• Thursday, April 18, 2024
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Vengeance or justice: What should the army pursue in Okuama?

Vengeance or justice: What should the army pursue in Okuama?

…Three major reasons soldiers are killed in communities

Preamble:

When soldiers were killed in Zaki Biam in Ukum local council area of Benue State in year 1999, a massacre came as vengeance. When soldiers were killed in Odi in Bayelsa State in year 2000, a massacre came as vengeance through operation burn down the town. Now, that soldiers have been killed in Okuama in Delta State, what do the people expect? The exodus by the people of Okuama seems to be their way of answering that vengeance must come.

This has raised the question of engagement principle by the army. The army goes to stop people from being killed, but what if soldiers become the victims, the killed, what professionally speaking should be the response of the armed forces: vengeance of justice?

Vengeance looks easier for the army, trying to keep to primordial sentiments of you don’t kill a soldier without heads rolling. Many societies seem to have moved away from primitive implementation of this sentiment. They seem to move to a new method of fulfilling same old maxim: they must drive and investigate to the last point to fish out the perpetrators and bring them to justice, rather than being satisfied with spilling the blood of anyone along their path of wrath.

Read also: Okuama: Will Nigeria go to war with itself?

Why soldiers are often killed in communities

Three reasons stand out erect, according several community sources that pleaded for anonymity. The reasons have been stated thus: First: All rulership, no leadership and no governance.

The case of Odi killings seems to be the classical example that right from 1999, the civilians that took over were never prepared to govern or lead but to rule. First, the politicians, though from military rule, knew only how to capture power, not how to win the hearts of men that would deliver the votes they craved for.

So, many ‘bad’ boys (hoodlums) were used during the elections that threw up the state administration of that time. The boys that did the dirty jobs were camped in the state capital and fed. Soon, it was believed, the new governor no longer wanted to go on feeding them. He travelled to the US and asked police officers to treat the mess the best way they liked. Already, the boys were causing havoc and public nuisance in the state capital to feed. The police officer in charge was said to have got instruction from above to dislodge the boys. He did that and the boys moved to Odi in Kaiama. There, they allegedly began to kidnap people. The police went to intervene and got kidnapped too, and died in the process.

That was also the storyline how the insurgency in Borno State began in 2010. Moreover, the insecurity menace that Nigeria is battling with was said to have worsened by the hiring of mercenaries from Niger, Mali and other neighbouring countries for a “war” should the 2015 general election did not go a particular way. Those who were part of the arrangement have since made the confession.

In the case of Odi, the army went to probe and some were killed too. Then, full scale war. Odi was razed.

So, who do you blame, some civil society officials tried to probe at last. Their report blamed the governor that used and dumped the boys. The red signs or flags were everywhere but nobody cared. This was seen as evidence of total negligence and act of ruling without leading.

Second: Neglect of petitions

Those close to governments will agree that for every single rioting or inter-communal clash anywhere in Nigeria, there are over 10 petitions from the communities drawing government attention. When they get weary, they copy the press to put pressure in the local or state government. Yet, nothing ever seems to happen. Then, when attacks and bloodshed flow, parties would produce several copies of alerts, appeals, and reminder memos that were ignored.

Government would set up probe panels to find out what they know as contained in numerous memos and petitions. The panels never find the government guilty nor blame principal officers of government that sat on the memos.

Third: Everybody is now a soldier

The most important factor is the fact that military uniforms seem to mean nothing; anybody can procure them and wear them. Most hoodlums now operate in military uniforms. Most militant lords in the Niger Delta now attach military ranks (especially General) to their names.

When they go to attack opponents, they kit up in army uniforms. This happened in Zaki Biam, and is now re-echoing in Okuama. The Tiv vigilantes and legionnaires insisted they did not kill soldiers but Jukuns. The Army said the people killed were soldiers.

