There was heightened fear in parts of the South-East on Monday as news spread that hundreds of persons suspected to be Boko Haram members were arrested in Abia State.
The suspects, including eight women, were said to have been arrested along the Enugu-Port Harcourt Expressway by soldiers attached to the 144 Battalion of the Nigerian Army, Asa in the Ukwa West Local Government Area on Sunday.
Their arrest occurred some hours after security operatives detonated improvised explosive devices planted on the premises of a branch of the Living Faith World Bible Church (a.k.a. Winners Chapel) in Owerri, Imo State.
Before the Commander of the 144 Battalion, Lt. Col. Rasheed Omolori, announced the suspects’ arrest, the South-East governors vowed after paying a solidarity visit to President Goodluck Jonathan in Abuja that they would not allow Boko Haram to attack the zone.
Omolori had told journalists at a news conference that his men intercepted a convoy of 33 buses conveying 486 suspected insurgents aged between 16 and 24 around 3am on Sunday.
The suspects, according to him, claimed to have come from different parts of the North in search of jobs.
He added that two of the 33 buses escaped with their occupants and that the incident had been reported to the Defence Headquarters in Abuja.
The Abia State Commissioner for Information and Strategy, Dr. Eze Chikamnayo, who was at the briefing alongside the Chief Press Secretary to the Governor, Mr. Charles Ajunwa, said the large number of vehicles conveying the suspects made the soldiers suspicious.
Wondering how such a long motorcade could not be intercepted by security personnel until it reached Abia State, Chikamnayo said it was also baffling that none of the suspects was able to identify the location they were heading for.
He however said that the Army and other security agencies in the state were working to uncover the actual mission of the suspects and those behind their movement.
The commissioner advised every state to work hand-in-hand with their security personnel to check insurgency in the country.
“Every security problem is local and if we handle it locally it will be nipped in the bud,” he said.
In Abuja, the South-East governors told State House correspondents that they were prepared to avert any plot by Boko Haram to attack the zone.
Governor Willy Obiano of Anambra State, who spoke on behalf of his colleagues said, “They (Boko Haram) can’t get there (South-East). I can assure you of that. We will not allow that to happen.
“I can’t tell you in any material details about bombs found or not found. All I can assure you is that we are on the alert in the South-East and we are watching what is going on.
“I can assure you that Boko Haram cannot come to the South-East.”
Obiano said the governors decided to meet with Jonathan to assure him of their support as he faces the challenges of nation-building.
He claimed that the President was under immense pressure and that some unnamed persons were making his work more tedious.
But the governor did not name such people “adding kerosene to fire” instead of supporting the President to take the nation out of the woods.
He said, “The President is a human being and he is under a lot of pressure and some other people are making his work a lot more difficult.
“But we are here to tell him that we are here supporting him and that he should count on us.”
Other governors who attended the meeting are Theodore Orji of Abia State; Martins Elechi, Ebonyi and Sullivan Chime, Enugu.
Imo State Governor Rochas Okorocha whose domain the Sunday tragedy was averted was however absent from the meeting with Jonathan.
Okorocha later explained through his Chief Press Secretary, Sam Onwuemeodo, that his absence was not intentional.
He said he had a more important meeting to attend with the security chiefs in the state.
He added, “After the meeting with the security chiefs, there was an expanded meeting with the vigilante members and other local security groups in the state.
“All the meetings we had were to ensure that we do not give room for criminals to infiltrate the state and cause harm or damage. We had to check and mount heavy security presence on our borders rather than go to Abuja.
“Under normal circumstances, the South-East governors should have come here or even issue a press release.”
Okorocha wondered why his absence from the meeting should be an issue.
He said he only returned to Owerri on Sunday after attending the national convention of the All Progressives Congress and that it was only proper he attended to the pressing security challenges “at home rather than jump off to Abuja again.”
The governor advised that “the issue of Boko Haram should be seen as a war declared against the country.”
“We should all fight against it( insurgency) collectively instead of politicising it or trading blames,”Okorocha said.
Okorocha has however initiated a programme known as ‘Know your Neighbour,’ to make the people of the state to become security conscious and share information that could help in forestalling any attack by Boko Haram and other criminals.
