- By DANIEL ABIA
On November 20, this year, it will be exactly 24 years since the Odi genocide happened. Nothing has changed over the years. The landscape presents the outrageous picture of man’s brutality to man. Relics of the gruesome genocide dot the landscape, leaving the evidence of an oppressed people in the minds of visitors. On that fateful day in 1999, the Nigerian Army entered the town of Odi, a mangrove community in Kolokuma/Opukuma Local Government Area, in Bayelsa State, on the orders of then president, Olusegun Obasanjo, to levelled down the community in a most savage mission of vengeance.
Bombardment At Dawn
Natives of Odi woke up in the early morning of that bloody day to face a confrontation of bullets and rocket launchers raining down from the sky. It was supposed to be a federal government’s “diplomatic” response to alleged “missing” of twelve police officers believed to have been killed by the youths of the community.
The military invaded Odi and brutally cut down anything standing: humans, animals, plants and buildings. And in a moment, the entire community became a large forest of blood. Thousands were killed, many more sustained life-threatening injuries.
The terrible scars have refused to go because every scar is a reflection of live stories. 24 years after that globally condemned military operation, Odi community is not only living with the sad memory of that mind-wrenching carnage but is also now being confronted with abject poverty, underdevelopment, and erosion menace, among other sobering realities.
The fundamental question that still begs for answer is “who killed Ken Niweigha?”, a known youth leader in Odi at the time that eventually led to the invasion? In May 29, 2009, Ken was arrested by the police and taken to the State Criminal Investigation Department in Yenagoa. He was later paraded before journalists, accused of leading the Egbesu Boys armed group in Bayelsa State to kill the 12 policemen.
President Obasanjo demanded that the missing police officers be produced within a specific time or the community would face grave consequences. The consequences were, no doubt, obvious and deliberate: a blitzkrieg. All of that was 24 years ago. And the people of Odi have moved on, but in bloom and gloom.
On July 27, four months to the 24th anniversary of the genocide, the remnants of the bombarded community celebrated Odi Ogoriba, a yearly festival that reminds them of the bravery and valour of the villagers to withstand any challenge and confront same with gusto.
Preserving The Memory
Ogoriba is a festival that marks the killing of a wild Buffalo that was a huge threat to the community in 1957. The buffalo was known to have killed seven villagers and tormented the community for seven years. The killing of the beast brought to memory the people’s determined resistance against such life-threatening dangers such as lions, elephant, pythons, wild pigs, among others. If preserved, Odi could boasts a tourist attraction yielding foreign earnings to both the state and the federal governments.
The celebration of Odi Ogoriba is a temporary freedom from the claws of death. A huge relief from the terrifying experience the villagers had during the lifetime of the gigantic wild buffalo.
Chief Jeremiah Gbanaibolou Aliyu, 49, a father of nine children, is a living witness of the genocide. “You have come to remind me of the ugly past. I thought I will have fun today (Odi Ogoriba Day Celebration). But your coming has brought back that sad memory that has refused to go,” he said.
He continued: “Well, in every scar, there is a story to tell. In my case, the Odi massacre, as you can see,” he pointed to his face, “the scar on my face tells the story”. He had one of his eyes pierced through by a bullet from a rocket launcher during the genocide.
“On that fateful day, a friend of mine, John Y, was standing in front of me. Suddenly, a rocket from nowhere cut off his neck. The head went to one side and the lifeless body fell the other side. Like a lightning, I felt a sharp pain in one of my eyes, then blood. I suddenly fell down. The rocket cut my face from the ear down to the jaw region and I lost one of my eyes. That is the scar I will continue to live with.”
Still wriggling in that excruciating pain and in his own pool of blood, Aliyu managed to rescue some old people who were equally hit by bullets from every direction. “I helped some victims by swimming them across the river to safety. Some of them were very old and they could not run”. He recalled that the community lost so many “prominent and promising” people to the deadly military operation that year. “Old people, men and women were burnt alive in their houses,” he told me.
