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Mon, 11 Mar 2024 Feature Article

We Slept Under The Barrels Of The Military

We Slept Under The Barrels Of The Military
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The soldiers disembarked from numerous trucks upon arrival in Oyigbo, assuming a combat-ready stance, and began shooting indiscriminately at innocent residents. They claimed to be there to retrieve firearms stolen from six of their fallen colleagues, who were killed by criminals exploiting the EndSARS protest against police brutality. The ensuing violence resulted in numerous civilian casualties, with many succumbing to military gunfire and others sustaining injuries in what later became known as the #OyigboMassacre. Amid escalating tensions, a significant number of individuals sought refuge in Port Harcourt, the capital of Rivers State, as well as neighboring Imo State and Abia State.

Tragically, on October 20, 2020, Pastor Moses of Living Faith Church in Igwuruta near Port Harcourt lost his life while en route to Oyigbo to engage a carpenter and interior designer for renovation work. He, along with two companions and their wives, fell victim to fatal gunfire by soldiers.

The Nigerian government initiated a large-scale military operation in the oil-rich Niger Delta region of Oyigbo. This operation resulted in the deaths of hundreds of local residents and left thousands more injured or displaced. The international community strongly condemned these severe violations of human rights. In light of these events, our relatives residing elsewhere urged us to evacuate the city out of fear that our lives may be at risk if we continued reporting on the situation as journalists.

For several days, we have endured continuous military attacks without access to light, sustenance, or physical activity. Grace Abdu, a journalist affiliated with Voice of America, was physically assaulted and detained by Nigerian soldiers in the streets of Oyigbo on Saturday, November 28, 2020, while engaging in journalistic work. She was held in unlawful custody by the soldiers for an extended period.

The soldiers displayed reckless behavior as they were the sole presence at the scene. The vehicle carrying a deceased individual was intentionally set ablaze. A 30-year-old woman, anticipating her upcoming wedding in February 2021, was killed. Her man, Monday Bakor, disclosed that his fiancée lost her life during the military operation carried out by Nigerian troops in retaliation in Oyigbo. The lack of accountability from both the military and government authorities exacerbated this tragic incident. Amidst indiscriminate gunfire towards unarmed civilians that caused widespread panic among residents, Ms. Nwazuo met her demise on Thursday, October 22.

The soldiers exhibited a lack of regard as they aimed their firearms at individuals deliberately resulting in multiple fatal head injuries. The manner of speech used provided insight into the circumstances leading to an individual's passing. People were occupied with closing down their shops along the street when a bullet struck Bako's store's iron door as he attempted to secure it - tragically hitting his fiancée and causing her to collapse to the ground.

"I didn't care if they would kill me," he said. She was carried to the hospital by a person who brought a bike. Her demise was confirmed at the hospital, Divine Light. Nobody was facing anyone. “I don't think I'm a true IPOB. I am not in a relationship with anyone,” Bakor cried. “You can only see me at my house and church and that shop. You cannot see me anywhere else. You will not be able to find me anywhere else.”

Monday Bakor was enraged, and he was enraged. The soldiers, however, were resolute in their refusal to acknowledge the wrongful killing of innocent individuals. He lamented, "They killed the woman I was about to marry.She started this shop to make some money to go back to school." Unknown to the once love birds who fled Oyigbo to neighboring Etche on Wednesday but returned on Thursday for the death of one, while they believed peace had returned.

The woman's body was taken to a mortuary near Timber Road in Oyigbo. The people at the Imo River mortuary where oneMaduabchi helped search said that families were bringing in bodies and then abandoning them during the siege. Shootings were happening all over. Intersociety later announced thenames of those killed: Pastor Igwe, Queen Nwazuo, Okoro Peter and Chinwendu O.

The group explained that these people were shot at close range by soldiers before or on October 24, 2020, instantly killing them. The soldiers opened fire and killed two young residents after they barely left their homes to hear the governor speak who was to address the town, added the group. Shot in the forehead, Chinwendu's brain chambers caught fire and exploded in mid-air in the middle of the road. On Monday, additional slain people were added to the list, including Jude Egejulu, Clifford Nkemdirim, Ngozi Ozuo and Udeme Ossi.

Accusations And Blame game Heightened
The community of Oyigbo was placed under a 24-hour curfew as a precautionary measure. This action was taken in response to allegations made by the Commissioner of Police in Rivers State at the time, Joseph Mukan. He accused members of the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) of exploiting the EndSARS protests. According to Mukan, individuals affiliated with IPOB infiltrated the Oyigbo local government area and carried out what he described as "senseless and mindless attacks" on the area command, as well as the Oyigbo and Afam police stations. These attacks resulted in the complete destruction by fire of all three stations and various court structures.

