Obasanjo Condemned For The Situation In Nigeria
By Osita Nwajah
The News (Lagos)
December 6, 1999
Lagos - In the biggest internal military operation, Nigerian soldiers destroy an entire village in the restive Niger Delta, igniting local and international condemnation for President Olusegun Obasanjo.
Soon after General Olusegun Obasanjo's election in the 27 February 1999 presidential election, Nigerians faced their first test over their new leader: how was he to be addressed-General, President, uncle or a simple, plain, mister? Elsewhere, that should not have attracted the serio-comic debates that followed. But this is Nigeria where normative principles of social relations usually stand on their heads. Was President adequate reference for a man who had been a four- star General and head of state, commander-in-chief of the armed forces to boot? The debate was consuming enough for the president to put out that he was also a traditional chief. Many of those who participated in the debate drew strength from the perception that the president may find it difficult to live down his military background, even in the environment of democracy. Events in the past few weeks seem to have proved them right.
On 19 November, more than 50 army trucks trundled through snaky paths and forests into the heart of Kolokuma/Opokuma. It would not be the first time people of the local government area in Bayelsa State would see soldiers. But, not this many. At least, not in peace times. Those who had attained cognitive ages during the 1967-70 Biafran civil war may remember having seen that much number of troops. Unofficial sources put the number of troops at between 3,000 and 5,000.
Even though no war had been declared, everyone knew where the soldiers were headed. Two weeks earlier, the news had spread through the surrounding villages, that there was problem in Odi. Youths protesting the presence of policemen in the village, had seized seven of them and slaughtered them. Then, again, another five were sent to their early graves. The situation appear to have gone out of control. An enraged President Olusegun Obasanjo gave the Bayelsa State Governor, Chief Diepreye Alamieyeseigha, two weeks to fish out the cop killers and restore peace to the area. The Governor threw up his hands in defeat.
When the Police Affairs Minister, Major-General Jemibewon (rtd.) visited Yenagoa last Thursday, the account the Bayelsa Governor gave him of the situation in Odi before the army action was the same he gave to the Senate President, Dr. Chuba Okadigbo, on Monday. He said that one Ken Nneweira, an indigene of Odi and a dangerous criminal who allegedly had a gang of bandits perpetrating armed robbery on the East-West Road and piracy on the waterways, was responsible for the killing of the policemen. According to the governor, Ken sacked his late father's wives and took over his house, converting it to the 'command headquarters' of his 'army.' His late father, according to Alamieyeseigha, was a police officer. When the news got to Odi that the Odua People's Congress clashed with Ijaws in Ajegunle, Lagos, during the funeral of an Odi indigene, Ken started training Odi youths for a future showdown with the OPC. The police heard about this and wanted to pre-empt him.
However, some of the murderous youths, including Ken Nneweira sources told The News, were linked to Alameiyeseigha's electioneering campaign. His campaign organisation had allegedly recruited them to strike fear into his opponents. The promise of proper settlement after he won the election having not been met, the hoodlums allegedly took over a part of Yenagoa and imposed a regime of terror. They extorted money from innocent passers-by of the place that came to be known as 'black market.' People were routinely robbed and women raped. After a time, the police moved in and after a fierce battle, dislodged the hoodlums. The Area Commander for Yenagoa himself, Mr. Thomas Jokotola, CSP, led that operation last September. There were some casualties. Some of the 'black market boys' were killed, a good number were arrested and clamped into detention. As they fled, the hoodlums encountered some soldiers along Harbour road, Yenagoa. The unsuspecting military men were mowed down. Life seemed to return to normal after that bloody clash in Yenagoa. However, two months after, CSP Jokotola, a Yoruba 'with heavy facial tribal marks' from Ipetumodu in Ife North Local Government Area surfaced in Odi, with six other policemen, on 'special duty.' The hoodlums who had retreated to that town, pounced on him and his colleagues. Their corpses were discovered days after. Already smarting from a spate of violent clashes across the country, President Obasanjo read Alamieyeseigha, the riot act. However, sources disclosed that the Federal Government believed that the governor might not be able to handle the situation. The ultimatum, if anything, was a subtle indictment. He did not, however, wait till the expiration of the ultimatu m.
