Monday, 23 December 2013

Delta Central Under Military Siege

By Anote Ajeluorou

What would strike a first-time visitor to Delta State Central Senatorial District is the ubiquitous military roadblocks. The consequence of that presence is the inevitable snarling traffic it causes on roads that are ordinarily free of potholes. Motorists are constantly on the look out for such needless jams and they try their best to avoid them by taking long and windy ways with more roadblocks.
  Among these roadblocks, there are the notorious ones that keep commuters for long before they can crawl through. The first is the one just before the roundabout on entry into Warri from Benin City on the famous East-West Road. Depending on the time of the day, it can keep motorists on either side for as long as 30 minutes or more just to drive through. The same applies to the other two on the way to Ughelli. First is the one on the way to Agharho town just after the PTI Junction. Then, there is a second one before Ughelli town.
  At these points and others, the soldiers watch the vehicles with a keen eye and are ready to pounce on any motorist, who tries to outsmart the long queue. Old and young men have been made to sit down on muddy waters just because they tried to jump the needless queues of vehicles to get to their destinations. Others, especially okada riders and other young offenders, have also been made to cut grass or sand fill defence bags at the military posts nearby under the watchful eyes of military personnel.
  Also on the Osubi Road towards Eku and just before the road leading to the Warri airport, another roadblock checks motorists’ smart quest to beat the main Warri-Benin City expressway. On the Sapele-Eku-Abraka road, the story is the same. At almost every three kilometres, a roadblock checks motorists’ progress. One or two have been abandoned but the drums, planks and other materials that slow down vehicles still stand.
 Before entering Jesse, a town made famous by devastating crude oil fire in 1999, a roadblock is also mounted. The soldiers are jovial, as they even crack jokes with the locals and respond to greetings in Urhobo language. They behave like regular town’s folk. Inside Sapele town, there is a military checkpoint after Amukpe Market. It causes massive traffic jam during peak periods.
  Interestingly, despite all these roadblocks, no serious checking of vehicles takes place. One or two soldiers just stand guard and direct drivers to stay in line and behave. Beyond the occasional mild rebuke, motorists are waved on. But even at that, precious time would have been lost in the snarling jam before motorists get to the checkpoint proper. It’s usually in exasperation at the aimlessness of the whole that some motorists try to beat the long queue, causing them to trigger the soldiers’ anger and the consequent occasional punishment.
  Regarding the general security of the entire Delta State, the military has this to say, “The Sector 1 Operation PULO SHIELD under the command of Brig. Gen. Pat Akem is deplored in Delta State to ensure security of lives, property and create a conducive environment for individuals to go about their lawful business. The crimes in Delta State include kidnapping and armed robbery among others”.
  No doubt, this includes erecting of roadblocks in the state, particularly Delta Central Senatorial District, which seems to bear the brunt of this security necessity in the form of roadblocks.

IN a taxicab from Sapele to Kokori through Okpara Waterside two weeks ago, a conversation suddenly ensued among the passengers and the driver. The conversation confirmed the travel lore that drivers, ferrymen and other transport operators are usually the traffickers of local news. It is from them that you get firsthand insight into vital information that reveals the underbelly of communities.
  And so it was that one of the ladies in the cab remarked rather regretfully about the burial that would take place that day of one Darlene (Darlington) in Sapele. For her and the other two men in front plus the driver, Darlington’s death was one of those mystifying events that defy logic. In his hey days, they all agreed, Darlington was one of those fellows, who courted trouble with glee and saw to it that trouble fled from him in trepidation. He was that tough. But of late, they also said, he’d apparently calmed down and went about his business without molesting anyone as he was wont to do.
  This, then, was why they couldn’t fathom why it had to be him that met death in the tragic circumstance that he did, and in the hands of soldiers endlessly patrolling the town to maintain peace.
  Darlington and many others were at a party enjoying themselves when a military patrol vehicle pulled up. The party wasn’t without a little trouble though, but it had simmered down, it seemed, when the soldiers pulled up and sought to know what was amiss. As the party organisers were assuring them that everything was under control, Darlington and a few others told the soldiers to mind their own business.
  When Darlington and his friends didn’t stop even as the soldiers were moving back, one of the soldiers’ guns went off in apparent self-defence. Darlington was hit in the eye. The sight, they said, was simply horrifying and gory.
   In amazement, the driver couldn’t help wondering what the soldiers were doing in the entire area (Delta Central) and how ubiquitous they had become. Working among a people that stare down and dare a man with a gun, who are not afraid to say their minds even when guns are trained on them, the driver said, the soldiers would have a hard time doing whatever security job they had been detailed to do in Delta State, especially his part of Delta.
  That same day in Ughelli (Thursday, December 5), two young men, both okada riders, were shot. The main target died on the spot while the soldiers rushed the other one to hospital. What was the offence? The offending okada man reportedly failed to heed the warning not to cross a certain point, where the soldiers had mounted watch over a construction company. When a soldier accosted the okada driver, the latter was said to have seized the soldier by the collar and also hit him with his helmet.
  Sensing that his colleague was in trouble, another soldier shot the okada rider. But just at that moment, another okada rider, who was appalled at his colleague’s brazenness, and was rushing to separate them, was also hit. He was the one rushed to hospital.
  Almost on a daily or weekly basis, news of soldiers’ brush with the locals is becoming rife. So also is the number of casualties. This is to the apparent discomfort of citizens of Delta Central Senatorial District, who have suddenly found themselves under heavy military siege.

