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April 14, 2024

Okuama: Questions as military panel visits killings site; Oborevwori, police denied access

Okuama

•No aid, no drug, no food – villagers lament plight in the bush 29 days after
•What we told panel – Okoloba Chair

By Emma Amaize, Regional Editor, South-South, Jimitota Onoyume, Asst. News Editor, and Chancel Bomadi Sunday

INFORMATION that the Military Board of Inquiry, headed by Air Vice-Marshal David Ajayi, gained access to the Okuama community, Ughelli South Local Government Area, Delta State, locked down by soldiers on cordon-and-search operation since March 14, when 17 military personnel lost their lives in the riverside settlement, has sparked curiosity.

The concealed visit of the AVM Ajayi-led Board of Inquiry, constituted by the Defense Headquarters, Abuja, to Okuama before it commenced sitting last Wednesday in Warri, attracted more than a passing attention because the Army had earlier deprived the Governor of Delta State, who is the Chief Security Officer, CSO, Rt. Hon Sheriff Oborevwori, entry to the community.

Besides the governor, the Army practically barred the Commissioner of Police in the state, Olufemi Abaniwonda, from accessing Okuama.

The stopover of the military board has activated concerns about the neutrality of the Army in the inquiry it has appropriated, which many stakeholders have interrogated.

AVM Ajayi had told Oboreverowi a few days before the commencement of the sitting that the board was in the state to investigate the unfortunate incident that happened at Okuama.

His words, “We are here on a fact-finding mission and not to apportion blame. We are here to gather facts from security agencies, community leaders, and community dwellers.”

Why I did not visit Okuama-Oborevwori

Governor Oborevwori, who met with security heads at Bomadi, headquarters of Bomadi Local Government Area, and expected to have taken a speedboat to Okuama, some kilometres away, four days after the incident, to personally see things flew to Abuja the next day, Tuesday, March 19, to brief President Bola Tinubu on what happened.

He told reporters in Abuja that he was yet to meet with the people of Okuama, as the place was deserted. This was five days after the incident.

According to him, “When something happens like this, it is always not easy to manage tension. Yesterday, I was in that local government; I was in Bomadi for security meeting, to get full details and a briefing.

“So, some of those issues are security issues that you cannot discuss publicly. That is the truth, and we are managing the situation. Therefore, the issue of whether a place has been burned down or people have been killed; this has happened, but what is the way forward?”

Musa, CDS, modifies reason

Speaking on a television program earlier in the month, the Chief of Defense Staff, General Christopher Musa, gave a dissimilar reason. He stated that Oborevwori and residents of Okuama had no access to the community because security agencies were carrying out a “cordon and search” operation.

“We are currently conducting a cordon and search in the community. Cordon-and-search operation means we are searching every nook and cranny within the community because they have a lot of illegal funds from crude oil theft. They have bought a lot of weapons”, the CDs said.

“It is for us to thoroughly clean the community to ensure that no weapon no explosive is left in the community. I can tell you that at the end of the operation, residents of the community will always go back.”

However, the “cordon-and-search” operation was still on when the authorities that denied Oborevwori’s right of entry granted the military board of inquiry access to the community.

Police commissioner speaks for himself

In his case, the state police boss, Abaniwonda, said on a television programme: “We have not been able to move into this community (Okuama). Yes, it is our responsibility as the primary line of defense in internal security. However, when you have another sister agency conducting an operation, the reasonable thing to do is to wait for them to finish.
“We have not been able for now to get into Okuama because of the volatile nature of what is presently ongoing around that environment.

” Efforts are being made to ensure that the perpetrators of this heinous crime are brought to justice. We are working in conjunction with other security agencies and I can assure you that we are making progress.”

Abaniwonda, who acknowledged that the major line of defence in internal security was the responsibility of the police, said, “In the Okuama incident, we have an ongoing military operation there. We have been on the ground, and we have been supportive. We have not been missing in action. Technology has been an integral part of present-day policing. These individuals are being tracked.”

Objection

However, there is no question about the propriety of the military panel visiting Okuama to find facts. The question is why the same military deprived the governor of visiting a community in his state where such a tragic incident that warranted the people fleeing the town occurred.

