The Army and the Okuama Killings

The Army and the Okuama Killings

By Olusegun Adeniyi

Come Wednesday, I will be in Asaba, Delta State as one of the faculties at the Nigerian Army Quarterly Media dialogue. With the theme, ‘The imperatives of military-media partnership for the attainment of national security’, it is part of their efforts to secure the buy-in of critical stakeholders as they tackle the challenge of insecurity in Nigeria. Incidentally, 12 years ago in the same Asaba, I was one of the speakers at the Chief of Army Staff Annual Conference under Lt General Azubuike Ihejirika (rtd). Unfortunately, the mood will be different this time considering what happened last Thursday when some criminal gangs in Ughelli South Local Government ambushed troops of the 181 Amphibious Battalion after which the commanding officer, a Lt Colonel, two Majors, one Captain and 12 Soldiers were gruesomely murdered.

I join millions of Nigerians in commiserating with the families of the deceased and the Nigerian Army. As President Bola Tinubu rightly noted while granting full authority to the military high command to apprehend and bring to justice those responsible for the “unconscionable crime against the Nigerian people”, the unfortunate tragedy “demonstrates the dangers faced by our servicemen and women in the line of duty.” I also agree with the president that “As a nation, we must constantly remember and honour all those who have paid the ultimate price to keep our nation safe, strong, and united.”

From available reports, the CO and his troops did not die in a gun duel with the criminal gangs. They were ambushed and executed after which their bodies were cannibalised. No army in the world would allow such audacious barbarism against its officers and men to go unpunished. Meanwhile, I have read several posts either to excuse the bestiality as a ‘mistake’ because victims were taken for fake soldiers or provide justification on the pretext that the military had taken sides in the communal conflicts. For me, there is no defence for what happened. More worrisome is the recurrence of these killings of military troops by communal warlords in a nation where people who have lived together for centuries are now up in arms against one another.

Exactly three years ago (in March 2021 to be specific), a Captain and 11 soldiers were mowed down while trying to keep peace between the Bonta people of Konshisha local government and their neighbours, the Ukpute people of Oju local government in Benue State. As I explained at the time, both the Bontas (who are Tiv speaking) and the Ukputes (Igede speaking) are predominantly peasant farmers. The two groups have also cross settled in several villages along their boundary and even in some cases inter-married. Following a violent crisis at the time over the ownership of a parcel of land, troops were sent in to restore order only to run into an ambush orchestrated by one of the parties in the dispute. According to a statement by the army, not only were the soldiers brutally massacred, “the bandits proceeded to burn all the eleven soldiers and their officers beyond recognition while their weapons and ammunition were carted away.”

That the circumstances of the Delta killings bear similarities to what happened in Benue State three years ago is why the authorities must do more than perfunctory knee-jerk reactions. Between January 2018 and August 2022, according to a report by the National Boundary Commission, no fewer than 676 persons were killed in various communal land disputes across the country. In 2021, Patrick Okigbo’s ‘Nextier SPD’, a development research firm, also revealed that communal clashes accounted for 14 out of the 890 conflict incidents and 80 out of the 3,787 casualties that year. From north to the south, but mostly in the latter, many contiguous communities that have lived together for decades are at war over lands that are not put to any productive use. And it is the poor of our society, expendable ‘youths’ that do the fighting while those supplying the AK-47 and other deadly weapons are secure in the knowledge that they, and members of their immediate families, are far away from the theatres of war. And that nobody would ever try to fish them out for punishment.

In a January 2018 column, ‘When a Nation Becomes Funeral Home’, I used the chilling December 2023 report released by the United States-based Human Rights Watch, ‘Leave Everything to God: Accountability for Inter-Communal Violence in Plateau and Kaduna States, Nigeria’ to illustrate this point. In that report, authorities were indicted for “taking no meaningful steps to address underlying grievances” or bring to justice those responsible for “tit-for-tat killings” with victims targeted for extermination, “often in horrific circumstances”. What this has created is a serious national security challenge.

Ordinarily, restoring law and order is the primary responsibility of the Police. Not the Army. But in most communities across the country today, belligerents no longer fear the police. No incident perhaps demonstrated that better than what happened on 7th May 2013 in Nasarawa State. On that tragic day, 63 police officers and 10 state security service (SSS) operatives sent to restore law and order were gruesomely murdered. Today, in most theatres across the country, this recurring mayhem over land disputes is hardly ever quelled until military troops are drafted in. That is the genesis to the tragedy in Okuama.

However, even in this moment of anger and pain, the military should be methodical in their approach. Two things should happen. One, they need to investigate the circumstances under which the troops were in the area and get all the details as to what transpired. Two, they must fish out all the culprits and bring them to justice, however long it takes. In doing that, they should avoid anything that suggests applying collective punishment, especially on residents of Okuama community. On that score, those who trivialise the bestial killings by peddling dangerous narratives are not helping matters.

The most thoughtful intervention on this tragedy has been from elder statesman and leader of the Ijaw Nation, Edwin Clark, who knows the slain officers personally and admitted speaking to them on an unrelated issue shortly before their death. Describing what happened as “very shocking, very barbaric and wicked,” Clarke called for a collaboration between the military and the communities to fish out the culprits. “I was so sad when I heard that Lt Col. Ali was involved because on Thursday, 14 March (same day the troops were killed), I spoke to him about my younger brother, Col Bernard Clark (rtd), who died recently and was to be buried on (last) Friday,” said Clarke who defended the action of the military in the aftermath while at the same time appealing for restraint. “I had to contact him (the deceased CO). And he told me he was in a vehicle and that he would speak to me later, only to hear that he was among them. At that time, he was speaking to me from Agbor in Delta State.”

