Almost 2,000 prisoners have escaped after a jailbreak in south-east Nigeria blamed on armed separatists, in the latest in a string of armed attacks on law enforcement authorities.
A prison facility and police command centre in the city of Owerri, Imo state, was targeted early on Monday by gunmen who destroyed part of the prison walls with explosives, freeing 1,844 inmates. One police officer was shot and injured in the attack.
There was no immediate claim of responsibility, but police said the gunmen were from the Eastern Security Network – a military wing of the dominant pro-Biafra secessionist group in southeast Nigeria, the Indigenous People of Biafra (Ipob).
Since 2015, south-east Nigeria has experienced the most marked resurgence in secessionist sentiment since the 1967-70 Biafra war. Millions of people died during the conflict, many from starvation after a government blockade on the region, in one of the darkest chapters in modern Nigerian history.
In recent years, as security forces have launched controversial crackdowns on mass protests and boycotts, armed insurgency has grown in the region.
In 2017 Ipob was banned from organising by Nigeria’s government, and branded a terror organisation, blamed for attacks on security personnel and citizens.
Nigerian authorities have been accused of unlawful arrests of Biafran activists and rights abuses. Attacks on police and state facilities have risen in recent months. The groups have admitted carrying arms, but denied the attacks.
Police spokesman Frank Mba said reinforcements had been sent, including “a new special investigation team specifically set up to deal with cases of incessant attacks on security formation/operatives in the region”.
President Muhammadu Buhari condemned the attack as an “act of terrorism” from London, where he is having a two-week medical checkup, according to his spokesman.
“He also called for the best efforts to be made to rearrest fleeing prison detainees, many of whom are believed to be deadly criminals,” Garba Shehu said in a statement.
Two cities in neighbouring Abia state were placed on curfews in response to the jailbreak. At least six police officers have been killed by gunmen in Abia over the last month, in attacks also blamed on Ipob.
The rise of secessionist agitation in Nigeria’s south-east has fuelled growing tension in the region and a heavy response by security forces and Buhari’s government.
Mass protests swept through south-eastern cities, months after the former military dictator returned to power in 2015, in part due to resentment of Buhari. The president was a brigade major in the war, during which Nigeria’s military were accused of large-scale abuses.
Security forces have killed hundreds of protesters since 2015, including 60 extrajudicial executions committed over just two days in 2016, according to Amnesty International. The Nigerian army have denied the killings.
The bitter legacy of the Biafra war still runs deep in Nigeria, more than 50 years after it ended. The history of the conflict is heavily censored and the atrocities have barely been acknowledged. Economic inequality and deprivation has fuelled secessionist resentment in the south-east of the country.