WHILE ordinary folks complain about the inconveniences of these military checkpoints, especially motorists that ply the roads (such as the taxi driver mentioned earlier), many others are actually pleased, especially prominent Deltans, that the presence of the soldiers has brought a measure of security to the area, which had become volatile with the upsurge of militant activities for resource control and lately, kidnappings for criminal intent. In the recent past, Edo and Delta States became playgrounds for kidnapping activities, with state functionaries and prominent persons as targets.
  According to a local media consultant and community leader from Jesse, Prince Oma Whisky, the inconveniences of the roadblocks are nothing compared to the security needs of the area, which he said the military had come to enforce and maintain. Before the presence of the military and the roadblocks, Whisky said kidnappers made life unbearable for many citizens of the area and other parts of the state.
Said he: “The people bear the presence of the military because of the high level of insecurity in the area. People were usually taken away with impunity. But now, it’s difficult for any person to be adopted and taken away. So, it’s a way of addressing insecurity. The inconvenience caused by insecurity is worse than the presence of the military and roadblocks. In any case, roadblocks are in other parts of the state such as Patani and others.
  “Kidnappers are now forced to go into the hinterland and even that is not easy. I have been kidnapped before; the horrors of the experience is better imagined”.
  Efforts to get Delta State Government to comment on the matter proved abortive. Telephone calls to the Commissioner for Information, Chike Ogeah, and the House of Assembly member, representing Ethiope, O.J. Oshevire, were neither picked nor returned before press time. However, Chief Press Secretary to the governor and chief security officer of Delta State, Dr. Emmanuel Uduaghan, Sunny Ogefere, said it was strictly a security issue for which he had no competence to make comments and referred this reporter to the military formation for clarification.
  But whatever the security needs of Delta Central Senatorial District or those of the entire state are, it must be managed with care and should not be seen as a siege against the people. 

Clark… Celebrating ‘Lyricist of the Riverine Lore’ at 80

Clark… Celebrating ‘Lyricist of the Riverine Lore’ at 80

By Anote Ajeluorou

Last week Thursday at University of Lagos, friends, colleagues, fellow writers and schoolchildren from various secondary schools thronged the Afe Babalola Auditorium to honour to one of the quartet of Nigerian literature, Emeritus Prof. John Pepper Clark-Bekederemo or simply known as JP Clark.
  There were students from Chrisland School, Idimu, Vivian Fowler Memorial High School, Ikeja, Tom Caleb High School, Grace High School, Regan Memorial Girls High School, Redeemer’s High School, Basil International High School, Yabatech Secondary School and Triple Crown College to pay homage to Clark at 80. It was an event put together by Mrs. Yinka Ogunde and designed for the students both to experience Clark and read and perform some of his works for him.
  Cutting a birthday cake culminated activities of the morning session. Clark thanked the students for honouring him on his special day and encouraged them not only to learn but to actually start writing as well. The students read poems like ‘Night rain’, ‘Abiku’ among other poems that made Clark famous.

NOBEL Laureate, Prof. Wole Soyinka, is one rare genius. But the audience at University of Lagos, Akoka, Lagos, last week, had two geniuses for the price of one. Indeed, there were multiple geniuses and scholars in attendance inside the Main Auditorium where Soyinka delivered a lecture in honour of his University College, Ibadan, colleague and friend, Prof. JP Clark, with whom he’d become soul brother ever since, at an event put together by Clark’s wife, Prof. Ebun Clark, a linguistic expert of repute.
  The role call runs this: Emeritus professor and former Vice Chancellor, Prof. Ayo Banjo, another former University of Ibadan VC, Prof. Tekena Tamuno, Prof. Biodun Jeyifo, eminent poet, Pa Gabriel Okara, novelists, Elechi Amadi and Prof. Akachi Ezeigbo, UNILAG VC, Prof. Rahamon Bello, Delta State Commissioner for Higher Education, Prof. Hope Eghagha, who also represented his state governor, Dr. Emmanuel Uduaghan, who donated a faculty block to UNILAG in honour of Clark, who made first by being the first African Professor of English at the same university. Others were Chairman, Guardian Press Ltd, Mrs. Maiden Ibru, Dr. Yemi Ogunbiyi, former and current Presidents of Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA), Dr. Wale Okediran, Prof. Remi Raji-Oyelade among others.
  And, there was pin-drop silence all through the one hour 25 minutes Soyinka’s lecture lasted. In a display that marked him out as a master thespian, his voice wove in and out of words in rich cadences that held the audience spellbound, as he deprecated, admonished, lectured, censored, teased and joked his way through the topic of lecture, “Between critic and Censor: The Writer as Genius”.

