The shell of Owerri city prison has become the charred symbol of attacks that are unfurling across Nigeria’s southeast, stirring fears of renewed separatist violence and uneasy memories of a civil war half a century ago.
At least 127 police and security personnel have been killed this year in the powder keg region and more than two dozen police stations razed, according to local media.
The assailants are often referred to simply as “unknown gunmen.”
Some officers now refuse to wear uniforms in public out of fear, police sources and residents say, while others are seeking transfers.
“Our region is under siege. Nobody is safe anymore. The gunmen can come at any time and wreak havoc on our land,” said Friday Okwor, a retired civil servant in Owerri, capital of Imo state.
In the most brazen attack, on April 5 heavily-armed men raided Owerri police headquarters and blasted their way with explosives into the main prison, freeing more than 1,800 inmates.
In a region where separatist sentiments often flare up among the indigenous Igbo, officials are pointing the finger at the outlawed Indigenous People of Biafra or IPOB that agitates for a separate state.
But the situation is far from clear.
IPOB says it is being falsely accused in a bid to divide the separatists, who are already split over strategy. Some southern leaders accuse rivals of sponsoring attacks to discredit them.
With a headcount of around 200 million, Nigeria is Africa’s most populous country, and tensions among its more than 250 ethnic groups often simmer.
But some local leaders fan ethnic embers for political gain, critics say, especially as 2023 elections approach to replace President Muhammadu Buhari.
Others accuse criminal gangs using the IPOB name as a cover. Some see a frustrated hardline wing of separatists at work.
Buhari’s government, under increasing pressure to tackle insecurity in Nigeria, has ordered a police and army operation to stop the southeastern unrest.
“We are very careful these days because of the rampant killings of our personnel,” one local police official told AFP asking not to be identified. (AFP)