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."
ODI RESIDENTS SEEK AID AFTER ORDEAL
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.