CORA Arthouse Party for Clark

JP Clark’s 80th birthday, which started on Thursday at University of Lagos, culminated at Freedom Park, Lagos Island on Sunday, with a befitting Committee for Relevant Art’s Arthouse Party in his honour. It turned out a full house inside Freedom Park’s Museum. The outing had some of the usual suspects and more. Clark’s authentic biographer, playwright, poet and theatre scholar, Prof. Femi Osofisan, was in attendance; so, too, was another theatre scholar and playwright, Prof. Ahmed Yerima, who has made a career of distilling issues in Clark’s Niger Delta in his plays, like Hard Ground, which won him The Nigerian Prize for Literature.
  But before the event proper started, female soloist, Aduke, strummed her guitar to the accompaniment of some moving folk songs that had the audience, including Clark, in rapt attention. She got a rousing applause for her effort.
  There were others including poets, Odia Ofeimun and Dr. Ogaga Ifowodo; painter, Olu Ajayi; filmmaker, Tunde Kelani; Eki Eboigbe; Mr. Bayo Akinpelu, novelist, Kaine Agary, folk performer, Iquo Abasi-Eke and a group of women from Ijaw Monitoring Group in attendance. Clark’s wife, Prof. Ebun Clark and two of their children were also there to honour their husband and father. They all came to pay tribute to Africa’s first professor of English, lyrical poet and one of the finest dramatists to have come out of sub-Sahara Africa.
  With the apt theme, ‘’Lyricist of the Riverine Lore’ – Readings and Discussions around New Niger Delta Voices in Honour of JP Clark’, Clark’s birthday celebration turned out a remarkable one both for him and everyone present. In his opening remarks, CORA General Secretary, Mr. Toyin Akinosho, said it was important to celebrate Clark by using emerging voices from the Niger Delta, where his creative vision has been most vivid. He stated like Clark, Prof. Yerima had also engaged with issues of the Niger Delta, especially with his prize-winning play, Hard Ground; the same, too, with Agary, whose prize-winning novella is Yellow Yellow.
  He then proceeded to read from Chinua Achebe’s There Was A Country an excerpt on the agenda that the first generation writers set for subsequent writers that followed in their wake. He also read an excerpt featuring Clark about the publication of his A Man of the People, and how Clark reacted to the yet-to-be published work as being prophetic in foretelling the first coup in the country in 1966.
 On his part, Yerima, narrated how he nearly got into trouble with Clark while directing his play, Song of a Goat, based on sneak review of it. But his wife calmed him down until he actually saw the play on stage and gave him credit for a job well done. He said Clark has had a keen interest in his career path to his current job at Redeemer’s University, where he is Dean, Faculty of Humanity.
  Yerima, like many others, could not forget the sublime feeling such poems as Clark’s ‘Night Rain’ and ‘Overflow’ had on him, and simply said, “You’ve touched our lives, sir. Just your touch made us green”.
  There were readings from the audience. Mabiaku and Rontiola read ‘When a madman dies’ and ‘JP by JP’; A.J. Dagga Tolar also read an excerpt from Ozidi and a poem from Clark’s Mandela and Other Poems while Agary and Eke read excerpts from Song of a Goat. Also to join the chorus of tributes for the octogenarian was Zmirage Multimedia boss, Mr. Teju Kareem, who said Clark helped him to horn his skills in technical theatre, as he and others drew inspiration from “your writing to shape our careers”.

IN setting the tone for the discussion, which had such panelists as Kelani, Tolar, Eke, Agary and Ifowodo, Osofisan gave a background to his biography of Clark, J P Clark: A Voyage and the first two generations of writers to which he and Clark belonged respectively and the ferment that made them thick. He said what he did with Clark’s biography was unusual as he did not actually set out to write a biography but a journey through Clark’s poetry.
  He noted, “I did an unusual biography; I didn’t set out to write a biography. I wanted to write about his poetry. Well, I’m happy he likes it. Clark just came out with four new plays to celebrate himself; it shows how he has continued to produce. I personally have interesting relationship with Clark. I belong to the second generation of writers and we had a different agenda”.
  Osofisan explained that while the first generation of writers was preoccupied with deconstructing colonialism and affirming authentic African cultural values, which colonialism had eroded. He said a large part of Achebe’s Things Fall Apart is strictly anthropological but for Achebe’s great storytelling skills. So that while the first generation focused on contesting colonial hegemony, the second generation he belongs focused on Africa’s tottering political leadership.
  But he stated, “We changed focus. After about 10 years, older writers began to concentrate on current issues like us on political leadership. Older writers responded to our criticism and also joined us on issues of leadership”.
  Osofisan conceded that about 60 per cent of Nigerian writers of his generation were from the Niger Delta like Clark.
  Winner of the 2008 The Nigeria Prize for Literature, Agary, who grew up in Port Harcourt, said she was a true Niger Delta woman, with two of her parents coming from the Ijaw and the Isoko nations. As a youth growing up, she noted that the likes of the historian, Prof. J O Alagoa and Clark were household names they admired. Like many others, she said she often wondered at Clark’s name, John Pepper Clark!
  She also wondered in much the same vein what would happen to Ijaw culture by the time the likes of Clark exited the stage, adding, “This generation doesn’t know what Ijaw is. So, I thought to promote a female voice, as the stage was dominated by male voices, to discuss political issues of the Niger Delta, and making it cool to be Ijaw. It was a big thing sharing Ijaw, relating to Ebiere (the female character in Clark’s Song of a Goat) and knowing what that character is”.
  On whether there is too much Ijawness in the face of readers of Clark’s works, Tolar stated, “When writers of the first generation wrote, Nigeria was very big in their mind. Look at the two ‘Abiku’ poems by Soyinka and Clark – there’s no defence of any ethnic region, especially Clark’s ‘Abiku’, it’s about a mother’s passionate concern for her daughter to stay. Clark doesn’t appear to be defending Ijaw. At no time is this victim being put out as Ijaw; Ozidi is just a tale of a return to the roots”.
  Filmmaker, Kelani, who has made films out of some Nigeria’s literary texts, shared his concern about Nollywood not recognising the importance of literature to the cinema in the country in its filmic practice, noting, “I want to thank the Clarks for what they have done for us. Nollywood refuses to respect literature and it refuse to use it as source material. It’s sad the film industry doesn’t recognise literature. I have used literature texts in my films. The literature we have in this country is unbelievable. It’s very exciting for me to be here. Young people should go back to literature to make a success of their cinema”.
  For Eke, Clark’s writing “is so beautiful the way he comes across. It gives me the strength that with simplicity you can still send messages across”.
  Also for Ifowodo, who stood up to speak in apparent deference to his older colleague, “What Clark taught me and the others is natural attention to language; the writing is not forced; that ease of expression, the naturalness in images. No deliberate attempt to impress; that mastery of language is in the natural attention. Take ‘So drunken, like ancient walls/We crumble in heaps at your feet’ in the poem, ‘Olokun’. I’m forever startled by the freshness of that image”.
  Also, Ifowodo alluded to another of Clark’s image, an irreverence image, in that same poem, ‘I am jealous and passionate/Like Jehovah, God of the Jews’, saying, “Irreverence is a sourly needed ingredient in a poem if not used needlessly; there comes a time when our language will reflect our doubt in our search, as we seek for truths”. He, then, read excerpts from his collection, Oil Lamp. After Ifowodo, Israel Adejobi and Segun Balogun read their poems, ‘When I think of Africa’ and ‘I emerge’ respectively.