Following the deployment of soldiers to the region, residents were confined to their homes for several weeks due to indiscriminate gunfire. The situation was characterized by frequent gunshots and stray bullets, leading to fatalities even among individuals engaged in ordinary outdoor activities. The severity of the situation was highlighted by incidents where a single bullet proved fatal.

On November 3, an extension was announced for the existing 24-hour curfew, now revised to run from 7 pm to 6 am. This adjustment provided some relief for residents during nighttime hours. However, concerns persisted among locals regarding potential repercussions from soldiers if they were caught documenting abuses or saving photos showing mistreatment or military operations on their devices. Removing any trace of such evidence became a necessary precautionary measure.

The unfolding events in Oyigbo prompted significant inquiries from national and international experts regarding the government's and army's claims that their operation in Oyigbo was solely focused on recovering stolen weapons and pursuing members of a separatist group. The available evidence indicated a disturbing level of violence reminiscent of wartime behavior being committed against unarmed civilians in the region.

It became essential to conduct an investigation into the alleged involvement of IPOB in the violent acts and vandalism, with the perpetrators facing appropriate legal consequences. Unfortunately, there were reports of Nigerian soldiers engaging in arbitrary and unconstitutional violence against individuals not associated with IPOB. A 24-hour curfew was enforced in Oyigbo, Obio Akpor, and surrounding areas; however, multiple videos, images, and social media posts had shown an increasing death toll and continued assaults by Nigerian soldiers on residents of Oyigbo and neighboring communities. Several individuals were detained during this curfew period. Disturbingly, there were accounts of elderly and young individuals enduring severe beatings when inadvertently encountering violent situations. Those returning home displayed visible injuries on their persons. Even those who complied with directives were not immune; Nigerian soldiers resorted to lethal measures against those who remained stationary.

Government’s spokespersons lied
The surge of violence in Oyigbo subsequent to the nationwide EndSARS demonstrations in 2020 was deeply concerning. The Nigerian military exhibited hesitancy in acknowledging its role in the tragic events in Oyigbo. Nnamdi Omoni, former spokesperson for Rivers Police, professed unawareness of any military aggression. Nevertheless, there were accounts of soldiers forcibly entering the residences of local inhabitants.

Paulinus Nsirim, the then Commissioner for Information and Communications in Rivers State but now a pastor with a local church, accused suspected IPOB members of absconding with 50 AK-47 rifles owned by the Nigerian Army, leading to military operations to recover the stolen weapons. He also disclosed being subject to attacks during these occurrences. Conversely, Major Charles Ekeocha, spokesperson for the 6th Division of the Nigerian Army, refuted allegations of fatalities and intimidation.

Ekeocha articulated: “Our mission is to retrieve firearms from criminal factions. Six of our soldiers lost their lives and had their rifles confiscated. Leaving these weapons in their possession would pose a threat to our communities, states, and nation. Therefore, it is imperative that we reclaim these firearms.”

Outcome Of Soldiers’ Involvement

The intrusion by soldiers into neighboring residences suggested a more sinister motive than simply retrieving firearms. The actions instilled fear and trauma among many locals. One resident expressed concerns about his uncle's caginess to speak up "for fear of being exposed by authorities."

How It All Started
During the recent riots involving soldiers, a total of six soldiers and four policemen lost their lives. Former Rivers State Governor, Nyesom Wike, attributed the subsequent tragedy to members of the proscribed Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB).

The soldiers were deployed to retrieve confiscated weapons and restore order in the area, Wike said. Disturbing images depicting military brutality towards civilians circulated on social media platforms in the October.

Rivers State, previously a focal point of conflict in the Niger Delta region, regrettably evolved into a hotspot for severe infringements on basic human rights within the nation. Outrage intensified following reports that Mr. Moses and his family, including children, fell victim to soldier-inflicted casualties. The hashtags #Oyigbo, #Obigbo, and #Oyigbomassacre gained traction on Twitter.

Voices Started To Rise
The Igbo National Council (INC) issued a warning to Wike, threatening to escalate the matter to the International Criminal Court if he did not disband the military presence in Oyigbo within 72 hours. That was at the early stage. Mazi Nnamdi Kanu, leader of the Indigenous People of Biafra, expressed sorrow over the loss of lives in Oyigbo and cautioned Wike against impunity.

INC President Chilos Godsent delivered this ultimatum while addressing journalists in Owerri amid claims suggesting that soldiers were unjustly targeting innocent individuals in Oyigbo following repercussions from the #EndSAR protest.

