Monday Philips Ekpe writes that the fugitive killer gang must be apprehended by all means

One-minute silence for these worthy, exceptional human beings, Nigerians and soldiers: Lt Col AH Ali, Maj SD Shafa, Maj DE Obi, Capt U Zakari, SSgt Yahaya Saidu, Cpl Yahaya Danbaba, Cpl Kabiru Bashir, LCpl Bulus Haruna, LCpl Sole Opeyemi, LCpl Bello Anas, LCpl Hamman Peter, LCpl Ibrahim Abdullahi, Pte Alhaji Isah, Pte Clement Francis, Pte Abubakar Ali, Pte Ibrahim Adamu, and Pte Adamu Ibrahim. All 17 gallant officers and men of the Nigerian Army who were killed and dismembered last week in Okuama Community in Ughelli South Local Government Area of Delta State by yet to be identified youths under controversial circumstances. Anything short of focusing on humanity or the lack of it in that unfortunate incident would push the country further down the path of collapsed societal values and the diminution of our shared existence.

Let’s take off from the known. Those fallen members of the Nigerian Army were on a peace mission to Okuama to diffuse the tension created by a land tussle with Okoloba in Bomadi Local Government Area of the state. But in a twist the veracity of which can only be revealed through thorough investigations, the men were murdered and, by many accounts, their bodies mutilated and butchered for organ harvesting. Not to mention the deliberate recording and eventual uploading of the gory details on the social media by depraved individuals. Even condemned criminals don’t deserve the barbaric treatments and exposures. Such actions belonged to the era of brutes when animal instincts ran riot and people often failed to tame their predatory and carnivorous energies.

Since that tragic event, military authorities and some Nigerians have been appealing to the internet mob whose appetite for forwarding offensive and inappropriate materials has no boundaries. These unhinged agents of social disorder and peddlers of rumours and conspiracy theories can complicate the urgent assignments of fishing out and dealing with the real culprits, healing the broken-hearted, bringing some closure to this despicable experience, galvanising the process of instituting wholesale tranquillity in the affected areas, and, hopefully, injecting sanity into a traumatised national psyche.                

President Bola Tinubu’s reaction to the bloodletting was prompt and truly presidential: “The cowardly offenders responsible for this heinous crime will not go unpunished. The incident, once again, demonstrates the dangers faced by our servicemen and women in line of duty. I salute their heroism, courage and uncommon grit and passion… The Defence Headquarters and Chief of Defence Staff have been granted full authority to bring to justice anybody found to have been responsible for this unconscionable crime against the Nigerian people.” Can’t be better put, in my view, by someone whose office is required in these precarious times to retain the confidence of his troops while protecting innocent citizens who might get caught up in the crossfire. Anyone who doesn’t expect the generality of the military establishment to wish to take a pound of flesh on behalf of their dead colleagues lives in the skies. That they haven’t reacted in proportion to the controlled rage and agony must be a function of professional fortitude.

Curiously, but not unexpectedly, less than 24 hours after those cannibalistic displays in Okuama, narratives that border on retaliation from locals who couldn’t take the “excesses” of the soldiers any more surfaced in both the conventional and social media. But how such allegations of brutality by the men in uniform managed to stay away from the public before the so-called reprisals by the unknown assailants should be interesting to the investigators. At any rate, efforts to “add salt to injury” by introducing obstructive elements to this most troubling disaster should be stopped in their tracks. Major General Onyema Nwachukwu, Director of Army Public Relations, has already raised that alarm. According to him, “the community complicit in this dastardly act has resorted to media propaganda and shenanigans, rather than engage in a positive effort to fish out the perpetrators of this heinous crime….

“The falsehood being peddled by these criminals and their cohorts to whip up sentiments and sway the public to coverup, endorse or support the outrageous criminal acts of their armed youth gang should be disregarded in its entirety. It is only a ridiculous attempt at justifying their crime, rather than turn in themselves to security agencies. While law-abiding citizens are assured that there will be no reprisal on the part of the troops, we enjoin all to go about their normal activities, even as ongoing efforts are scaled up to positively identify and isolate the criminals to account for their atrocious deeds.”

True. No sensibilities, whether individual or collective, can come close to the depth of wounds inflicted on the Nigerian state, represented by the slain heroes. It’s indeed in the overall interest of the bickering communities to support every move to smoke out the public enemies who either lived in their midst or used their domains as platforms to cut down those lives and careers abruptly and also pump the population of widows and the fatherless. While Okuama, especially, and Okoloba have a genuine and legitimate reason to be worried about their fate, that shouldn’t eclipse an equally justifiable hunt for the instruments of this horror. Pronouncements and attitudes that do not advance the cause of justice should be nipped. Impunity in various aspects of our national life has brought us to the brink of failure. We mustn’t inch forward towards deeper ruin. 

Luckily, elsewhere, the Defence Headquarters has assured Nigerians that “there would be measured responses and injurious consequences for the perpetrators of these dastardly acts… the armed forces, being a disciplined force that complies with rules of engagement, laws of armed conflict and the respect for human rights, would be tempered by these provisions. We would not be led by emotions, but by the rule of law.” Fair enough. Some commentators have quarrelled with “injurious consequences”, understandably. Images of what have come to be known as the Odi massacre of November 1999 and Zaki Biam massacre of October 2001 are still fresh in the minds of many Nigerians.

In both instances, the army moved there to sort out those who had the gut to slay officers of the law. By the time they left, casualties mostly of innocent people ran into dozens and the towns were literally levelled. Former President Olusegun Obasanjo who was in power then still can’t say, over two decades after, how he could have handled those dicey situations differently. It’s now Tinubu’s turn to preside over this attempt at redressing a major breach against the morale of the Nigerian armed forces. When soldiers are killed in combat with groups like Boko Haram and other terrorists, it’s understandable. Regular occupational hazards. But being ambushed by nameless gangs and summarily decimated in a civilian environment is completely different.

Many condemnations have come from various quarters but more pointed ones should proceed from the highly vocal leaders of the Niger Delta. The statement by the President of the Senate, Godswill Akpabio, suggesting that the murderers might be mercenaries was hasty and regrettable. Such rhetoric is unhelpful and self-defeating. As head of the federal legislature and the highest ranked government official from the affected geopolitical zone, he ought to have done better than that.

By now, it should baffle those who think that Nigeria must break up along regional lines that neighbours like Urhobos in Okuama and Ijaws in Okoloba who have lived together and intermarried for centuries still have life-threatening land disputes in the 21th Century.

Dr Ekpe is a member of THISDAY Editorial Board

Related Articles