Monday, May 23, 2016

The Return Of The Bakassi Boys

By Uche Ezechukwu
The late Chief Stephen Osita Osadebe, in one of his indelible songs, allud-ed to Ndigbo and their resilience, thus: “they will never tire from running if their enemies do not tire from pursuing them”. This summarises why the Igbo Nation will never stop improvising to survive and stay ahead of those who they feel, do not wish them well. That is basically the story of the Bakassi Boys, the veritable children of circumstances, which the ebullient governor of Abia State, Dr Victor Okezie Ikpeazu, announced last week, was being re-invented in his state to save the day for his state, the way they did between 1999 and 2001.


Most Nigerians only got to hear of the Bakassi Boys as from the late 2000, when it became a most unorthodox and unusual crime fighting outfit in Anambra State, especially when it became an object of great controversy and jousting between the government of Dr Chinwoke Mbadinuju and that of President Olusegun Obasanjo, at the centre. Obasanjo had vowed to uproot the outfit by all means – and in fact did so eventually – after it had completely de-railed in its initial objectives, and had become a Frankenstein monster, which started gobbling the people it had set out to protect. It is significant that Dr Ikpeazu, an ‘Aba boy’, has decided to resurrect the Bakassi Boys, in what he must have seen as a last resort, just in the same way that Aba traders had decided to create the original Bakassi Boys in 1998, when they had been confronted with an unusual level of criminality, and when the constituted authority had pretended an unusual incapacity to act. The governor obviously knows how the Bakassi Boys were founded by shoe makers and other dexterous Aba artisans whose thriving businesses were being laid waste by criminal syndicates of robbers, kidnappers and cultist, broadly described as Maffs, just as the herdsmen are today laying waste the means of livelihood of the rural farmers.

 As it happened in the late 1990s, the SAP economic policy of the Ibrahim Babangida had turned out to be a great blessing in disguise for Igbo business-men and artisans, for whom it offered a wonderful opportunity to dip deep into their homebred talents to innovate and produce. Two groups of businesses – the leather workers and tailors – had benefitted most, as they systematically bettered and perfected their trades and targeted the ex-port market.

 Aba tailors and shoe makers had always been good, but they became even better when greater opportunities beckoned with the export market that existed for them all over Africa, the Middle Belt and Asia. The shoe makers would make good shoes and stamp Made in Italy or Made in Spain on them and offloaded them on Lebanese and other middlemen and women that inundated Aba to evacuate the products. Aba became the veritable Taiwan of Africa, as other Nigerian artisans, who were not doing as well elsewhere, relocated to Aba, in order to enjoy the boom that was taking place.

Many people who resided in Aba did not fully appreciate what was happening around them, as they were not enjoying the enhanced products that were being churned out around them. One young man from my village who had graduated in Biochemistry from UNN had become a tailor in Aba, and had once made a suit, gratis for me, but could no longer have the time to make more for my friends or members of my family, as his time was completely taken up with meeting-up with orders from his outlets in UAE and Europe. 

One day, my wife’s friend who runs a boutique at one of Abuja’s highbrow hotels with stocks from Europe and Dubai, brought some jeans trousers for my daughters. When we looked at the labels, we gave out a big laugh, and in-formed her that the jeans were not made in Italy, but in Aba, if not Amesi! She was very angry and insisted that she had just bought them from big shops in Dubai. My wife went to my ward-robe and brought out my suit as well as another suit Rome had ‘dashed’ her, with the same labels. When the lady insisted that ours was an imitation of what she had bought, my wife called our kinsman, Rome, on phone, and got him to chat with our friend and confirmed that he stocks those two shops she patronized in Dubai.

I have done this digression to show how good business was for Aba artisans at the time; that meant that Aba city, like the other Igbo cities – Onitsha, Nnewi, Owerri, etc – were awash with cash. And that was the period when huge mansions were sprouting in Igbo villages like giant mushrooms that had received an overdose of fertilizer. But then, the consequence was not all salutary. Cash is to criminals the way nectar is to bees. The surfeit of cash in Aba and other Igbo cities invited crime syndicates who descended on the cities with a type of brutal vengeance never witnessed be-fore. Most devious of these crime syndicates in Aba were the Maffs who unleashed the most abominable types of crimes on the people, in addition to the kidnap-pings for ransom, robbery, cultic deformations and other abominable acts, like raping of wives in front of their husbands and children, or forcing children to make love with their parents as their sibling watched. All these were happening while the law enforcement agencies, some members of which colluded with the criminals, most often threw up their hands in pretended helplessness. In most cases, the criminals would return the following day to relate to you how you had gone to report to the police and what you had said, with exactitude. Under such a scenario, the victims bore their fate with painful equanimity.

