July 15, 2024

Odi, Zaki Biam And Okuama: Beyond Sentiments

Odi, Zaki Biam And Okuama: Beyond Sentiments
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Soldiers voluntarily elected to die the very day they signed up for Military work. They signed up to die at the hands of the enemies. It is a grave abnormality therefore, for soldiers to die in the hands of those they set out to defend. Every society treats its soldiers with respect. In our African traditional settings, we venerate those we engage to guard our towns and villages. We call them Asode, or Olode Oru.

While we sleep, caressing our wives, the night guards are in the cold night, watching over our safety and those of our property. That is also the life of an average soldier. Soldiers trade off their comfort for the rest of us to sleep peacefully in our homes.

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This is how Richard Grenier, a film critic and essayist, obviously quoting George Orwell, describes soldiers in his April 6, 1993 article in The Washington Times: “People sleep peacefully in their beds at night only because rough men stand ready to do violence on their behalf.” The “rough men” referred to here are members of security forces including soldiers and policemen., They risk their lives to defend ours. They deserve our respect and love. So, when soldiers are killed by civilians, like it happened last week in Okuama town of Delta State, such an act stands condemnable. Do we forget history easily in this country?

Dateline was Thursday, November 4, 1999. This democratic dispensation was barely a month old. A retired Army General, Olusegun Obasanjo was the president. Twelve policemen were on an official assignment to Odi, a small community in Bayelsa State. It was at the heat of the agitation by the Niger Delta ‘militants’ for control of the oil in the region. The 12 policemen were ambushed by some gunmen who took them into captivity. Negotiations started. Goodluck Ebele Jonathan, who later became President and Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces, was the one assigned to negotiate with the militants. He was then the deputy governor of Bayelsa State. Obasanjo fumed from Abuja. He gave a marching order to the Bayelsa State Government to “produce the policemen ALIVE.” There was tension everywhere. Then the news broke. Seven of the policemen had been killed by their captors, the news was relayed. Wahala!

The following day, Friday, November 5, 1999, the remaining five policemen were also murdered by their captors. Twelve lives wasted just like that. The Odi community was on edge. Permutations were on as to what the Federal Government would do or would not do. Many believed that Obasanjo would not want to put Nigeria on the wrong side of the world map, more so when his administration was fledging then. They were mistaken.

The man called Ebora Owu (the Deity of Owu) bided his time. The vulture, we are told, is a patient bird. Days passed, and there was no response from Abuja, the seat of power. Then life returned to normalcy in Odi. Exactly 16 days after the first killing of the seven policemen, tragedy visited Odi. In the early hours of Saturday, November 20, 1999. Odi residents woke up to discover that their community had been surrounded by the Military. Land, air and sea, all covered. No escape route. The Military opened fire on Odi. Nobody was spared; not even animals. Houses were burnt. Only three buildings; a bank, a church and the community’s health centre were spared. While the Human Rights watch and other Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) claimed that more than 900 civilians were killed after the encounter, the Nigerian Military said just about 34 people, including soldiers, died. Later, the Federal Government under the watch of President Jonathan paid the sum of N15 billion as compensation to Odi. But the damage caused by that incident remains unquantifiable till date. That should have been a huge lesson to Nigerians. It never was!

Barely two years after Odi, another set of felons ambushed some soldiers sent on a peace mission to Zaki Biam town in Benue State, October 10, 2001. The soldiers, 19 of them, were said to be fully armed. However, leaders of the community were said to have persuaded the soldiers to drop their arms such that their presence would not provoke the already charged youths who were at war with their counterparts from Jukun in Taraba State. The soldiers complied. That was their mistake. Hardly had they dropped their arms when boys swooped on them. The 19 of them were murdered and their bodies mutilated! Before killing them, the felons posed with the soldiers, displaying them like trophies won at various competitions. At the funeral rites for the soldiers on October 22, 2001, Obasanjo gave the Military marching order to “track and bring to book”, those responsible for the killing of the 19 soldiers. That is a directive any responsible Commander-in-Chief would give to his troops in such a circumstance. President Bola Ahmed Tinubu gave the same order in almost, if not exactly the same words, on Sunday to the Military high command over the killing of soldiers in Okuma village. Incidentally, the late General Victor Malu, who was the Chief of Army Staff (CoS), when the Odi incident happened, hailed from Zaki Biam. Indeed, the Military went after “those responsible.” By the time the roll call was made, over 100 people were said to have paid the supreme price in Zaki Biam and the adjoining towns of Tse Adoor, Vaase, Sankera, Anyiin, and Kyado. The exercise lasted between October 22 and 24, 2001. Ever since, there has been no report of civilians, under any guise, killing members of the Nigerian Armed forces in their number. We thought we had passed that age of barbarism. Again, we are all wrong!

