On the Okuama Tragedy

Kayode Komolafe

A deeply human dimension was introduced yesterday evening  into the tragedy that occurred in  the Okuama community of Delta state when an elder statesman, Chief Edwin Clark, appeared on Arise News. He offered a lot of words of wisdom in the television show to help douse the tension arising from the killing of 16 soldiers.

Clark, an Ijaw leader with Urhobo blood in him, said  that a few days before the killings  he spoke with Lt. Col A.H. Ali and Captain D.E. Obi, two officers among the 16 soldiers who went  on a peace mission following a land dispute between Okuama, an Urhobo community, and their Ijaw neighbours  of Okoloba. In a notably balanced intervention, Clark reminded the two Niger Delta communities in conflict  of their common ancestry and cultural overlaps. They “are the same people,” he said with the full  authority of his age. He recalled that he himself  attended primary school in the area 82 years ago. 

Ironically, Clark’s  calls to these officers were in respect of the funeral of his younger brother, Colonel Bernard Clark (retired), which took place last Friday.

In an emotion-laden tone, Clark animated things, saying repeatedly that he knew the officers as he condemned the killings while urging the military authorities to avoid collective punishment of the innocent people in the Okuama community. 

Clark also called for a thorough  investigation, cautioning against reaching a wrong conclusion on the criminal act. What  Clark said about Lt. Col Ali and Captain Obi is a proof of the obvious fact that  the issues involved are far from being abstract. The soldiers who lost their lives in the course of duty were first and foremost human beings. They were not just numbers. This elementary fact should not be forgotten in the heat of the moment.  The  Okuama killings constitute a sad reminder that our  common humanity  matters a great deal even when there are  different perspectives to telling a story.

The discussion of this tragedy must, therefore,  be imbued with a good sense of humanity especially in the media. The tragic story should not be told in a manner that could inflame passion. The headlines must not be disrespectful of the dead. The sensibilities of the bereaved families, friends and colleagues of the fallen heroes  should be well considered in the way the bloodletting  is reported.

Therefore, the circulation of bestial clips should stop. Gory pictures should not be printed.  It is enough to say that the soldiers were callously killed. It is unhelpful in the situation to keep repeating the barbaric and provocative  details of the killings. Perhaps, referring to what happened as a “slaughter” is even inappropriate in the circumstances. After all,  one  of the dictionary meanings of the noun, “slaughter,” is as follows: “the killing of animals for food.” In any case, in the mainstream journalism of the old an editor would prefer to simply publish that the soldiers were killed instead of splashing it on the front page of his newspaper that human beings  were “slaughtered.” Definitely,  savage photos would not be published. Sadly, the permissive nature of the social media with its huge deficit of humanity has now  rendered such journalistic ethics ancient.

In the situation, the discussion of the tragedy should be sufficiently compassionate so as to avoid  creating multiple tragedies in the form of what happened in Odi in  Bayelsa state and Zaki Biam in Benue  state. Those two communities  were severely  attacked by the military in  reprisals following  the killings of  soldiers and policemen by some criminals while President Olusegun Obasanjo was in power.

It is also important that the members of the elite from the communities  in dispute should be circumspect in their statements. The Urhobo  and Ijaw versions of what happened are widely circulating in the various media outlets. However,  caution is the word. It is advisable that credible information should be made available to the those who are officially given the task of investigating the crime. It  is quite appropriate that President Bola Tinubu in his position as the Commander-in-Chief has directed that justice must be done. In a well-humanised statement  personally signed by the President the point is made unequivocally: “The cowardly offenders responsible for this heinous crime will not go unpunished.  This incident, once again, demonstrates the dangers faced by the  servicemen and women in the line of duty.  I salute their heroism, courage, and uncommon grit and patriotism.” 

The President also said that the defence authorities are “already responding to this incident.”

Now, it is left to  be seen  if the response of the military high command would lessen the  growing anxiety about what would happen next going by the promise from the defence headquarters: “The military  assures that there would be measured responses and injurious consequences for the perpetrators of these dastardly acts. Nevertheless, the armed forces being a  disciplined force that complies with rules of engagement, laws of armed conflict and respect for human rights, would be tempered by these provisions. We would not be led by emotion, but by the rule of law.”    

So, while the investigation is on nothing should be done by  any of the parties to worsen the problem.

Meanwhile, the issues brought to the fore by the tragic incident ought to  be pondered upon by policymakers and the public alike.

For instance, state governments should take the resolution of  conflicts among local communities in the state as a serious security matter. Maybe, the Okuama tragedy could have been averted if the conflict between the Urhobo community and its Ijaw neighbour had been amicably resolved by the Delta state government. Isn’t the land constitutionally vested in the governor in the first place?

The local government that is nearest to the situation should have also played a constructive role by preventing the dispute from degenerating into violence. After all, the local governments are  involved in managing the affairs of the traditional institutions  which often lay claim to ownership of  of lands in some communities.  

Secondly, the killers of the soldiers must have operated with sophisticated weapons as non-state actors.  A number of panel reports gathering dust on the shelf are about  the immense danger of proliferation of arms and ammunition. The free flow of arms is a common factor in the various shapes of insecurity bedevilling  the land from the rainforest to the Sahel. A programme of massive disarmament should be a strategic priority in order to check violent crimes. 

Thirdly, the police should be prepared in terms of manpower and equipment to perform  its central duty  in internal security. Gradually, the military should be withdrawing from policing duties so as to face its primary defence role   squarely. The police are better placed, for instance, to make arrest and prosecute the killers of the soldiers.

As  condolences continue to pour in for the bereaved families and the military, reflections on the Okuama tragedy should  be geared towards putting the nation in a position to say never again will  its soldiers be killed in such a horrific manner.  

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