By Peter P. Ekeh, Ph.D.
University at Buffalo, The State University of New York
When all the propaganda by a powerful government has been examined, and the facts of the case have been stripped to their bare bones, Odi's story is simply a tragic one, at least from the point of view of its residents. The story can probably be started from the elections in early 1999 that brought President Olusegun Obasanjo into power. He and his ruling party, People's Democratic Party, won decisively in Bayelsa State, in central Niger Delta, thanks to the efforts of Chief Diepreye Alamieyeseigha, the man who became the Governor of the state. According to several reports (e.g. Human Rights Watch) in this documentation, the thugs who helped PDP to achieve its decisive victory were unemployed after the elections, turning into criminals in the State headquarters in Yenegoa. When they were chased out of the state headquarters, they and their leader Ken Niweigha settled in Odi Town. They terrorized the residents of this town and its environs, with no police force around to help them. Their criminal activities led them to the oil companies whose protection is about the only reason why government security is around in Bayelsa State. It is this area of their duties, that is protecting oil companies, that led the police into confrontation with the criminals. They were said to have lost some twelve men in these encounters with Ken Niweigha's gang of criminals.
It is important to indicate here that Ken Niweigha and his men were not part of the leadership of the struggle for Ijaw rights that several youth organizations had mounted. He was a criminal who was nurtured by the largesse of the ruling People's Democratic Party, that is, President Obasanjo's party. Nor was this the only criminal gang operating in Nigeria, although it posed immediate danger to oil companies whose safety is vital for President Obasanjo's government.
The rest of the story is fairly well documented in the entries that follow. (1) President Olusegun Obasanjo gave an ultimatum to the Governor of Bayelsa State on November 10, 1999, to arrest Ken Niweigha's gang and try its members within fourteen days, failing which he would declare a state of emergency and take over the state. (2) Four days before the expiration of the ultimatum, President Olusegun Obasanjo sent in an invasion army of more than three thousand well-armed men into Odi Town to "fish out" the criminals. (3) According to the Federal Government, the criminals resisted, leading the invasion army to raze Odi to the ground. (4) According to the reports in this documentation, so far specifically undenied by the Federal Government, the army had instructions to eliminate every male they saw, leading to charges of genocide from Nigeria's Human Rights and civil society groups.
MOTIVATION FOR INVASION
Why did President Olusegun Obasanjo invade Odi Town? His own explanation is straightforward. It was for the sake of ridding the state of a dangerous gang of criminals. In other words, as the chief law officer of Nigeria, he was merely performing his duties. It is remarkable that nowhere in the numerous statements from Obasanjo's government was there any mention of the need to protect the people of Odi from this criminal gang. It will be seen in several documents coming from Abuja that there was a definite effort to demonize the Ijaw, as if they were a nation of criminals (see especially Eric Ayoola's email letter to Peter Ekeh).
The President's simple answer to the question of his motivation has been challenged by several reports included in this documentation. Perhaps its most telling refutation is from the history of criminal gangs in Nigeria. In an impassioned piece in this documentation, Oluremi Ladeji cites several instances of criminal gangs in Nigerian history which gunned down policemen. Two infamous cases were those of Oyenusi in Lagos and its environs during Gowon's military regime and Anini in Benin City and its environs in the 1980s. Both of these men's criminal gangs murdered numerous policemen. Indeed, they were hunting for policemen. No invasion army was sent into Lagos or Benin City to arrest them. They finally fell to police detectives and operatives.
Many of the documents that follow have also raised the
question as to why the President should focus on Bayelsa State whereas
Nigerians' safety was imperilled virtually everywhere in the country. Why
single out Odi? The documentation provided in these pages suggests
two inter-related answers. First, Bayelsa is where Nigeria's wealth lies.