 Issues got to a head when the criminals started to kidnap, and even, kill the foreign traders who usually came to evacuate the finished leather goods and clothing. There was a particular case of ‘Hajiya’ (for that was the name she was known with) whose decomposing body was found in a ditch, after she had been kidnapped and killed by the Maffs. That was the last drop of water that overflowed the can. The Aba businessmen knew that it was between their livelihood and the sundry criminals in Aba. It is might be necessary to make outsiders understand that Aba symbolises the best and finest in Igboness, hence Aba is always the bastion of Igbo resistance and the symbol of the Igbo resilience. Aba incarnates the best and finest - maybe also the worst – in Igbo personality. So, most things that make up the Igbo reality are cooked in Aba.

There was a spontaneous uprising of the artisans at the Aria Aria Market, as they mobilized other traders in Aba and the Bakassi Boys were founded. I undertook a deep research of the Bakassi Boys phenomenon, at the period when it had become institutionalized during the first tenure of Orji Uzor Kalu administration in Abia State, and my findings were so eye-opening that they can make a great epic story. However, the Bakassi Boys had started several months before OUK came to power, and not under him, as I have read in some places. In fact the traders’ uprising that gave rise to the constitution of the Bakassi Boys happened under the military administrator that had handed over to the civilians in 1999.

From what most people know, the Bakassi Boys which many believe have magical powers, drawn principally from Ngwa and Ogoni deities, but in consultation with most deities in Igboland, were able to clean-up Aba and other parts of the state of criminals, most of whom escaped to other states of the South East. It should be noted that if the law enforcement agencies had been able to provide security for the people of the South East when they so badly needed it, the Bakassi Boys would never have become necessary in the first place. Last week, Ikpeazu decided to bring back the Bakassi Boys to Abia State, in the face of the re-fusal or failure of the federal government to protect the South East from the murderous menace of the herdsmen militia that is devastating their lives.

 In the following parts of this serial, I will relate how the Bakassi Boys spread and were welcomed to the other states of the South East – minus Enugu State – and how and why they later became a tiger which might be easy to mount, but which might be too dangerous to dismount, as the ‘mounter’ could end up in its jaws, as Mbadinuju might have, had Obasanjo not ‘saved’ him by clearing away the Bakassi Boys.

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As at the time Aba and the other parts of Abia State were being rav­aged by violent crimi­nals of different descriptions, and which the arrival of the Bakassi Boys effectively routed, Anambra became the worse for it. Onit­sha and Nnewi which were also awash with cash as Abia was also fell prostrate before the even more daring criminals. The criminals that ravaged Onitsha, Awka and Nnewi were so daring that they operated day and night undaunt­ed. And of course, the law enforce­ment agencies which pleaded low capacity were completely useless before the better equipped bands of criminals.

Many theories were advanced about the genre of robbers and kidnappers that beset Anambra State. They were such that would, on their return from an operation, by day or by night, stop in front of the Government House in Awka, conduct a mock parade and show of force, and send volleys of bullets from their machine guns mounted atop their vehicles into the air and shout aloud that they were giving an executive salute to the occupant of the Government House.

The first theory was that some of the criminals came from the theatres of the raging Aguleri- Umuleri conflict at the northern part of the state at the time. An­other theory was that the crimi­nals were extracts from the mili­tant hotspots in the Niger Delta. Of course, many of those that had been dislodged from Abia State by the Bakassi Boys shifted their base to Anambra and other parts of the country. But because there was more money in Anambra and they could roam unchallenged, Anambra became their place of choice.

In that way did Anambra be­come a hell on earth, as citizens gravitated to churches with their families to pass the night, per­haps as a way of saying that they depended on divine intervention, having been failed by every other secular authority. Needless to say that Anambrarians who resided outside the state had abandoned their beloved home. Culture be­came bastardized in face of the new dangerous realities, as peo­ple buried their deceased relatives where they died outside Igboland. Traditional weddings were execut­ed outside Igboland, as every gath­ering was sure to attract the visit of criminals. Life, in one word, be­came intolerable.

