By Temitope Muhideen (Convydence)

Odi is an oil-bearing community in Bayelsa state, a state that is surrounded by water. Bayelsa is one of the few states in Nigeria that produces oil, Odi is predominantly occupied by the Ijaw-speaking people of Bayelsa state, located in Kolokuma/Opokuma local govt in Bayelsa state. Before the creation of Bayelsa in 1997 by the late Gen. Sani Abacha, it was formerly under the present-day Rivers state. Abacha created Bayelsa state in recognition of the communities contribution to Nigeri’s revenue and with a mission to bring development closer to the people.

In the year 1999, precisely between November 4th and 7th, a repulsive occurrence happened in Odi town, a deputy commissioner of police was killed along with six others, and five others were killed in subsequent days, soldiers were harassed, although no soldier was killed. These murders were committed by a cult group (Asawena Boys)with no apparent political agenda but took place against a rising clamor from those living in the oil-producing areas for a greater share of the oil wealth. The police got information that the Asawena Boys had relocated to Odi, and the police entered the town with the mission of flushing them out, it was during the police raid for the Asawena Boys that the police were ambushed and killed.

The killing of twelve policemen in the Odi community was reported to President Olusegun Obasanjo and in a swift reaction, Obasanjo wrote to the governor of Bayelsa, Diepreye Alamieyeseigha, threatening to declare a state of emergency if those responsible for the murders were not apprehended within two weeks. Responsibility for policing is, however, a federal duty in Nigeria. Before the deadline could expire, soldiers from the Nigerian army moved into Odi, a community of perhaps 15,000 people, engaged in a brief exchange of fire with the young men alleged to be responsible for the deaths of the policemen, and proceeded to raze the town. The troops demolished every single building, barring the bank, the Anglican church, and the health. The aged, visitors, and settlers, may have killed hundreds of unarmed civilians. While the soldiers reportedly shot and killed some of the armed youths who brought trouble to the town, most of the gang is reported to have fled. It was a typical case of ground Zero for the Odi Community, everything on site was brought down, and every human being sited was fired, it was a complete mark out.

Odi Community was leveled, lives and properties lost, blood all over the city. It was hell on earth as most people killed were entirely innocent, it was a total retaliation by the Nigerian state and the soldiers. At the end of the massacre, only three buildings were left untouched: The Anglican Church, The Bank, and The primary health center. On December 4th, 1999 some Odi Indigenes who escaped the massacre were interviewed by Human Rights Watch and they have this to say “Why would any government use such excessive force and endanger the lives of so many innocent citizens of Nigeria for the sake of arresting between ten and thirty criminals? It makes no sense.” Reacting to the unsavory occurrence the then Special Adviser to the president on media and publicity, Doyin Okupe issued a press statement where he said “I wish to make it categorically clear that government, by this act, has not violated any internationally acceptable human rights provisions as practiced elsewhere in the developed world. … How can it be said that a carefully planned and cautiously executed exercise to rid society of these criminals is a violation of human rights?

The surviving members of the Odi community later took the matter to court and sought payment of compensation for the daylight killings of Innocent citizens. The matter was determined by the state high court of competence jurisdiction, and a sum of 37.6 billion naira was awarded in favor of the community. On assuming office as the president of Nigeria and a former governor of Bayelsa State where Odi Community is situated, Jonathan approved the release of 15 billion naira compensation to Odi community, the remainder of the money is yet to be paid by the Nigerian government as at the time of writing this story.

Analysts and experts have criticized the Nigerian govt/soldiers for the attack, many said they should have been more circumspect in their handling situation, and many regretted the fact that innocent persons fell prey to bullets and direct fire by the military. It remains one of the wonders of the 21st century that the daylight massacre happened under a civilian administration. The Odi Massacre of November 20 1999 remains one of the darkest moments in the history of Nigeria and Africa at large.

Temitope Muhideen is the publisher of Confidence News Nigeria and a member of Greenfield Library Limited, Atlanta Georgia, USA.