It may now be a lame excuse, but the Okuama people claim attacked militia people were from the rival Okoloba, not soldiers, but the Nigerian Army said those killed were four officers and 13 soldiers, making 17. Allowing hoodlums to wear military uniforms and insignias is a deadly mistake because when trouble comes, as it came in Delta, soldiers are mistaken for adversaries and are killed like common criminals.

The above factors and many more must be examined and reviewed if anybody wants to put an end to soldier-killing in Nigeria. As the Tivs said in Zaki Biam, no normal person, let alone a Tiv man, would want to kill soldiers. They know the consequences too well, and they are a nation of soldiers, a profession their people are proud of. The Niger Delta people were very proud and protective of soldiers because of the experience and happenings of the civil war and the huge fortune as fallout. It is militancy as a result of mishandling from the political class that pitched the people against their previously beloved army.

Read also: Deaths and garbled narratives at Okuama

NGOs point the way, but will the army listen?

Several non-state organisations (NGOs) have pointed to diligent investigations instead of primitive attacks where whatever moves in Okuama is target. The army has continued to deny such notions, but the communities insist they are being killed.

One of the coalition of NGOs, Justice for Communities in Niger Delta (JCND), called for what it called “unbiased investigation to unravel mysteries and indubitable truths” around the recent callous murder of soldiers in Okuama community, Ughelli South Local Government Area, Delta State.

The group pointed to petition written before the bloodshed. This seems to point back to the issue of non-existent governance of the communities. If the state government had taken up the matter promptly, the killings would not have taken place. Now, everybody is rushing to the petition.

According to a journalist in Delta State, Jimi Tota, the coordinator of JCND named Desmond Charles, has recalled that in the petition signed by the President General Okuama community, James Oghoroko, and the Secretary General, Bernard Esegba, dated February 2, 2024, alleged that a prominent member of a neighbouring community had allegedly set up a dreaded militia body unleashing mayhem in Okuama community.

They also alleged that the prominent member of the neighbouring community had orchestrated the alleged brutal murder of some persons in Okuama community.

The coordinator said a look at the petition which was also copied the Delta State Commissioner of Police will help investigation to some extent on mysteries around the sad incident.

Also, Derrick Oritsematosan Agberen, National Coordinator of ‘No Justice, No Peace Initiative’, also appealed to the military to stop further attack on properties in Okuama community, but condemned the brutal murder of the soldiers.

“In as much as we condemn the attack and share in the grief of the Nigeria Army; on senior Army officers and other soldiers that were gruesomely murdered, the Presidency and authorities of the Nigerian Army shouldn’t use that as advantage to descend on and wreak havoc on the people,” he said.

Delta State government position

The Delta State Governor, Sheriff Oborevwori, Thursday, March 21, 2024, cautioned traditional rulers in the state against shielding suspects involved in the killing of four military officers and 13 soldiers.

Governor Oborevwori gave the warning when he addressed traditional rulers at the traditional rulers secretariat in Asaba on the unfortunate incident.

The Governor who said that the act was alien to the state described it as barbaric, inhumane, and unacceptable. He vowed that those who committed the evil act must be made to face the full wrath of the law.

He said no kingdom should shield the perpetrators of the dastardly act, adding that Delta was governed within the tenets of the rule of law and human decency.

Oborevwori said; “On the 7th of February, we summoned the people of Okoloba and Okuoma communities in Bomadi and Ughelli South Local Government Areas including the members representing the two constituencies in the State House of Assembly, the Council Chairmen and their Presidents-General where we advised them that a lot has been happening in their area and they signed a peace accord.

“The killing of these Army Officers and soldiers came as a rude shock to us and when this thing happened, I immediately called the National Security Adviser, the Chief of Defence Staff and the Army Staff because I was in Abuja. I came back and issued a press statement.

Read also: Okuama killings: Women, children stranded in the forest running for cover

“On Monday, I went to Bomadi to meet with all the security chiefs, where we had our security council meeting and I got briefings from the Brigade Commander. In attendance was the G.O.C 6 Division Nigeria Army, Maj Gen Jamil Abdussalam and the JTF Commander, Real Admiral John Okeke.