Five days clear of the 24 November ultimatum, the President lost his patience and invoked emergency powers. Forty-eight hours later, the rural town of Odi was levelled. Only a church and a bank building survived the operation. Nothing which had life -- man or animal -- was moving. They were either dead or in hiding in the bushes. "The instructions given to the troops were clear, specific and unambiguous- that is, dislodge perpetrators of violence, restore law and order and apprehend suspected murderers." Dr. Doyin Okupe, Obasanjo's Special Adviser on Media and Publicity clarified last week. The soldiers commanded by one Lt.- Col. Agbabiaka clearly overshot their brief. Over 300 were reported killed in the most widely condemned military action since the General Sani Abacha pacifist troops overran Ogoniland. Alamieyeseigha himself gleefully confirmed to women from across the state who met him for peace talks, that "your children, all those that are involved (in the killing of the policemen) are dying like chickens. I just pity the people of Odi," he added.
Dr. Chuba Okadigbo, Senate President who visited Odi days after the massacre was too shocked by what he saw to make a statement. So also, Professor Isoun, a prominent son of Odi. He could only manage, "we are mourning now, so I cannot say anything." Senator Sulaiman Ajadi who was in the Okadigbo entourage was aghast. "I don't see the reason for hitting an ant with a sledgehammer," he bemoaned, adding, "even a foreign invasion would not have been more devastating." Professor Wole Soyinka, Nobel Laureate and social activist lamented the heavy-handedness. Nothing, he said at a news conference last week, justified the murder of policemen and in the same vein, there was no justification for the "revenge mission." Obasanjo he said, "had no reason for laying a human habitation to waste... (no reason) for unleashing the animalism of the military on Odi because a crime was committed."
But Okupe would hear no such. The President's image maker charged back, full force. "Those who criticize the deployment of troops to the troubled area are either guilty of shameful ignorance or are simply playing to the gallery." Further, Okupe asserted that the government's action was well within the ambit of all internationally accepted human rights convention. Tim Akpareva, Capn, National Association of Seadogs (NAS), told The News last week, that Okupe's statement was "unfortunate." He wondered how a responsible government can, after the mindless carnage as witnessed in Odi, "come out to thump its chest for annihilating its own people. We are reminded once again of the Abacha years of waste. The action at Odi was a callous over-kill," Akpareva stated.
However, the force commander, Lt.-Col. Agbabiaka, explained away the massacre to the Okadigo team, as a 'defensive action.' Okupe, however, gave a more graphic elaboration and justification: "On arrival at Odi township, the soldiers were put under heavy bombardment from highly-sophisticated artillery (manned) by trained fighters disguising as youths. This gang of dissidents made it impossible for troops to enter the township for over three hours and because of approaching night and to avoid unnecessary civilian casualties, the government troops withdrew and laid low even though they had the fire power and manpower to override the militant terrorists. The troops resorted to this in order not to depart from their brief and to ensure that there is no wastage of human life."
What the soldiers apparently did, was to withdraw and re-strategise. What they could not do under the cover of darkness, they decided, they needed the light of dawn to do. By morning, they overturned their brief, deploying maximum force. The innocent civilian lives that were very sacrosanct the night before, suddenly became very expendable. Mrs. Dora Nana, told The News, "my husband died just before the soldiers came. He is still in a mortuary," the invading troops would only add to her grief. "They shot my four children, right here in my presence." One of them was only a girl of 12. The News was told by interested parties that the task given to the soldiers before they set on their wastage mission was to shoot to kill, especially every male found in Odi, old, young, infirm. Every male. In the melee, women also fell to the hail of bullets. Houses pounded by mortar and rockets caved in on babies.
The army take over complete, the troops established a mini-garrison in Odi. Nobody could get in or out. Those who were lucky enough to escape the massacre remained in the bushes, feeding on wild fruits, until the senate president came. Even then, only a handful of thoroughly malnourished people ventured out. And, only barely more than a handful others will ever come back to pick the shattered pieces of their lives in Odi. Not even the palliative N5 billion announced for the state by President Obasanjo, can lure them back. President Obasanjo's announcement of the aid package to construct roads and link Bayelsa to the national electricity grid has in fact, drawn more condemnation than praise.
Nnimmo Bassey, architect and environmental rights activist flays the tokenism. "It has passed the stage where the people would rejoice on being given one road or a few electricity poles." Ron Van den Berg, Shell (Nigeria) managing director thinks, "what all concerned should do is to stop talking and do something now. There is a lot of talk and nothing is being done. Doing something shouldn't be difficult. For a place to develop, it takes a plan and we are ready to help in anyway we can." Obasanjo himself acknowledges that the abject lack of development in the whole of the Niger Delta region "constitutes a major source of international embarrassment." Nigeria is the world's sixth largest producer of crude oil." Next year alone, $8.4 billion is projected as revenue from oil. Over 90 per cent of the nation's total external revenue is from the black gold more than 30 per cent of which is to be found in Bayelsa State.
