On Christmas Eve, Wednesday, December 25, 1975, soldiers from 8 Battalion, Nigerian Army, stationed at Ugep, launched a retaliatory attack on the countryside community located about 100 kilometres from Calabar over alleged killing of a soldier by unidentified persons. At the end of the operation, over 100 villagers, 300 houses and property worth millions of Naira were destroyed in what has become known as the 1975 Ugep Massacre, an incident which has remained a watershed in the professed largest West African native town.
The soldiers, according to Sebastine Eko, a journalist from the area, acted on the conviction that Ugep indigenes were responsible for the death of a soldier whose remains they found in the town. However, a post mortem conducted by military doctors in the Barracks later revealed that the man was drunk and had an epileptic seizure. The soldier swallowed his own sputum in the success and choked himself to death.
Many fled the community that night and became refugees in surrounding villages following the soldiers’ invasion, effectively putting an end to any celebration of Christmas that year by the people of Ugep. “Ugep people could not celebrate Christmas that year because they were forced to abandon their homes, which were razed down, most people who could not escape were killed and lots of property destroyed,” Eko told Niger Delta Voice.
It was 40 years ago that the unforgettable horror took place last Thursday, December 24, and the people marked it with rendition of songs, photographic displays and poetry recitations.
Traditional rulers, women, youth, academics, politicians from the Ugep community along with their friends and well wishers from across the country and in the Diaspora gathered at the Obol Ubi Confrence Centre with some weeping openly when they beheld the pictures and images of their loved ones massacred during the attack by the soldiers.
How birds foreshadowed incident
Recalling the incident, the King of Ugep, Obol Ofem Ubana Eteng, said every Christmas Eve, the events of 1975 flood the memory of every living Ugep person, who witnessed what took place that day.
“As a young man in secondary school then, I was that evening pounding tomatoes for the Christmas stew the next day when I saw four big birds hovering over the city and I told my aunty that some evil was about to befall the community, as the sight of the birds was unusual. She ignored me and ordered me to keep doing what she asked me to do.
“Shortly afterwards, I saw people running and I joined them without knowing what was amiss. As we were running, I remembered that my teacher in class two, who is from a neighbouring village kept his box, which contained all his certificates in my room, so I had to go back to get the box and that was when I was nearly killed. That incident has remained fresh in my mind even when I joined the Nigerian Army,” he said.
Chair, Nigerian Human Rights Commission, Professor Chid Odinakalu, who delivered the keynote address at the event, said the remembrance of the massacre by the Ugep people was a clear departure from the Nigerian attitude where people often prefer to leave such an incident in the hand of God.
“From what I have read on the events of December 24, 1975 in Ugep, it is painful that people should be killed and homes destroyed because of one soldier whose cause of death was unsubstantiated: how is a child who saw the father killed brutally supposed to forget, how is a child who saw the mother raped supposed to forget? You have to remember, remind your children to keep memory alive until we build a country where every life is important,” he said.
Odinkalu asserted that if a soldier was found dead, the wise thing to have done was to investigate and with help of the leaders of the community, fish out the culprits and allow the law to take its cause, and not invade the entire community and kill scores of people.
“Let the resilience of the people of Ugep stay alive by remembering this massacre and we pray that the spirit of those killed will continue to haunt all those, who committed the atrocity,” he added.
If not mass murder, what is it?
Also speaking, human rights lawyer, Mr Okoi Obono Obla, said no intimidation from the authorities would stop the people from remembering the incident and called for the payment of reparation to the people of Ugep for the mindless action of the soldiers. “The DSS said we should not call it a massacre, if the killing of scores of harmless people by soldiers is not a massacre, then what was it?” He asked.