assembly and known critic of the state governor, Chinwoke Mbadinuju. He was arrested and tortured by the Bakassi boys in August 2000 for ” insulting” the state governor but later rescued by a team of policemen led by the state commissioner of police minutes before his planned execution. In what appeared to be his final rite before his execution, the leader of the Bakassi boys had told him (Ibegbu) while he was tied up and dumped in a corridor, “when you come back in your next world, don’t ever insult the government”
Hon Ibegbu was just one of the many prominent victims of the Bakassi Boys. Others include Prophet Eddie Okeke and Chief Ezeodumegwu G. Okonkwo. I remember my interview with Bishop Alex Ezeugo Ekewuba, founder of the Overcomers Church in Owerri, on October 17, 2001. His testimony still sends shivers down my spine. According to him, he was arrested by the Bakassi boys on June 8, 2001, after he was accused of working with Rochas Okorocha, a political opposition, to undermine the Imo state governor, Achike Udenwa.
“During the night, the Bakassi were arguing over which one of them should be allowed to cut my neck. One of them, nicknamed Tufiakwa [“abomination”], put his fingers into my eyes. He was arguing with another one. He said: “It’s my turn to cut off this man’s neck, and you did the other one a few days ago.” The argument carried on until the morning” He too, like Hon Ibegbu, was rescued by the police.
But the murder of Barnabas and Abigail Igwe changed everything. Under President Olusegun Obasanjo, the federal government decided that enough is enough. The president quickly realized that the southeast was better off without the Bakassi Boys, especially as it emerged that some state government officials were complicit in the murder of the Igwes.
A few months later, in August and September of 2002, the police raided the offices of the Bakassi boys in Anambra, Imo, and Abia, effectively bringing to an end one of the bloodiest chapters in the book of crime fighting in Nigeria.
Whatever was left of the credibility of the Bakassi boys was completely erased by the revelation that followed the dissolution of the group in 2002. Human rights groups estimated that at least 2000 people, mostly young men, were killed by the group within a period of two years. None was subjected to the judicial process.
In addition to such activities as described above, the federal government confirmed what human rights groups knew all along that governors used the Bakassi boys to target perceived political opponents and were also involved in settlement of civil disputes.
Fast forward to 2020; again insecurity was fast becoming the order of the day. All the pre-Bakassi conditions, including rising insecurity, the failures of the Nigeria Police Force and other official security agencies to curb the rising crime wave, the justice system’s deficiencies, and the loss of citizens’ trust in the federal government to protect them, are back to the front burner. Most importantly, kidnapping and abduction by suspected herdsmen were getting out of hand. Frustrated by the inability of the police to respond adequately to their safety and security needs, again, citizens of the southeast region began pilling pressure on their governors to do something, even if it meant resorting to self-help measures.
The southwest region, also beset by a similar challenge, announced the formation of the Western Nigeria Security Network (WNSN), also known as Amotekun, in January 2020.
The last straw appeared to be the announcement by the secessionist group, Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB), that they would float a security outfit to “protect” the people of the southeast against what they called the “murderous herdsmen.”
It was no surprise that shortly after, two southeast states opted to launch Ebubeagu, ostensibly to address the mounting security concern. Curious observers did not fail to notice that two of the state governors are from the ruling All Progressive Congress(APC) and that the Federal government failed to raise any objection as it did during the formation of Amotekun.
Two years on, the success of Ebubeagu in addressing the security challenge in the southeast is yet to be seen. The killings and destruction of farmlands by herdsmen have continued unabated, but Ebubeagu, a security outfit primarily created to address this security challenge, is conspicuously missing in action. Instead, the outfit has found another viable job for itself: dealing with the government’s political opponents. Indeed, opposition politicians and activists in Ebonyi state are feeling the heat.
As the debate about the establishment of state police continues, this is a reminder that the performances of these various security outfits mirror what should be reasonable expectations should state police be established.
Indeed, given the laxity of virtually every control and monitoring mechanism at all levels in Nigeria, it will be foolhardy to expect (at this point in our history) that there will be any real accountability on the part of state police if they are established.