The trouble with Ebubeagu vigilante

Last week, I argued that people of the South East do not have the luxury of time because people are being killed daily from unprovoked violence. I live in the South East. Like many others who do, we are keenly aware that all around us is palpable fear, the fear of unprovoked violence occurring everywhere we turn. Nobody, resident or visitor, considers themselves safe from this looming threat of unprovoked violence. Since January 2021, unprovoked violence continues to erupt in military, paramilitary and police precincts, in our homes, on our highways, and in farmlands and forests. Although the majority are unaffected, everyone still hears about the violence from daily reports of assault and battery, murder, farmland rape, highway robbery and kidnapping, as well as the “normal” home burglaries and petty theft.

The security situation is such that state and non-state actors have now intervened, offering different strategies to stem the ugly trend. These interventions include Mazi Nnamdi Kanu’s Eastern Security Network (ESN) and the Ebubeagu, a political solution from governors of the region. ESN, launched on December 12, 2020, has as its goal a commitment to “combat Fulani raiders in the areas of the former Eastern Region.” Ebubeagu, launched on April 11, 2021, in Owerri, Imo State, will confront “recent upsurge in crime in the South East.” The governors listed these recent crimes as “burning of police stations, violent attacks on custodial centres with the unlawful release of inmates, and the killings including security personnel, natives/farmers and headsmen (sic).”

The way I see it, every concerned Igbo person must have to choose which of the two organisations to support, unless someone has an idea for a third, equally viable option. Our security situation does not, in my view, warrant idle chatter around or goalless nitpicking of the two ideas from the South East governors and the IPOB. Whichever outfit anyone supports, Ebubeagu or ESN, let the supporter strengthen it with ideas on how they can be made better and more effective.

As for me, I choose to line up behind Ebubeagu.

Any way that one looks at the matter, one must feel sad that Mazi Kanu decided to set up an extra-legal security outfit. One can’t shake off the feeling that ESN is both dangerous and ill-advised. ESN does not, for example, seek to align with any law, federal or state, and is, therefore, an outlaw organisation from Day One. And yet it does not operate like a typical guerilla outfit. ESN does not appear to seek an overt or clandestine relationship with mainstream business, political, cultural and religious organisations in the region to lend social and political weight to its idea. If we keep in mind that ESN is the brainchild of IPOB, a proscribed organisation, and also remember that IPOB has, unfortunately, been branded a terrorist organisation as well, what conclusion can be drawn about its chances of succeeding with a security outfit?

Being an outlawed organisation automatically pits ESN against federal and state policymakers. Local leaders of all persuasions will naturally come to regard its youth volunteers as brainwashed and confused. IPOB, its parent body, remains an adversary of national and subnational security operatives and agencies. In summary, ESN by its conception and operation simultaneously fights open battles with the authorities and mind battles with leaders of local businesses, culture and religious organisations. And that raises the question: How many battles can a ragtag gang of ill-trained and ill-equipped youths fight simultaneously and successfully? How will this gang ever achieve impact without the tacit support of those with influential voices in Nigeria? To put it bluntly, how many battles can ESN win without the wisdom, support and collaboration of leaders of social institutions in Igboland?

ESN is fighting what our people call a war of blame, because what it does hurts too many innocent bystanders. There is common agreement that one of the biggest reasons why Igbos suffered badly during the civil war was because we later ignored the option of political and legal solutions to the conflict, as advised by those who understood Nigeria better at the time. ESN appears to be toeing a similar line. Therefore, even as I continue to wish Mazi Kanu well in his self-concept battle for freedom, I cannot support the poor and costly strategy being sold to achieve it.

This rejection frees my conscience to focus on the Ebubeagu idea floated four days ago by the South East governors in Owerri.

Let me hastily state from the outset that I agree with those who say that the governors’ published Ebubeagu Vigilante idea appears hastily conceived and is a bit confusing at this time. Based on what we gleaned from the communiqué issued at the end of their meeting, Ebubeagu will coordinate different state vigilante outfits in the South East region from an operational headquarters in the City of Enugu. In addition, a team of security personnel, government officials, and other “relevant stakeholders” will monitor and oversee the work of this coordinating body. Read together, the nature and functions of this body leaves many questions than it answers. But before we get to these questions, I must pause and commend the governors for what they have done.

I am impressed by three things that came out of the maiden security summit in Owerri, political leaders hearkening to the voice of the people to convene a regional security summit to address the matter of rising insecurity, having the courage to set up a joint security monitoring outfit, and giving the resulting security outfit a name and an operational base. The naming of the outfit is important; it is a useful first step to creating a structure and a process that will enable Ebubeagu achieve the stated goal “to fight and flush out criminals and terrorists from the (South East) zone.” The broad policy framework is now in place.

It is, therefore, left for the coordinating agency – whose members the governors are yet to name – to draft the terms of reference that will determine how best Ebubeagu is organised to achieve its goal.

This will entail clarifying issues that appear as gaps in the communiqué.

Will Ebubeagu become a central command that manages a unified, hitherto state-supervised vigilance outfit in the region? Will each state vigilante be renamed Ebubeagu, for example, Ebubeagu Enugu in place of either Enugu Neighborhood Watch or Enugu Forest Guards?

If Ebubeagu leads to a unified regional vigilante, will the resulting joint outfit be given legal backing from each state’s House of Assembly? Will the committee consider a draft legal bill that will lead to the creation of anti-grazing law in each of the states? How will Ebubeagu be funded and what will be its operational structure? My thinking is that these questions and more would be evaluated by the coordinating committee to be set up and that its recommendations will be presented to the next quarterly regional security summit for further consideration and refinement.

In the meantime, the governors could use shuttle diplomacy to address two urgent matters that may be too late were they to be left for the next quarterly summit.

The two include ensuring that the South East does not become more militarized than it has been as a result of the attacks on security men, and engaging with leaders of social institutions to gather intelligence that empower security personnel to either prevent or prepare to repel and frustrate future attacks from unknown gunmen.

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