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Michael Owhoko: 7 Poignant Lessons to Learn from the Okuama Calamity [MUST READ]

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Has Nigeria learnt any lessons from the Okuama massacre? Will the incident repeat itself or offer profound lessons against future experience?  In the journey of life, no individual or nation or country is immune from occurrences thrown up by circumstance, which, may be pleasant or painful.  Lessons learnt from such experiences are deployed to prevent possible future reoccurrence, failing which, same catastrophe repeats itself.

In context, the gruesome murder of army officers at Okuama in Ughelli South Local Government Area, Delta State, which transcends ethnic emotions and accompanied by wide condemnations, is a confirmation that Nigeria has not, and does not learn from lessons, otherwise, the calamity would have been avoided.

The incident was not the first. It happened previously at Odi, Bayelsa State, Zaki Biam, Benue State, and Gbaramatu, Delta State, yet, it appeared neither the federal government nor the Nigerian Army learnt any lessons therefrom.  This is evident from the Okuama saga, a proof of the country’s insensitivity to bloodshed and exposition of poverty in the policy making process.

This notwithstanding, the Okuama calamity has again thrown up another opportunity for lessons to be learned.  If Nigeria failed again this time around to learn from these happenings, then the country risks further carnage, which may possibly take a more complex form with unmanageable and unpredictable consequences.  It may be too costly for the country’s fledgling socio-economic balance and stability.

Therefore, the lessons are crucial, and should be identified by government and harness as feedback for proactive purposes to forestall future recurrence.  It is a tragedy for any country with a relapsing experience not to have a codified strategy encapsulated in a template to resolve related matters.  In specific terms, what then are the lessons and takeaways from the Okuama disaster?

Lesson One: To have allowed a land dispute over fishing rights between Okuama and neighbouring Okoloba community in Bomadi Local Government Area, Delta State, to escalate means there were no proactive measures and concerted prompt intervention by the Nigeria Police Force and Delta State Government in response to petitions written by Okuama community.

The community, through its lawyers, I. Ejedegba and Co., had written a petition to the Commissioner of Police in Asaba, Delta State which was acknowledged on January 31, 2O24, while the petition written by Okuama community leaders and addressed to the Delta State Governor was received on February 2, 2O24.  This was over one month before the gruesome murder of the military officers on March 14, 2O24.

Since the Police is the first line of defence and statutorily responsible for civil matters, they should have wadded in upon receipt of the petitions to nip the crisis in the bud, aside previous joint meetings among the communities, the Police and the Delta State Government that yielded no solution.  Under this development, the Delta State Governor should have been advised to wield the big stick by acquiring the land in contention for public interest to end the crisis.

Lesson Two: Inviting the Army for a mediatory and peace mission to Okuama for resolution of land dispute between two communities that were not at war, was an error in judgement. The dispute was civil in nature, and it was only when efforts by the Police and the Delta State Governor had failed, and there was evidence of likely escalation into a dangerous dimension beyond the capacity of the Police, that would have warranted intervention by the Nigerian Army.  It is not the responsibility of the Army to broker peace in a civil matter.

Lesson Three: Central to the killing of the military personnel in Okuama, is presumably oil.  Oil appeared to be the underpinning motive behind the horrendous and senseless killings.  Mere land dispute between two communities could not have led to such a mindless massacre. Soldiers are deployed to the Niger Delta region to protect oil facilities, and in the course of this duty, they might have been marked as “enemy” by those profiteering from illegal oil deals.

Those involved in crude oil theft and other illegal activities, including processing of locally refined products might see the Army as obstacle to their business interests.  The military high command should have known this, and prepare the soldiers for possible eventuality and collision with entrenched oil thieves.  The circumstances of their death showed that the military men were taken unawares.  It was likely that crude oil thieves and other vested interests might have planned and taken advantage of the soldiers’ peaceful disposition to unleash mayhem in such a horrific and despicable manner.

Lesson Four: The mass destruction of Okuama by the Army in response to the death of the soldiers without singling out the culprits, was unhelpful, as innocent children, mothers, elderly, the sick and even pregnant women, were either killed, rendered homeless or died while trying to escape.  To bring pains on an entire community over the action of a few criminals, is indefensible.  Reprisal attack and collective punishment are incompatible with international laws.

Recalled that after destruction of Odi by the Army, the community resorted to litigation and got a favourable judgement, leading to payment of N15 billion out of court settlement, as compensation.  Justice Lambi Akanbi of the Federal High Court had condemned the government for a “brazen violation of the fundamental human rights of the victims to movement, life and to own property and live peacefully in their ancestral home.”  Since the Okuama experience is reminiscent of the destruction at Odi, it is likely Okuama may seek redress in the law court for compensation over reprisal destruction of lives and properties.

Lesson Five: As the President and Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces of Nigeria, Bola Tinubu’s order to the Army was too hasty and reactionary without taking into consideration, innocent lives in Okuama that were caught up in the web.  Granting “full authority” to the military to bring anybody found to have been responsible for the attack to justice, was an obvious blanket licence for the military to invade Okuama.

Instead, the President should have ordered the security agencies and the Police to specifically intervene, identify and arrest the criminal elements in the community, while instituting an independent high-powered panel of enquiry to unravel the causes of the mayhem.  A future restraint on the part of the President is imperative to douse tension and minimize further collateral damage.

Lesson Six: The Army’s decision to lock down and lay siege to Okuama without granting access to the Delta State Governor, the Police, humanitarian agencies, and even the press to assess the situation on ground, has given rise to speculations about the plight of the members of the community, particularly the innocent, helpless and indigent persons.  This is unhelpful to the image of the Army.

By not allowing access, the Army has unwittingly, open its operations to speculations. For example, it was alleged that the Army killed over 5O persons in Okuama, with other survivors hiding in the bush, including old women, children, the elderly ones and even the sick, with no food to eat and water to drink.  This is a gross violation of their fundamental human rights.

To avoid being put on the spotlight, it is imperative for the military to grant access into the community to enable humanitarian agencies and volunteer groups to extend help and assistance to the innocent ones to prevent further fatalities.  This will also serve the interest of the Army’s reputation.

Lesson Seven: After the destruction of Odi, initial public sympathy for the military waned.  Same is replicating itself at Okuama over the conduct of the Army.  The Army, like other federal government agencies, is not a supreme institution that is above the Constitution and the Nigerian State, neither is civilian population subject to military laws.  Indeed, the Army is subject to civil authority under Democracy. Therefore, it must change its current tactics at Okuama where it has refused access to the community, assumed sole information provider on goings-on, and subjected civilians to investigation, arrest and detention.

It is hoped that these lessons will serve as reference and guide for the state governments, the Police, the Army and the federal government in handling of related crises to avert future disaster.

Mike Owhoko, Lagos-based public policy analyst, author, and journalist, can be reached at www.mikeowhoko.com and followed on X {formerly Twitter} @michaelowhoko.

The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author.

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