But before we treat the latest madness in Okuama in Delta State, it is pertinent for us to point out that irrespective of our emotions over the responses of the Nigerian Military to the killing of their personnel, we also need to understand that when soldiers, or any other law enforcement agent is killed cold-bloodedly, the damage is monumental. We need to realise that for every soldier killed by those they keep watch over; someone’s husband is involved. For every killed soldier, there is a widow. Every soldier killed leaves behind some orphans. Many of them also have parents who are made to bury their children, and those who depend on them. We also need to know the mentality of the Military to these wanton killings of their personnel. What about the psychological effect on the soldier-victims, who at the point of death realised that they were being killed by the very patriots they signed to protect with their lives? As I saw the pictures of the soldiers killed in Okuama, the very mutilated bodies of the armed men, my heart sank. I visualised how they died. I recall here, the graphic image of the young lad, Ikemefuna, as depicted by the master story teller, Chinua Achebe, in his epic novel, “Things Fall Apart.” Ikemefuna, when he received the first blow of the machete, ran to Okonkwo, shouting ‘father’. He was seeking refuge. He thought, given his position in the community, Okonkwo would rise to his defense. But alas, it was the same Okonkwo, who dealt the last blow that sent the lad to the land of no return. Ikemefuna was already a psychological wreck before he hit the ground after Okonkwo dealt him the blow. Nothing can be more tragic than to die at the hands of those who should show one affection and love. That is exactly what happened to the 12 soldiers killed by some untrained children in Okuama. Their killing is as tragic as it is inhuman!

And we should not forget. The Military has a different mentality. Iselin Sija Kasperen, a military sociologist, with preference for identity, moral dilemmas, gender and the use of force, published an online article titled: “New societies, new soldiers? A soldier typology”, on June 28, 2020. In the abstract to the article, here is what she says of a soldier: “The term ‘soldier’ is frequently conceptualized as a warrior, a peacekeeper, or a hybrid of both. However, recent changes in the utilization of soldiers in societies have moved the repertoire of possible ways to think, act, and behave beyond these notions. As such, there exists an undertheorized gap between different expectations of soldiers and actual soldier roles. This presents a need for more nuanced and analytically useful conceptualizations of soldier roles. This article provides a more thorough understanding of the soldier role by identifying seven ideal types of soldiers: the warrior, nation-defender, law-enforcer, humanitarian, state-builder, and the ideological, and contractor soldiers. The typology offers an analytical tool with the capacity to maneuver the empirical reality, which is important because how soldier roles are constructed affect how military personnel understand their role in the postmodern world, where identity is multifaceted and negotiable. Ultimately, identity influences how soldiers interact with societies and how societies respond to war, conflicts, and crises.” Concluding the piece, Kaspeten states: “The soldier typology presented in this article improves our understanding of the soldier role. …This is a serious undertaking, as the way soldiers understand their role in today’s postmodern world, where identity is multifaceted and negotiable, influences how they will perform their role. How society and soldiers construct the soldier roles are critical as it affects soldierly conduct; particularly, how soldiers interact with society and how societies respond to war, conflicts, and crises.”

Come to think of it. In a conventional war, before an officer in the rank of a Lieutenant Colonel would be killed, only God knows how many other rank and file would have died. The Commanding Officer, a Lieutenant Colonel, two Majors and nine soldiers were all wasted for doing their job! How else would the Military have responded? Agreed, many innocent people were made to pay the price. That in itself is bad. I saw the video of the burning of houses in Okuama. Many of the buildings were built by average ‘strugglers’; the poor of the poor. I pity those families who will never recover after this ugly incident. My heart goes to those parents who will never see their children again. What about the toddlers, children and wards, who have suddenly become orphans and homeless because of the madness of a few misguided youths? What sort of barbarism would make a set of people to murder soldiers and mutilate their bodies? I saw soldiers without arms, legs and private parts; all cut off by their killers! Some were decapitated! Imagine the agony the soldiers passed through. Think about the pains; picture the gruesomeness of their death. Now think about your pity for the residents of Okuama town. Which do you consider justifiable? Who does that what the Okuama’s youths did? How else do you define barbarism? To prove what point? Which Military would allow such madness go unpunished? These are the issues at the base of the criminality that took place in Delta State.

Yes, nobody should justify the reaction of the Military in this case. Heavens know that I am not by any means justifying that. Two wrongs would not make a right. It was bad for bandits to kill innocent soldiers. It was equally bad for retaliating soldiers to level innocent villagers and their villages. However, my mind agrees with the saying of my people that he who sells sand as goods will be paid back in pebbles – eni ba ta oja yepe; dandan ni ko gbowo okuta. Our elders warn that if your neighbour is feasting on poisonous insects, raise the alarm quickly otherwise, you will not sleep at all again at night. The Okuama youths should have learnt from history. If those felons were too young to witness Odi and Zaki Biam, their parents should have told them the stories. This is a lesson for all community leaders, especially in those towns, where the youths have taken over the ladder of leadership from their fathers. Sentiments apart, no one of us will be safe again if boys can just round up soldiers, kill them and thereafter go to relax with a bottle of gin and grasscutter venison. When you kill a soldier, you should expect grave repercussions. It is like what Achebe, again, says about a woman who comes home with ants-infested fire woods. Her compound must surely play host to a lounge of lizards. While I grieve at the calamity the Okuama badly-brought up youths brought upon their town, my heart goes to the families of those slain officers and men of the Nigerian Army. May their services to their fatherland not be in vain. Rest in peace, gallant soldiers.

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