Although there is no direct linkage to it, the recurrent battle for control of the resources of the Niger Delta which have become almost a common feature, growing by the day, in stridency and sophistication, weighs heavily on the Odi massacre.
While it took only a police action to crush the Isaac Adaka Boro 12-day revolution of the early 1960s, today it could take a combined joint forces operation to attempt to tame youthful insurgents in the region. Also, while between Boro and the Egbesu militia for instance, the strategies may have changed noticeably, the demands have remained basically the same in the last 40 years-recognition of the ecological devastation of oil exploitation and adequate compensation and development of the oil-bearing communities. And, apart from their individual group sophistication, the primary combatants of the 1960s are still the same, set to carry their mutual antagonism, through into the 21st century.
The conflict triangle in the Niger-Delta has the oil-bearing host communities squaring it up with the oil exploration and service companies. The demands of the communities have always been that they be made to feel positively the impact of the oil companies which operate in their areas making several millions of dollars, monthly. They demand outright compensation for their flora and fauna; their farmlands and fishing ponds, their homes and the shrines of their deities, devastated by the heavy equipment, pipes and oil spillage arising from the companies' activities. They demand social infrastructure-roads, pipe-borne water, electricity, schools, hospitals, contracts and employment for their sons and daughters. The companies on the other hand, contest the claims, saying most of them are outrageous and wild. They admit only limited responsibility, holding that most of the claims of their host communities can only be legitimately made of government-at the local, state and Federal levels which collect taxes, royalties and all manners of levies on their operations. They point out that they are anyway, junior partners in joint ventures with the Federal Government of Nigeria, which through the Nigeria National Petroleum Corporation, holds at least, 60 per cent equity shareholding in all oil and oil-related ventures. To immediately pacify their restive hosts, the oil companies employing divide-and- rule tactics, usually knock the wind out of the sail of popular uprising by 'settling' a few of the troublesome community leaders. But, they would rather the communities channel their grievances in the direction of government.
But, to most of the barely-educated youths of the Niger-Delta, government is an amorphous creation. The closest they have ever come to it, is by the obtrusive presence of the oil companies. So, they take out their anger on them. Many of their leaders, mostly well-educated and exposed professionals, also know about the oil company-government relationship. They have access to the indices of international spot market trade and know exactly how much is taken out of the belly of their lands everyday, and how much, by cruel manipulation, alternatively go to develop other parts of the country and improve the lives of families and friends of officials of government.
The methods they employ to make a case for their communities range from (as it would seem) the marginally-productive dialogue and negotiation, to the highly-dangerous installations sabotage, rioting, kidnapping of oil company officials, seizure of facilities, murder and outright declaration of war.
Without exception, government has always taken sides with the multinational oil companies whenever the Niger-Delta explodes. Being an interested party, the military regimes of Generals Ibrahim Babangida and Sani Abacha especially, were more inclined to employ 'maximum force' to subdue restive peoples of the Niger- Delta. That perhaps explains why the flattening of Odi, what could have been a 'normal' occurrence under Abacha, has attracted so much local and international attention.
The much-attacked Okupe justification, in fact, does not come a shade close to the widely-published valedictory of Major Paul Okutimo who led the Internal Task Force on Security set up to implement the Rivers State Government Order 419-Restoration of Law and Order in Ogoniland, 1994. Okutimo who boasted to journalists that he was a specialist trained in over 200 ways of elimination, was most graphic in his narration:
"The first three days of the operation, I operated in the night. Nobody knew where I was coming from. What I will just do is that I will just take some detachment of soldiers, they will just stay at four corners of the town. They have automatic (rifles) that sold death. If you hear the sound you will freeze. And then I will equally now choose about 200 soldiers and give them grenade explosives, very hard ones.
"So we shall surround the town at night. The machine gun with 500 rounds will open up. When four or five like that open up and then we are throwing grenades and they are making eekpuwai (onomatopoeia for loud, shattering noise), what do you think people are going to do? And we have already put roadblock on the main road, we don't want anybody to start running (we decided) we shall drive all these people into the bush with nothing except the pants and wrappers they are using that night" (sic). In two months, Okutimo and his boys had overrun Ogoniland, village by village. But in spite of the pounding of fear into the people, raping of their women and other acts of brigandage against the Ogoni, the struggle against government and the oil companies only grew wider and wilder. It was therefore a roundly frustrated Gen. Abacha who set up and executed leaders of the Ogoni minority rights movement, among them the popular writer, Ken Saro-Wiwa, 10 November 1995.
