The casualties of Okuama, By Reuben Abati

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The casualties are not only those who are dead/They are well out of it/The casualties are not only those who are dead/Though they await burial by installment/The casualties are not only those who are lost/Persons or property, hard as it is/To grope for a touch that some/May not know is not there/The casualties are not only those led away by night/The cell is a cruel place, sometimes a haven/Nowhere as absolute as the grave/The casualties are not only those who started/A fire and now cannot put out/Thousands/Are burning that have no say in the matter/The casualties are not only those who are escaping/The shattered shall become prisoners in/A fortress of falling walls/The casualties are many and a good member as well/Outside the scenes of ravage and wreck/They are the emissaries of rift/So smug in smoke-rooms they haunt abroad/They do not see the funeral piles/At home eating up the forests/They are wandering minstrels who, beating on/The drums of the human heart, draw the world/Into a dance with rites it does not know./The drums overwhelm the guns../caught in the clash of counter claims and charges/When not in the niche of others left/We fall/All casualties of the war….” – John Pepper Clark, The Casualties (1970)

These prefatory lines are taken from J.P. Clark’s “The Casualties” (1970), a most poignant poem written by one of the masters of the genre of Nigerian literature on the civil war of 1967 -70. Clark’s lines are simple and clear enough; relevant as they were in 1970, they remain just as relevant today, 54 years later, in their offering of an apt description of the tragedy that occurred in the coastal community of Okuama in Delta State on Thursday, 14 March, and the aftermath of that slaughter of 17 (initially reported to be 16) soldiers, who were reportedly on a peace mission. The fact that we have to go back to a 1970 poem speaks not simply to the eternity of good literature, but more to the fact that indeed the civil war is yet to end. We remain perpetually in a state of war and we are all, as the poet says, “casualties.” Both the men and women in uniform, sworn to defend the integrity and sovereignty of Nigeria, as well as ordinary civilians, are trapped in the vortex of centrifugal forces and fault-lines which, again and again, result in tragedy and anarchy. No one is safe. When a people turn against the same men who have been assigned to protect them, there can be no stronger proof of the failure of the state. The murder of four officers and 13 other ranks in Okuama is as President Bola Tinubu pointed out, in a personally signed statement, “a direct attack on our nation”, and further, an affront on the very values that make us human. Murder was not enough for the killers, they reportedly went ahead to dismember some of their victims, and harvested their organs in what points to modern-day cannibalism and sheer cruelty. 

I am however shocked to no end by the kind of conspiracy theories that have been thrown up by some interested parties with necrophilous prejudices of their own. The most shocking is the suggestion that the men of the 181 Amphibious Battalion asked for their own deaths because they went to the community without permission from the traditional rulers and elders of Okuama. Or that the soldiers and their commander openly took sides with the Ijaw-Okoloba community in a land dispute with Okuama, hence they were not about to make peace. One spokesperson for Okuama has in fact alleged that the soldiers stormed the community and killed three persons, shot at anything on sight, and that the tragedy that followed was because angry youths of the community decided to fight back. Other persons who claim to know the politics of the area very well also argue that the soldiers in that area of responsibility, to use a military phrase, are corrupt and that the people know this for a fact and that is why the youths do not respect them. Within 72 hours after the murder, there were reports that Okuama had been besieged by unknown soldiers, who set the entire community ablaze. These same unknown soldiers are said to be patrolling the creeks. The people of the community have fled towards Ughelli. They have become refugees away from their own land. Okuama is a ghost town. I have again heard some concerned parties arguing that the reprisal is unacceptable, because when soldiers are killed in the North, as in Niger State for example, Nigerian soldiers do not engage in reprisal killings, but if one soldier is killed in the South-South, hell breaks loose, as was the case in the Ijaw town of Odi, Bayelsa State on 20 November, 1999. 

I ask: How does any of these theories and arguments justify the cold-blooded murder of soldiers who were on active duty? Such views can only be expressed in a country that is on the brink of failure. The conflict between the Okoloba (Ijaw) and Okuama (Urhobo) communities was said to have been caused by a dispute over land. Leo Tolstoy has asked “How much land does a man need?” in a short story of the same title written in 1886. But here in Africa, so much sentimental value is attached to land, and not a little blood has been shed over the centuries for it. In Nigeria, conflict over land is at the centre of perennial communal border clashes, indigene/settler acrimony and farmer-herder conflicts, turning the entire country from the coast to the savannah into a vast theatre of war. What should bother us is why the military, whose functions are properly defined in Section 217 (2) of the 1999 Constitution and the Armed Forces Act of 1994, would end up settling land disputes between communities! We have complained endlessly that there must be a limit to the use of the Nigerian military for police work. Nigeria has become so insecure, the internal war has gone on for so long, that soldiers now man check-points across the country. It is even not unusual to see soldiers in uniform providing security at weekend “owambe” parties or serving as bodyguards to the rich. Familiarity breeds contempt. In other countries, soldiers are respected for their service to the nation. I once saw a group of Marines arriving at an airport in the United States. Everyone at the airport lounge stood up and applauded them – a grateful people appreciating those who defend the sovereignty of their country. It is unfortunate that here in Nigeria, we kill our own soldiers. This is strange and unacceptable. The children of those soldiers have now become fatherless, their wives have become widows, their families have lost their loved ones. “All casualties…”

