Wednesday, 17 July 2024.

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Okuama is no more!

By Sunny Awhefeada

The above title re-echoes a significant statement in the understanding of the disruptive essence of colonialism in Africa as depicted in Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, a novel which is crucial to the understanding of the African predicament. It was Obierika who told his audience including his great friend Okonkwo, “Abame is no more”.

The village of Abame was wiped out because her people killed a Whiteman the very symbol of colonialism in Africa. The colonial enterprise left in its wake a series of punitive expeditions in order to ensure “the pacification of the primitive tribes…”

What happened to Abame also happened to the great Benin Kingdom with its invasion in 1897 as a consequence of the killing of agents of colonialism.

The fall of the powerful kingdom, which once defined the universe from around the Niger Delta to as far as today’s Republic of Benin and her god-like king whose magical prowess was unrivalled and whose word was law and unchallenged, was a clear signal that the Whiteman was not to be toyed with and that the institution he represented had come to stay. What befell Benin ricocheted across many places including Urhoboland.

The expression “ivwiri aka” which means “Benin smoke” memorialises to this day the intensity of the firepower and smoke arising from the bombardment of Benin. In the wake of that scorched earth invasion, uncountable lives were lost, artefacts were looted, the god-like king was arrested and deported to Calabar and that bloody episode ended an era for the Benin people.

As I write, the fate of Abame, Benin and other places that resisted the colonial encounter is being visited on Okuama, a small island with less than five hundred inhabitants. Okuama has fallen victim to the present postcolonial contraption enervated by too many subversive contradictions.

The village has emanated from centuries of obscurity and suffocating deprivation to attain obnoxious visibility. From being a somnolent enclave on the bank of the River Forcados, Okuama leapt to the limelight as televisions, radios and newspapers struggle to give vent to the bloody drama that has gone on for one week and is still ongoing.

The people of Okuama have been accused by the Nigerian Army of killing their officers and men, numbering 17, who had (purportedly) gone there on a peace mission. For that, the Nigerian Army invaded Okuama and razed it, inflicting destruction, deaths and displacement.

Okuama is no more! The tragedy here is double as the State, represented by the dead soldiers, and humanity, symbolised by the innocent, oppressed, but peace-loving people of Okuama, are the victims and the entire community of humanity is grossly diminished. Okuama is no more!

The gallant soldiers, who met their untimely deaths, were human beings like the rest of us and they really deserve our empathy. We must put ourselves in their place and imagine how dastardly they were murdered and debased even in death while serving their fatherland. Soldiers are crucial to the survival of both the primordial and the modern state.

They sign up to defend the people and die for the honour of the country if need be, but not the kind of death that they met in the precincts of the Forcados. We mourn with their families and pray for them to be endowed with the fortitude to bear the loss. After all, the slain soldiers are sons, brothers, husbands and fathers to people who by now must have been very distraught.

The Nigerian Army also deserves consolation for the loss of their comrade in arms. We also mourn with Nigeria with which we must join hands to undo the present dark and bloody episode.

Having said the foregoing, one must be forthright, if not audaciously, to absolve the Okuama people of the allegation of killing the soldiers!

Time, the revealer of all things, shall absolve the people of Okuama. Time will also heal them of the wounds, but the scars and memory of loss will remain wherever they might have been dispersed. The Okuama people, who before the military expedition lived on the banks of the Forcados River, are of the Ewu clan in Urhoboland. Let the Military and the Nigerian state check their records and they will discover that there is no single instance of the Urhobo people committing any infraction against them. The Urhobo mindset has always been defined by certain expressions like “agan vre igometi” (you can’t be more powerful than the government), “ene ne igometi horaan” (you don’t fight with the government), “adjekoyibo” (beware the Whiteman), etc.

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These sayings speak to the high regard, loyalty and near veneration the Urhobo people, among whom are the Okuamas, have for the government. In the context of the foregoing, the Nigerian Army represents the force of the government which the people have always held in the highest of esteem.

The Urhobo allegiance to the nation and the Nigerian Army is legendary. It is always said among the Urhobo that you only need to hang the uniform of a soldier near your household and nobody will trespass!

The Urhobo people have been very hospitable to soldiers. They always warmly receive them with “isiagware” the tradition of placing drinks, kolanuts and money in a bowl as a show of friendship and hospitality. There is no soldier posted to Urhoboland that doesn’t know the “isiagware” tradition.

Let the Nigerian State do a simple fact-checking, there has been no single instance where the Urhobo raised a finger against the military. Soldiers occupied Kokori for many years and the people catered for them the way they would their own relations.

Probably with the exception of the Tivs, Urhobo men enlisted more in the Nigerian Army than any other ethnic nationality during the Nigerian Civil War. There is no family in Urhoboland that didn’t have a son in the Army in those dreary 30 months. Their son, General David Ejoor, was to become Chief of Army Staff after the war. Are these the same people who will turn around to hound soldiers that they have always embraced?

After the burning of Okuama soldiers traced the alleged militant leader suspected to be the mastermind of the killing to Igbomotoru, an Ijaw village in Bayelsa State.

Recall that the originating conflict was between Okuama, an Urhobo community, and Okoloba, an Ijaw community. Will the Urhobo commit such a heinous crime against the State and run to seek refuge in the village of the “antagonist” tribe?

This runs against the grain. The initial narrative offered by the Nigerian Army, which accused the placid youths of Okuama of killing the soldiers, needs to be reconstructed. Whoever knew Okuama before the incident will know that the kind of capacity that will undo troops of the Nigerian Army is lacking in the sleepy village.

The narrative should be reconstructed. The soldiers could have been killed elsewhere and their bodies dumped at Okuama.

It is not impossible. Urhobo youths have never been known to be militants. Their engagement with the Nigerian state has always been constructive even at critical moments. Thankfully, the Senate President, Senator Godswill Akpabio, has asked the authorities to look beyond the area for the perpetrators of the act.

The Federal Government’s directive to the military to bring the criminals to justice was not only ill-advised but a carte blanche! It was as good as telling the soldiers “Go destroy and kill” and that has happened. And many innocent people have been killed and the survivors have been displaced with no homes to go back to. Okuama is no more!

The government seems to lack memory. This happened in Odi and Zaki Biam. Has it stopped the act? In fact, the Army Chief under whose watch Odi was levelled hailed from Zaki Biam. He was still alive when another Army Chief ordered the razing of Zaki Biam. Nations do not evolve like that. The Army, no matter the provocation, must learn to act professionally so that it can continue to earn the respect, trust and cooperation of the citizens.

The Federal Government needs to institute an independent inquiry into what happened at Okuama. The Federal Government should rebuild Okuama and let the survivors return to their ancestral home with compensation. The time to do so is now as Okuama is no more!

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