A lady in the audience sought to know why none of Clark’s works have been translated into Ijaw language. This sparked off a debate about the dearth of translation prevalent in the works of great African writers of which Nigeria fares far worse. Ofeimun, while congratulating Clark on his 80th, also raised the translation issue. He said, “If you have read Ozidi you would realise it was done for the Izon. The trouble with us is how our literature in English must relate to our Nigerian languages. Until we start moving into the language we speak the better we will understand ourselves.
  “It’s a shame we don’t have our poets translated into our languages. Somebody else ought to do the translation job. It’s important that we allow that link between English and our indigenous languages. That is my quarrel with Clark”. He said while Achebe’s Things Fall Apart has a Yoruba translation, it was yet to have an Igbo one.
  Ofeimun expressed his unhappiness with the educational system that has stopped helping to deepen school children’s knowledge in the writings of such eminent poets and writers like Clark, noting, “Children should be forced to engage with the literature of their own country so we have better interface with our own country. Poetry does make things happen, as in ‘Night rain’ and ‘Abiku’ – these are the lots that make us who we are. Their absence is what has made us into what we are today!”
  Ofeimun recalled how he was asked to read his poem in his native Esan, and thereby, forced to make a hasty translation of one of his poems into Esan in Israel before he could read it. He said it was symbolic, and obviously the best way to go to help preserve local languages since it was only the bible that texts of most local languages in the country can be found.
  Ofeimun’s insistence that Clark’s and many of his fellow travellers in the literary road be translated was hard to resist, arguing, “Kiagbodo (Clark’s home town in Delta State) has given us our own Homer (one of Greek’s great poets). It’s important that Clarks works have to be translated into Ijaw; it will do the Ijaw language enormous good, especially now when we still have many good Ijaw speakers. In fact, forcing ourselves to translate our works is the best way to go; right now, the bible is probably the best text of most of our local languages”.
  Tolar’s intervention was to the effect that although Nigerian writers were in the school syllabus, it had become minimal, with a balance of poetry from Africa and Europe. He, however, said the problem was with teachers saddled with teaching poetry, who don’t understand poetry in the first place and so cannot teach students well. The result is that they end up making students dread poetry, as being incomprehensible.
  Ifowodo argued that the problem with translation of works of the master artists was with the level of literacy in the country, which he said had become dreadful, especially in recent years. He posited, “We haven’t even understood the language of literature, of poetry, the highest point of linguistic expression, before translating it. We need to understand the medium of writing. English as medium is lacking in the country”.
  Ifowodo also bemoaned the poor usage of English in such mass communication medium as the media in the country.
  A linguistic expert and wife of Clark, Prof. Ebun Clark’s intervention was definitive in its summation of the language problem with Nigerians. She said with the country’s over 500 indigenous languages coupled together by colonialism, it has become difficult to shake off that colonial linguistic incubus, adding, “We are dealing with the tragedy of colonisation, which merged many separate peoples together. India has more indigenous languages, but they settled for English. So, it’s not a matter of incompetence; we are totally illiterate in our mother tongues.
  “I don’t think we can have a successful translation of our works. We don’t exist in our mother tongues; that is the tragedy of colonialisation. Some of us grew up in that tragedy!”
  In responding to all the submissions, Clark, who had been sipping his beer all through the session, simply said, “Your reading of the poems is your own understanding of the poems. I really don’t mind what people say of my works. It’s free-thinking. And it’s not like science that you must have the facts to be right. I will leave your criticism to yourselves; I leave criticism to critics”.
  On the latest book of his late friend and colleague, Achebe, There was A Country: A Personal History of Biafra, Clark corrected two historical errors. First was that the first generation writers – Achebe, Cyprian Ekwensi, Onuorah Nzekwu, Michael Crowder, Clark - used to meet at Nigeria Magazine office on Marina overlooking the lagoon, as against Achebe’s contrary claim, saying, “We didn’t meet on Kingsway Road; it didn’t overlook the lagoon”.
  Another error Clark corrected was that Achebe attributed editorship of Black Orpheus to Soyinka instead of him, whereas Soyinka was editor of Transition in faraway Ghana at the time.
  He also disclosed that before the Nigerian Civil War on which he and Achebe were on either side as emissaries of sorts, they had formed Society of Nigerian Authors (SONA). But he was surprised to see Achebe after the war proposing Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA) to him; he didn’t buy it and so didn’t belong to it.
  The erudite scholar and lyrical poet pointed out that he and writers of his generation like Okigbo, Achebe and Soyinka (otherwise referred to as the quartet of Nigerian literature) were lucky to have reaslised themselves very early in their career, as writers and expressed gratitude to millions of their admirers around the world. He noted that when they started out in their early days as writers in the 1960s, they hadn’t realised how far they would go, but that he was glad where they were.
  He stated, “We didn’t set out to be taught in schools or be subjects of examinations. We reaslised what we were quite early. We were lucky we reaslised ourselves very early. We are very grateful, if I can speak as a group. Our time was right. Talent and time find each other, as they did to us. I leave criticism to critics”.