It is imperative to protect the companies that provide Nigeria with its
enormous export incomes. Second, President Olusegun Obasanjo appears determined
to teach a lesson to the people of the Niger Delta in order to ensure that
they obey his Government's commandment. Several entries in this documentation
have made this point. The most persuasive of them all comes from a designated
Government spokesman who openly discussed the motives for the invasion
of Odi, shortly after the event. A
document in this package reported as follows: "President
Olusegun Obasanjo, under pressure over the growing lawlessness in
the region, last month ordered a crackdown. 'The people in Odi had
tolerated these criminals, these attacks on security forces,' [Captain
John] Agim told reporters in an interview at the brigade headquarters in
Port Harcourt, capital of neighbouring Rivers State. 'The intention
was just a show of force to let them know they cannot continue like
that. I think that has been achieved. No village will want to go
through what that village went through. It has been taught a lesson.' "A
compendium of graffiti left behind in ruined Odi by the invading Nigerian
soldiers buttresses Captain Agim's official message. In teaching this lesson,
Obasanjo's government wasted hundreds of innocent people many of whom had
been victimized by a criminal gang that owed its origins to the President's
FOR THEIR SAKES .........
Why compile this documentation of events that occurred more than a year ago? What is the significance of these documents that deal with the fate of a town whose population in November 1999 has variously been put at between thirty to fifty thousand people? Surely, President Olusegun Obasanjo's Federal Government of Nigeria would be irritated at the repetition of these facts, arguments, and debates.
Actually, we believe the Odi tragedy bears important lessons for a variety of groups, communities, and organizations in Odi itself, Niger Delta, and in Nigeria as well as various groups and organizations in the international community. I will indicate its significance and lessons as follows:
For Odi's Sake
The slate of revealing graffiti left behind at Odi includes three statements from some troubled soldiers to the people of Odi: (1) "Odi people, no be our fault na ona government," (2) "We were sent by government to kill and burn your community, take heart," and (3) "The governor has given us the right to destroy everything." We may never know whether these soldiers were telling the truth. But Odi people need to hear from their governments. Since these governments have no respect for their lives, those of us who respect their humanity must do something to enable the people of Odi to learn why Obasanjo's government decided to kill their kinsfolk. The children and relatives of those who died, their bodies flushed into River Nun, will probably treasure a record of what happened to their forebears who could not be given decent burials because they were killed by soldiers. For their sake, we believe this documentation is important.
For Niger Delta's Sake
For the rest of the Niger Delta, Odi is in the future, not in the past -- if President Obasanjo prevails in his policies towards the Niger Delta. President Olusegun Obasanjo is a determined man. He is also one who believes that he has a mission to rebuild Nigeria. He believes he will do so with the resources that God provided the nation in the Niger Delta. Thus, what happened at Odi was only the beginning. Such is the view of President Olusegun Obasanjo from the Niger Delta.
Such views are not the figment of the imagination of Niger Delta's harassed leaders. Following Odi, the President has widened the military presence in the Niger Delta. The corridor of Urhoboland running from Effurun through Okpe towns and villages to Idjerhe and Oghara is now besieged because petroleum oil pipes go through these communities. These pipes were built in 1976 when Olusegun Obasanjo was the Military Ruler of Nigeria. Now aged, they pose enormous dangers to the peoples of the Niger Delta. President Obasanjo wants to add to this legacy the building of a new West African gas pipeline that will run through the same communities, without any consultation with their leaders and against opposition from environmental rights' groups. To ensure that his policies shall be carried out, President Obasanjo has turned the Western Niger Delta into a military zone, thanks to the so-called Technical Aids Scheme that he has signed with the United States Navy and Marines. His Vice President has warned the people of Niger Delta about impending military occupation -- prompting a Niger Deltan Reverend gentleman to compose a poem and an essay to examine the relations between Obasanjo and the Niger Delta. The futures of the peoples of the Niger Delta are threatened by a man they voted for in large numbers in order for him to become President.
In these circumstances, Niger Deltans will benefit from full knowledge of what happened at Odi. This documentation will help to meet that goal.
For the Military's Sake
The Nigerian Military is a troubled institution. In this collection of documents, there is an email message that commented on the reputation of the Nigerian military, following the atrocities at Odi. Its author, Dr. Nowa Omoigui, has a great deal of affection for the Nigerian military. Dr. Omoigui's characterization of the behaviour of Nigerian military, from colonial times, in combat situations, must be a source of anguish for lovers of the Nigerian military. Hopefully, its leaders will want it to improve on its tattered reputation. The mass rape at Choba and the destruction of Odi are actions that no military forces should inflict on their own fellow citizens. For now, such acts are done with impunity. But this has become a small world. The Nigerian military should not be surprised if there is pressure on the international community to prosecute such acts as war crimes.
