REPORT ON ITS INVESTIGATION OF THE RAPE IN CHOBA
"CHOBA: Rape Victims in A Fresh
By Blessyn Okpowo, who was in Port Harcourt
Vanguard Transmitted Saturday, December 04, 1999
Subject: CHOBA: Rape victims in a fresh dilemma
Date: Sat, 4 Dec 1999 05:14:19 EST
How has the town been coping? Are these rape victims faceless? What are the fall-outs of the alleged violation of their women by uniformed soldiers, which the Chief of Army Staff, Gen. Victor Malu denied the involvement of military men? These were the questions that took Weekend Vanguard to Choba last week.
Indeed, the findings were the fresh worries of the raped women as well as the dilemma of their husbands, immediate families and the entire town.
But as one entered into the oil-producing community, tension and eerie peace were in large supply. Suspicion reigned supreme among the indigenes and residents alike. Every new visitor to the place is not immediately identified but thoroughly subjected to scrutiny.
Reasons abound. Every stranger is perceived as that unfriendly security agent in search of clues to arrest those behind the scandal that was the rape story.
The first port of call was the palace of the Regent of the town, Chief Owen Igwe. But there, the aides were emphatic that "you can't see him." Further enquiries on the identities of the victims elicited awful glances and noticeable frowns. "You can't see them as well. Rape is not what you celebrate. The stigma remains with one for life and it is the height of wickedness to expose them to strangers."
Mr. Austin Igwe, the regent's son was more apologetic. "Just bear with us," he pleaded. "You know that this is an unusual occurrence. We're talking about people's wives and mothers and we have to be careful about the way these things are handled. Your best bet would be to go after the spokesman of the town."
That search hit a dead end too. First, his son insisted that his father was asleep and would not be disturbed. Minutes later, he was said to have travelled out of town. And then another futile journey to trace the spokesman of the youths.
Moments later, two young men were at one's hotel as "executive members of Choba Youths Association" who had been "mandated by the community to see you in the absence of our appointed spokesmen." They came with documents, and with a declaration that "everything you need to know is contained in them."
But after all manners of explanations and concessions made, they were to bring in one of the sons of a victim and introduced one to the woman leader who both spoke extensively on the ordeals they have been passing through. But it was; of course, the woman who explained the miseries of the unfortunate women were so violated by the men in uniform.
In the ugly twist to the story, which triggered off angry reactions from Nigerians amid claims of innocence by the military authorities, Mrs. Alice Okocha disclosed that the women have been separated somewhat from their husbands until a proper appeasement is performed to the gods of Choba.
"It is a taboo to rape a married woman or to make love
on the bare floor," she told Weekend Vanguard after a deep sigh of frustration.
Until the gods are appeased, these women cannot sleep with their husbands
and cannot cook for them. It is our tradition and we have to respect it,
not just for the sake of respecting our custom but because there are grave
"These women come here very morning to cry that I should help them out of this dilemma. They beg me to go and meet the government (officials) to provide what it takes to appease the gods so that they can live their normal lives.
"At a time, we rallied our women to protest to the wife of the governor so that she can help us to push the case but we were arrested and detained for four days. It took the intervention of well-meaning elders before we were released.
"But that won't discourage us from asking the government to help out. It's a painful thing when husbands and wives can't stay together for no fault of theirs. We, the women of Choba, appeal to those behind the ugly event to come and do the necessary things to appease the gods. At least, they have mothers, wives and daughters. For the sake of these people, they should have pity.
"This is important to us because without this, these women are as good as divorced."
Venerable (Dr) Wotegbe Willington Weneka, the Vicar in charge of the Holy Trinity Anglican Church, Choba of how he rescued a lady who was being beaten up by soldiers and mobile policemen on October 30, this year.
"The lady was being led out by some mobile policemen. She looked harassed and had apparently been man-handled. She was crying and the policeman was consoling her. So, when they saw my driver coming out of the church premises, they waved us down. There was no single vehicle in this town on that day.
"So, I offered to take her to the next town from where she took a vehicle to her place. She's a student in the University and though she never admitted to being raped, she looked terribly harassed. Her case was very pathetic," revealed the man of God.
