Urhobo Historical Society

Subject: VS: [Ijaw_National_Congress] Browbeating on a Pyrric Victory
Date: Wed, 8 Dec 1999 22:16:47 +0100
From: "Orevaoghene C. Obaro" <impexma@online.no>
To: <Undisclosed-Recipient:@online.no;>

The Nigerian army yesterday said it had "taught a lesson" to residents  of the troubled oil-producing region following the destruction of a town taken  over by the army last month. Many people died and hundreds of homes were  destroyed, most of them torched, in the operation launched November 20  to take over the town of Odi in Bayelsa State after 12 policemen were  killed there in three separate incidents earlier this month. Captain John Agim,  spokesman for the 2nd Amphibious Brigade accused the residents of   failing to act against a criminal gang he said was operating in the town and  responsible for the killing of the policemen and a spate of kidnappings and  robberies.

President Olusegun Obasanjo, under pressure over the growing lawlessness  in the region, last month ordered a crackdown. "The people in Odi had  tolerated these criminals, these attacks on security forces," [Captain John] Agim told reporters in an interview at the brigade headquarters in Port Harcourt, capital of  neighbouring Rivers State. "The intention was just a show of force to  let them know they cannot continue like that. I think that has been  achieved. "No village will want to go through what that village went through. It has been taught a lesson." Agim said "some" of the destruction of Odi was done by members of the gang, 14 of whom had been arrested. But "most was done by  the army", he admitted.

 Governor Diepreye Alameyeseigha, in an interview in his office in the  Bayelsa State capital Yenagoa, outside Odi, said the Nigerian government "could  not tolerate criminals" in the town. "They were killing, they were stealing.  No responsible government could tolerate it any longer," he said. "The boys  that have caused the trouble, they are not fighting for anybody. They are  just criminals," he said. But the army operation had been "overkill", he  said. The army was due to pull out of Odi, to be replaced by paramilitary police. "I have asked the army to pull out. They should pull out. They have done  their worst. Innocent people have been killed" he said. "Odi people never  gathered to take a decision to kill the policemen. The army had "had a mandate to cordon, search and make arrests."

 The operation is just the latest attempt to quell lawlessness and unrest  in the desperately poor oil-producing region of Nigeria. And according to  local community leaders, the reaction could be violent. Isaac Osoka, a leader  of the local ethnic Ijaw Youth Council, said his organisation preached  non-violence, but did not have control over everyone in the delta. "If  the police are killed, they should investigate and arrest people. Not do  what they did. This government will drag this country into an avoidable and  nasty conflict," he warned here. "Violence breeds violence. Now, it is likely  there will be more violence."

 Oronto Douglas, an environmental and human rights activist, said he  feared a brutal reaction. "I think people will not want to take it quietly. They  may want to act." The government was running a "dictatorial version of  democracy... you don't need to bombard a town into rubble to carry out a  few arrests." The authorities "should now rebuild the homes, act quickly if  they really want to avert trouble."


 Residents of Odi, Bayelsa State left in ruins after it was taken over  by the army late last month have appealed for food, compensation and  assistance to rebuild their homes. "We need food. We need our houses. I am hungry," said an old man whose house was one of those left in ashes. Hundreds of homes were destroyed, most of them seemingly deliberately torched with few signs of heavy fighting in the area, and only nine buildings left intact. On the  main street through the town two houses were still burning yesterday,  apparently set on fire that morning. The buildings left intact included a health  centre and a bank.

 But hundreds of other buildings were reduced to rubble, their mud-caked  wooden walls of the houses collapsed, while corrugated iron roofs turned  into sheets of twisted, blackened metal lying on the ground. In houses, the  blackened frames of an old bed, a handful of cooking pots, a few clothes, appeared to be all that remained. Most residents had fled the town  before the army arrived, the handful of returning residents said Friday, and many portable belongings had been removed. "We are destroyed. We are just  praying to God," said Sele Yaboh, a 47-year-old woman as she salvaged a couple  of pots and pans from the scorched remains of her house.

 "What are we going to do? We need help," said Are Ekate, one of a group  of elderly women sitting in the shade of a partially destroyed home. The  only people currently providing food were some of the resting soldiers who  had taken part in the operation, she said. In an interview in the nearby  state capital Yenagoa, Bayelsa State Governor Diepreye Alameyeseigha admitted  that innocent people had suffered in the army operation. "It is innocent  people that died. None of the leaders (of the alleged criminal gang) died. They  all ran away... Odi people never gathered to take a decision to kill the  policemen," he said.

 The town now needs relief materials and the people need new homes, but  Bayelsa State, one of the poorest in Nigeria, cannot afford to pay for  this, Alameyeseigha said. "We need to build a camp for returning villagers to  settle. There is nowhere for them to stay and cook. The state cannot pay  for Odi." Alameyeseigha said he had spoken Thursday to President Olusegun  Obasanjo and said he had agreed to discuss the issue of assistance to  the town with Vice President Atiku Abubakar, who heads the Nigerian  emergency relief agency. An aid worker who visited the town at the weekend said  the first question was to find those who had fled the town and find  somewhere for them to live. Other needs -- drinking water, food, and medical attention would have to be urgently addressed, he said. According to estimates,  thousands of people fled their homes before the army arrived. "The  question is how many people are living in the bush. Where can people live? What  can they eat? Will they return here when the army or police are still here  and when their homes are like this?" he asked.