I am aware of the anger within the military and justifiably so too, given the barbaric manner the lives of their officers and men were terminated. But the application of Odi or Zaki Biam principle would be unhelpful in the circumstance. Both in international law and the laws of war, collective punishment is prohibited, based on the fact the actions of one or a few individuals should not attract punishment for innocent people. A cornerstone of justice systems worldwide, as one writer puts it, “is the presumption of innocence (while) collective punishment flips this principle on its head, presuming guilt by association.”

Let me make myself clear once again. The criminals who killed our soldiers deserve no sympathy. But I am also aware that those who committed such a heinous crime would have left the scene, knowing the gravity of their deed and what would follow. So, apprehending them (and their collaborators) would require intelligence gathering and painstaking efforts. Under an atmosphere of collective punishment that often reduces sense of remorse and heightens perceived grievances, the military will not get the requisite information they need. Besides, it could exacerbate the initial problem they were trying to solve, especially now that the two sides in the dispute are on the propaganda offensive in a bid to profit from the tragedy. The military should not fall for their tricks.

A Day at the Lagos Free Zone

During a recent encounter with Mr Haresh Aswani, who I was meeting for the first time, a mutual friend said jocularly that he was sure I would have at least two of his (Aswani’s) company’s products in our house. I expressed my doubt. When the friend identified the company as Tolaram Group, a Singaporean family business to which I wasn’t familiar, I became even more curious. Until he mentioned Indomie Instant Noodles as one of their products. Indomie is without doubt one of the biggest brands not only of Noodles but also of any products in the country today.

Incidentally, Aswani, who chairs Tolaram Group in Africa has been in Nigeria for more than three decades and is also the Honorary Consul-General of Singapore in our country. As I would learn, Indomie is just one of the many premium household products either being manufactured by the Tolaram Group or in which they are the main distributor. Dano Milk, Colgate toothpaste, Power Oil, Hypo cleaner, Kellogg’s, Pringles, Coco Pops are some of the others. But what Aswani focused on that day is the Lagos Free Zone (LFZ), a project he described as Nigeria’s first privately owned free zone with a fully integrated deep-sea port, covering an area of 830 hectares. In Lagos a few weeks ago, I visited the LFZ. Fully equipped with world-class infrastructure, a single clearance window for ease of doing business, and integrated with the Lekki deep seaport spanning 90 hectares, I was dazed by what I saw.

Built in partnership with China Habour Engineering Company (CHEC), the Lagos State Government and the Nigeria Port Authority (NPA), construction of the Lekki Port was commenced in 2012 when Babatunde Fashola was governor and is to date the single largest private infrastructure investment in the country. That such a significant investment of about $2.5 billion would be committed along the Lekki Corridor is an indication of the potential of that axis for the development of both Lagos and our country. The Lekki Corridor stretches from Victoria Island along the Peninsula to Epe with the Expressway serving as its primary artery. I understand that there is Lekki Free Zone owned by the Lagos State government and some Chinese consortium, it is distinct from the LFZ of the Toolaram Group which is a private entity. But Lagos State also has a 20 percent equity in the Lekki Port within the LFZ. In my chat with the LFZ Managing Director, Dinesh Rathi who took me on a tour of completed facilities, what they are trying to create within the economic zone which entices businesses with tax breaks and simplified procedures, “is a ‘city within a city’ that integrates industries, residences, and commercial spaces, all functioning seamlessly together.”

The Lekki Corridor, as Rathi explained, is divided into four quadrants. The fourth quadrant is where the Lekki Deep Sea Port, Lagos Free Zone, Dangote Fertilizers & Refinery Complex are domiciled. “It is a dynamic region on the rise. It offers exciting opportunities for businesses and residents seeking a modern and vibrant environment,” said Rathi who reeled out the benefits of the Lekki Port equipped with modern facilities, including those not available in either Apapa or Tin Can Ports. For instance, the Lekki Port has five ship-to-shore (STS) cranes for loading and unloading intermodal containers from ships and 15 rubber tired gantry (RTG) cranes. Completed in April last year, the Lekki Port recently welcomed its first transshipment vessel and consistently receives an average of one vessel per week since its launch, according to Rathi. 

I was also taken through the history of the Tolaram Group. Established in 1948, and structured as a holding company, it boasts a diverse portfolio spanning various sectors, including fintech ventures which, according to Rathi, “involves providing innovative solutions for financial services and transactions in emerging markets.” Additionally, their infrastructure and industrial projects contribute to building essential structures and industries that form the backbone of economic activity.  Some of the facilities I saw include a modern fire station, an expansive truck park, the Colgate factory where I was taken through production processes, several warehouses, a medical facility, police station, residential tower, solid waste management centre, security command center, helipad and three banks. To ensure a reliable and cost-effective energy source for its tenants, as Rathi explained, the LFZ has secured a 20-year Gas Infrastructure Development Agreement (GIDA) that will connect it directly to the national gas transportation grid. To actualise this, a consortium already formed to develop the main pipeline and distribution network within the zone, ultimately delivering piped natural gas to each tenant. The agreement, I was told, also incorporates an LNG solution.

I left the LFZ feeling more optimistic about Nigeria and the prospects for economic growth with the right policies and incentives for investors, local and foreign. But on my way back to the Island, I spent several hours in traffic gridlock along the same Lekki-Epe highway. I can only imagine what would happen on that axis during the coming rainy season and the years to come. This is one of the issues that would have to be resolved by the Lagos State government for the dream of the Lekki Corridor, the LFZ and other big businesses along that axis to become a reality. The federal government can help resolve that if they expedite action on the Coastal Road that has been in the pipelines for years. But for Aswani and the Tolaram Group, I believe they have taken a huge bet on Nigeria. I hope it pays off. Both in their interest and that of our country.

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