Stories by Uwakwe Abugu, Warri
Saturday, November 27, 1999
Chief Broderick Bozimo is the chairman of Ijaw National Congress (INC) Western Zone.
The situation in Odi is degenerating with the increase in death toll and one wonders what would be done next?
I think that what is happening at Odi is totally unnecessary and I think it is a wanton waste of human and material resources. The attention of the government should be redirected towards improving the conditions of the existence of the oppressed and neglected Niger-Deltans.
I was totally shocked and completely devastated when I read this morning (Tuesday) in Vanguard that death at Odi had risen to 43 because I believe that this crisis should not have gone this way. I do not believe, first of all, that without some design, these killings would just happen in Odi like that; I think it's senseless. I can't understand how a group of people, youths or non-youths will just begin to slaughter 12 persons and some others.
The designs you are talking about don't appear to be clear?
What I mean is that there must be some detractors of the present democratic set-up. There must be people and interest groups that do not want democracy to survive in this country.
And as you know, in the Ijaw ethnic nation, because of its position, because of its having been subjected to years of deprivation, youths have become very militant.
I do not want to mention names but I know and suspect very deeply that this thing cannot just be happening like that? I believe that it is a grand design not from Ijaw axis but from some other axis, from people who do not wish Nigeria well, who do not wish the present dispensation well. Otherwise, how can it be that from nowhere, 12 policemen are dead and then you have a raid on the Niger-Delta? And if you have the death toll rising to 43 as has been reported, what do you think will follow?
Some people are insinuating that the Odi youths may merely be avenging the killing of their people in the Ajegunle clash between OPC and Ijaw youths?
If the Odi people wanted to avenge the death of their people, let's assume that the people were killed, they will hardly go about slaughtering policemen. It doesn't make sense. I think I had an opportunity of looking at the list of policemen who were allegedly killed and I hardly saw any Yoruba on the list, maybe just one name. So, it doesn't make sense to me. I do not connect it with that.
Naturally, if Odi people were killed in Ajegunle, Lagos, the community will be unhappy about it but I don't think that they will go about slaughtering policemen in Odi. If they want to fight the Yoruba, Ijaws are capable of going to Ajegunle to retaliate; they are able to do so.
You are speaking bitterly about the deployment of soldiers to Odi but the governor of Bayelsa State said the soldiers are there to fish out criminals who killed policemen. So, what do you say to that?
You see, I do not want to comment on what the Bayelsa governor had said. I have the highest regard for the governor. I think he has made the Ijaw ethnic nation proud and I don't think the Ijaw people would want any governor better than him. But let us not forget that he is a PDP governor.
Are you saying he is being partisan in this matter?
I'm not. I don't want to comment on that. All I am saying is that he has done the Ijaw people extremely proud and I believe that if every Ijaw man had reasoned and acted the way he has done so far, these years of neglect probably would not have been what they are.
Having said that, of course, I would agree that the governor being the chief security officer of the state knows what is on the ground. I'm not from Bayelsa. So, I don't know what is on ground. But if he is convinced that some criminals are somewhere, of course, he should fish them out.
But what amazes me is that you do not need 2,000 soldiers to go fishing after a few criminals in Odi. In fact, it is ounter-productive. You need, perhaps, plain-clothed security agents who would masquerade as Ijaws and get at the truth. I don't think you go with this sledgehammer attitude and smash up everything in order to get at the criminals. By the time you are doing that, they probably would have gone away and you are probably dealing with innocent people and killing them.
So, I don't subscribe to the idea of deploying thousands of troops to fish out criminals there. I think that the police investigative method should have been employed and with that you would get good results quietly, diplomatically instead of enraging all the interest groups in the Niger Delta by what I think is wanton and excessive use of power.
Getting back at the roles the leaders and the elders of the Ijaw ethnic group have played so far in all these crises, one wonders whether you are still in control, with your youths threatening to unleash more mayhem, especially in relation with the development in Odi. What will you people do?
Well, the thing we will do is what all leaders are supposed to. We will advise our youths, plead with them to desist from that line of action because it will not augur well for Nigeria or indeed, the Niger-Delta struggle.
In any event, as you know, even the Federal Government ought to know that the Ijaws cannot take on the Nigerian military in a direct fight because the Nigerian military is a superior, well-trained fighting force. So, the Ijaws will not go that way.
But I think that all of us should recognise that it doesn't require the Ijaws to take up arms to cause trouble to Nigeria. The Ijaws have the ability to crumble the Nigerian economy if they so wish. But we are working hard to ensure that that doesn't happen and I want the Federal Government and the President to realise this and work with the leadership to ensure that our youths are not pushed into a situation where they begin to precipitate further crisis by crippling the Nigerian economy.
Are you referring to the youths' threats to over-run the oil flow stations?
Of course, they have the ability to do so. But we are spending so much time talking to the youths that it will not do anybody any good. If they over-run the oil flow stations, the Ijaws will suffer, Nigeria will suffer. And I think it is rather a cheap way to resolve this crisis. It is a cheap way.