For Nigerians' Sake
One of the most pleasing developments in Nigeria's post-Civil War era is the emergence of excellent Human Rights and civil society groups that cater for the basic human needs of Nigerians. Those who operate these non-governmental organizations are brave and patriotic men and women who respect the basic humanity of all peoples irrespective of their ethnic origins. This is a development that we all should celebrate. Their work has especially been helpful in the Niger Delta. This is so because Niger Deltans have to cope with a government that persecutes its own citizens as well as powerful oil companies that pay to pollute the lands and streams of the Niger Delta. The reports of these Human Rights and civil society groups on the invasion of Odi have been vital for this documentation.
In painful contrast to the work of Human Rights groups, many ethnic Nigerians care little or nothing about the violations of the rights of fellow Nigerians from other ethnic groups. It is said that when Ken Saro-Wiwa was killed by government forces, some neighbouring ethnic groups rejoiced because he had criticized their conduct. In the same way, some Nigerians who had difficulties with the Ijaws were apparently pleased that they were being invaded by Obasanjo's military forces. For a race of people who suffered from the humiliations of the slave trade, Nigerians appear not to take the lessons of history of human rights in any serious manner. The famous ancient Yoruba saying Gabari pa Fulani kolêjô ninuê [English: "Hausa kills Fulani, what is my concern?"] seems to convey this degree of indifference about the rights of others that is discernible in the behaviours of Nigerians. I must add, though, that one of the more surprising and pleasing aspects of the responses to Obasanjo's invasion of Bayelsa State is that it was very often challenged among the Yoruba -- possibly an indication of the complexity and sophistication of Yoruba society.
It is my hope that the contents of this documentation will be read by many Nigerians, particularly those who supported President Obasanjo's invasion of Odi. We all must understand that the killing of the people of Odi and the rape of women by Nigerian soldiers were done in our name. While President Obasanjo bears -- or should bear -- the primary responsibility for these crimes, it is Nigerian soldiers who committed these deeds. We all have to share in the tragedy that befell Odi.
International Human Rights Community's Sake
Niger Deltans have good reasons for being thankful to the International Human Rights Community for its activities and attention to the Niger Delta. Even so, there appears to be a lowering of standards in the evaluation of President Obasanjo's Government's behaviours. It is understandable that after Abacha, human rights violations will appear to be less threatening. But the destruction of Odi and the rape of women at Choba are international crimes, by any measure. Since they were committed in the name of Obasanjo's government, and since that government will not investigate them, can Deltans rely on the international community for help?
We hope that this compilation will make a huge number
of opinions available to the International Human Rights Community. And
it is our hope that it will not abandon the Niger Delta.
Nigerian history and politics will have to deal with the Odi tragedy. Any serious investigation of Nigerian political history of the post-military era will have to examine the lessons of the invasion and destruction of Odi. It is difficult, of course, to imagine in what directions Odi will weigh Nigerian political studies. However, I wish to indicate briefly a few areas whose re-examination I would like to recommend in the light of the Odi tragedy.
The Failure of the Doctrine of Civilianization
There was a confluence between academics and practical political realities in the nature of transition from prolonged military rule to civilian rule in Nigeria. It was widely canvassed by the military especially that the transition was best effected by a seasoned military man who was well respected in the civilian world. Political scientists called it civilianization of military rule. The idea was that a judicious choice of a reasonable leader who straddled both worlds would help in navigating Nigeria's destiny away from military rule to democratic and civil rule.
General Olusegun Obasanjo seemed to fit the model perfectly. He had handed over to a civilian regime in 1979. Thereafter he was active in international scenes, including becoming the founding Vice-President of Transparency International whose purpose was to promote integrity in governance. Although many Nigerian academics had criticized Obasanjo's main initiatives as a military ruler -- the Land Use Decree, the Local Government Reform, the centralization of the Nigeria Police, the centralization of institutions of higher education -- as anti-federalist, most Nigerian political scientists expected much from him. All of these were enhanced by the unique fact that Olusegun Obasanjo was a victim of Abacha's reign of terror, leading many to expect that whatever anti-democratic instincts remained in him would have been washed away. All in all, Olusegun Obasanjo appeared to be the perfect candidate for testing the doctrine of civilianization.