It was highly unconvincing that Oborevwori’s visit to Okuama on March 18, when he visited Bomadi, would have interfered with the cordon-and-search operation by soldiers. The military, obviously, has another reason for stopping the governor.

The Army did not even respect the words of the governor, who guaranteed after his closed-door meeting with Tinubu that soldiers would not carry out reprisal attacks.

Oborevwori told reporters: “What is happening now is something that we did not bargain for, but we want to assure everybody that there will be no more attacks on the villages, if there’s been anyone that has happened in the past…”

If they denied the governor access, which is objectionable, why also deny entry to the head of the security agency principally responsible for the investigation of such an incident in the state?

Invasion continues

Up till Thursday, the military has not ceased attacks on villages in Ughelli area over the killings; the most recent was Olota community, 50 kilometers from Okuama, but the Army authorities confirmed that the soldiers who arrested some people recovered arms and ammunition.

Twenty-nine days after the villagers, including mothers and children, fled their homeland and took refuge in the forests, aid agencies have not been able to reach them with food, drugs, and other relief materials, essentially because of the fear of soldiers who are busy invading communities and harassing residents in the name of the cordon-and-search operation.

A leader of Okuama, who spoke to Sunday Vanguard, said the Army had levelled virtually all the houses in the community, except schools and churches.

They also alleged that the military brought in caterpillars and other earth-moving equipment to dig the ground to bury their dead, which was the reason it has continued to deny the governor and residents access to the community.

The community rebuffed appearing before the military panel, citing impartiality on the part of the Army, which they termed the accuser, investigator, prosecutor and judge.

Military panel purportedly ruffled by the level of destruction

Informants, who preferred anonymity, told Sunday Vanguard last week that the level of destruction on the ground rattled members of the military panel when they visited Okuama community before coming to the Government House Annex, Warri, for sitting on Wednesday.

They whispered that the panel shut out reporters from the sitting because of what they saw.

“We read they met for over five hours at the Government House Annex, Warri, before reluctantly allowing stakeholders from Okoloba to meet them. They announced through a civilian government official on security to the journalists that they do not require their presence,” one of the informants said.

“What is the military hiding? Why shut out the media from the place? In the past panel of inquiries, with the governor and others, principal officers of the military lead media houses to see and explain what happened.

“In Rivers State for instance, when the Army destroyed houses in Yeghe community in search of repentant militants, they still took journalists there to explain their actions.

“In the era of Governor Chibuike Amaechi, he came with the army and journalists and the community, before the military and governor narrated their losses, and even provided pictures of those killed.

“In this case in Delta State, they shut out the media and kept stakeholders who came at 10 am and waited till after 3 pm. One would like to ask what the panel members were discussing for that long, if not what they beheld traumatized them.
“They should just open the community to natives and allow the people to pick the pieces of their lives; after all, they have razed their homes and identified the killers of their men, who are not even from the community.

“The only offence of Okuama people is that they committed the crime on their soil, but is it those mothers and children who are suffering in the forests that killed the soldiers? Why should they make them pass through such difficulties for more than one month running?”

What we told military panel—Koki, Okoloba chair

The chair of the Okoloba community in Bomadi Local Government Area, Mr. Clement Koki, whose age-long land dispute with Okuama culminated in the March 14 massacre, led his community’s delegation to the military panel.

The panel rounded off inquiries and hearings from the community leadership around 6.45 pm.

Koki, speaking to one of our reporters after the meeting, disclosed that it was all about asking questions to know how trouble started between the two communities, and what led to the ill-fated incident at Okuama.

His words: “They asked us how the misunderstanding between the two communities started, and we told them everything. We gave them the information they wanted to hear from us. More so, we presented all the necessary documents to them”.

We will speak after conclusion of findings —Uzor, Special Adviser

The Special Adviser to Governor Oborevwori on Peace and Conflict Resolution, Chief Edwin Uzor, also said, “The process is still ongoing and we will speak to you after findings are concluded”.
Expectedly, by last Friday, according to media reports, the panel would have proceeded to Bayelsa State, in continuation of its investigation.

Vanguard News Nigeria