Columns

May 11, 2024

Now That Okuama Is ‘Free’, by Francis Ewherido

Francis ewherido

I took interest in what has become Okuama tragedy since March 14, 2024, when the 17 officers and soldiers were killed. I remembered Zaki Biam and Odi. I feared the worse and the worse came to pass. The military levelled Okuama and sent indigenes scampering in various directions for their lives. As a result of the fact that I am an indigene of Ewhu (Ewu Kingdom) and my media background, I got some information before others. Some friends and people who knew me took interest in the Okuama matter. I am really grateful for the support and inputs you put in to get us to where we are now. 

I got a hint that a few days before the announcement by the Governor of Delta State, Rt. Hon. Sheriff Oborevwori, that the soldiers were going to pull out of Okuama shortly. I had to wait for the official announcement. In the 80s when I started my journalism career, having a scoop (exclusive story) could keep a cub reporter awake for days. I remembered in 1987, I was on my way from an assignment in Victoria Island, Lagos.

I was waiting for a bus at Broad Street opposite Bookshop House when fire started on one of the floors. I quickly brought out my pen and jotter. There was no phone then, not to talk of phones with cameras. Only photojournalists had cameras then. I wrote when the fire started, the floor and a few other information. There was really no available official to interview and I needed to get back to Onipetesi, Mangoro, where the office of The Punch Newspaper was then, to file my story.

I got to Ikeja and got stuck in a gridlock. With no headway, I headed home to Surulere in the opposite direction. My aunt I was living with had a landline. I wrote my story and called the office to transmit it, but they were not hearing me. After a long try, I gave up. The next day, no newspaper carried the story, if my recollection is true. I narrated my ordeal to immediate boss, Mr. Chris Mammah, who was the assistant news editor then. I was expecting consolation. He laughed aloud and said, “You just missed your first scoop. These days and being out of the news reporting bit, I am no more interested in breaking the news, especially bad news. 

Addressing media men, Gov. Oborevwori said “It is also pertinent to point out that matters of security are better handled with tact, wisdom, and patience; it is not meant to be a subject of daily media…” From what I know, it would have been difficult to get this far if what was going on behind the scene was public knowledge. I read many speculations and uninformed narratives, some in social media platforms I belonged to. My mother taught me to communicate in parables and wise sayings, but we are in an era when the average Nigerian is suspicious of every government action. My efforts failed miserably. After about three altercations, I decided to mind my business. Talk is free, after all. In all, my primary concern was the welfare and wellbeing of our people in Okuama.  

As I wrote two weeks ago “killing of those soldiers is dastardly and unjustifiable, but the army also has no justification for razing and levelling Okuama.” President Bola Tinubu, Governor Sheriff Oborevwori and the army understandably have received a lot of backlash over the destruction of Okuama and the aftermath. The gruesome killing of the soldiers notwithstanding, the reaction of the soldiers left a soured taste in the mouth. From what I know, the Delta State Governor did a lot more than he is getting credit for. I agree that as the chief security officer of the state, one of his primary assignments is the safety of lives and properties of the people of Delta State. But the Nigerian Constitution does not equip state governors to carry out this function properly in a federal system of government. It is an anomaly that the constitution review efforts should rectify.

Anyway, as the chief security officer of Delta State, Oborevwori was only doing the job he applied for and got, so no thank you. But as an Ewu man, we say that when someone comes back from his own farm, you greet him “doooo,” which means welcome or you have done well. Governor, doooo! But now the real work begins. I know some Okuama people are in a hurry to go back home. That is understandable, but not advisable. Right now Okuama is uninhabitable. Two, one of the reasons some Okuama people gave for kicking against relocating to the IDP camp in Ewu was that Ewu (Otor) people did not treat them well the last time flood sacked Okuama and the people were put in IDP camp in Ewu. The rains are here again and Okuama will likely be flooded. Why relocate and get sacked by flood later in the year?

This IDP camp is better organised and I reiterate that I have confidence in the chairman, Abraham Ogbodo. I also know some of the other committee members and I have confidence in them. There will be orderliness, equity and justice. I know it is tough when you are uprooted from your abode suddenly, but Okuama people really need to be patient. Four, my interpretation of Gov. Oborevwori’s appeal to Okuama people to return home means they should first of all go to the IDP camp.

Okuama is in ruins and it is not advisable for them to go back to Okuama immediately. Okuama needs to be rebuilt and it should not be rebuilt just like that. Okuama has had problem of flooding during the rainy season over the years. Like many riverine communities in Delta State, it is almost at sea or below level and easily gets flooded. This challenge notwithstanding, the new buildings need to be raised to avoid flooding of homes subsequently. If possible the rubble from the destroyed buildings and sand filling should be done.

Five, the Delta State Government should spearhead the rebuilding of Okuama. Pipe borne water and other modern infrastructure should be provided. It can sort out itself with the federal government later. Six, Okuama is vulnerable right now. The government should deal with the underlying security issue before the people return. Seven, dealing with the security of the people includes finding a permanent solution to the boundary dispute.

The boundary between Okuama and Okoloba should be well demarcated; both communities should be part of the demarcation and they should sign a fresh agreement to respect each other’s right to existence. Indigenes of both communities have intermarried and most of them speak both Urhobo and Ijaw Languages. Trouble makers should allow these simple farmers and fishermen to live in peace. Seven, some Okuama indigenes might suffer post-invasion trauma. Where necessary, the government should send specialists to attend to their mental health.

Finally, inter-ethnic, intra-ethnic, inter-local government land disputes dot Delta State. The government should avoid another tragedy by settling these disputes. All parties will certainly not be happy, but let fairness, equity, justice and tact reign.