But Elder Joel Preghafi, the oldest man in the community was lucky. No member of his household was lost to the genocide. This was because, “I had a hint that soldiers would come to the village that day. Early in the morning, I escaped by crossing the river to the other side of the village. We were in the bush for a while before moving to Yenagoa (the Bayelsa state capital), “ he said.
Preghafi may not be living with the fear of the past genocide. He is confronted by the challenge of erosion from the river. His house is just about five meters away from the ever expanding River Nun and is most likely that in the next two or three years, if left uncontrolled, the erosion may wash his house away.
“Before now, we used to walk five poles from the River before getting to this house. But today, it is just less than five meters away. I am afraid that this river will carry me away one day before my death. That is my biggest worry. Every day, I sit down here to watch the way the River is expanding so fast and is eating close to the road. No help from anywhere,” he lamented.
Ruins, Ruins, Ruins
At 97, Elder Preghafi, a father of ten whose birthday coincided with the 2023 Ogoriba festival anniversary, said it would be inhuman to celebrate in the midst of rejection and neglect. “I can’t celebrate my birthday today. Cost of living is very high. Odi is still in ruins after that genocide. The youths have no jobs. There is no single industry in Odi. We don’t have light, no much internal roads. Where do we go from here?
Most worrisome to the old man is the constant threat caused by erosion from the Nun River. He said the only thing that could beam a glimpse of happiness is government’s urgent intervention in the flood menace ravaging the community. He, however, thanked Governor Duoye Diri of Bayelsa state for stepping in to remedy the worst part of the flood. The shore line protection contract was awarded by the state government to Gestev Foundation Works Limited. Construction is ongoing.
Also, the Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC) had declared that it would soon start the procurement process towards the award of contract for the shore protection and erosion control of the Odi community shoreline. NDDC Managing Director, Dr. Samuel Ogbuku, stated this after inspecting the erosion-ravaged part of Odi community last month.
He said no effort would be spared in protecting coastal communities in the Niger Delta region. “In the next couple of weeks we will start the procurement process for the shore protection project. We will also provide solar streetlights in the town,” he noted.
He added: “I received a correspondence from the Council of Chiefs of Odi town requesting that they, the Council of Chiefs, wanted to visit me in Port Harcourt at the NDDC headquarters. But I decided that rather than receive the Council of Chiefs in my office, I would rather come to Odi town and see things for myself so I can have a proper perspective of the challenges,” he added.
He used the occasion to caution against politicising development, noting that the people were the ultimate beneficiaries of any development project in the community, irrespective of the source.
The Secretary of Odi Council of Chiefs, Truman Abiama, who spoke on behalf of the Amananoowei of Odi Kingdom, King Shine Andrew Apre, commended them for choosing the option of visiting the community to inspect the erosion that was adversely affecting the people.
Flood from the river has caused unprecedented havoc to the people of the community already, especially those living just by the sea shore. One of such destructions was the washing away of the community cemetery.
Chief Aliyu who gave a vivid description of how the cemetery was washed away, said: “There was a time graves were washed up, dead bodies exposed and carried away by the water. We live in fear of such disaster,” he said. “It was a gory sight. People had to run down to the spot to see if they could identify the bodies.”
Aliyu also noted: “People don’t know that having a good cemetery in any community is an asset. Odi deserves a central cemetery where we can bury our dead ones in honour and dignity.”
The situation in Odi is just a reflection of the infrastructural failure that has bedeviled the entire Niger Delta coastal line. Despite its abundant oil and gas wealth and the chunk of money channeled into the region from the ecological funds, 13 per cent derivation, federal allocation and other sources, there is no positive difference in terms of development in the region.
With the serenity of the quiet environment with ecstatic flora and fauna, Odi is a loud call for both national and international investment. The fragrance of the green mangrove is not only suitable for mechanical farming, but the produce could be the needed answer to the food insecurity Nigeria is currently grappling with.
Odi is naturally blessed beyond measure. The 1999 genocide, for whatever political reason, is not a sufficient excuse for the long term setback or underdevelopment faced by the community. The river Nun is a ready offer for a conventional fishing business. All it takes is just a little investment by both government and individuals with adequate security guaranteed for investors.