Wednesday, 11 December 2013

Kokori… Yet another military offensive, mass displacement of a community

By Anote Ajeluorou (just back from Kokori)

A ghost town
AFTER the first entry of the joint military action following the arrest of notorious kidnap kingpin, Kelvin, barely four months ago on September 25, 2013, there was hope of calm eventually returning to sleepy Kokori town in Ethiope West Local Government Area, Delta State. Although the action was condemned because an entire community was lumped together as kidnappers by the military and violated, another attack was launched against the town on Thursday, November 28.
  There are conflicting reports why the military struck Kokori again. While the military says its personnel was attacked by youths suspected to be loyal to Kelvin, Kokori folks say the attack was unprovoked, as it caught them largely unaware. In this recent attack, the military ensured that the central communal deities, egba and Ogidigbo - were burnt down. The soldiers claim that youths shot at them from these shrines.
  Whatever the reasons are, what is clear is that Kokori is not the Kokori it used to be. The military’s second coming, as it were, has left a deep gash in the soul of this oil-producing community that may take a long time to heal. Right now, Kokori is a deserted, ghost town!
  In fact, literally no one goes in or out of Kokori. Vehicles of any kind are not allowed in. There are roadblocks on all the roads leading into or out of town in what is apparently a lock-down. A usually bustling town of over 5000 inhabitants no longer boasts more than a handful of persons, especially those brave enough to remain behind after the recent offensive or the few who have nowhere else to go and have returned to stay put and protect their property. But at the slightest sign of the army patrol vehicles approaching, they scamper to hide; failure to do so often results in fatalities. The soldiers allegedly shot dead one Wilson, an okada rider of Uruegbo Street, when he didn’t get out of the way fast enough when the army patrol came to town.
  Kokori people are scattered in all the neighbouring communities – Okpara Inland, Okpara Waterside, Isiokolo, Abraka, Ughelli, Warri and other towns and villages. They ran for dear life following the sudden attack by soldiers from the 3rd Battalion Command based in Warri.
  Its commander, Lt. Col. Ifeanyi Otu visited Kokori two Sundays ago and commended the bravery of his men in repelling the armed youths. But community members say it has been the military fighting against a community that was not at war with itself or with its neighbours.
  To access Kokori from any of the known entry points is nightmare of the worst proportion. Isiokolo, headquarters of Ethiope West, is about the only way into town with a narrow corridor. Just after 500 metres from Kokori Girls Grammar School is a roadblock at which vehicles – motorbikes, tricycles and buses – stop to drop off their passengers. From there onwards, the passengers are on their own. They dare not walk through the main road to wherever point in town. The military have performed so brutally that no one wants to dare them. They don’t just want to see anybody in town. Apart from destroying the three shrines in this recent offensive, they were alleged to have burnt all motorbikes they saw. Burnt carcasses of such bikes litter town; cars and houses were not left out.
  To get to the centre of town from the Isiokolo end takes about 40 minutes’ of brisk walking off the main road. The silence in town is eerie; you cannot escape the feeling that a sniper might be lurking in one of the deserted storey buildings ready to pick out. So, you constantly look behind to be sure no soldier, or militant is watching. The military take offence at the slightest, innocuous thing.