Despite Wike's denial of ordering violence against Igbo people, INC refuted his stance by asserting that troops stationed in Oyigbo were acting upon his instructions with a purported aim to secure a vice-presidential candidacy for him in 2023.

The Alaigbo Development Foundation called on the United Nations and the international community to help victims of the military operation that was taking place in Oyigbo.

The ADF, which issued the call in a statement on Tuesday, December 8, 2020, by Chief Abia Onyike, Chairman of its Media and Publicity Bureau, said the call became necessary after an "exhaustive review and reflection" on the recent "war-grade" incursion of Obigbo by the Nigerian military on the invitation of the state authorities.

The group said, despite its opposition to any attacks on the nation's security apparatus, it was unacceptable to send the military to Oyigbo because of the alleged assault by members of the Indigenous People of Biafra on security personnel.

Many Lives Lost
During and after the #EndSARS protests, violence in Oyigbo claimed the lives of at least 50 people and 80 injured others, according to the International Civil Liberties Union. Emeka Umeagbalasi, the Chairman of the Inter-Society, contended that Wike supported the service in the killing of Oyigbo residers from October 21, 2020 to November 4, 2020.

The leader of the Movement for the Sovereign State of Biafra ( MASSOB), Chief Ralph Uwazuruike, however, indicted the leader of the IPOB, Nnamdi Kanu, of orchestrating the violence.

Government Lied, Supporting Soldiers?
After the inoffensive residers, whom the authorities claimed to be members of the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB), an Igbo rebel group, allegedly killed some security labor force, the soldiers embarked on a revengeful charge.

The completely-loaded military vehicles arrived, and the soldiers, fortified to the teeth, jumped into action before establishing strategic positions along the streets of Oyigbo. The wrath of the beasts began with great ferocity.

Government authorities blazoned that soldiers had been transferred into the Oyigbo to arrest secessionists allegedly involved in the payoff of soldiers and police officers. But we understood the English word known as" Irony."

The Nigerian soldiers had suppressed and assessed a 24- hour curfew, leading to wide destruction, according to substantiation from the crime scene and reports from colorful sources. Streets were where people lost their lives. One of the most brutal uses of force in the history of the country was when soldiers used inordinate force against unarmed people. Judges said that the Oyigbo butchery bore parallels to the Odi (1999) and Zaki Biam (2001) butcheries under former President Olusegun Obasanjo, when he served as democratically elected president having been military Head of State.

Wike Stated "Grave Concerns"
Wike said on state television that the activities of the IPOB group were being carried out as acts of sabotage by members of the group. The administration stated that it had "grave concerns." There was peace in the state, including incitement of violence against communities, people, and police officers.

He said that Oyigbo town was the group's base of operations in the state, and that the violence the group perpetrated on a daily basis in Rivers State prompted the government to proscribe IPOB in the state and other parts of the country. He decided to ban the existence and activities of IPOB. He then called on security agencies to stop all incitement by IPOB and arrest anyone in the state who identified as IPOB.

A man named Stanley Mgbele was to be arrested for allegedly destroying people and stuff in Eleme and Onne, according to Wike. There was a N50 million reward for anyone with useful information that would lead to the arrest and prosecution of Stanley Mgbele

There was a curfew at the ports of Mile 1, Mile 2, Emenike, Ikou, and Iroabuchi but the restraining order was lifted. The curfew was extended to all other parts of the state, with the exception of the Oyigbo Local Government Area.

Wike Asked To Stop Soldiers
The Igbo National Council condemned the massacre of Igbo people in Oyigbo Local Government Area of Rivers State by “the blood-thirsty brigands of the Nigerian Army backed by the Nyesom Wike-led government of Rivers State.”

“We have noted the treacherous broadcast by Governor Nyesom Wike regarding the activities of the Indigenous People of Biafra in Rivers State and arrived at the conclusion that Governor Wike is dancing ‘surugede’ and will soon be disappointed,” said INC.

“We have analyzed the treacherous and unholy romance of Governor Wike with the blood-thirsty murderous Nigerian soldiers whom Wike commissioned to massacre the residents of Oyigbo.”

The INC went further, “Intelligence available to the Igbo National Council shows that the satanic alliance of Wike with Jihadist Nigerian soldiers was triggered by his inordinate and desperate ambition to vie for Vice President in the 2023 presidential race.

“The script is that Wike must show the Jihadists that he has the capacity and willingness to attack and try to exterminate the Igbo race in Rivers State as a condition to get the support of the Caliphate.”

