The Nigerian authorities say they are searching for about 1,800 inmates who escaped from a prison aided by heavily armed gunmen in the southeastern corner of the country, where anti-government separatists have long been active.
The authorities laid blame for the jailbreak on a rebel group that promotes the decades-old cause of secession for Nigeria’s southeastern corner, popularly known as Biafra.
“All is not well in the southeast,” said Emeka Umeagbalasi, a criminologist at the International Society for Civil Liberties and the Rule of Law in Nigeria, a good-governance advocacy group.
The escapes came as security has been declining in Nigeria, Africa’s most populous nation, where kidnapping has become rife and the army has been deployed to respond to security threats, including terrorism and banditry, in almost every state.
Prison officials said that early on Monday morning, men armed with high-powered weapons including machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades arrived at a prison in Owerri, in southeastern Imo State. They exchanged fire with security personnel, according to prison officials, and then used explosives to blast their way into the prison yard.
One inmate died in the stampede that followed, officials said, and one police officer sustained a minor bullet wound to the shoulder. Officers repelled an attack on the armory at the prison, according to Frank Mba, a police spokesman.
Nigeria’s security services have launched a search operation to recapture the inmates, whose number was put at 1,844. It is not yet known how many of them were convicts and how many were just awaiting trial. Justice is often slow in Nigeria, with people spending years in jail before their cases are heard.
“I am worried that some criminals were set free,” said Kelechi Njoku, a hotelier and resident of Owerri whose hotel is about five miles from the prison. “But not all of them are criminals. There are thousands awaiting trials.”
A few prisoners were trickling back into custody, accompanied by their relatives or lawyers, Francis Enobore, a spokesman for the prison system in Nigeria, said in a WhatsApp exchange. Thirty-five inmates refused to leave when the jailbreak happened, he said.
The police said that the attackers were members of the Indigenous People of Biafra, a secessionist group that has been banned in Nigeria since 2017 and is designated as a “militant terrorist organization” by the government.
But a spokesman for the Indigenous People of Biafra denied that the group — or its paramilitary wing, the Eastern Security Network — were involved.
“E.S.N. is in the bush chasing terrorists and have no business with the said attacks,” the spokesman, Emma Powerful, said in a statement. “It is not our mandate to attack security personnel or prison facilities.”
Escaped inmates who return voluntarily will not be charged with unlawful escape, the minister of interior, Rauf Aregbesola, said on a visit to the prison. Prison officials said in a statement that they were “appealing to the good citizens of Imo State and indeed Nigerians to volunteer useful intelligence that will facilitate the recovery effort.”
They said all officers at other prisons should “remain vigilant at this trying moment in our history,” suggesting concern about further prison breaks.
Visiting the prison on Tuesday, Nigeria’s inspector-general of police, Mohammed Adamu, took a belligerent tone, instructing his officers to “never spare” bandits, in an apparent reference to the gunmen who attacked the prison.
“Deal with them ruthlessly,” local journalists reported Mr. Adamu as saying. “Unleash your full arsenal on them. The law is behind you.”
But while he was visiting Owerri, Mr. Adamu was fired as police chief by the Nigerian president, Muhammadu Buhari. It was a month before his tenure was set to end, and the reasons for the dismissal were unclear.
It has been 51 years since the end of the Nigerian civil war in which people of the eastern region broke away from the rest of the country. Biafra, the state they created, came to an end when its leaders surrendered after 30 months of fighting.
But the Biafran dream is alive and well.
It is nurtured by Nnamdi Kanu, the leader of the Indigenous People of Biafra, a populist figure who peddles conspiracy theories — including one that the Nigerian president died and was replaced by a body double. Nevertheless, Mr. Kanu has managed to amass a huge following.
Biafra’s enduring popularity — and the group’s — is attributable in part to the rampant police abuses that a generation of Nigerians rose up against last fall, under the banner of the #EndSARS movement.
Young people in southeastern states have for years complained of arbitrary arrests, torture and killings at the hands of the security forces, who are usually drawn from other regions of Nigeria. Convinced that Biafra should be a separate country, many residents of the southeast say the heavy military presence in the region is reminiscent of an occupying foreign army.
The prison break is part of a pattern of attacks on national security forces. Six police stations were razed and 10 police officers killed in the southeast by gunmen over two weeks starting in late February, according to local media reports.
“With the way things are going, in two years’ time Nigeria may be able to play host to 30 to 40 insurgency groups, because government is pushing the people to the wall,” said Mr. Umeagbalasi, the criminologist.
By Ben Ezeamalu and Ruth Maclean