AT the crack of gunfire in town on November 28 at about 6.30pm when soldiers launched the second attack, everyone ran for dear life. From then on till sometime midweek last week, a lot of Kokori folks slept in the bushes. Those who had family members and friends in neighbouring communities and villages took refuge there. Those in the bushes would sneak in at night to sleep and return at dawn to avoid the soldiers of occupation.
   Titi (not real name), a female schoolteacher in Kokori primary school, had her shop broken into by the soldiers. She was, however, lucky, as she was not molested. But many were not as lucky. A bullet bounced off the wall and hit a woman in the stomach; she survived it. But the experience left her and her husband deeply scared. An old man alleged that soldiers broke into his wife’s home and took money and whatever valuable thing they could find.
  But Roseline Okpako wasn’t so lucky; she sells provisions on Uruogba Street. Thursday, November 28 was to have been her big day when she was to put behind the shameful status of an unwedded mother, as her man had decided to do the right thing. She had gone to Ughelli to buy everything needed to feast her family, friends and meeting group. They were busy cooking that evening when soldiers arrived to shatter what was to have been her big moment with gunshots that also tore to pieces the peace in Kokori. She and her fellow women were flogged; her husband escaped with a deep gash in his arm. He was rushed to Warri for treatment. Everything she bought went into waste. The canopies that had been erected for the marriage still stand, as relic of an aborted day of marital happiness. Okpako is still reeling from that disastrous evening.
  Lucky Esiekpe is a small-time poultry farmer. He ran away following the onslaught of solders in Kokori. When he returned a few days later, all his birds were gone. Before the soldiers’ invasion, Esiekpe had 700 layers and 250 bowlers. Esiekpe is a sad man; and like many of his Kokori kinsmen that fled town and later returned, he is a hungry man as well. With the total military blockade in Kokori, he could neither see anything to buy, as the shops are shut, or anybody to sell to if he had anything of value for sale.
  Esiekpe and a few others allege that boys from neighbouring communities have taken advantage of an empty town to wreak havoc by stealing the property Kokori people abandoned to seek refuge outside town. They say these thieves come in at night, break into homes and cart away whatever they see. They say it was the reason he and some others returned to secure whatever was left of their property.
  The local escort for this writer was also unlucky. On a previous visit, Dafe, 19, who is also a sawmill machine operator, used his motorbike to ferry him around town. Dafe couldn’t finish secondary school on account of lack of money. It’s the bike that he operates to supplement his earnings when he’s not at the sawmill workshop. But he was at work when his bike was taken out and burnt; he only returned to meet the carcas. But he’s taking the tragedy with equanimity. He wants the crisis to be over so life could resume its normal pace.

OVUESE (not real name) is a civil engineer. He sat outside his home but on the lookout for soldiers patrolling town. He said he fled the first few days but had to return to secure his property when it became obvious that neighbouring youths came in to raid their homes. His is angry at the sad fate Kokori has been made to suffer these past four months since the kelvin debacle. He is not happy that only Kokori is being singled out for punishment even when some of Kelvin’s gang members were from Isoko and Benin City. He wondered why those two other places hadn’t been raided by the military, but only Kokori. He called on government to immediately take steps to restore peace in Kokori as the few of them that returned to town are starving with nowhere to buy anything to eat.
  Hear him, “We are suffering. Even in our houses, we can’t sleep at night. The soldiers keep patrolling and shooting guns. We don’t have peace here. The army came this morning; when they come we ran into the bush. Government has to look into the matter and settle it. I don’t have anywhere to go; that’s why I’m here. The army came, broke down our doors, beat men and women, took money and anything they found.
  “The sad thing is that they are not even looking for the people that caused whatever trouble. They are just harassing innocent people in Kokori. About a week ago, the army killed an innocent man; he wasn’t an armed robber. They arrested the dead man’s younger brother”.
  Ovuese said since Kelvin’s arrest, the army and government have been troubling Kokori, a development he finds strange. On the recent trouble, he said although he didn’t know what caused it, but soldiers and a team of Bakas (Vigilante) from neighbouring Okpara town came to Kokori and started shooting, breaking down doors, burning houses, shrines and motorbikes, looting and beating up everyone in sight. This unprovoked action, he explained, stirred Kelvin’s boys into action and they confronted the soldiers and the Bakas in a gun battle. The soldier, he said, burnt more than 75 motorbikes in town.
  He explained that, “Kelvin gave Federal Government ultimatum to give amnesty to Kokori people because of the oil being produced here. That is our crime. We are still asking for amnesty because now they have destroyed all our motorbikes, the only source of livelihood for our young boys. There are no jobs in Kokori. What does government want our youth to live on? Will this not make many of them to join Kelvin’s gang since government does not care about them? In all of Ethiope East Local Government Area, it’s only in Kokori they banned motorbikes. Why is this so?
  “Every day they harass us; if soldiers see you on the road they will beat you to coma and then bundle you away. If the army says they kidnapped a whiteman and brought him to Kokori, where was he hidden? Did they find him in any of our bushes? Why are they disturbing Kokori for what we do not know about?”
  On why he and a few others have remained, Ovuese said, “We have to come back to secure our property. After the first day when army broke into our houses, boys from neighbouring towns come here to raid us every night. As you can see, nobody is in Kokori again. They have all run away. Landlords have become tenants in neighbouring communities. So, these boys take advantage of this to come to Kokori to steal. We’re just staying here with hunger; we can’t buy anything even with our money.
  “I’m a civil engineer based in Kokori here. Even when you explain that to the soldiers, they will not listen. They will beat you. Why they believe everyone in Kokori, including old men and women, are all kidnappers beats me. It does not make sense”.
  For Ovuese and the others, they want peace to return to Kokori and for the military harassment to stop. “Government and the military should have a list of those people they are looking for and go after them and leave innocent Kokori people alone. The army can have their patrol team in town but it should not be to disturb the peace of the town as they have done and are still doing. If I want to buy pure satchet water, I have to travel to Ughelli (about 15 kilometres) first. Why? This is not good. They should allow those who ran away to return. We have lost a lot in this crisis. We need compensation from government for disturbing our peace and destroying our lives. We need Kokori to start functioning again”.
  Titi, who was mentioned earlier, first fled to Warri. But she had to return, according to her, to get her credentials when she learnt of the activities of neighbouring youths looting property in Kokori. She narrated her experience thus, “Soldiers broke my store; they went from house to house to destroy things. They burnt the shrines near my father’s house. They destroyed louvres; the military action gave youths from surrounding communities opportunity to enter Kokori to raid us in our absence. On that day, when soldiers got to my store, they asked after our husbands. When I told them I lost mine years ago, they asked me to show them the grave. I told them I married an Edo man and that he wasn’t buried in Kokori. Then they didn’t worry us, but they beat up a lot of people.
  “The first set of soldiers was friendlier, but not this second set. Now, there is no school in Kokori; the children have all fled with their parents. Government cannot let Kokori be like this”.

