Obasanjo Condemned For The Situation In Nigeria

By Osita Nwajah [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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