But we beg the Federal Government to recognise the dangers inherent in all of this so that the troops should be withdrawn. The troops should be withdrawn so that we will go into dialogue and assist the governor in a civilian fashion.
Ijaws Ought to Have Involved Others
Hon. Patrick Fregene is the chairman, Movement for the Survival of Itsekiri Ethnic Nationality (MOSIEN) and spoke on the Odi crisis among other things.
What is the stand of your group, that is MOSIEN on the occupation of Odi by military men who attacked the small community?
We have maintained ever before now that the neglect of the Niger-Delta region, the area that produces 90% of the resources with which Nigeria is being administered by successive governments is a crime against humanity. The area lacks basic social amenities as a result of several years of neglect. The environment is daily being polluted resulting in health hazards in the area.
Nonetheless, we do not believe that the Ijaws alone dwell in the Niger-Delta. There are numerous ethnic nationalities within the core Niger-Delta that are not Ijaw, such as the Itsekiri, Ilajes, Edos, Urhobos, Isokos, Ndokwas, Ikwerres, Ogonis, Ibibios, Efiks and so on. These are all oil-producing areas, which are facing problems of degradation of their environment and severe under-development.
But the Ijaws have always said that their present struggle is to reverse the trend, don't you agree with that?
If the cause of the crisis in the Niger-Delta which the Ijaws make the world believe is as a result of the neglect of the area by the Federal Government, then all other ethnic nationalities already mentioned as co-habiting the Niger-Delta with the Ijaws would have been involved. The Ijaws neither consulted nor enlisted the co-operation of other ethnic groups in the Niger-Delta before embarking on the senseless destabilisation of the sub-region by killing innocent citizens, committing arson, kidnap and other acts of criminality. It must be noted that Itsekiri areas alone produce more oil than the whole of Bayelsa State.
Ninety per cent of Chevron's operation, which is about the third largest crude oil producing company, has its production in our land. Other oil producing companies such as Shell, Elf and A gip have very significant presence in Itsekiri area particularly Shell. Have the Itsekiris taken up arms against the government for underdevelopment?
If the battle of the Ijaws was to draw the government's attention to the underdevelopment of the oil producing areas and by extension the Niger Delta sub-region, would the opinion of the other ethnic nationalities not be sought and their co-operation received?
In other words, you support the steps government has taken in recent days to send troops to Odi and other parts of Bayelsa?
The various comments by Nigerians particularly the on going argument over the threat of a state of emergency should be properly viewed against the background of these illegal acts being committed.
One must agree that there has been a long period of breakdown of law and order in the Niger Delta. The area has become ungovernable. Even security agents whose duty it is to safeguard lives and property of citizens are equally being killed. And the whole of the riverine areas and creeks stretching from Ondo, Delta up to Bayelsa States are now no-go areas for security agents as well as Itsekiris, Ilajes and Yorubas. If they go to the waterways, they will be kidnapped and killed.
Even the Senators from Bayelsa State recently had the guts to condemn the deployment of soldiers to the state to restore normalcy. They wrongly drew an analogy between the recent clash of Yorubas and the Hausas in Sagamu and the retaliation that followed the Sagamu incident on the Yorubas in Kano and Kaduna and, therefore, accused the Federal Government of bias for not declaring a state of emergency in Sagamu or Kano and Kaduna. But the incidents in Sagamu and Kano are not the same with the cases in the Niger Delta. The Senators ought to know the difference.
How would you assess the role of the Ijaw leaders in the face of the crisis?
MOSIEN has always maintained that the responsibility of protecting lives and property is that of the government. And since the Ijaw leaders have failed to play their role, as it should be government doesn't have any other option but to do what it is doing now.
No responsible government will shelve this responsibility, be it military or civilian. The breakdown of law and order in the magnitude of the present Niger Delta needs the might of the Federal Government to quell.
What is the way out of this logjam and what word do you have for the Ijaw youths?
We urge them to lay down their arms and go into consultation with their neighbouring ethnic nationalities and the government with a view to addressing this problem of under-development without recourse to carrying arms. If they refuse, they will continue to make themselves target of security forces whose duty it is to deal decisively with those who take up arms against the sovereignty of the Federal Republic of Nigeria.
`This Crisis Has Ruined Our Businesses'
THE Ughelli end of the Patani Bridge, which arguably is the beginning of the boundary between Patani Local Government Area in Delta State and Sagbama council in Bayelsa State, used to hold a promise of a hustling borderline. Roadside traders made modest but brisk businesses, especially with commuters traversing the town from the two oil cities of Warri and Port Harcourt.
That end of the bridge had also been turned into a motor park for taxi cab operators who serviced traders and other commuters travelling from Warri and Ughelli in Delta State to Patani or beyond to Yenagoa and Port Harcourt.
But now, the bliss that attended the business life at that spot is no more. In place of the business activities is the heavy presence of soldiers deployed to Patani and stationed permanently at the Patani bridgehead to contain the spillover effect of the Odi crisis from spreading into Patani.