Before that, it was Umuechem that came closest to the Odi experience. Three policemen sent to keep the peace in the Rivers State town in 1990, were abducted by rioting youths protesting environmental pollution and neglect of their town by Shell Petroleum Development Company. When they would not give up the policemen, a detachment of policemen were sent to take care of the situation. They rolled in with an armoured tank and sophisticated combat weapons. By the time they were through, an official inquiry revealed, 25 persons had been killed, 650 buildings reduced to rubbles and 175 bicycles had become a mangled heap of twisted and charred metal. Of course, inestimable stock of crops and livestock went up as burnt offerings to the gods of war. The Federal and state governments owned up to the mindless destruction and approved compensation of N10 million and N2 million respectively to the people of Umuechem.
There are talks of probes by the National Assembly into the Odi massacre. But rather than own up to the wrong-headed application of force, the government has furiously defended its action ensuring for itself, sustained barrage of opprobrium. An unnamed state security source quoted by Reuters, however, sees the reason behind the tough posture of the Obasanjo administration. "I think part of the idea behind the attack on Odi was to show a bit of muscle and warn people the government is serious, teach them a bit of a lesson."
But if anything, the Odi massacre has served to up the stakes in the volatile Niger-Delta. Oronto Douglas, lawyer and Ijaw rights activist has warned that Obasanjo, being part of the Niger-Delta problem should get ready for a groundswell of opposition from the Ijaw and other ethnic nationalities in the Niger-Delta. Mr. Bello Orubebe, lawyer and coordinator of the Niger Delta Volunteer Force, (NDVF), the armed wing of the Ijaw National Congress told The News that the sacking of Odi has made the Ijaw more determined on the 'Kaiama Declaration,' insisting on self-determination and control of resources from Ijawland, within the Nigerian federation. "But, if Obasanjo's action towards the Ijaw continues like he has done to Odi, a true, full-blown self-determination of the Ijaw people becomes the most attractive option. The Ijaw are at a crossroads: We have to take our destiny in our hands. There are no two ways about it." Felix Tuodolo, President, Ijaw Youth Council insists that "if the Bamaiyis, Al-Mustaphas, Gwarzos and Abachas are facing trial for heinous crimes against the people, then President Obasanjo should face trial for the killings of innocent Ijaw people (in Odi)."
The fever-pitch antagonism between President Obasanjo and radical elements of the Ijaw rights movements, mostly found in the oil-producing states of Rivers, Bayelsa and Delta did not start at Odi. Only two weeks after his inauguration as President, Obasanjo toured the volatile region. At the Government House, Port Harcourt, the President met with some Ijaw youths. The encounter was charged. At a point, the youths broke into a rally call chant, Aah Izon. Hei! Obasanjo generally known to have a short fuse, exploded, "who are you threatening? You think you can threaten me? You are bloody idiots. You are here in front of me and you are doing (mimicking) heiyeiya hei! who born monkey (who or what do you think you are)?" They, however, apologised to the President when he insisted on it.
Earlier, in December 1998, Obasanjo had set out what looked like the guiding principle of his government's relationship with individuals and groups in the tinderbox region. He had told journalists then that "if the Niger Delta people want certain amendments to the constitution of the country, they should initiate it in the appropriate way. lobby for it at the National Assembly." Any other method of self-expression was unacceptable to the President. He himself, in fact, took a bill, the Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC) Bill to the National Assembly. If it had been passed, the NDDC would have been the bureaucratic framework by which he hoped to transform the Niger Delta. But bickering over the structure and funding of the commission and the sustained instability of the leadership of the National Assembly ensured that the lawmakers maintained a state of suspended animation over the NDDC Bill, until Odi happened.
Obasanjo drew attention to this delay, when he announced the N5 billion which itself, drew a flurry of critical barbs for the president. Orubebe shooting from the hips, said the belated action showed "the paucity of official reasoning. Why did he not by-pass the National Assembly before now? And by the way, is that the kind of development we are seeking? We are asking for a constitutionally guaranteed total development." Nnimmo Bassey too, last week, wondered if "(Obasanjo) would say he is truly concerned about the state of neglect of the oil-bearing communities. He has the NDDC Bill to wave at us as a proof of his concern and understanding of the problems. The people have looked at that bill critically and demanded that it be thrown into the trash bin." Tim Akpareva insists that "such half-baked palliatives as the ones Obasanjo is trying to put in place do not solve the problems which are deeper than he has imagined." He and all other social activists who have spoken on the Odi massacre underscore that the only way out of the cycle of violence in the Niger Delta and other flashpoints of Nigeria, is the convoking of a Sovereign National Conference where everybody, every group, will meet to state and debate their fears, hopes and aspirations, realities and visions and in general and specific terms, work out rules guiding their future relationships. Soyinka re-states: "we will keep screaming into their ears: this nation is not working, (it) has got to be restructured."
