By Tony Edike, Enugu
ANAMBRA State government, just like other states in the South East geopolitical zone, on Thursday and Friday, March 1 and 2, declared public holidays specifically to enable Ndigbo and non-Igbo residing within the zone come out en masse to participate in various activities lined up for a befitting burial of the former Biafran warlord, Dim Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu.
From different parts of Igbo land, several commuter buses were hired to convey sympathizers and mourners accompanied by dancing troupes and masquerades to the auto spare-parts town of Nnewi for the funeral. But contrary to their expectations, fierce-looking security men cordoned off all the roads leading to Sir Louis Philip Odumegwu Ojukwu’s family compound.
The entire premises of the late Ikemba Nnewi and Eze Igbo Gburu Gburu at Umudim, Nnewi and the roads leading to it were virtually taken over by hundreds of security operatives from the army, the police, State Security Service, SSS, Immigration, Nigerian Civil Defense and Security Corps, Federal Road Safety Commission, FRSC, as well as the Anambra State Vigilante Service among other uniformed paramilitary organizations.
As learnt from a member of the security sub-committee of the National Burial Committee, the security men were detailed to maintain law and order, search the visitors and members of different groups hired to perform one role or the other during the funeral, as well as to scan the entire area with metal detectors with a view to ensuring that no explosive was dumped or planted within the area before, during and after the event.
Squads of anti-terrorism personnel and a special armoured tank said to have the capacity to detect explosives from a far distance, was stationed directly opposite the main entrance to Ojukwu’s compound which shares the same fence with St. Michael De Archangel Catholic Church where the Requiem Mass that preceded Ikemba’s burial was held.
Soldiers that manned the armoured tank compelled all those that passed through the road to raise their hands apparently to expose whatever weapon or explosive device that may have been hidden in their bodies. Those who ignorantly came with handbags were turned back by the soldiers whose command of “hands up” was accompanied by slaps.
Even those living in the neigbourhood and passersby will for a long time remember the burial of Ojukwu not because of the unprecedented heavy presence of dignitaries and different tones of sirens that blared within the area for days, but for the brutality and harassment of people by the security men who clearly acted out of over-zealousness.
A senior military officer who was in charge of admitting guests into the expansive Ojukwu’s premises during the burial proper on Friday, repeatedly shouted at his men at the gate to maintain extra vigilance saying: “You can see the Commander-in-Chief is here, we are not joking here, don’t allow anybody inside.” The directive however increased the tension.
In compliance, the moment President Goodluck Jonathan, his wife,
Dame Patience and other dignitaries that accompanied the Ikemba’s golden casket conveyed by eight Army Generals moved into the compound in a procession from the church, the main gate was shut. It was at this point that the large crowd that joined the procession literally saw hell.
The security men made up of soldiers, mobile policemen and the secret police, in a clear display of force, pushed the crowd backward in a bid to clear the gate for those they regarded as special personalities that should rightly be admitted into the compound.
But unknown to them, personalities like the former Vice President, Dr. Alex Ekwueme, former Secretary General of the Commonwealth, Chief Emeka Anyaoku, Chairman of the National Burial Committee, Justice Chukwudifu Oputa among others coming behind, were part of the crowd that was senselessly pushed, horsewhipped and manhandled. It took the intervention of their personal security aides for them to gain entry to the burial site.
At a point, some aged women believed to be members of Ikemba’s extended family were pushed into the drainage in front of the house and sustained minor injuries in the process. When the crowd continued to surge towards the gate, one of the security men who could not be identified sprayed a substance suspected to be teargas.
The hell was let loose. Many people that inhaled the gas were seen sneezing and coughing endlessly while other shed tears. Soon a girl of about 13 years who also inhaled the teargas was seen convulsing on the floor but was quickly rushed to the Red Cross Society stand by some Man O’ War members.
The Red Cross Stand was provided to take care of emergencies during the funeral. The officials said those who sustained minor injuries at the occasion were duly treated, but there was no major casualty.
Some journalists officially accredited for the event were not spared either. The soldiers tortured some of them while trying to get access into the premises even after identifying themselves. The accreditation cards issued by the National Burial Committee and the Local Organizing Committee meant nothing to the security men who acted as if the burial of the Biafran warlord was strictly for the military and uniformed men, who almost outnumbered the dignitaries and mourners at the occasion.
A highly disturbed member of the burial committee lamented that crowd control by the security operatives was poorly handled, saying they went beyond their mandates to harass people and succeeded in scaring many people away from the venue.
Some young men who were denied access to the venue, however, climbed some fence walls and roofs within the neighbourhood in order to catch a glimpse of what was going on inside the compound. Some fell and sustained injuries in the process just as a few others were almost electrocuted when an overhead electric cable, mistakenly tampered with by the crowd, began to spark emitting thick smoke.
The attitude of the security men almost hampered the funeral as some dignitaries left after the church service, having failed to gain access to Ojukwu’s graveside.
On the other hand, movement in and out of Nnewi was seriously hampered by security operatives as all the roads were blocked even as markets, offices and other economic activities in the town were completely shut down in compliance with the two-day public holiday declared by the state government in honour of Ojukwu.