Dr. Weneka who is also a lecturer in the Philosophy and Religious Studies department of the University of Port Harcourt also confirmed that there were indeed, soldiers in the team that invaded Choba. "It's true that there were soldiers but I suspect that they got here through some private security arrangements with the oil service company based in the community."
Henry Wagbara, who insisted that he is merely a youth leader and not the spokesman, volunteered information too on how the rape pictures were got among other disclosures.
"The (rape) photographs were taken by a student of University of Port Harcourt. For security reasons, we cannot reveal his identity. But I want to tell you that they were not set-ups as the military establishment claimed. We also didn't know that such pictures were taken.
"It was when we were counting our losses that the young man came up with the shots. He said that he was running for his dear life, looking for a safe place to hide when he saw soldiers beating the women. One of them was already raping one woman. So, he went for his camera and took some shots.
"The governor set up a committee and we don't have any faith in it. What we told him was that our land had been desecrated. In Ikwerre, you don't make love to a woman on a bare floor. We also want compensation for those who died during the crisis. So, there must be appeasement; otherwise, there will be series of deaths.
"At the moment, everybody is quiet. The government is not saying anything. But they have to know that we need to appease the gods of our land. That is the first step."
What is the cause of the disagreement between the Choba community and Willbros Nigeria limited, an oil service company located in the town?
Again, Wagbara offered to explain. "The genesis of the problem is that Willbros had an agreement with the Choba community on September 17, 1999. When they failed to meet their own side of the bargain, there was a general outcry and protest by the people to the state government that brokered the agreement in the first place. Before getting to this point, there had been series of letters to the government on the issue but all to no avail.
"Between us and the company, it was agreed that in reciprocation for the community allowing the company to resume its operations, the company would provide a modern secondary school with boarding facilities. Our town was to provide the land and the school was to take off in October 2000.
"The company was also to abide by all applicable state and federal laws relating to employment. They were also to contribute half a million naira annually to the Choba Community Development Fund with effect from the year 2000. There were few other agreements that we reached with them.
"But quite surprising to us, they went and employed welders from Warri when there are better-trained welders in Choba, even those trained by Wilbros. That caused a friction in our relationship with them and led to the other problems that followed. The one that broke our spirit was the raping of our women."
Kelechi Owoh told Weekend Vanguard that her mother was raped in their house. "They raped my mother in our house. That was on October 29, 1999. When the military men came and were shooting, we all ran into the bush in order to save our lives. But later, my mother came to me crying that she had been violated in the presence of my younger ones.
"I felt terribly angry but there was nothing I could do. I was helpless. Even when I asked my younger ones what had happened, they were crying as they narrated the story to me. The biggest trouble we have now is that we need to appease the gods of the land. It doesn't matter whether one is a Christian or not. There must be this appeasement once a woman is violated.
"What we want is for the authority to come and discuss with the elders of the town to show respect to this custom of ours."
Owoh would not also agree that his mother encountered the reporter. "She is down in spirit because you know what it means to rape a woman," he says. "She cries all the time and I can't take you to go and be asking her questions concerning her experience in the hands of these wicked people."
Where is your father?
My father is late. He died in 1987. Since then, it has been my mother who has been taking care of six of us that our father left behind.
What does she do?
She is a farmer, and sells garri. She works practically at all times in order to provide for us. I was working with Wilbros but they sacked me and till today, I have no other job. That is why the strain is on my mother.
What will it take to appease the gods?
I am a young man and I don't know the details of what are needed. But we will consult the Chief Priest of our village. He is the one to prescribe what will be needed for the appeasement.
Are you a Christian?
I believe in African traditional religion. But mind you, my religion has nothing to do with the call for the right sacrifices to be offered to the gods of our land.
What kind of compensation do you want for your mother?
Right now, I am not bothered about any compensation. My major concern is for the sacrifice to be performed so that my mother can lead a normal life. When the time for compensation comes, we can discuss it. That is not the ultimate for now.
I say so because it is very embarrassing to be a son of
a rape victim. It is a cross that I have to bear for the rest of my life.
We couldn't have kept it as a secret because we would be playing with the
life of the woman. I prefer to bear the shame than lose my mother.