Those who argue that there would have been no reprisal if the soldiers had been killed in the North forget that the main issue is the erosion of human values in our country. We share a common humanity but the hardship and bad politics in Nigeria have robbed us of a sense of what it means to be human, hence the spread of violence, criminality and impunity from North to South, East to West. Those who seek to play politics with everything, including murder, are casualties of primordial emotions. They forget that there was a similar reprisal by unknown soldiers in Zaki Biam on 12 October, 2001, when soldiers went to avenge the killing of their men in that community. The revenge mission was titled “Operation No Living Thing.” Some people claim that Zaki Biam is not Northern enough, and that is precisely the problem with Nigerians. We are too divisive. Just as the murder of soldiers is wrong and must be condemned, reprisal killing, resort to extra-judicial killing and jungle justice is also condemnable. No one, soldier or civilian, has any right to take the laws into their hands. The fact that jungle justice rules the land is indeed why we are all victims. The people of Odi, whose houses were razed, and their women raped, and the people of Zaki Biam, who were openly executed, have not recovered from the horror of those experiences. Okuama community in Delta State may never recover from the scorched earth attack inflicted on it. No citizen should be subjected to such agony. 

Where is the Delta State government? In a statement issued by Brigadier-General Tukur Gusau, acting director of Information, Defence Headquarters, we were told that the matter had been reported to the Delta State Government. Governor Sheriff Oborevwori would later condemn the killings as “despicable” and promise that the state government will take “all necessary measures” to protect lives and property in the state. What could those necessary measures possibly be? The Land Use Act (1979) vests the ownership of land in state governors as trustees, but in the event of land-related conflicts, state governors are either totally helpless or even complicit, as they surreptitiously try to defend the interests of their ethnic groups. Conflicts in Delta State over the years have been far beyond the capacity of the governors. It will be no different with Oborevwori, who himself needs as much help as the people. If he had any ideas about what to do, the tragedy at Okuama could have been prevented. The conflict must have been brewing over time until it reached a boiling point. 

President Tinubu has written as follows: “I extend my profound condolences to the families of these fallen heroes, their colleagues, and their loved ones. The military high command is already responding to this incident. The cowardly offenders responsible for this heinous crime will not go unpunished. The incident, once again, demonstrates the dangers faced by our servicemen and women in line of duty. I salute their heroism, courage and uncommon grit and passion.” He added: “The Defence Headquarters and Chief of Defence Staff have been granted full authority to bring to justice anybody found to have been responsible for this unconscionable crime against the Nigerian people.” Certainly, the president struck the right notes of empathy; signing the statement personally as President, Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces of the Federal Republic of Nigeria is also a good gesture that matches the gravity of the problem. Morale must be very low among the troops – to be killed by an enemy on the battle-field is occupational hazard, but to be slaughtered at home by the same people they have taken an oath to protect and defend is worse. The families of the 17 fallen soldiers deserve every support that they can get, including counselling. We mourn the fallen heroes: Lt. Col. AH Ali, commanding officer, 181 Amphibious Battalion; Major SD Shafa, Major DE Obi, Captain U Zakari, Staff Sergeant Yahaya Saidu, Corporal Yahaya Danbaba, Corporal Kabiru Basir, Lieutenant Corporal Bulus Haruna, Lieutenant Corporal Sole Opeyemi, Lieutenant Corporal Bello Anas, Lieutenant Corporal Hamman Peter, Lieutenant Corporal Ibrahim Abdullahi, Private Alhaji Isah, Private Clement Francis, Private Abubakar Ali, Private Ibrahim Adamu and Private Adamu Ibrahim. The President has called for “justice”. The investigations and arrests being carried out by the Defence Headquarters must result in a situation whereby the long arm of the law catches up with those who killed the soldiers, those who inflicted jungle justice on the community and destroyed lives and properties, those who caused the conflict between the two communities of Okuama and Okoloba, and any person(s), be they chiefs, youths or ordinary indigenes who may be trying to profit in whatever form from the crisis. 

The investigation must also address certain cogent questions: What was the peace mission all about? Who authorised the deployment of troops and under what circumstances? How did the youths of Okuama get the sophisticated weapons with which they waged war against Nigerian soldiers? Why is it that the soldiers could not defend themselves? How equipped were they, even on a peace mission, military work requires an advance knowledge of the threat situation at a chosen destination or is that not so? And how on earth did soldiers become involved in a land dispute? It would perhaps be advisable to set up an independent panel of inquiry, and for the military to review the scope of the involvement of its personnel in the Niger Delta. The Okuama narrative is at best a developing story, “caught in the clash of counter claims and charges.” In order not to keep ending up as “casualties”, the people of Urhobo Ewu Kingdom and the Ijaws along the Forcados river must learn to live together in peace.  And as for the rest of us, the instructive question is: Who really is safe when armed soldiers are killed so easily by irate youths? I guess not even the dead who are also now being kidnapped from cemeteries by graveyard bandits.

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