SURPRISINGLY, life seems to be bubbling on Uruogba Street, two streets away from Egba shrine, where is fire still smouldering from a log of wood in the abode of the desecrated deity. Not everybody ran; a handful of those who ran had returned and were picking up the pieces of their lives. In one of the houses, P-Square’s music was in the air and no less than four boys and one Kokori Grammar School girl in their late teens were dancing and generally having fun. The girl was chewing biscuit; one of the boys was smoking cigarette.
  One of the boys, who identified himself, as Henry Adogbeji, is bitter with the leaders of Kokori, but particularly with one supposedly illustrious son of the town, who also hails from Uruogba Street, and is a big contactor in Abuja. He was awarded the contract to construct all the streets in Kokori about four years ago, but he only managed to build his own street. But Uruogba Street is already falling apart four years after it was built. For young Adogbeji, who said he was orphaned early and so could not get education, his illustrious Kokori kinsman is a fraud and a disgrace to the community and a bad example of an elder who has danced naked in the streets.
  Adogbeji said he and other Kokori youths do not have jobs; not even Shell that operates in the community offers them anything, including menial jobs to keep body and soul together. His friend, Famous Ibi, fares better than him. Ibi said he’s studying at Egbo Commercial Grammar School since Kokori Grammar School for boys was handed over to the Catholic Mission and secondary education placed beyond the reach of ordinary Kokori folks, as it has become a private school for the rich. He is angry that while Kokori’s oil wealth is oiling Nigeria’s wheel of progress in other parts of the country, the source of that oil lacks every basic social amenity you can think of. Above all, Kokori is being witch-hunted because Kelvin, their local folk hero, dared to ask for amnesty for Kokori people.
  Young Ibi is disgusted with the leadership quality both in Kokori and Nigeria. He and his friend, Adogbeji, want things to change for ordinary Kokori folks. They want a return to normalcy and for government to start addressing basic infrastructural deficit in Kokori so that they can enjoy their youthful days.

President-General, Kokori Development Union, Mr. Gabriel Abbunudiogba

- On recent military offensive in Kokori –

I don’t know how to describe it. I don’t know why the military has turned Kokori into a war zone. The kidnap kingpin, Kelvin has been arrested. So, what do they want again? Since they came in, they don’t allow us to go in or out of our own community again. Kokori now is a ghost land; nobody is there again. We thought that they came to protect us, but it’s the other way round. Our communal shrines, Egba and Ogidigbo, have been destroyed; they set then ablaze. I don’t know why they want to destroy Kokori. JTF just came to attack. I don’t know about youths attacking them first. Then, they should go after the youths and not aged men and women and the communal shrines. The shrines are in the centre of Kokori. How could anybody have hidden weapons there? It’s open.
  So, the second set of soldiers decided to destroy Kokori as a whole. If something is hidden in the shrine, they should have gone there to get it and not destroy the shrine a second time. What about the bridge that links Kokori Oranaka to where the health school is located? Why did they destroy it? Were weapons also hidden there, too?
  Well, we’re thinking of a way around this unprovoked attack. I don’t believe in violence. Soldiers will not allow me to enter my own community. The first set of soldiers that came to arrest kelvin were friendly even as they mounted roadblocks in Kokori; they were more mature in their approach. But this second set, they entered and ransacked the town.