“After the meeting, I went to Abuja to meet with Mr. President to brief him on what happened. I also went to see the Chief of Army Staff to discuss with him. I also met with the National Security Adviser and the Inspector General of Police.

“I felt that it is also proper that I brief you people even though you may be aware. Those people who committed that evil act must face the wrath of the law. No kingdom should shield those criminals because Delta state is governed by the tenets of the law and human decency.

“We cannot tolerate that. It has never happened in this state; to kill one Lt. Colonel, two Majors, one Captain and 13 Soldiers. We need to fish out those involved.

“Do not hide or shield anybody. The Chief of Army Staff and Mr. President have assured me that innocent people will not be victimised; unless you connive with the killers of the soldiers.

“I have briefed you; make sure that you fish them out from your kingdoms. If any traditional ruler shields a criminal, that traditional ruler is inviting trouble.

“We did not bargain for this evil act but for peace, I don’t want crisis. I have also received information that two other villages are boiling to fight, they should not fight, we want peace in all our communities.

“What are they fighting for? I have promised you people that I am going to do more for Deltans, so what are they fighting for? All of us are Deltans and we want development.

“For the first time almost two decades, we had peace in Warri in December and people celebrated in peace. Now we have communal crisis, why?

“I condemn it and it’s unacceptable. So please my dear royal fathers let us be on the same page to fish out these people. Don’t allow anybody who committed this evil act to come to your kingdoms and bring problem to your community.

“Tell us and we will hand them over to security agencies. You should not play politics with this. Don’t say that the Army have taken over your village because they cannot just come to your village without getting information. But I assure you people that no innocent person will be victimised.

“Tell your people not to encourage crisis because if you do, you cannot come out of it. Some people don’t have knowledge of what is happening and they start talking. What I did was to go and brief the Commander-in-Chief and later granted the State House Correspondents interview.”

Responding, Chairman Delta State Traditional Rulers Council, a retired major-general, Felix Mujakperuo, said that they were on same page with the Governor to ensure peace and security in the state.

While saying that the security of various kingdoms would dovetail to the security of the state and the nation, he called for a judicial panel of enquiry to unravel the immediate and remote causes of the crisis.

Read also: Okuama killings: Don’t shield suspects, Oborevwori tells monarchs

Panic mode: How governors react when soldiers are killed:

The governor seems to be in the same mode every governor where soldiers are killed use to be (George Akume then in Benue, DSP Alamieyeseigha then in Bayelsa). They are usually eager to do anything to stop a massacre but they hardly succeeded. Reason, they are never on same page with the real killers.

In the Niger Delta, the killers usually jump into the waters, join boats into the far seas, then sail to the backwaters in Lagos and melt into the crowded ghettos. If the heat becomes too much, they move to Cameroon or other neighbouring countries. Head or tail, it’s the common people or innocents that perish or suffer. The traditional rulers are always in a fix because actually they know the boys but they cannot produce them, and naming them usually produces repercussions such as assassinations where even the soldiers and state governors cannot help.

Economic consequences:

The governor held another meeting where he said government would not allow trouble makers to dissuade investors from coming to invest in the state, adding that sustainable peace was needed to attract investors to the state.

A prominent citizen, a Professor, Sam Oyovbaire, commended the governor for his efforts at ensuring peace and security across the state, stressing that Council members support the peace building moves of the governor.

He, therefore, appealed to communities across the state to give peace a chance for the overall growth and development of the state.

A citizen from Okuama told BusinessDay the situation with businesses in the community. “We are an oil-producing community and an agrarian community. We supply fish to Okwagbe Market. It is a major market in that area. It is a central place people come to buy and sell. Some other Ijaw communities also come there to buy and we produce palm oil in large quantities. Akugbene Community in Bomadi, Ijaw Communities, they come to buy palm oil from us in large quantities. Fish, palm oil as agrarian community; then crude oil as oil-producing community.

