By Sam Onwuemeodo, Port Harcourt
Vanguard Transmitted Saturday, December 04, 1999
"Never in the history of Nigeria," they lamented, "has such a massive force been assembled and used against a supposed Nigerian town in peace time. Even at the declaration of secession by Ojukwu, the Nigerian government replied with a police action before full-scale military engagement ensued."
On Monday, November 29, 1999, the bare but bitter facts of the tragic bombardment stared in the faces of the visitors who were in the town for an on-the-spot assessment. Dr. Chuba Okadigbo, the Senate President who was at the head of the delegation, could hardly conceal his bafflement at the level of destruction and killings. With frowns dotting his forehead, he described the carnage as "a human tragedy."
On this day, emotions took over Chief Diepreye Alamieyeseigha, the Bayelsa governor. With beads of sweat dripping down, he was evidently a ruler in distress. From a lively man hours back at the Government House, Yenogoa when he received Okadigbo and other members of the ad-hoc senate delegation to Odi, Alamieyeseigha had suddenly become dumb and his mouth aghast.
But the expressions of pity and anger were not restricted to the duo. For Senators David Mark, David Brigidi, Adawari Pepple and Adolphus Wabara among others, they had seen more than they bargained for. Brigidi, the mover of the motion that necessitated the visit and representative of Bayelsa Central to which Odi belongs, was visibly shaken. "This is a massacre that must be exposed," he angrily voiced out.
No less perplexed were journalists on the tour who saw the destruction of Odi as an extinction of the community. It was a sober, solemn moment.
As soon as the inspectors arrived at 5.15 p.m., everyone shouted at the sorry state of Odi. The town had been summarily wiped away from the face of the earth.
As the team went round on its situational assessment, the first time in three weeks that mere civilian mortals ventured into the ravaged town of 50,000 inhabitants, one glaring feature was that there was no single building, either business or residential, that was spared. They were all burnt. The invaders had employed dynamite and sundry explosives to reduce walls of hundreds of buildings to foundation level.
The magnificent edifice of the traditional ruler of the community, King Tunder Efeke Bolou II where visiting journalists were hosted on November 17, courtesy of Alamieyeseighaís invitation, had been torched and its walls pulled down. Ditto for the home of Lt. Col. Partson Larry (rtd).
Decomposing human bodies produced such death stench that offended the nostrils. Expended bullets littered all the nooks and crannies of the town. The lily-livered were in tears.
In the relics of a torched building near King Bolouís palace were thirteen aged men and women who may have become "prisoners of war." When the soldiers struck, they fled into the bush like thousands of their other folks. They had taken refuge near the Patani River but after days without food, water and other necessities, they strolled out of their hiding not bothered about the volleys of bullet that frightened them away in the first place. And back to their damaged town, the soldiers "miraculously didnít kill us because they said weíre old people."
Their greatest worry is the absence of their children, wives and other beloved ones. "We donít know the fate of our children," one of them volunteered in whispers, not wanting the soldiers see them talk to strangers or eavesdrop on their conversation. "We do not know whether our people are alive or dead. See (Odi) for yourself and tell Nigerians what you have seen."
Like the oldie noted, the stern-looking soldiers would not allow the journalists take pictures of a floating corpse of a young man on a river, nor the decomposing bodies. They only conceded to photographers taking shots of burnt buildings.
Mrs. Queen Ikia stretches the concern. "Our biggest concern today is the whereabout of our children. We canít find them. Parents lost contact with their sons and daughters during the invasion. At the moment, these parents cannot tell whether their children fled from the town or had been killed. We are terribly troubled and it will remain so until we can all come back to know those who survived."
Earlier in his address to the ad-hoc senate team at Yenagoa, Governor Alamieyeseigha said: "I want to call on the Federal Government to send relief materials and compensation to innocent indigenes of Odi community who were either displaced, killed or who lost their property during the crackdown on the armed bandits... I also want to call on the indigenes of Odi community who fled the town at the wake of the military invasion to return." It is such calls for the people to return that spark off verbal vituperations and heightened tension now.
"Where are they asking us to return to?" frowns Mr. Godson Tombiri, an indigene of Odi. "Tell me, where do we return to? When you visited our community, did you see any building where people could live in? People should not play politics with peopleís lives.
"Every peace-loving Odi indigene condemned the killing of the policemen. But now that they have sent soldiers here to burn our town and kill our people, what has it solved? People are now talking about resettlement. Was the whole idea to kill people, burn their buildings and then resettle them? Send relief materials and compensate them later? Do those who gave the order care that innocent people were shot dead? Can you compensate a dead man?"
Mrs. Jennifer Pere led the more than one thousand Bayelsa Women for the Protection of Human Rights who brandished placards with sundry messages that aimed to protest or fault the "barbaric killings" at Odi. The women demanded for the immediate rebuilding of the community by the Federal Government, payment of adequate compensation to those whose homes were razed and rehabilitation of those displaced.
But more important to the women and Odi indigenes is the need to find out who ordered soldiers into Odi. "We want to know why over 2,000 women and children are being locked up at Elele Barracks," says Pere. "We want them to release over 1,000 Ijaw youths locked up in Bori Camp, Port Harcourt.
"It is just not enough to talk of resettlement, rehabilitation and compensation. We demand to know where the order to massacre our people came from. Was it given by President Obasanjo or Governor Alamieyeseigha? This is one fact that we must have to establish. It is not enough to blow up an entire community, waste souls and talk of rebuilding. Nigerians have a right to know who gave the order.
"We are calling on the International War Crime Tribunal to investigate the ethnic cleansing that took place in Odi on November 20, 1999. The world has a right too to know what happened.
