May 29, 2024

Rebuilding Okuama community

Okuama people storm Ewu-Okuama IDP camp for massive registration

On May 8, 2024, the Nigerian Army, which had occupied Okuama community in Ughelli South Local Government Area of Delta State for almost two months, withdrew after receiving a signal “from above”.

The Army invaded the community on March 14, 2024 after 17 of its officers and men “on a peace mission” were ambushed and gruesomely murdered. Okuama, an Urhobo community in the Ewu Kingdom, had been mired in a protracted conflict over ownership of a parcel of land with Okoloba, an Ijaw-speaking neighbour. The exact nature of the slain military personnel’s mission remains shrouded in mystery. It is hoped an ongoing investigation will unravel it.

The military struck after the murders, with structures in the community all but destroyed while the indigenes fled for dear lives.

However, the immediate return of the indigenes who had been hiding in the forests and neighbouring communities, was mottled with residual violence. Apparently, some hoodlums from neighbouring communities who sought to pillage what remained of the community after the military’s withdrawal, were ambushed by an Okuama vigilante and several of them killed or hospitalised.

Uncertainty continues to trail efforts by the Delta State Government to rebuild the community and resettle the people. The government has set up a refugee camp in Ewu where genuine displaced persons can stay and await the reconstruction of their community. But many want to return to Okuama out of fear that their properties and farmlands would be at the mercy of thieves.

We call on the displaced persons to fully cooperate with the resettlement committee headed by an accomplished journalist, Abraham Ogbodo, a former Editor of The Guardian Newspaper. It is also noteworthy that the state government included representatives of the embattled community in the resettlement committee to ensure that their legitimate concerns are accommodated.

In its current shape, the Okuama community is needy and totally dependent on the government and people of goodwill to resume their livelihood. We hope the Niger Delta Development Commission, NDDC, and the oil companies will respond appropriately, and that the four-month deadline for the completion of reconstruction will be met.

The most important thing is the lessons from this experience. If the government had responded timeously to the distress signals between Okuama and Okoloba, perhaps the murders that precipitated the military occupation would have been avoided. Prevention is always better than cure. Even if government turns Okuama into an El Dorado, the lives lost – particularly those of our gallant army personnel, will never be recovered.

Government should never take land disputes with levity. Governors, who have constitutional powers over land, must act decisively but with responsibility and justice when land disputes arise. Governor Sheriff Oborevwori should immediately take over the disputed land and ensure its use for public good.

A stitch in time always saves nine.