ICYMI

April 13, 2024

Okuama: Storm over bodies of dead villagers

Okuama

Photo of Okuama community residents living in the forest.

By Emma Amaize, Regional Editor, South-South, & Akpokona Omafuaire

The whereabouts of the bodies of residents of Okuama, Ughelli South Local Government Area, Delta State, who died in the March 14 bloodbath that also saw the killing of 17 military personnel, has triggered another controversy.

This followed the demand by the Okuama leaders to know the location of the remains, alleging the Army had dug a mass grave in the community, buried the victims, and deposited the remains of others inside the river.   

Leaders of the community who spoke incognito to Saturday Vanguard said the entire population fled the community on March 14, following the bombardment, first by soldiers who killed some inhabitants, and second by gunmen, who killed both soldiers and villagers at the waterside.

They said they could not take stock of their dead, given the circumstances that led to their fleeing the community, and the Army commandeered the town and denied them access to their homeland since then.

According to them, while the Army refused the people entry to pick up their dead and bury them; the same military had collected its fallen personnel and interred them. It remained an allegation.

The community leaders said since the episode of March 14, the Army, which knew those who killed its personnel, and not the peasant farmers and anglers of Okuama was doing everything to rope in the villagers.

“Certainly, Okuama could not have buried weapons acquired with funds from oil bunkering as the Chief of Defense Staff, CDS, General Christopher Musa speculated because we are not an oil-producing community,  no oil pipeline passes our community, and we are not involved in oil bunkering,” one leader said.

A 50-year-old mother of five, Vero Joseph, who spoke to Saturday Vanguard in the forest, where the residents were hiding, said, “Soldiers killed Magdalene, James, and John, they are the ones I could remember before running into this bush. We do not know those people who came in the boat to shoot our people and the soldiers.”

Another villager, Evelyn Edjekota, a 45-year-old mother of seven, who also spoke at the forest hideout, said, “The soldiers killed Eshedi, Teddy, and Ejomafuvwe.”

The military authorities have not spoken of the dead bodies of villagers since they started a cordon-and-search operation on Okuama after the March 14 incident. 

Their anxiety is justified – Eferakoro, retired chief magistrate

A retired judge in Delta State, Chief Magistrate E.O Eferakoro, who spoke to Saturday Vanguard on the fears of the community, said, “The position of the law is that if they do not see dead bodies, it means nobody is missing. Do they have the number of people living in Okuama?

“You cannot accuse somebody of murder if you cannot bring the physical body. Therefore, if they announced a figure, they should be able to bring the number of dead bodies to a tally. The army is aware of this.”

“The army should vacate that place. By the time the army leaves the place, the people will probably discover where they threw the dead bodies or buried them, and inform the relevant authorities.

“We recall the Lekki Toll Gate incident in Lagos State, after killing people, they allegedly evacuated the corpses. In a situation where the corpse is not found, you cannot allege murder; it is the position of the law.”

First Okuama leader speaks

I have said before that we have not seen the corpses of our people who died on that day because the Army threw most of them inside the river. They buried the ones killed in the community; that is the reason they moved -in caterpillars and destroyed the community.

“They dug a place and put all the corpses in a mass burial, these are the reasons they do not want anybody to come there now. This is why we are crying that the government should order them out for us to bury our dead, but they refused.

“It is very painful to us that we cannot even see their corpses to bury, apart from the few we have in the mortuary.

“For the army to investigate the killing of their soldiers is not wrong,  but to go hard on a whole community and other places is oppression; it is no longer investigation again,  but a setup and a plan to wipe out all the Urhobo communities in that riverine.

“Okuama does not have any weapon buried in the ground, there is nothing of such. The caterpillars they brought were for them to bulldoze the buildings down and bury the people they had killed.

“What you see now is the bargain and execution of that plan to deal with our people. What the army is doing in the Olota community, one cannot understand, they have gone there before and chased them into the bush.

“Now, they went again for the second time on Thursday, burning houses. You see, it is a gang-up and oppression.

“The military board of inquiry is also a gang up because the military cannot set up a panel and be the investigators, it is not proper and the whole world is condemning it.

“Okoloba community is saying they witnessed what happened? I want to go and testify, Now, how did Okoloba people find themselves among military people who went on a mission?

“They are our opponents; how did they form part of the military operation they testify about? We have seen it as a serious gang-up, we, the Okuama people, are saying the military should hold them responsible because they know what they did.