Chief Aliyu captured the real essence of business possibilities in the community when he said: “Our people make a living by farming, (sufficient land), Fishing (big River Nun) and hunting (availability of thick forests).”
His appeal to President Bola Ahmed Tinubu is that he should prevail over the federal government to set up a glass industry in Odi to create employment opportunities for the youths.
But why should glass industry be so important in a mangrove environment like Odi!
“With this river, we have a lot of sharp sand here. We can maximally utilize the sand which I believe is a natural resource just like oil and gas by setting up a glass industry in the community. That way, jobs will be created and development will come here because other companies will like to come and see what they too can do here.”
Yes, setting up companies in Odi will end the unfortunate era of scavenging by the youths. They will stop being tramps by being gainfully employed to earn legitimate living.
Nigeria is a monolithic economy. It solely depends on oil. Odi is an oil and gas community which contributes its quota to the national treasury. The community, according to sources, there may be about three oil wells and gas in Odi with each having the capacity to produce about 200,000 barrels of oil per day. “We have at least three oil wells. We also have gas,” one of them said.
It presupposes that the great potentials to fast track the development of Odi are readily available. What is lacking is government’s political will to do the needful. Odi is a proverbial community in the history of modern Nigeria. Same applies to Zaki Biam and other places that bear the signature of untoward military invasion. They need care. They need development.
To Joseph Ambakaderimo, Chairman, Board of Trustees, Community Development Committee of the Niger Delta Oil and Gas Producing Areas, the federal government must publicly apologize to the people of Odi for the invasion.
“On the issue of the Odi massacre, l feel that the federal government should apologies to the people of Odi. Even with the payment of compensation, Odi has become a recurring decimal in the anal of the negative stories that have plagued the communities of the Niger Delta.
“Aside the invasion of the military, which was condemned by all and sundry till date, because it was uncalled for in the first place, life in itself is unbearable as you can find across communities in the Niger Delta region. The people inhabiting these communities can better be described as neglected due to lack of attention from the state and federal government, including the NDDC.
“Issues like erosion and flooding has ravaged Odi community, with houses being washed away on a daily basis. If this trend continues, there will not be anything like Odi community on the face of the earth. Therefore the attention of the federal and state governments and the NDDC should be directed to ensure a special attention is given to the Odi community.”
According to Ambakaderimo, ecological funds due to Bayelsa State “should be applied to cure some of the identified challenges.”
He added: “The Bayelsa State government should, as a matter of urgency, make a request to the federal government for the release of more funds from the ecological fund, specifically to be deployed towards the community.”
He advised that part of the N15billion recovered NDDC funds ordered to be released by former President Muhammadu Buhari from the EFCC, for purposes of mitigating flooding in the Niger Delta, should be deployed to fund embankment walls in the community.
Daniel Alabrah, Chief Press Secretary to Governor Duoye Diri believes that Odi has developed more than it was in 1999. He said that both individuals and collective efforts have brought enlightenment to the community over the years.
“This government has done a lot. We have built internal roads community pavilion and, right now, the construction of shoreline protection is ongoing at the River Nun. I think that the government of Duoye Diri has done quite a lot,” Alabrah said.
In February, 2013, a Federal High Court in Port Harcourt, in a landmark judgment by Justice Lambi Akanbi, ordered the federal government to pay N37.6billion out of the N100billion damages claimed by Odi people. The then President Goodluck Jonathan paid N15billion to the community.
The question is, how did the Odi people utilize the money? Investigation revealed that some persons were paid N500,000, some N300,000. Those whose storey buildings were destroyed in the course of the military invasion got the sum of N6million while bungalow owners were allegedly paid N3million.
Except a deliberate action of development is undertaken by government, the story of Odi will continue to be an unfortunate one. The government should be intentional in ensuring that the sad memory of the Odi genocide is erased from the minds of the people by deliberately attracting investment to the community.
IMAGE: Talk Naija Media