There must now be a serious reassessment of this doctrine in the light of President Obasanjo's performances, particularly in Odi. The international community has been most tolerant towards him. It was widely believed by that community that his party rigged the elections that brought him to power. But the outrage against such behaviour was muted. Even the destruction of Odi has not brought about the condemnation from the United States and Western Europe that would have been the case with any other leader. However, President Obasanjo has pushed the envelope dangerously with his brazen policies in the Niger Delta. Academics are less forgiving, however.
The greater problem of governance is the monopolization of power by Obasanjo's Federal Government. President Obasanjo's letter of ultimatum to Bayelsa State is particularly significant. He talked to a state governor as if he were a military officer posted for duties in the state. Yet, he seems completely incompetent when it comes to dealing with the flagrant violation of Nigerian constitutional understanding by privileged governors in Northern Nigeria. It is most likely that the doctrine of civilianization will fall at the feet of President Olusegun Obasanjo's conception of federalism and his style of governance.
Nigeria Police Force and the Collapse of Internal Security
One of the greatest tragedies of Nigerian public affairs is the collapse of the Nigeria Police Force. Nigeria has one police force, all controlled from Abuja. From being rated as one of the top civilian policing organizations in the world in 1963, when it assisted in the training of the Congolese Police Force, over-centralization has ruined this police formation. The right thing to do is to let the states and local councils to organize their own police forces with duties requisite to their jurisdictions. But it appears that the old soldier's instinct in the President will not allow him to understand the need for flexibility in this crucial matter.
The consequence is the deployment of military forces for domestic law and order problems. Sadly, there is a growing alienation between civilians and government agencies that President Obasanjo's regime is fostering. It is of course more palpable in the Niger Delta. But it is a matter of time before the rest of the country catches up with the Niger Delta in the alienation that is bred by a regime that does not understand that the most important responsibility of government is providing basic security for its citizens.
Odi has paid the ultimate price for the weaknesses of
a government that relies on the military for internal law and order. This
is a subject to which Nigerian historians and political scientists should
pay greater attention. If they do, Odi might not have been destroyed in
vain -- so to speak.
I would like to enter a short note of acknowledgement of those who are in the front-line of fighting for the rights of the oppressed and dispossessed in the Niger Delta. Without their attention, the grave situation confronting the beleaguered residents of the Niger Delta would go unnoticed. As Ms Ayo Obe, President of Civil Liberties Organization (CLO) of Nigeria, has intimated in her contribution to this documentation, the conduct of elected representatives from the Niger Delta has been questionable. Even more disheartening is the behaviour of the elected Governor of Bayelsa who has acted as President Obasanjo's principal agent in his state. These elected officials act as if it is their responsibility to represent Abuja's interests in the Niger Delta, rather than represent and protect the interests of the region in Abuja. In these circumstances, civil society actors have assumed a much greater role than usual in highlighting the dangers the region faces.
Both Human Rights Watch, an international organization, and Environmental Rights Action (ERA), a Nigerian organization, have done splendid work in the Niger Delta. Both have monitored the policies of the Federal Government and the operations of the powerful oil companies in the Niger Delta. I would like in particular to thank Nnimmo Bassey and his co-workers in ERA for their tremendous courage in dealing with the difficult problems of the Niger Delta. Five of the photographs posted in these pages were taken by ERA's Israel Aloja and Sam Olukoya. I thank Nnimmo Bassey and ERA for granting permission for their use in this documentation.
Finally, I would like to thank Mr. Godfrey Okoro, President
of Council of Ijaw Associations Abroad, and Dr. Ebiamadon Andi Brisibe,
Chairman of the Council's Research and Publication Committee, for sending
me valuable documents on Ijaw reactions to President Obasanjo's threats
against the Niger Delta and to his subsequent invasion of their homeland.
Their inclusion has enriched that vital section of this documentation.
Peter P. Ekeh
Buffalo, New York
January 1, 2001
Updated: January 22, 2001