Therefore, the Igbo National Council advised Wike to go back to school to study history in order to be clear-headed about the outcome of his new alliance in 2023. According to the group, “When they finish using him, they will dump him like they dumped Adams Oshiomhole, Rotimi Chibuike Amaechi, Senator Orji Uzor Kalu, Senator Bola Ahmed Tinubu, and many others.”

The INC called on Wike to immediately recall those “blood-thirsty killer gangs of Nigerian soldiers that are rampaging in Oyigbo, killing innocent unarmed Nigerians while Boko Haram is busy sacking many communities in Northern Nigerian states.

“Consequently, we give Nyesom Wike seventy-two hours from Tuesday, 3rd November 2020, to withdraw those murderers disguising as Nigerian soldiers from Oyigbo, or we shall declare a Fatwa on Nyesom Wike and also petition him to the International Criminal Court, ICC, for the offense of genocide.”

Pundits Worried About Whereabouts Of Bodies

The Intersociety reported that the soldiers removed most of the deceased bodies.

There were diverse stories about what happened in Oyigbo. It was dependent on who was telling the story. The leader of the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB), Nnamdi Kanu, blamed Rivers Wike for the killing. Emma Powerful, IPOB's media and publicity secretary, said in a statement that Wike and all those allegedly involved in the murders in Oyigbo or Obigbo (as some have claimed) won't be released and revenge was imminent. That was what he said.

There were riots all over Nigeria, according to IPOB. The Nigerian military and police allegedly killed and continue to kill hundreds of youth, and youth have attacked police stations in retaliation, said Mr. Powerful. “The Fulani masters and the British, who tried and failed to exterminate the Igbo people from 1966 to 1970, will be pleased with the act of singling out the Obigbo people for extermination.”

The International Human Rights Association and the Rule of Law (InterSociety) were two organizations that backed IPOB's demands. The group said security forces killed more than 50 people and injured more than 80 in Oyigbo. The number was modest, with many others missing and hundreds more kept secret, according to the report. The list also included the names of the people who had been murdered.

How Some Residents Died
The governor was visiting Obigbo to consider deployment of the military and curfew, and two young residents barely came out of their homes to hear what the governor had to say. According to the Intersociety, they were shot in the forehead, the brain case of the deceased Mr. Chinwendu burst, and he defecated in the middle of the road.

“The soldiers should have removed the bodies of most of the people who died,” the group said. “Government sources explained that Oyigbo's issues were the work of IPOB. All police stations and court buildings in the area were destroyed by IPOB.”

But in interviews and statements, Wike has said that he never directed the military to kill Igbo people, describing the allegations as outrageous and politically motivated.

The #EndSARS Protests
The #EndSARS protests that swept the country a month ago sparked the Oyigbo crisis. What began as a peaceful protest against police brutality and atrocities committed by the now-disbanded Police Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) later devolved into unnecessary vandalism? Gangs all over the country took over the protests and wrecked both public and private property.

The Igbosere High Court, a few police stations, and numerous other private and public assets were destroyed in Lagos State. Gangsters raided the Oba's palace in Lagos and robbed it. Several law enforcement personnel were shot and killed. The same thing happened in a lot of other States.

The military's continued involvement in Nigeria's internal security poses a threat to the nation, as the crisis in Oyigbo demonstrated. This was made in a public presentation by Justin Ijeoma, executive director of the Social Development, Environment and Human Rights Foundation HURSDEF.

In line with the demands of the EndSARS protests, Mr. Ijeoma argued that the federal government should refrain from sending troops to conduct peacekeeping operations in the country and empower the police to take on the responsibility of upholding law and order. The killings by the military in Oyigbo could lead to greater security risks if the Federal Government does not take action, according to Ijeoma. He warned the government that if it didn't do something, it would destroy itself and all of us.

Warning Upon Warning
Amnesty International urged the military to restrain themselves and stop the killings in Oyigbo. On Sunday, November 2, 2020, a series of tweets were posted on the bodies verified Twitter handle. According to the report, Amnesty International was receiving disturbing information from the Oyigbo. Some residents reported seeing dead bodies on the streets, despite the curfew in place. The group urged the military to be cautious and halt the violence.

The military said that it was carrying out an operation to capture members of the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) who had allegedly killed six soldiers during the attacks that ensured when hoodlums hijacked the #EndSARS protests. The United Nations, through its subsidiary, asserts that if the fundamental right to life is not valued, no other fundamental right can be upheld. The deliberate killing of individuals outside of any legal framework is a violation of this most fundamental right, whether it is extrajudicial, summary, or arbitrarily executed.

Odimegwu Onwumere is the Chairman, Advocacy Network on Religious and Cultural Coexistence (ANORACC). Email: apoet_25 at yahoo.com

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