Peace Without Guns

Since 2021, southeast Nigeria has been home to unending violent attacks. Often, fatal incidents are perpetrated by “unknown gunmen,” or hoodlums, whom security organisations have linked to the Eastern Security Network (ESN), a brainchild of the proscribed Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB). IPOB has persistently denied the accusation. However, the attacks have continued. Data from the Nextier SPD Violent Conflict Database shows that between January to November 2021, 253 casualties in 138 violent incidents. In some of the incidents, security sources claim victims were assaulted for failing to observe IPOB’s Monday sit-at-home orders. In other instances, motorists or security agents were waylaid by gunmen. Stealthily, southeast Nigeria has become the land of rising violence.

Secession sentiments in the region complicate the dire security climate. IPOB’s secession propaganda is often based on perceptions of marginalisation and the notion to protect Igbo lives and livelihoods. Hence, the creation of its security arm, the Eastern Security Network. Ironically, the region has become anything but peaceful since the creation of ESN in December 2020. There have been reports of military invasion of communities and police brutality in the region. Some residents perceive the combat actions by the Nigerian forces as suppression of IPOB’s secession campaigns.

“Security agents are arresting and killing youths in the southeast, thinking every youth is an IPOB member,” claims some residents in Imo State. On the other hand, Daniel, an Anambra-based independent researcher, holds that the “security operations in the southeast are to curtail rising security challenges and not targeted at secession agitations.” He, however, worries that such engagements will further impact the strained relationship between the Nigerian State and many southeast residents, who share the self-determination dreams. Undoubtedly, mixed reactions will continue to trail security operations in the region, especially with heightened IPOB-championed secessionist calls. However, strategic actions by the Nigerian State may make a difference.

Nigeria’s security agencies are expected to manage rising southeast violence despite perceptions of marginalisation and suppression. As argued by some scholars, security is a collective effort of all. It will be increasingly difficult for residents who share negative views about security operations in the region to cooperate with law enforcement agents. For instance, an anonymous respondent in Owerri, Imo State, claims that “security agents disguise as gunmen to paint IPOB black.” Even when these perceptions are wrong, they negatively impact genuine efforts to promote peace and safety. Also, previous issues around military highhandedness and police brutality complicate engagements with civilians in the region. Anecdotal accounts alleged that extortions and harassments by security agents in some parts of the southeast are regular occurrences. To manage the twists and nuances of the southeast’s uncertain security climate requires robust citizens-centred engagements.

In an atmosphere enveloped by perceptions of marginalisation and suppressive government responses, security operations must be tactful and people-oriented. Sustainable peace and stability cannot be achieved without the involvement of the people. Therefore, Nigerian security agencies must engage the southeast populace through relevant regional stakeholders. Non-combative engagement and sensitisation campaigns on regional security missions will help to counteract the perceptions of intimidation and suppression targeted at southeast residents. To achieve this, security agencies should employ mainstream and new media to sensitise the public on the rationale and objective of their engagements in the region.

Also, security institutions must take reports and petitions of human rights abuses seriously. A robust feedback and dissemination strategy is required to ensure that reports of human rights abuses are thoroughly investigated and findings are publicly disseminated. Residents must see Nigeria’s security agencies’ commitment in responding to extra-judicial killings, harassment, extortion, illegal arrests, and detention. Increased collaborations with civil society actors will help crystalise the objectives of security missions in the region.

Government responses must look the other way. Secession struggles in the region have shown to be unending despite suppressive government actions. Therefore, the Nigerian State must explore alternative non-combative options to reach a mutually desirable outcome. As argued in Invitation to Engage, IPOB’s cancellation of the Anambra State governorship election boycott due to consultations with the region’s elders shows that the separatist group may be willing to engage the government. Also, President Buhari has promised to consider requests by some stakeholders in the southeast to release Nnamdi Kanu, IPOB’s leader, who is currently facing terrorism charges. These developments are promising but must be further explored to bring sustainable peace to the region. The Nigerian State should engage conflict experts to provide a framework for dialogue with the region. The engagement will help reduce the tensions and security needs. Moreover, it will open opportunities for engaging separatists’ groups in the region. Solutions to the southeast’s security uncertainties may also lie beyond security operations.