To worsen the matter for the popular spot, most people who live within the vicinity, especially the non-indigenes of the town, have fled for fear of the situation in Odi degenerating into a more threatening dimension in neighbouring Patani. Doors of the houses within the area remained securely locked when Weekend Vanguard visited the place, Wednesday afternoon. They remained so some three hours later and even beyond.
The rest of Patani town remained quiet but there was a deep disquiet about the calmness of the environment. For instance, strange faces of visitors to the town met with probing eyes of the residents who appear to have been properly schooled to ensure that all the strangers are properly screened first by the soldiers and later by the residents.
If you are a first time visitor to the town, your hurdle would be manifold. Everywhere you go, the suspicions will grow but those who are bold enough will save you the ordeal of a cold reception by asking you to identify yourself right away or to show proof of who you know in the area.
The screening is even more intense at the palace of the traditional ruler of the town, Major L.M. Erebulu (rtd). His palace is about a kilometre ride from the Patani Bridge. The security man at the gate would physically handle your identity card to ensure that you are the person you have claimed to be.
That was the case when our reporter arrived the palace at about 2.20 p.m. on Wednesday.
However, a group of three journalists who arrived the town about one hour later from Warri the same Wednesday were not as lucky. The newsmen who arrived in a car included Chido Okafor of the Guardian, Francis Onaribholo of the Post Express and Monday Whiskey of The Comet.
Apart from the harrowing detailed security checks at the Patani Bridge, their vehicle developed a fault and finding a mechanic was a nightmare.
Yet, when a mechanic was found, hardly did he finish effecting the repair when soldiers of the rank of couple came ordering everybody to get into the vehicle. The matter was later resolved amicably at His Royal Highness' palace where the newsmen, including our correspondent, were taken to.
Vanguard gathered that residents of the town were warned since Friday last week when the troops moved fully into Odi to beware of how they move about and to be wary of strangers. That is, in apparent reference to the possibility of providing support or shelter for the fleeing Odi youths. The traditional ruler hinted that he made a pronouncement on what the residents should do while the crisis lasted.
He explained the situation in the town thus: "Some of the residents who are running away are scared by the presence of soldiers in that number and you remember some of them have never seen soldiers in their life-time. The soldiers are on their own, they are not harassing anybody and we are co-operating with them," he said. And on what the leaders of the community are doing to check infiltration of the fleeing youths from Odi, the traditional ruler said, "Patani is a place that does not hide criminals from time and there is that awareness already created following the announcement by the Bayelsa governor that people should not provide cover for the fleeing militant youths. So, everybody is being cautious.
"Strangers are being screened by way of showing the identity cards or somebody will have to identify such a stranger.
"Moreover, those who are running away are strangers, not the indigenes of Patani. I made a pronouncement that all indigenes and even the strangers should not run away and I know that all indigenes are here."
The traditional ruler who is a retired Army Major warned youths in the area to steer clear of any criminal activity.
At about 2.35 p.m. a helicopter believed to be carrying security operatives on surveillance hovered over the town, a situation that interrupted Weekend Vanguard's interview with the traditional ruler.
Both the interviewer and interviewee rushed out to observe what was happening.
The spill-over effects of the Odi crisis is now a major source of worry for commuters, commercial vehicle drivers, petty traders, even fishermen and several other categories of people whose social and economic activities have been stalled or rudely altered by the restriction of movement occasioned by the crisis.
"Our businesses are being ruined by what is happening now," said Sunday Udu, a petty trader. "People are scared and because people are not coming out, our businesses can't move. It's a pity."
Drivers and motorcycle operators do not complain less.
Commuting from Effurun near Warri to Ughelli from where you would board another vehicle to Patani could provide the reporter with an opportunity to feel the pulse of the people.
At 5.20 p.m., the driver of a 505 Saloon car which took Weekend Vanguard from Patani to Ughelli along with three other passengers narrated the ordeal of the drivers who are now compelled to make a detour through Onitsha in Anambra state to Owerri in Imo State, then to Elele and to Port Harcourt. The journey would ordinarily take two hours for a fast-moving car from Warri to Port Harcourt through Patani. The commuters who normally should have paid N350 to N500 are now paying about N800.
A disturbed passenger who identified himself simply as Justin and who appeared to have been reflecting on the situation suddenly started grumbling aloud: "this is too much; how can we be trekking like this when we have the money and can't see the vehicles? This thing is messing up our business and I hope that this crisis will soon come to an end."
It is a story of frustration from Effurun to Ughelli, to Patani and to some smaller communities in Patani local government area. At the Ughelli motor park, there are similar tell-tales of the sufferings, which the people have been encountering since the outbreak of hostilities in Odi.
But like Chief Erebelu said, "we appeal to the Federal Government to come to our aid because everybody is feeling the impact of the trouble in Odi."
Traditional ruler of the town, Major L.M. Erebulu (rtd).
His palace is about a kilometre ride from the Patani Bridge. The security
man at the gate would physically handle your identity card to ensure that
you are the person you have claimed to be.