“The state will feel the negative impact because even if there are other people producing oil, there’s already a drop in the production of crude oil and palm oil. There’s no human being now in that community that would engage in any commercial activity.

“This will affect the state’s economy because investors will be scared. Anybody that wants to do business along that coastal line will not come because they are afraid of being attacked by anybody. There are tourists – people who love travelling to see the beauties of the coastal areas and people with speedboat drive them around. That market has also stopped.”

Deep voice from Okuama:

“I will not give you mobile numbers of traditional rulers in Okuama because they are all in hiding. They will not pick calls.

“I am an Urhobo man from Ughelli South Local Government Area of Delta State.

It is my community, my ancestral home that has been razed by the Nigerian military on Saturday.”

Read also: Okuama killings: Rights group raises concern over military occupation of community

Origin of Okuama/Okoloba crisis

This is an age-long issue. I was born into it. That is, I came to meet it; the crisis between us (Okuama) and those people – the Okolobas. “What I learnt was that some say the age-long dispute is about land and others say it’s about the river where we fish. That is Ewu River. We are indigenes of Ewu Kingdom in Urhoboland.

“The matter was sometime resolved according to my people. They resolved somehow and we’re living in peace to the extent that we inter-marry.

“Just late last year, the matter came up. Our people went to fish at the river. Okoloba people came and claimed that the river belonged to them. So, they held two of our young men hostage.

“A delegation from Okuama was now sent to Okoloba for those people to be released. When they got there, they told us that before they release our people to us, we must pay royalty because we are their tenants.

“When they refused to release them, our people now went back. Along the line, the story I was told was that Okuama mobilized and held eight Okoloba people captive.

“So, we now were waiting on them to release our people before we would release theirs to them. So, the matter was on. Some days after, a teacher who went to farm was beaten to a pulp by Okoloba people. So, when we got wind of it, we were able to rescue him. We were just crying out to the state government to see how the matter could be resolved amicably.

“In the midst of that, our women who were returning from Okwagbe Market were beaten as they were passing. So, after that happened, four of our boys again were kidnapped and killed. Those who escaped came to town to inform us of the situation. So, we were thinking that government will move into action.

“Now, the people that were killed, their names are Ihua Meshack, Okiluke David, Power Awusa and the driver of the speed boat whose identity we could not get. We are riverine people. We live on land but our means of transport is mainly by water. We survive through water as we do fishing.

“When I made inquiry to know if those people’s bodies had been recovered from the Okolobas, I was told No. I’m talking of those young men they kidnapped from boat in February. They have killed them.

“So, after this particular situation, I learnt that there was a state security meeting where government now deployed security operatives to the area for calm. Actually, a fragile peace was restored after both communities signed a peace accord.

“Not too long, we now heard another report that Okoloba people are accusing us of killing one of their own. The President-General of Okuama Community, Muroko James, came up and denied it, that we are not involved in the killing of anybody. That Okolobas are just trying to frame Okuama people up so that they can start their attack on our community again.

“After, the last straw that broke the camel’s back came when two of our boys were on their normal days business. The boat was attacked and they managed to escape. That was on Wednesday last week. We were just living in fear of the unknown.”

Attack on military personnel

“Our people are scared. When it comes to the issue of the military, the thing is so complicated. Just let them investigate and let the truth come out. Some said they came to Okuama Community and our people entertained them very well until they said they were going with our community chairman and some of the leaders. When the women resisted, asking, “You come for a peace talk and you were entertained, why do you go with our leaders? In that town hall, they opened fire on them. At that point, what would one make of it? You said you’ll go with their leaders and the women said “No!” Why Bomadi LGA instead of Otujeremi which is the headquarters of Ughelli South LGA where Okuama belongs.

