But elsewhere in Odi, a tiny and sleepy town in Bayelsa
State, a new but sour chapter in devastation was being opened. The town
had just been invaded by soldiers, no thanks to the reported kidnap and
killing of some policemen and soldiers
by the enraged youths.
Evidently infuriated by the story of these deaths, President Olusegun Obasanjo had given the Bayelsa State governor, Chief Diepreye Alameiseigha a two-week ultimatum to fish out the killers of the 12 policemen, or a state of emergency was an attractive option. The ultimatum was to expire on Wednesday, November 24.
But three days to its expiration, soldiers had invaded the place, wreaking havoc in the process, as enunciated by the indigenes. The Federal Government has declared that a state of emergency has not been declared in Bayelsa or anywhere else.
What would have informed the sudden presence of soldiers, the loss of lives and the devastation of the property? The claims vary according to the positions of the differing parties. Police sources in Yenagoa told Weekend Vanguard that it was all because four soldiers were kidnapped by the Odi youths, just in the same manner that the seven policemen were killed.
"As a result, 20 soldiers from Bori camp were sent to find out the fate of their four colleagues. Unknown to these soldiers, the (Odi) youths got a hint, ambushed them and killed some eight other soldiers. So, the soldiers reinforced and stormed the community."
Homes were torched. The lucky fled. There were lifeless bodies. The indigenes have been rendered homeless. The young and the aged are now refugees. Yet, the occupation by the soldiers persists. Nobody can say for sure when the soldiers would vacate or any such latest development.
"I have no latest (information) for you," Mr. Bwala Dike, the Commissioner of Police in Bayelsa State told Weekend Vanguard, Monday. "You do not give what you do not have. I don't have any latest, so I won't give any. But you can contact the Police Public Relations Officer (PPRO)."
Mr. Nyanabo Agbozi, the PPRO in the state noted that they were still collating information. In the same manner, Captain John Agim, the Army Public Relations Officer in Rivers State, insisted that "I have nothing to say until I contact the Chief of Army Staff. The questions you are asking concern the military and there is a superior officer in charge. I will contact that officer before talking to you."
But Governor Alameiseigha seemed to have solved the riddle about what occasioned the military invasion of Odi. "The present military activities at Odi in Kolokuma/Opokuma local government area of the State," he says, "are intended to fish out the armed bandits, hoodlums and miscreants operating in the area. Government is determined to make the state free of the activities of hoodlums and miscreants that have undermined the peace and security of the state.
"The soldiers would leave for their barracks as soon as the criminals have been fished out. The soldiers have specific instructions, and people should not panic. The action is not intended to destroy Odi or any other community. Parents, guardians, traditional rulers and communities are warned against providing cover or support for the hoodlums. Anybody caught in the act would be treated as an accomplice, and would, therefore, be made to face the wrath of the law.
"The activities of the youths do not, in any way, represent the Ijaw struggle for resource control, justice and equity within the Nigerian federation."
But the Odi indigenes and the Ijaws vehemently disagree with both the reasons and the approaches of the government. And they cry out that "our people are being slaughtered like beasts." Chief Josial Fumudu, the President of Ijaw National Congress noted before travelling out of Port Harcourt on Monday that "developments such as these pose a very grave danger to our fledgling democracy. Militarisation of any part of this country is not, in any way, consistent with an enduring democratic culture anywhere. The appropriate action in a democratic setting for dispute resolution is dialogue.
"The Head of State, Olusegun Obasanjo was offered the option of dialogue at the early part of his administration when he met with Ijaw youths on June 11, 1999. But did he take it? It goes beyond Odi or Ijaws. These developments have shown that there is no serious commitment on the part of the government to resolve the Niger-Delta question."
The spokesman for the Ijaw Youths Council (IYC), Mr. Isaac Osuoka frowns that the invasion is a violation of the fundamental human rights of the people. "It's cruel to kill people like beasts. The Federal Government must come in to stop these killings. They won't solve anything. Rather, they will only aggravate the crisis and create more mourners. Innocent people are being shot and killed and homes are being burnt. We can't allow this tragedy to continue. Such military action cannot resolve the crisis.
"Let the government and the people sit down to talk. That's the only way out of it. The crisis has a long history, with the age-long neglect of the people of the Niger-Delta. Only political solutions can resolve political problems in the Niger-Delta.
