The curse of the Okuama tragedy, By Festus Adedayo

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Reading Time: 9 mins read

Curses and magical beliefs are woven together in African politics. A study found out that virtually all African leaders come to power emboldened by beliefs in local magical spells. Francisco Macias Nguema, the first president of Equatorial Guinea from the time of the country’s independence in 1968 till 1979, when he was overthrown, was a perfect fit of this. A strongman and one of the most brutal dictators in human history, Nguema reportedly killed between 20,000 and 80,000 of the total Guinean population of about 300,000 people. This led to his country being nicknamed the Dachau of Africa. The Dachau Concentration Camp, built by Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Germany in March, 1933, is located in the medieval town of Dachau in Bavaria, Southern Germany. It was where Hitler’s hounded political opponents were warehoused. Nguema was perceived, as Nigerians regarded General Sani Abacha during his reign, to be mentally unstable. Medical reports that backed this perception up emerged even from his early career. For instance, a report in 1968 by the French foreign intelligence service, SDECE, claimed that Ngueman suffered mental disorders and venereal diseases. Claims of this ruthless dictator’s mental situation were further compounded by his rumoured addiction to the regular usage of drugs like cannabis. This, he was said to consume through its edible drink derivatives of bhang and iboga, which have strong hallucinogenic effects.

More importantly, Nguema believed strongly in magic. While he was president in the 1970s, he openly advertised a deep romance with sorcery. For him, voodoo was a vehicle of instilling fear in the people of Equatorial Guinea. He often dropped the narrative at public events that his occult powers were drawn from a collection of skulls he arrayed in the presidential palace. The belief that Nguema was, as well, a sorcerer, permeated the nooks and crannies of Guinea. He also flaunted frequent conversations he claimed to have had with the dead, most especially with the same persons he had ordered their execution. To reinforce the narrative of his spiritual invincibility and supernatural reputation, Nguema arranged his own escape from sponsored assassins. Thus, in 1979, upon his ouster in the coup masterminded by his nephew, Teodoro Obiang Ngueman Mbasogo, Nguema was ordered to be executed by firing squad. However, it became a herculean task sourcing his executioners. No one dared volunteer to execute the old sorcerer. The belief which pervaded Equatorial Guinea was that Nguema was a mythical shapeshifter. He had the powers to make a return journey from the land of the dead in the form of a tiger and thus exact vengeance on his executioners. It was so bad that the government of Mbasogo had to import Muslim executioners from Morocco, who eventually carried out the death sentence. As the last breath escaped him, Nguema was rumoured to have cursed Morocco. In a country plagued by belief in sorcery, sympathetic magic and witches, Morocco’s crisis, which came later, were attributed to the tiger, Nguema, which laid curse on Morocco for lending Mbasogo the sharpshooters who brought his life to an end. 

In the light of this, how powerful are curses, or how effective is their perception? In the killing of 17 soldiers of the Nigerian Army in the Okuama Community of Delta State on 14 March, discourses on the curse of oil came to the front burner. Oil resource, generally held to be a blessing to nations, is in the same mould believed to be a curse to them. Nigeria and Venezuela took their rightful positions in that narrative. Were the soldiers martyred in Okuama part of the curse of oil on the Nigerian soil?

Discourses on the link between natural resources and curse gained currency in the early 1970s. The proposition put forward was that countries that are richly endowed with natural wealth are most times plagued by violence, and they do not do well economically, politically, and socially, in comparison to poorly endowed countries. Two scholars, Paul Collier, a British development economist and Anke Hoeffler, a German economist and political scientist, were known for their pioneering works on resource curse. They concluded that natural resources directly invite loot-seeking rebellion, as well as sociopolitical and institutional decay. Indra de Soysa, (2015) too, in “Oil and the ‘new wars’: Another look at the resource curse using alternative data”, Development Studies Research, 2:1, 64-76, argues that there is empirical evidence supporting the ‘resource curse’ argument, in that the abundance of oil raises the probability of political violence.

This can only be the explanation of the gory scene witnessed in Okuoma community in the oil-dominant area of the Niger Delta, where seventeen soldiers, including a commanding officer, two Majors, one Captain and 12 others, were brutally murdered. The troops from the 181 Amphibious Battalion deployed in the Bomadi region were reportedly ambushed after they heeded calls to maintain peace between two communities who were locked in skirmishes over land. After their killing, the soldiers and officers were said to have been maniacally decapitated and butchered in the most horrendous manner. While some had their hearts ripped out of their chest cavities, the bodies of others were thrown into the river. Reports claimed that some of the recovered bodies had their stomachs eviscerated. Incessant clashes over land, many a times deadly, and requests for compensation for oil spills by energy companies in the Niger Delta are singsongs. None of these compare to the inhuman killing of these soldiers and officers, which has raised critical questions in need of straight answers.