"We further call on the National Assembly to properly go into this matter and ensure that all those who should answer questions do actually answer these questions. There is a deliberate policy of marginalisation of our people at all levels. We, therefore, want the immediate repeal of all laws, which are targeted at the people of the Niger-Delta.
"The people from this region have gone through several years of economic neglect by both the Federal Government and multi-national oil companies operating in our area. This has led our youths to agitate for the development of the region."
Time constraint did not allow the Ijaw Youth Congress (IYC) to read their address. But they presented same to Okadigbo in Odi, as Felix Tuodolor, the president of IYC emphasised that there was indeed, no reason for the soldiers to remain in the town. "Having accomplished their assignment, what would they be doing there again? What they did in this small community was worse than what happened in the Nigeria-Biafra Civil War. It is only natural that the soldiers be withdrawn so that we can lick our wounds, so that we can begin to rebuild our homes, so that we can properly bury the dead and begin the process of mourning."
Toby Porbeni who hails from the troubled town talks of the inevitable but sad problem that the people must confront. "Till today, you still have a lot of those who escaped living in the bushes. Others ran to the neighbouring communities but because these towns were threatened, we had to leave. But this is not the real problem.
"Hell canít be worse than what we suffered but then, how do we know those who were killed and those who died? The search for relations cannot begin now because people are scattered all over the places. Some are in army barracks, others in the bush while there were those who fled to unknown destinations.
"The sad thing is that nobody can tell who died and who survived. It will take years before many families find out if their people are dead or living. These will be years of great panic and worry. The government is asking people to come back. Will they return to the Government House in Yenagoa or to Odi that has no buildings again?
"At least, you can see why our people canít go back home now! Even if you tell them that policemen would not come to arrest them again or that the soldiers wonít return, how are they going to believe you? Were you the one who ordered the bombardment the other time? Our people are going to live with such fears till they die. My pity goes to the elderly ones who wonít be able to suffer the psychological trauma.
"And will we ever know the exact number of our people who were killed? What of those who had been given mass burial as we learnt? What of those who ran into the bush with gun wounds and who would die there?"
It is this uncertainty about the whereabout and safety of their people that heralds the talk about King Efeke Bolou II. One story was that he was arrested during the invasion and handed to the police. But in a swift reaction, the Police Public Relations Officer (PPRO) in the state, Mr. Nyanabo Agbozi (ASP) outrightly denied that the ruler was in their custody. In a chat with Weekend Vanguard, he noted that "the police in Yenagoa couldnít have arrested anybody in Odi when we were not there."
But then, there is the other allegation that the royal father was amputated in an undisclosed hospital following the gun shot wound he received on his right leg. Anddue largely to his absence and since there was nobody except the 13 old people around, Odi did not have anybody to receive Okadigbo and his men or to ask probing questions.
Other sons of the community in Sami Ebiye, Nayai Aganaba, Waribagha Collins, Jones Ikposo among others had alerted the nation that "the over 70-year-old paramount ruler of the town, King Bolou Efeke was shot on the leg as over 20,000 refugees are hiding in the bush without food and water."
Amid tears, one of the elderly 13 people who are the non-soldiers living in the town cried out for justice. "We have suffered so much. Let the government do something so that our people can come back. We are lonely here as you can see. There have to be buildings where they can get back to."
At the moment, the major worry of most Nigerians as far as the Odi tragedy is concerned is the need to rehabilitate the battered people. But for that to happen, the troops will have to be withdrawn first. Strikingly, Dr. Doyin Okupe, the Special Adviser to President Olusegun Obasanjo on Media and Publicity hinted in Abuja, Wednesday, that "the soldiers would be withdrawn as soon as the Chief Security Officer, the governor says the situation is normal."
Earlier on Monday, Okupe had defended that the government, by the November 20 deployment of soldiers, has not violated any internationally acceptable human rights provisions as practised elsewhere in the developed world.
According to him, "a serious intervention was necessary if anarchy with mayhem and the attendant social problems were to be prevented, resolved to act decisively to stop the dangerous drift toward impending and irredeemable disaster."
Chief Alamieyeseigha, today, preaches that normalcy is returning to the place, even as he told the Senate President that what had happened in Odi were products of the harsh results of the criminal neglect, marginalisation and under-development of the Niger-Delta.
"Let me use this opportunity (of the visit of the ad-hoc committee) to call on the National Assembly to abrogate petroleum laws that are inimical to the development of the area. I also wish to call on the National Assembly to impress it on multi-national oil companies operating in the country to employ indigenes of their host communities as their personnel and public affairs managers.
"The National Assembly should also ensure that the headquarters of the proposed Niger-Delta Development Commission (NDDC) is sited in Yenagoa. The headquarters of the commission would be of great relevance to the state as the heart of the Niger-Delta.
"The call has become necessary because of the absence of any iota of federal presence in the state. We have accommodation already for the headquarters of the commission... It is a thing of regret that some people are citing the volatile nature of the state in an attempt to deny it what it naturally deserves. Bayelsa State is not more volatile than its neighbours.
"Government will ensure the safety of law-abiding citizens. The Mbiama-Patani axis of the East-West road, which was cordoned off by soldiers due to the crackdown on hoodlums and miscreants operating in Odi, is now open to motorists and members of the public. The gesture is because of normalcy which has been restored in the area."
But when the senate opens hearing on the findings of their members to Odi, who are those to be "exposed" as senator Brigidi vowed? What special arrangements have been made for housing the people if the Odi indigenes decide to return today? What does the future hold for the devastated citizens?
These are the questions that agitate the minds as the
world focuses on the oddity in Odi.