Segun James visits Odi and finds a vibrant community with no visible scar from the invasion by soldiers 13 years ago that all but reduced the community to rubble
For the people of Odi in Kolokuma/Opokuma Local Government Area of Bayelsa State, the judgment by the Federal High Court in Port Harcourt ordering the federal government to pay the people the sum of N37.6bn, was justice which took a long time in coming but yet, it was deserving. The compensation was ordered for the many deaths and destruction of property that occurred when soldiers, presumably on the orders of former president, Olusegun Obasanjo, invaded the community to avenge the killing of 11 policemen in the community.
Despite the judgment however, there were no jubilations on the streets of the town. The people carried on normally as if something dramatic and life changing had just happened. This is understandable. Since the invasion in 1999, Odi has apparently moved on, and there is hardly anything to show the effect of the sacking of the community or that it was once totally destroyed and the people displaced with little hope of coming back.
Today, Odi is growing fast with well-planned streets and a Federal Government College. For a first time visitor, this may not be the picture of the community that has endured in the media. The story of Odi's descent into oblivion started during the election that ushered in civil governance to the country in 1999.
Prior to the elections that ushered in civil rule in 1999, some politicians desperate to secure their hold on power were believed to have bought guns for their supporters to use during the election. With the elections over, the boys became liabilities to their pay masters. The politicians had no more use for the boys who soon became terror to their communities, from where they are occasionally chased out. But they soon found solace in Odi.
At that period, Odi was embroiled in a chieftaincy tussle. The recognized traditional head of the people was an elderly, uneducated man whose leadership was being challenged by a younger and more educated man. The community was soon thrown into crisis. This was the situation when the young thugs led by a son of Odi, Ken Niweigha, aka Daddy Ken, came with his boys to town.
They were welcomed by the young educated King who told them that they had the right to stay anywhere they wanted. Before long, they setup camp in nearby forest which they named Black Market. It soon became the centre of activities in the town. While the boys engaged in petty vices, some were even more daring, robbing people along the East/West road and killing anyone who dared to challenge them. Soon, they were beyond control.
The community leaders were then compelled to write the state governor, Chief Diepreye Alamieyeseigha, to complain about the atrocities of the boy and the pains being wrought on the people. They pleaded that the boys be flushed out of their community. By this time, Daddy Ken and his boys had forced the community leadership into exile.
The governor, being aware of the situation following the intelligence reports, was said to have asked the police to investigate and possibly dislodge the boys before leaving for a foreign trip. Following the order, the police led by an assistant commissioner of police and 11 others went into the community effect the arrest.
But the youths soon rounded-up the policemen and seized their weapons. The boys were said to be particularly angered by the fact that the police team was led by a Yoruba man. They claimed the Odua People's Congress had weeks earlier killed 14 ijaw youths in Ajegunle, Lagos. It was while being tortured that one of the policemen, an Ogoni man, died.
Angered by the death of a "brother", they decided to kill all policemen. When the news of their action broke, the boys soon realized the consequence of their action. They fled.
But incensed by the action of the boys the President, Chief Olusegun Obasanjo ordered that the boys be brought to justice at all cost by the men of the Nigeria Army. The situation took a tragic turn when the army got into Odi. They swooped on the community, wreaking havoc indiscriminately.
They proceeded to destroy nearly every building in the community. The young people ran into the surrounding forest while the aged and the children were left. Odi was completely destroyed.
The army brought down every building, sparing the only bank in the town, First Bank, church buildings and schools. At the time they retreated, several bodies of children and the elderly burnt beyond recognition littered the town.
The first people to visit Odi after the massacre were said to have met a deserted town with dogs eating the remains of the dead. Among these was the wife of the Senate President, Mrs. David Mark, an indigene of the town.
As she walked to where her family house once stood, her shoe was pierced by a nail which gave her a foot injury. The action of the soldiers was justified by Obasanjo and his then army chief, General Victor Malu. But it drew condemnation across the country.
It was at this point that the community went to the courts to seek justice. They were represented by Mr Femi Falana and Mr Olisa Agbakoba. But the case was soon stalled in 2004 for what some had termed "logistical reasons". Even though the two senior lawyers had offered their services free of charge, the community could not pay for the cost of bringing in their lawyers from Lagos each time the case came up.
However, in 2007, the Odi Patriot Forum lead by a retired lieutenant commander of the Nigeria Navy, Mr. Koku Imananagha, and his brother, Professor Kobina Imananagha, the Dean of the School of Medicine, Niger Delta University, took up the challenge and the case was revived.
This was this renewed interest that led to the landmark decision of the court. Speaking to THISDAY, Imananagha said the people have since moved on and have rebuilt their community. He said the people were indifferent about the federal government's possible appeal, saying that the people have got the justice they wanted - that the invasion was wrong and barbaric.
He however disclosed that the people had long decided on what to do with any compensation that comes from the law suit. According to him, the people in a memorandum of understanding written by the leadership of the community decided that any individual and family who lost a home and relation in the invasion would be compensated. Every family in the community would share in the compensation, he said. "Odi is a small community; we know everyone and who owns what before the invasion. We also decided on which percentage would go far what."
He declared that a major percentage of the money would be used to build the proposed New Odi Town for which the community had provided land in the event they won the case.
But in 2009, while the case was on, Daddy Ken was arrested by the police in Odi. Ken whose ambushing and killing of the 12 policemen led to the invasion of Odi community in November, 1999 was, to everybody's surprise, a government appointee in Bayelsa State and until his arrest, the coordinator of the state government's owned security militia, Bayelsa Volunteer.
Ken, according to the police was also an ex-felon who escaped with nine members of his gang from the Port Harcourt Prisons, in 2005, after being apprehended for the Odi killing. He was standing trial at Yenagoa High Court when he escaped.
He was arrested after a shootout that involved the commissioner of police who personally led the police to the town after it was garrisoned following intelligence report that the fleeing ex-militant leader, Chief Government Ekpemupolo aka Tompolo had taken refuge at Ken's house in Odi. Tompolo escaped the manhunt.
Ken was arrested along with three of his gang members, while one was killed during a gun duel with the police. The next day, Ken was killed barely 24 hours after he was arrested and paraded before newsmen by the Police.
For now, all eyes are on the federal government. Would they appeal the verdict? It's not certain yet. Another big question is how the compensation money would be disbursed without creating acrimony.