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former editor of The Guardian newspaper and a Niger Delta leader of thought, Abraham Ogbodo, who granted an Arise TV interview last week. He said:

 

“What was actually compelling about a peace mission in that place that will require the strategic team going for a tactical mission? So, it shows that there are so many things underlying that we are not talking about. 

We have heard, since the agitations of the Ken Saro-Wiwas, of how resource-wealthy states like Nigeria are perennially enmeshed in the provision of lower levels of public goods in terms of education, health and general wellbeing to oil-producing communities. Researchers of the resource curse have also found out that there is a general malaise among governments of resource-rich countries, which reflects in their neglect of citizens and institutions of the oil-bearing communities. There is a growing intensity of social anger accruing from communities like Okuama against the operators of state. It is anger at how their nature-endowed resource has given access to easy money and unearned income by undeserving buccaneers in Nigeria. The truth is, if successive governments had prioritised the peace of oil-bearing communities and taken a more than casual interest in it, the officers murdered in Okuama may be alive today.

The truth is that soldiers and policemen posted to oil-bearing communities are not innocent peace-keepers. They are grossly enmeshed in the crude craze that is the daily existential pursuit of Niger Delta communities. It is not news that soldiers deployed to oil-rich communities are alleged to be heavily enveloped in the oil bunkering trade. Some of them even possess their own bunkering crew. This is a pestilence in the Niger Delta. Indeed, illicit trade in crude oil and violence are said to be the only thriving industry in Nigeria’s oil-producing communities. In the words of Ogbodo, “everything is subordinated to oil.” This is in agreement with scholarly arguments which say that resource wealth gives birth to weak institutions that are lax in the maintenance of peace and security. Groups within the state then capitalise on this weakness to organise armed violence, which they deploy to capture rents. The result is that a resource-dependent state like Nigeria is landlord to persistent violence in its oil-bearing communities. This is because institutions that are expected to bring peace and harmony like the army and police are either too weak to monopolise violence, cannot stop the oil resource itself from inviting looting or have become part and parcel of the problem. In the process, the financing of gory violence by individual state actors like the one in Okuama becomes a fait accompli.

There is also the resource jealousy and resource monopoly angle to the killing of the soldiers in Okuama. The resource-bearing communities see the rest of Nigeria as parasites reaping where they did not sow. On visits to Abuja, the communities see glittering streets paved by their oil money, compared to the despoliation of their lands and the crude-smeared waters they drink. They also know that fat leeches in power and their accomplices from other parts of Nigeria acquire toad-like statures from the wealth of their oil. Niger Deltans thus naturally develop a revenge complex against these Nigerian bugs. Take a look at the list of 17 soldiers killed in Okuama. You will discover that a particular section of the country takes a giant share of the fatalities. None of them is from the Niger Delta. This reflects how the Nigerian state sucks the nectar of Niger Delta, while leaving the withered land to its fate.

It must be said that some other scholars have said that it is not wholly true that all oil-rich countries suffer the curse of chronic instability and violence. Nor that these countries’ resource opens up warfare in the oil-bearing communities. And that, like the rumoured curse placed by Nguema on Morocco, is a figment of imagination. This is the path trodden by Ross Michael (2012) in The Oil Curse: How Petroleum Wealth Shapes the Development of Nations, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. While Venezuela, Angola and Nigeria affirm the greed thesis of oil resource, states and countries like Texas in America and Saudi Arabia show that the thesis may not be entirely true. These are countries not fraught with Nigeria and its ilk’s oil curse manifestations.

The way out of the curse of oil is effective practice of federalism. States in which the oil resource is found should be allowed to administer it while they pay royalties to the federal government. If we do this, militancy and crises over land, which necessitate soldiers being drafted to make peace, would be a thing of the past.

Nigeria must unravel the killing of the officers and men of the Nigerian Army who met their untimely deaths in Okuama. This will need openness and getting to the brass-tacks of the matter. It must be done by an entity independent of the military, which cannot be the accuser and judge in its own case. The first thing to examine is the claim of the peace mission that the felled soldiers were alleged to have come to Okuama for. There are submissions that the Urhobo and Ijaw that make up the community were not at war with each other; at least not to the level that could warrant “a peace mission.” So if this is the case, why would a whole battalion invade a community that is not at war, with the most plum of its officers? Second, did the “peace-keeping force” fire first at the members of the community, as claimed by some of them? At what point were the officers and men ambushed? In answering these questions, we would be drilling to the base of the issue. It must be done for the sanity of the country.

Festus Adedayo is an Ibadan-based journalist. 

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