That was the harrowing situa­tion at the twilight days of the military administration just before the arrival of Obasanjo’s adminis­tration. In the same gesture of the Abia traders, their Nnewi coun­terparts also decided to take their fate into their own hands. That was when the traders, in collabo­ration with the local government authorities went to Aba to import the Bakassi Boys. Once they did that, the story changed, and after two weeks of Bakassi operation in 1999, Nnewi was freed as the Bakassi Boys moved over to Onit­sha and the other parts of the state, and started the wholesale sanitiza­tion of the Anambra cities and the country side.

The sanitization operations of the Bakassi Boys became so wel­come that the government of Dr. Chinwoke Mbadinuju that came to power in May 1999, inherited the outfit and equipped it, after ap­propriating it as the official crime fighting apparatus of the state. In spite of the so-called unorthodox and brutal methods of the Bakassi Boys, they were welcomed and condoned by an overwhelming percentage of the population that felt relieved. Life returned to the land and business started to boom again. Life assumed its normalcy as social activities resumed their previously lost verve and gusto. More importantly, Anambra peo­ple were able to go home again, to contribute to development.

The climax of the peace and sanity which the Bakassi Boys brought to the land was demon­strated in practical terms dur­ing the Christmas celebration of 2000. Almost everybody gravi­tated home from which most had been on self-exile. The Christmas of that year recorded the largest influx of Anambrarians from all over the world and everybody went out of his way to savour the freedom and peace that reigned supreme. People would drive all around the state around the clock and there was no single case of crime in the whole length and breadth of the state.

Because of the magical powers attributed to the Bakassi Boys which made it possible for them to locate criminals, those people who were not so sure of their integrity kept their distance, while those who were very nostalgic of home, like returnees from South Africa and other crime infested places, stopped over in hotels in Enugu and Imo States, as they dared not step their feet on Anambra soil. The story is that if you had every committed a big crime or ever shed blood, the Bakassi Boys could locate and finish you off.

As should be expected Bakassi Boys soon ran into trouble as they ran foul of the federal authori­ties. In the first place, when some criminals who made up the thugs that were used by some promi­nent politicians were dealt with by the Bakassi Boys, their powerful bosses started to pull strings to do the crime fighters in. As a quick reaction, the state government moved to legalize the activities of the Bakassi Boys by getting the state house of assembly to pass a law legalizing them as the Anam­bra State Vigilante Services (AVS). However, so determined were the opponents of the Bakassi Boys and the state government use of them that the powerful politicians pursued with their influence-laden campaigns against the AVS. President Obasanjo, ever ready to throw his weight, descended on the boys, in spite of the wide­spread objection of the different stakeholders in the state.

Governor Mbadinuju did not also help matters either; by the way he allowed the control of Bakassi Boys to slip out of his hands into the clutches of individuals who used it to settle personal, political and social scores. Suddenly people that had no reason to fall under the Bakassi Boys’ machete were brutally murdered. One of them was a musician, De Doga who was generally adjudged blameless. Then there was the popular reli­gious leader, Edward Okeke, alias Eddie Nawgwu, and some others.

Perhaps the most abominable was the death of Barrister Igwe and his wife with an unborn baby, who were murdered in cold blood in Onitsha, by people suspected to be connected to the Bakassi Boys, whose operations had by then become totally bastardized. Incidentally, Barrister Igwe, an Onitsha-based lawyer had been a loud supporter of the labour and civil organisation elements that were campaigning against what was widely acknowledged as Mbadinuju’s clueless administra­tion.

When, therefore, President Obasanjo allowed the strong arm of the State to descend on and dis­band the Bakassi Boys, the action was largely supported as the outfit had become dysfunctional and totally useless. Some people had started wondering if they had not become worse than the criminals they had come to fight.

In the short time that Bakassi Boys intervened in Abia, Anam­bra and Imo states, their effective­ness was never in doubt. But like most good things which become mismanaged by bad people, it became a dangerous monster. If it had just intervened briefly and withdrawn, it would have been nothing but praises for it. What happened in Anambra State should be an object lesson for Governor Okezie Ikpeazu, who is definitely a polished and con­fident gentleman and kilometres apart from those who governed Anambra State at the time the Bakassi Boys were bastardize and misused.

As the Bakassi Boys return, Abia State should ensure that they do not become like the Franken­stein Monster that it turned out to become in Anambra state. Okezie has reassured all that the new Bakassi Boys being introduced in Abia would be refreshingly dif­ferent. There is no reason why he should not be believed.
*Uche Ezechukwu’s weekly column appears every Monday in a national newspaper (ezechukwu1@gmail.com)


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