"So, we condemn the invasion of Odi in its totality. We condemn such act of terrorism. The allegation as it concerns the (dead) policemen does not warrant such an invasion and brutalisation of the people. We don't encourage the murder of any person but to resort to killing people like cows is such a grave mistake that we must stop.
"We call on all well-meaning Nigerians to appeal to President Obasanjo to stop the unnecessary deaths by demilitarising Odi. The military option can only lead to the murder of innocent people."
Toby Porbeni is an Odi indigene who escaped from the soldiers' wrath. "I escaped through the river," he says. "If you get to our place, you can only see the soldiers and no other persons else. You will cry when you see what was done in our little town. It was wickedness to bomb a small town like ours like that. It's the fear that has driven those who survived to flee for their lives.
"That's why you have the aged people and children at the Elele barracks. They are going to remain there for a long time because even when they leave, where are we going to return to?
"Buildings have been burnt while many people were killed. It's an eyesore. The young and the elderly were evacuated to Elele in Rivers State. There, they are being kept in the army barrack and even if your mother or younger ones are there, you can't risk going there. We have been separated from our families. This can't go on. Let the government ask the soldiers to leave our town."
Elele, a town about ten kilometres from Port Harcourt, has always been popular as the home of Rev. Fr. Edeh, a Catholic Church Reverend renowned for his power of healing. Today, the town has taken on a new name as home to the Odi refugees.
At the Elele military barracks, Tuesday, the main gate that was usually manned by two soldiers, had taken a new posture. No less than 13 stern-looking soldiers took strategic positions around the entrance to ward off intruders or attackers.
"Don't come near here," one of them barked as some journalists attempted to visit the barracks. "We are journalists," said one of the newsmen. "That is why you people should not (come) near (to) the gate."
Inside the barracks, however, it is tension and tears for the elderly women and the kids. "I managed to come out," Mrs. Grace Bolou told Weekend Vanguard. "I am out because I want to know what is happening to my two sons who are not there (in the barracks). What will I be doing there if I don't know anything about their whereabout?
"If you do inside, you will see some people with wounds. You will see some women crying and some children crying. It is pathetic. We're not being maltreated by anybody but life can't be the same thing when you are a refugee. You suffer a lot of things (deprivations). You are not free. There is so much tension because we are afraid about what may happen next. We feel bad following what we hear about people who had been killed or how they have ruined our town. Why are they doing this to us? Where will the old people return to?"
Mr. Samuel Ogbuku, the President of the National Union of Bayelsa State Students (NUBSS) laments the situation. "The governor of the state said he is the chief security officer of the state. So, it's unfortunate that he was not even around when soldiers were called in. He was in Abuja attending the PDP convention. So, the invasion was illegal. Come to think of it, how can soldiers bomb a town in the fashion that they did in Odi?
"Two, the National Assembly ought to have debated it and they would have known about such occupation of the town. Did they know of it? The invasion was part of the design to exterminate the Ijaw race but we won't allow that. I urge the Federal Government to ensure that these soldiers are withdrawn immediately so that the government can go into dialogue with the youths. It has to be the youths because the elders have betrayed us.
"Three, this attack is not restricted to Odi alone. The neighbouring communities are not spared the agonies. Do we now watch and see our people brutalised and slaughtered like they are no human beings?"
The Chief Press Secretary to Governor Alameiseigha, Mr. Norman Morris in a press statement on Tuesday, emphasised that government was aware that some of the "miscreants" who escaped, were taking refuge in neighbouring communities. "Government is already aware of the communities and individuals who provided refuge for the criminals... Such communities would not only be raided by security operatives, but their traditional rulers and chiefs would also be removed, arrested and prosecuted.
"Management of hospitals, health centres, clinics, herbalists and medical centres are warned against giving medical attention to the criminals who had been wounded."
The same Tuesday after Morris' statement, the neighbouring towns like Patani, Kaiama, Aven, Mbiama and Bomadi were invaded. "The situation is so bad," says Porbeni, "that those who sustained injuries may die because they cannot even go to the hospitals for fears of being arrested."
Today, the story of the invasion of Odi is not only about
the little village where security operatives were reportedly killed. Other
towns are experiencing same hard times with no promise of reprive.