It’s like creating a Guantanamo in the middle of Texas

Indigenes of Anambra State, in Southeast Nigeria, are angry with the federal government’s decision to relocate suspected terrorists to a prison in one of their biggest towns. Their fear is that the transfer of the prisoners, who are members of the dreaded Boko Haram sect that has killed over 13,000 people since 2009, will bring unwanted terror attraction to a region of the country that has so far been far from, and free of, the destructions caused by the group. “It’s like creating a Guantanamo in the middle of Texas,” said Emeka Obiorah, a native of Ekwulobia–the town in which the prison is located–who lives in the United States but visits Nigeria regularly. “They want to export to us a problem that we have no connection with.”

Ekwulobia is among the largest cities in Anambra State with a population in the excess of 500,000.  It is also a major connecting route for transit across states and cities across the east. Anambra is the commercial hub of the southeast; it boasts of the Onitsha Main Market, one of the largest in West Africa; Nnewi, styled the japan of Africa for being home to most of Nigeria’s major indigenous manufacturing industries. With this much investment in the state, there is the real fear of the destructive tendency of Boko Haram as witnessed in its large scale socio-economic destabilization of the Northeast. “Bringing those people over here will just put everything we have worked for at risk,” complained Fabian Eze, a trader in Onitsha Market. “They should be taken to a place that is sparsely populated where many people’s lives and means of livelihood won’t be under any threat.”

On the 28th of June, Traders from across the state protested against the transfer of the prisoners, but, according to a report by national daily the Punch, the transfer took place regardless. “Following the relocation of Boko Haram detainees to the Ekwulobia Prisons in Anambra State, the military have taken over the security of the facility,” the paper said on Saturday 4th July. “… Investigations showed that security operations in the Federal Government facility are no longer the exclusive preserve of the officials of the Nigeria Prison Service.” The security beef up did not succeed in calming the fears of the residents of the state. “The rising tension following rumours that Boko Haram suspects were relocated from some Northern prisons to the South-East, precisely, Ekwulobia in Aguata Local Government of Anambra State, gives me great concern,” wrote Eucharia Azodo, the member representing the area in the Federal House of Representatives said in a statement.  “We all are aware of the fact that Ekwulobia Prison in Aguata Local Government Area of Anambra State is not a maximum security prison,” she added. “Whereas a large number of prisoners, about 134 inmates, are there already in a prison built to accommodate 85 inmates, a total number of 47 Boko Haram prisoners were brought to Ekwulobia Prison in the dead of the night of Sunday, June 28, 2015 amidst tight security.”

The kick against the prisoner transfer is also laced with the social sentiments that still divide Nigeria’s predominantly Christian south East and the Muslim dominated north. “It is their problem, they should handle it themselves and not involve us,” said Kingsley Ezeala, who hails from Awka, the capital of Anambra which borders Ekwulobia.”Many of our people died there, the ones that were lucky enough ran back home empty handed. This move will just bring home all the nightmares that they ran away from.”

The Boko Haram group began in Maiduguri, the capital of Borno State and the main city in Nigeria’s Northeast. It has focused its insurgency in the region, spreading intermittently to other parts of the north. However, the group has never reached the Southeast, or any other part of the south, although there have been rumours of such plans. The southeast, where Anambra is located, is one of the regions least expected to be directly hit by Boko Haram because of its distance (1,014 km) from the base of the terrorists and the lack of ethno-religious cover that the group leverages on to attack. But the fear is that the relocation of the prisoners could now make the region a dream target for the terrorists. While both the federal and the state government have remained quiet over the actual status of the prisoner transfer,  the governor of the state, Willie Obiano, has been at pains to reassure the residents of the state of their safety. For Fabian, the best assurance that he and his people in the state can accept is a repatriation of the prisoners if they have indeed been transferred or a cancellation of the proposed plans.

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