“They had introduced themselves as JTF (Joint Task Force) coming from Bomadi. They even made attempt to burn the shrine in our community but the shrine resisted. It’s a woman that services the shrine. All these were happening on that Thursday (last week).

“Nobody is talking about the women and children that died as a result of the shooting in the town hall on that Thursday. After all that, they left and mobilised again even a third time until we heard the killing of the officers and soldiers. Now on Saturday, the military went and razed our community accusing our people of killing their military personnel.”

What Delta State is doing in the eyes of Okuama people:

“The state governor was at a land belonging to Bomadi and he was in a closed-door meeting for an hour after which he was making move to go and visit people on ground in our community. The military asked him not to go. So, he didn’t go. It is confirmed that the governor did not visit the place.

“Four days after the alleged killing of the military men was when he made the move. He came for the meeting. He did not brief the press. From there, I learnt he was summoned to Abuja to brief the presidency on what was happening. What we heard was that Delta has been known for peace. We are on it. The situation is under control.”

Army: we will be decisive:

The General Officer Commanding, 6 Division, Nigerian Army/Land Component Commander, Joint Task Force, South-South, Operation DELTA STATE, a Major General, Jamal Abdussalam, has assured that troops conducting operations, would be firm, strong, decisive. and professional in the cause of the operations in the general area.

He made this known when the Managing Director (MD)/Chief Executive Officer (CEO), Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC), Samuel Ogbuku, paid him a condolence visit at the Division’s Headquarters in Port Harcourt Barracks today, 21 March 2024.

Abdussalam, while appreciating the MD and his team for the visit, said the mission handed to troops by the Chief of Army Staff, Lieutenant General Taoreed Lagbaja, is basically to recover the weapons carted away by the perpetrators of this heinous crime and ensure that all those involved are arrested.

He further added that troops would continue to be in the creeks until these objectives are achieved.

The GOC further reiterated that no amount of propaganda, arm-twisting, blackmailing, intimidation, and false narratives would distract troops from staying on course to achieve their objectives.

He, however, assured that the operations would be conducted in the most professional manner in line with the global best practice of adherence to rules of engagement and respect for the fundamental human rights of the citizenry.

He called on people of the Niger Delta Region (NDR) to go about their normal activities.

He appealed to people and communities to assist troops regarding the location of the fleeing criminals and the carted away weapons. The Armed Forces of Nigeria, he averred is the symbol of our sovereignty, stressing that the Commander-in-Chief, President Bola Ahmed Tinubu captured it succinctly when he said an attack on our Armed Forces is an attack on our nation. Therefore, if we allow criminals to continue to attack our security forces, there will be anarchy, the GOC said.

Abdussalam further said troops would not rest until all those involved were tracked down to account for their deeds. He reassured that the operation was being conducted in such a way that, going forward, nobody would contemplate attacking men in uniform.

He also said false narratives being churned out, and propaganda peddled over this mindless criminality would not deter troops from fishing out the criminals.

The GOC appreciated the MD and his team for identifying with the NA at this moment of grief. He added that there would not be development without peace and security. Thus, the two institutions would continue to work together for the common good of society.

He called on well-meaning members of the society to avail the Nigerian Army credible intelligence on where to get the criminals and ensure they answer for their crimes.

Conclusion

A sitting president of Commander-In-Chief (C-I-C) would never refuse to give instant command for the Army to go into action in any community where soldiers were killed. Such hesitation would send dangerous signals in the armed forces and create the impression that a weakling was their C-I-C. The consequences would better be imagined than seen.

Sources in government say governors are usually lax in community matters and when this disaster happens, they would want to show that they had no hand in the ugly incident and play safe by aligning with the Army.

Finally, the Major-General in charge has made it clear that they would handle the operation in such a way that nobody would ever dare to kill soldiers. That sounds like a coded massage, according to NGO leaders working in the matter.

There are no indications that the Army has acquired high tech to crack such killings and punish only the offenders, most of whom would never be expected to be in the Niger Delta now. Collateral damage may be all there would be.