Residents of Oyigbo Local Government Area of Rivers State have cried out over alleged harassment, intimidation, arrest, and killing of citizens by soldiers searching for killers of their colleagues in the area. But the Nigerian Army has promptly denied the allegations.
Persons described as hoodlums and also suspected to be members of the proscribed Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB), on Wednesday, October 21, reportedly invaded the area and killed six soldiers, burnt four police officers, and set four police commands ablaze. They were also said to have burned over 50 vehicles, a court complex, and a hospital.
Following the killings and destruction of properties, soldiers were deployed in the area to fish out perpetrators and recover rifles taken away from murdered security officers.
Residents, however, alleged that rather than fish out the criminals, the soldiers went on a killing spree to avenge the killing of their colleagues.
They told The Guardian that military officers moved from house to house, harassing and arresting residents in a manner that suggested reprisal.
They alleged that soldiers threatened to burn houses of persons who refused to open their gates for a search of their residences.
Over 60 per cent Oyigbo and Iriebe residents, investigation revealed, fled the area for fear of military onslaught. Iriebe, a community in the Obio/Akpor Local Government Area of the state, shares boundary with Oyigbo. A family was said to have drowned while trying to escape through a river in Umuebule in Oyigbo council.
WHEN The Guardian visited a house at Captain Ejiofor Street in Iriebe community, four soldiers were sighted knocking frantically at a gate to a building, which the frightened occupants refused to open. The soldiers screamed: “If you don’t come out and open the gate, we will burn the building and kill you and nothing will happen.”
When one of the residents finally opened the gate, the soldiers, brandishing guns, fired some shots into the air. They ordered her to call out everyone in the compound and while the residents gathered, one of the soldiers said: “The army is very angry with this community because your people killed our colleagues, we are here to search for certain persons and you should obey everything we say, anyone that argues or disobeys, we will kill the person.”
However, after a search of the compound, the officers left, saying: “Our target person is not here”.
One of the residents, Mrs. Agnes Udeh, told The Guardian: “In this area, everybody is scared, especially our children whenever they see soldiers with guns.”
She claimed a stray bullet hit a resident on their street, killing the person instantly and the officers carried the body away. “This is the few ones we saw; when they kill, they take away the bodies to avoid people seeing what they are doing,” Udeh alleged.
BUT reacting to the allegations, the spokesperson for Six Division of the Nigerian Army in Port Harcourt, Major Charles Ekeocha, said the army only entered houses that were possible hideouts of hoodlums.
Ekeocha said its operations in Oyigbo targeted only criminals who killed six army officers and other security men and went away with their weapons.
“We lost six soldiers in that area, their weapons were carted away, it was planned and executed. The weapons taken away are in the wrong hands and if we don’t retrieve those weapons now, subsequently those weapons will be used; if not against us, it will be used against innocent citizens in that area or any other part of the country.
“The exercise going on there now is searching and identifying houses used by the so-called IPOB members. We are searching those houses to see whether we can get all those rifles they took away from our soldiers, that is what we are doing, we are professional about it, I don’t know about the issue of the firing of weapons.”
MEANWHILE, checks by The Guardian has revealed that residents of the area are faced with hunger and lack of access to medicals and other basic amenities because they have remained indoors for fear of being arrested. They are also grappling with food scarcity.
The situation is worsened by the imposition of a 24-hour curfew by Governor Nyesom Wike last Wednesday on Oyigbo Council and some other areas during the EndSARS protest in the state.
Residents were taken unawares by the declaration, there was no time to stockpile food items; markets, pharmacies, and banks in the area were shut down. Although the governor lifted the curfew in other areas, movement in Oyigbo and Ikowku remained restricted.
Experts have expressed worry that the situation may worsen if urgent actions are not taken. A obstetrician, gynecologist in the state, Dr. Eli Sukarime, says hunger retards growth in children.
“The child will lack the energy to move around, children are very active and it can impact on their health. Food sustains and helps to fight infections, if they lack food, it means they will be prone to infections,” he said.
The medical expert, who is the executive director of the Mother and Baby Global Foundation, added that if the food crisis was prolonged, it could lead to mortality rate. To prevent severe damage, Dr. Sukarime expressed an urgent need to ensure food supply to the area by the government.
Similarly, a pediatrician at the Rivers State University, Dr. Appollus Josiah, also raised the alarm over food shortage. He observed that the scarcity of food, if unchecked, could lead to severe malnutrition, depressed immunity, and risk infections of all kinds because the body needs to fight diseases”. He also said that residents of Oyigbo be allowed to have access to food.
Human rights activists described the army operation in Oyigbo as illegal and reprehensive. Ken Henshaw, the executive director of “We The People’ and the Chairman of the Rivers State Civil Society Organisation, Enefaa Georgewill, condemned the act by the military and called for thorough investigation and prosecution of indicted officers. They also urged the state government to allow the residents access to food.