Unwanted Detainees in the South-east

Only a few months ago, Chief Emmanuel Iwuanyanwu called on war veterans to prepare to defend the south-east from Boko Haram. At the time, the insurgents had hoisted their flags in its “caliphates” in parts of the north-east and were overrunning villages in Benue State, just next door to the south-east. Indeed, many suspects were, at the time, arrested at Obollo in Enugu State with improvised explosive devices, IEDs. “Fulani herdsmen” murdered at least three farmers in a part of Enugu State and vanished with their cattle. Shortly before then, almost 500 people were arrested in Abia State as they were travelling in a convoy; they said their destination was Port Harcourt. After their screening, no fewer than 80 of them were suspected to be terrorists.

All these happened between 10 and 14 months ago. Those who could read the handwriting on the wall like Iwuanyanwu believed it was only a matter of time before “Boko Haram” marched on to the south-east and to other geopolitical zones of the country.

What Iwuanyanwu foresaw has come to pass in a strange manner: the first batch of “Boko Haram” detainees has been shifted to prisons in the south-east. And the people of the south-east are protesting. Markets have been closed in Anambra and Enugu states. Placard-carrying protesters have marched in the streets.

Without thinking deeply, I have wondered why these protests are taking place. Have prisoners from the north-east and north-west not been accommodated in south-east prisons? When did host communities start shivering because of prisoners? During the Abacha era, the people of Adamawa did not protest when Olusegun Obasanjo was taken to Yola prison. Shehu Yar’Adua died in Abakaliki prison.

The protesters say “Boko Haram” detainees are different, however. They could cause a jail break and infiltrate south-east communities. Their sponsors could invade the prisons and attempt to free them, as they have done several times in parts of the north, bringing calamities upon innocent residents. And why, some asked me, would such “dangerous” people be donated to a region of the country that has been denied development projects?

Since the present governor of Anambra State, Willie Obiano, claims that it was his predecessor (Peter Obi) that accepted to receive Boko Haram detainees in a prison in his hometown Agulu, we are inclined to believe that the deal was struck with the Jonathan government before March last year. Obi’s camp has denied the claim. And who wouldn’t? Obiano has to seek better explanations!

Yet, there is nothing to explain. The detainees in question have not been confirmed terrorists. The actual terrorists are still wreaking havoc elsewhere. Besides, there are armed robbery suspects from the south-east who are in prisons in the north. There must be kidnappers from the south-east now languishing in Lagos prisons. Armed robbers and kidnappers are even more dangerous than the suspects now called “Boko Haram detainees”.

What we should question is the justification for detaining a large number of people for several years on the basis of suspicion alone. What is “Boko Haram detainee”? If someone was arrested while he was throwing bombs or slitting a villager’s throat, the right penalty is not to detain him indefinitely. Few of such terrorists would be lucky to be taken alive. So, the detainees being moved to Peter Obi’s hometown must be mere suspects – jobless young men captured during raids on north-east villages or family members of wanted Boko Haram insurgents.

The detention of thousands of people for several years says something about Nigeria’s justice system. Is it not said that justice delayed is justice denied? Before one could be arrested and detained, there should be strong evidence against him, which a court of competent jurisdiction shouldn’t find difficult to accept.

But we seem to have accepted lawlessness in our country. The law says no one should be detained for longer than 48 hours without charge, yet thousands of people – poor people, of course – are left to suffer and die in police cells and detention camps until “investigations” are concluded. Perhaps, Amnesty International was right after all. Only last Thursday, I watched video clips of its report entitled “Stars on their shoulders, blood on their hands”, which was released last month. Though I was among those that criticised AI for releasing the report at the time, I have seen that the horrors are too much to ignore: Young people were rounded up in villages and tagged “Boko Haram”. Residents fleeing bombing scenes were arrested and detained. Suspects were brought out of their cells and shot. Boko Haram detainees?

Such crude method of fighting terrorism is indefensible in a free society. It’s a shame that, six years after the menace reared its ugly head in Nigeria, security agencies are yet to expose those behind it. If the sponsors and actual members of the group can’t be unravelled, then, it’s of no use wasting trillions of scarce naira on these agencies. Perhaps they are more interested in the battle of the budget than in the war on terror. Today, the debate is on negotiating with “Boko Haram” – and the group has demanded swapping its detainees with the Chibok girls abducted over 450 days ago. What kind of country is this?

Rather than protest the relocation of “Boko Haram detainees” to the south-east, we should protest the human rights abuses committed under the pretext of terrorism war. The detainees are either innocent or guilty. If there is no evidence against them, they should be released within 48 hours. And I don’t think anyone caught in the act would be allowed to live a day longer. True members and sympathisers of the sect are still walking freely in the streets.

I can’t comment on the rightness or wrongness of detaining the wives and children of fleeing suspects. What does the law say? Two years ago, a police officer told me they could not arrest the wife of one of the suspected armed robbers that nearly eliminated me and my family. The police are still looking for “Muazu Maishayi”, even though his family home in Kano has been identified. Other suspects had been detained briefly and then released on bail; the court has not sat on the case for almost two years now.

The injustice of clamping mainly innocent people in jail without trial fuels terrorism more than anything else. While “Boko Haram” has killed over 20, 000 people within six years, we are still receiving assurances that the end of the sect is near. No, it can’t be true. We have yet to see intelligence gathering and action capable of ending the war. Moving detainees or “suspects” to “faraway” Anambra State will not solve any problem.



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