That is the single-dose, cure-all remedy the Nobel Laureate and a great many others, prescribe for the other security migraine the president has been afflicted with in the recent past. Many who have contributed critical appraisals of the president's Odi debacle have drawn parallels between it and other recent communal violence in Ketu (Lagos) and Sagamu (Ogun), both in Obasanjo's ethnic Yorubaland, and Kano, in the powerful northern Nigeria. The views of some critics with minorities' sympathies are unanimous that the president in reacting to the Odi crisis, showed unacceptable bias. Taking off from there, some have gone ahead to reopen age-old ethnic animosities. Mr. Andrew Edevbie, who fired an angry letter to the President from Detroit, Michigan, USA, warning him that "Nigeria under your presidency is heading for disintegration," recalled that in the Ketu, Sagamu and Kano crises, "the number of policemen and security personnel lost in the line of duty, is far in excess of the 12 policemen allegedly killed in Odi."
Yet, the President, he noted, did not declare a state of emergency in the areas "neither are we aware of any attempt by your government to punish the peoples of Lagos, Sagamu and Kano." Unimpressed by the President's widely- criticised shoot-on-sight order of members of the Oodua People's Congress, (OPC), given to the police, Edevbie reads an ethno-economic agenda to the President's reaction to Odi. "The Oodua Peoples Congress, the Yoruba military wing and radical elements in the north (including the apostles of Sharia law) continue to operate freely and your government has so far made no meaningful effort to contain their activities. Clearly, your reaction to the unfortunate death of police officers in Bayelsa is predicated on your avowed determination to guarantee the flow of oil revenue that you need ... the invasion has little to do with concern for human lives," Edevbie concluded. Orubebe came to a similar summation. "What did (Obasanjo) do to the OPC? He merely came on air and said he was giving the OPC a second chance. We know Obasanjo's hidden agenda."
However, some trenchant critics of Obasanjo (many of them his Yoruba kinsmen for whom he is supposedly pursuing an ethnic agenda) think differently. If there is any ethno-regional agenda being pursued, especially in the aftermath of the Ketu killings, they insist, it is skewed in favour of the Hausa/Fulani north. The Ketu 'Mile 12' market pitted mostly Yoruba against Hausa traders. As at the last official count, 90 people had died as a result of the clash for which the OPC was widely blamed for instigating. President Obasanjo in response, issued a shoot-on-sight order to policemen in Lagos. Nnimmo Bassey wonders: "who (are) to be shot on sight? How are they to be identified? Who is to determine who was guilty on-sight?" Anyway, sure that the Lagos State Police Command which it has in the past alleged to be controlled by officers and men of northern extraction would only be too happy to carry out the presidential order, the OPC last week asked all policemen of origins other than Yoruba to leave Lagos and other 'Oodua states.' "The (President's shoot-on-sight) order," OPC founder, Dr. Frederick Fasehun says, "holds the hands of one combatant while the other continues to punch him."
It is clear President Obasanjo is desperate to underline, against the recurrent threats to national security, that he is not 'only in government, but in power.' However, everyone is agreed that whether the conflict is in Odi, Ketu or Kano, the resort to strong arm tactics by the interested parties, least of all the government, is the most wrong of conflict management strategies. If anything, violent expressions of conflicts end up sucking everybody into a vortex of interminable chaos, tension, bloodshed and tears. And for all that, there will be one person to blame: President Olusegun Obasanjo. Nnimmo Bassey and, indeed, most Nigerians are resolved to hold him and his government "accountable for all shot-on-sight, raped-on-sight or for even those shot in the dark (for lack of sight)."
Additional reports by Bolaji Adepegba, Casmir Igbokwe, Okafor Ofiebor, Chioma Obiabaka, Tayo Olubi, Sylvester Asoya, Richard Elesho, Lara Owoeye-Wyse, Tony Orilade, Iyobosa Uwugiaren and Abimbola Ogunnaike.
Publication date: December 13, 1999
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