 A state of emergency in Kokori?
  That’s what is embarrassing me! I have said they want to kill the goose that lays the golden egg. Kokori has 36 oil wells and oil is being drilled daily and the community or youths have not gone to disturb Shell any day. And there’s no single development in Kokori to show for this huge economic resource for Nigeria. We are neglected. So, why this unwarranted provocation by soldiers? I don’t know why they want to kill us. We don’t have anything in Kokori in spite of our 36 oil wells that produce the best crude in the country and the world. If oil wells are threatened, why not guide them? But they are not threatened. The so-called youths they are looking for I don’t know them.
  Is it because we are Niger Delta that this is happening to us? Can it happen in the North or anywhere else in Nigeria? Even the North where a state of emergency is imposed, soldiers evacuate civilians before they carry out operations. Why is Kokori different? Why is the Niger Delta different? It happened in Odi before. Why?
  Government should withdraw the last set of soldiers from Kokori; government should remove them as a matter of urgency. They brought to destroy shrines and beat up old men and women? Is that why the Federal Government brought them? If that is not the case, they should remove them from Kokori.
  I think the soldiers don’t want the press to come and independently verify for themselves the extent of damage soldiers have done to Kokori. The people know the soldiers who destroyed their homes and shrines.
  In other words, there’s evidence of human rights violations. We love peace; that’s why we haven’t gone to court to challenge this assault on our community. But we won’t remain silent any more. The Federal Government should withdraw the soldiers because there’s no state of emergency in Kokori.
  Lt. Col. Ifeanyi Otu went on tour of Kokori and said things he didn’t see. How many people did he meet or see in Kokori when he visited? It’s because everybody has run away from town because of the soldiers. Did he interview those whose houses were destroyed? He took sides with his soldiers in what he didn’t see. Even the Egba priest that was arrested alongside Kelvin hasn’t been released yet.
  Even the ogwa (palace) of the oldest man in Kokori, Anigboro II, Okaroro of Kokori, was destroyed. What has that got to do with what soldiers are looking for in Kokori? The man is over 100 years old; he refused to leave Kokori. Where would he go? We are crying for Kokori; everybody is crying. They have taken our simplicity for granted even as we produce the nation’s wealth. They should withdraw those soldiers so we can have peace. We are not fighting ourselves; we are not fighting with our neighbours either. Why are soldiers beating us?

Member, Delta State House of Assembly representing Ethiope East, Hon. O.J. Oshevire
  Well, it is a security matter and the Executive Governor, Dr. Emmanuel Uduaghan, is in charge of things. And I’m supporting him to see that the issue is resolved amicably. In the circumstance, one cannot do much except to appeal to the youths to lay down their arms. Kokori is a peaceful place, but instead of seeing us in good light, this incident is painting us in bad light. We’re finding ways to talk to all concerned.
  What caused all this is the issue of kidnapping and the ultimatum Kelvin gave to Federal Government. This is a trying moment for all of us in the area. Kokori people are peace-loving people. I’ve been talking to the chiefs to help talk to the boys. We hope Kelvin will have a fair trial. In fact, the entire saga is not good for Nigeria as a whole, for Kokori to be turned into a ghost town.
  We urge government to remove the security personnel from Kokori so that peace can return and for the people to return home and to their normal lives. We will continue to appeal to both sides and for government not to use a sledgehammer to kill a fly.

Response from the military
  A statement from the military after a guided tour of Kokori said in part: “The Sector 1 Operation PULO SHIELD under the command of Brig. Gen. Pat Akem is deplored in Delta State to ensure security of lives, property and create a condusive environment for individuals to go about their lawful business. The crimes in Delta State include kidnapping and armed robbery among others. Kokori is notorious for its habitation by armed robbers, assassins, kidnappers, and until recently, suspected militants. The conspiracy of silence maintained by the community leaders and especially its elders fanned the embers of these criminals. It also encouraged the establishment of a kidnap/militant group led by Kelvin Ibruvwe, aka Oniara”.
  The army said the militant group handed down an ultimatum to Federal Government before he was arrested in September. The army accused the gang of barricading the roads leading to Kokori, and started burning vehicles, motorbikes and looted property of individuals who have deserted the town, and fired at the troop from buildings and their shrine. The army also accused women in Kokori of aiding and abetting the criminal gang, as they showed solidarity to kelvin and the kidnap/militant gang.
  “Efforts made to win the hearts and minds and build confidence within the inhabitants of the community failed to yield positive results as the villagers were very uncooperative to assist the troops restore normalcy in the community. Instead, they took further steps to offer protection to the kidnappers/militants as later events indicated”, it said.
  Again, on November 28, the army said it was engaged in a gun battle with the armed criminal gang and they were repelled. It refuted allegations that soldiers looted property in Kokori as they were fed thrice a day and their allowances promptly paid at the end of the month, adding, “Allegations of looting, stealing and burning levelled against own troops is baseless and unfounded. It is at best to draw sympathy to those who know little or nothing about the problem in Kokori and the current situation.
  “It is an attempt to rubbish the god works the troops are doing in Kokori aimed at restoring law and order in a community that hitherto drifted towards anarchy…”
  The army, therefore, advised Kokori people to cooperate with the troops so as to restore normalcy to their land and for them to shun blackmailing the military, as it would do them no good.

CLEARLY, these are not pleasant times for everyone involved in the Kokori saga. The Federal Government’s tough stand has only paint it in bad light, as the actions of a few individuals couldn’t be enough justification to sack and pummel an entire community the way Kokori has been treated. Like most oil-bearing communities in the Niger Delta, Kokori is sorely lacking in social infrastructure, especially schools for its teeming young ones and any meaningful source of livelihood. Kokori is a showpiece of the criminal negligence that most oil communities in the Niger Delta suffer.
  Perhaps, now is the time for the Federal Government to start rewriting the rules and behaving sensibly to communities like Kokori and others. That way, alleged criminals like Kelvin might not find a ready excuse in seeking amnesty, and failing which, give government ultimatum for compensation to his people as cover for crimes against the state.