“They have more evidence to give; they should be interviewed very well because we suspect that they have a hand in the killing of the soldiers.

“Because a civilian could not have been part of the military operation to Okuama, so whatever evidence do they want to give there?They should be held responsible for the killing of military personnel. 

We heard Okuama youths ask Lt. Col to drop arms if he came for peace talks

For somebody to say that the army went for peacekeeping and someone asked him or her to drop their weapons, and they did. That is a lie. Army man cannot go to a place for peacekeeping, then, somebody will ask him to drop his gun; it can never happen because the army man knows that they can never drop guns and surrender to anybody.

Then again, on the killing of the soldiers. After the shooting, by the army at the town, as they walked down to the jetty, about three other boats came from the Bomadi direction; the occupants opened fire on the army and killed the people who were there. This is what happened that very day.

Hiring of mercenaries

By saying that the Okuama people hired Amagbein and the mercenaries… Amagbein is neither a part of Okuama nor relates to Okuama, and Okuama did not hire anybody to come and help them fight. The Okuama people are farmers.

On the day the soldiers came, they went to their farms, and even the community chairman went to the farm. It was from the farm that the chairman was told that visitors came. He came from the farm and welcomed them before discussions. At the end of the whole thing, they set up Okuama

Did the gunmen wear military camouflage?  

The Okuama people do not have a hand in the killing of the soldiers. our people even die more from the attacks.  Yes, the gunmen who came on the other boats wore military camouflage. Our people did not recognize the killers because nobody anticipated what happened that day. The community was in commotion after soldiers shot and people were running for safety. If you see the video that one of our boys made as the boats came, it was from a far distance.

No access to our homeland to retrieve corpses of our dead

Okuama has not been able to show the world the bodies of their dead people because we do not have access to the community after the shooting till now. Immediately the shooting started, everybody ran away. Those still at their farms ran from there to the forest, where they suffer now.

So, there is nobody to recover the corpses. We have videos of a few people killed at the town hall, but we cannot access their corpses. 

Are you involved in oil bunkering?

The military statement that our people do bunkering and stockpile weapons is a lie because the Okuama people are peasant farmers of potato, cassava, palm oil, and fishing.

Reaction to doing rituals with body parts of decapitated soldiers.  General Musa accentuated this claim in his media interview.

The army knows those making sacrifices in the river, they are just dancing around the truth. It knows those who committed this crime. They know that Okuama is innocent, they know the killers, and they should go after them.

Destruction

Okuama,  as a community,  has just one shrine and many churches. Okuama is a Christian community; the destroyed churches were up to six. We have Catholics, Winners, Baptists, God’s Grace, Cherubim and Seraphim.

They burned all of them down.  If they have evidence of many shrines in Okuama, they should bring it up for the world to see. Most of what they are saying now about Okuama is a setup.

 After we deserted the village, whatever they were doing there,  they could frame it against Okuama. They can say and do anything as part of the setup agenda.

(Another community leader speaks)

Whatever they are saying and doing now is a plan against Okuama. Okuama people are innocent of what they are talking about, but unfortunately, the killing of the soldiers happened to be in Okuama, which is why it is painful.

Okuama people are farmers; there is no oil in the place. No trace of bunkering from the beginning until now, and they can go and verify it. Okuama’s name is not under the oil-producing community; they can check that out; we are not lying. We are telling the truth; the Ijaw people are trying to oppress us.

The Okoloba leader had boasted of removing Okuama from there. He said Okoloba has a boundary with Akugbene. On the killing of the soldiers, those making viral videos of the killing are not from our place. those who witnessed the incident have spoken the truth, and the old and young know this truth.

There is no Okuama person called Amagbein and Okuama does not even know him. Those who knew him as the killer, I believe that they knew how the killing came about.

We are surprised at the way the attackers came and started shooting everyone, so we do not know him. Okuama does not know him nor could they hire him.

We do not have youths who can challenge soldiers

The military should hold the boat driver who said that he witnessed the shooting to explain what he knows about the killing. He will know those who did the killing.

 The Okuama community does not have youths who can even stand that army. The soldiers should hold the boatman and he will be able to testify and Okuama will be free from this dangerous allegation.

Military killed no one

The military says the allegation that the Army killed their people and buried them is propaganda. They maintain that nothing of such happened. “We’re all professionals and would not do such,” a military source told our defence correspondent, Kingsley Omonobi in Abuja yesterday.

Vanguard News