The State Commissioner for Information, Dr. Theo Ekechi, said the programme was launched during a stakeholders’ meeting on Monday.
The state Commissioner of Police, the head of Civil Defence, paramilitary personnel teachers, leaders of commercial tricycle union and all members of the state executive council were present at the meeting.
He said, “If we all take security as our personal responsibility, we are not going to be oblivious of what is happening around us. We should always be on the alert and know what is happening around us.
“We formally launched a programme that is called Know Your Neighbour, which is intended to help all of us become vigilante personnel.
“It means everybody in Imo State will become a vigilante member and we will get information and share telephone numbers that are available in the public domain in case there is any alert.
“It was also agreed that it was through information that the explosives planted in a church were uncovered. There may have been suspicion; there may have been some infiltration.”
Explaining that it was natural for people to be afraid after such an incident, the commissioner added that the people of the state had already been told to go about their business without fear since normalcy had returned to the state.
However, the Igbo Leaders of Thought, an association of Igbo socio-political leaders, had on Monday accused the police of shielding the six “northerners”, arrested in connection with the Owerri incident.
The group, in a statement by its Deputy Secretary, Eliot Uko, said the failure of the police to parade the suspects was a pointer to its claim.
The statement read in part, “We condemn the refusal of the Imo Commissioner of Police to parade the arrested Boko Haram fighters who attempted to plant bombs in an Owerri church last weekend.
“The six fighters, said to be northerners by eyewitnesses,confessed they had a mandate to bomb five churches in Owerri. They are being shielded, a sharp contrast to the humiliation the police gave pro-Biafran activists in Enugu penultimate week by parading them naked to complete their humiliation.
“Ndigbo are keenly watching developments as they unfold.”
The state Police Public Relations Officer, Mr. Andrew Enwerem, told The PUNCH on Monday that the command would not parade the suspects because it could jeopardise ongoing investigations into the matter.
He explained that the investigation was aimed at ascertaining the motive behind the botched attack and the actual culprits and sponsors.
Enwerem said, “We are not parading the suspects because we do not want anything that will hinder the success of our investigation. Normalcy has returned to Owerri and members of the public are going about their business without fear.
“They have been assured of their safety and there is no problem. The objective for the investigation is to know the motive behind the planting of explosives and the actual culprits behind it.”
The Police authorities in Abuja warned on Monday that it was too early to link the Owerri bomb incident to Boko Haram.
The spokesman for the police, Frank Mbah, said at a news conference chaired by the Director General of National Orientation Agency, Mr. Mike Omeri, on Monday that it would be premature to point fingers until investigation into the incident had been concluded.
He said, “The media and citizens should not be in a hurry to link the Owerri incident to the established terror cells that we already know.
“Until the full identities of those behind that incident are made public (or are known to security forces); until their motives are established; it will be too pre-emptive for us to give it the toga of terrorism.
“It could be anything. For us in the security world, we are leaving all our options open and we are ready to test all hypotheses.”
Omeri, who spoke on other security issues, also disclosed that the report of the fact-finding committee set up by President Goodluck Jonathan to investigate the abduction of the Chibok schoolgirls would be submitted next week.
He appealed to “Nigerians and the international community for more understanding and patience in the determined efforts to rescue the girls.”
On the extradition of Aminu Sadiq Ogwuche, the mastermind of the April 14 bomb blast in Nyanya near Abuja, Omeri said the delay was not abnormal as necessary processes needed to be completed.
He said, “On Ogwuche, delays in matters like this are not unexpected. Since officers and officials are on top of this matter, discussing and fulfilling the conditions; let us await the outcome. If at the end of the day Ogwuche is not brought back, we will come and tell you.
“You are aware that the processes have commenced. There has been a court process; there has been a police process; there has been a diplomatic process and so on. We are still in order; nothing has gone wrong.”
The NOA chief also said that a Lebanese, Khaleel Diyab, who was abducted by gunmen in Langtang, Plateau State “was last night (Sunday) freed through the efforts of security forces.”
Diyab, who was reported by the media to be a Briton, works with Retro Construction Company.
When asked question on the offer of former President, Chief Olusegun Obasanjo, that he could help to rescue the abducted Chibok girls, Omeri said he (Obasanjo) , as a free citizen, was “ free to do the things he is doing.”