BY choice I pick every call to my phone promptly. But on this particular night I acted outside of my wont. My phone rang off the hook a number of times. Fagged out by the day’s activities, I forgot to reset it to ringing mode after a long spell in silence. By the time I checked, my call log had a lot of missed calls. As I scanned the phone for detail, one of the numbers called yet again. But the voice on the other end was barely audible. It stuttered out words that could hardly be pieced together. I presumed network problem and dropped the line. But the call came again; this time the caller made greater effort to be heard. He and others (because there were background voices) appeared to be debating an issue.
The transfer of Boko Haram prisoners to Ekwulobia pen in Anambra state has been generating a lot of controversy. Very few subjects can claim to have done so in recent past. The closest, perhaps, was the dumping by nightfall of some waifs at the foot of the Niger Bridge by the then Fashola government in Lagos. That incident almost pitched Anambra State against Lagos and helped define the election of the period. It may feel safe to accept as normal the prolonged public debate that has dogged the prisoners’ transfer because of its unusualness. Either through security measures or divine intervention or both, the Southeast zone was insulated and void of the menace of the terrorists. And it appears to want to remain so.
Though there were some resident Igbo and a few peripatetic ones who were killed within the Boko Haram enclave, but to cohabit with the suicides (be they captive or free) would be a costly acquiescence. Perhaps, this explains the consistent demonstrations and protests witnessed differently at Onitsha, Awka, Nnewi, and Ekwulobia. Other muffled voices of complaint yet to be given expression have failed to be assuaged by the futile explanation that the transfer is a routine programme of the Prison Establishment. Essentially, the transfer is seen by the people as yielding the zone – hitherto immune to boundless violence – to possible rape by the suicides. The strong feeling of disapproval from the people is premised upon three major reasons. One is the fear of indoctrination of other inmates who were not known to harbor as much ruthless streak as the terrorists, and whose convictions were secured on less criminal charge. Two is the fear of escape from the prison and possible mingling with the natives.
Three, and perhaps the worst of the fears, is likely invasion of the prison and its surrounding by other members of the terrorist group who may attempt to free the captives. As feeble as the excuse that this set of Boko Haram prisoners is not as radicalized as the ones wreaking havoc in the Northeast and beyond is, the choice of a poor prison like Ekwulobia beats the imagination. If the argument is to insulate this set of prisoners from further radicalization couldn’t a better equipped prison suffice? At any rate, what attraction has Ekwulobia as a prison? Is it capacious? Does it have enough room to swing a cat? Does it have the necessary facility to hold in check such high risk prisoners? Now soldiers are said to be drafted to the place to keep surveillance. This must be at another cost. And there is no assurance that an invasion will be repelled if it occurs.
Aside the fact that the terrorists have been a handful for security operatives, nothing has changed in recent past to inspire in the people the kind of confidence exuded by those who made the transfer. Ekwulobia prison or any other prison in the Southeast does not fit the bill of a safe place for Boko Haram-type of prisoners. Except there is a fail-safe option in this prison that is not evident to the people, the transfer remains a policy mistake. For a zone that is the least developed, including its prison facilities, to be the first choice for the transfer is very strange. Again the transfer failed to follow Nigeria’s unofficial scale of preference in her distribution of favours. Southeast normally comes last in this scale. Every effort made by those involved in the unsavoury transfer to convince the people of their good intention leaves the host community Ekwulobia, Anambra and the Southeast zone more distressed.
And until they are relocated from Anambra, every other state in the Southeast zone is at risk of being infiltrated. Everybody now sleeps with their eyes wide open in keeping with the saying that a man hemmed in by enemies must guard his life always. To the credit of the Anambra State government, it managed all the protests well, thus de-escalating them. Even though a lot of people still see the with rage over the issue, including those whose calls I missed, government is able to manage the situation while awaiting redress. Already efforts are on by all concerned Southeasterners, including the five governors, senators and other stakeholders to even out the situation.
Sadly, the time required in thinking out new strategy on how to move the zone forward is now wasted on avoidable problem. It would seem that those who hatched the idea to send the prisoners to Ekwulobia never envisaged there will be outcry. But if they are conscious of the poverty of infrastructural development in the zone, including prison services they will not to annoy the people further. When in recent memory did the Southeast zone beat other zones as the first choice of destination for building an industry by the federal government? Virtually all federal infrastructures in the zone are moribund. Instead of sending high-risk prisoners to the zone to keep everybody on edge why not expedite work on the 2nd Niger Bridge which construction has endured the worst politicization in recent memory.
Anyaduba writes from Awka