By Anote Ajeluorou
Since news broke that Kelvin Oniarah, kidnap kingpin has been arrested by the joint action of Joint task Force (JTF), the Nigerian Army, Directorate of State Services (DSS), many Nigerians have heaved a sigh of relief, especially those who had previously been kidnapped and released with or without ransom being paid. Since early in the 21st century when Nigerians woke up to the reality of kidnapping started in the Niger Delta, as part of protests to give back to the locals a measure of their oil wealth, there has been unease in that part of the country.
Overtime and increasingly, kidnap for ransom purposes became elevated to an evil art of sorts, with the original intention of drawing attention to the exploitation of oil resources at the expense of the host communities lost in a babble of confusion. But with the kidnappers becoming ever daring in their operations and unsettling whole communities and the state becoming helpless, some cheer greeted the arrest of Kelvin Oniarah, the Kokori-born, Delta State kidnap kingpin.
But while the rest of the country and those who had fallen victim to his evil schemes breathe a sigh of relief, the entire Kokori community is in agony because of a wayward son. Indeed, while the memory of Kelvin may be fading away in Nigeria’s collective consciousness, with him cooling his heels in detention somewhere in Abuja, a siege had probably just begun for poor Kokori folks, who knew little or nothing about Kelvin. For others in Kokori, Kelvin is likened to the late Ken Saro-Wiwa or Isaac Adaka Boro, who were at the forefront of campaigning for fair and equitable use of the oil wealth in Kalabari and Ogoniland. For them, Kelvin had only just drawn their attention to the immense possibility of enjoying the oil wealth in their land, which had long been denied them.
For the Kokori locals, who hold this view, Kelvin had only just opened their eyes to the sheer deprivation the community suffers in the hands of Shell Petroleum Development Company (SPDC) operating in Kokori and its conniving partner, the Federal Government. While Kokori community had hosted Shell’s oil operations for several years, with no less than 36 oil wells, larger perhaps than can be found in some states among oil-producing states, there was no infrastructural development of any sort in Kokori to show for this.
This is the source of new anger in Kokori in the heels of Kelvin’s arrest. For this group of Kokori citizens, mostly women whose husbands and men have fled town from possible arrest in JTF’s lumping of the entire community as Kelvin’s collaborators, there is need for urgent dialogue with government, specifically with President Goodluck Jonathan and Delta State governor, Dr. Emmanuel Uduaghan. They insist on amnesty both for Kelvin for fighting for the community’s neglect over the years and immediate release of the men arrested in the town.
More than these, the women, who have taken effective control and governance of Kokori in the wake of the absence of their men who have virtually all fled into exile for fear of reprisal attacks from the few angry youths that were not arrested, want government to step in and massively develop Kokori, rescue it from its abject poverty and put it on the path of development. They also want JTF out of Kokori. For now Kokori is a locked community, with the heavy presence of soldiers doing a round of patrol.
Also, the women cried out that there is hunger in Kokori as soldiers were not allowing them to even go to their farms to get food. They want the soldiers out. For most neighbouring communities, visiting Kokori is out of the question for fear of being molested by JTF soldiers, who have promptly mounted several road blocks on all the roads leading to town.
THE taxi man who took me to Kokori only agreed to do it because he was originally from Kokori. But even at that, he wanted to know and asked me several times as we made our way from Sapele to Kokori if I really wanted to go to Kokori. For all the taxi drivers at Amukpe in Sapele, Kokori was a no-go place. Although he was from Kokori, it was clear that he was only going there because I was ready to pay his exact taxi fare far above what it ordinarily cost to get there.
I experienced a slight queasiness at his questions, but it fired my adrenaline at the same time. I needed to see for myself what had become of an otherwise peaceful community turned up-side-down by the action of one misguided youth. He was ready to turn back and forfeit the money even if he badly needs it, especially on a Saturday, when Delta Central Senatorial District was having a by-election and was locked down as a result. When I affirmed my willingness to continue the trip, he only grunted. All through the drive, he wore a grim look, as if he was going to the warfront himself and uncertain what his fate would be.
But like all Deltans, he was communicative all the same. On the election, he said he would not vote, that it was a waste of time, as the politics did little or nothing to add value to the people’s lives. I asked him why he was still driving a rickety car, when the state government had previously made available new cars to some of his colleagues? He said those cars passed through a certain ready-made road and that if you didn’t belong there, there was no chance you owning one.
He was bitter about politics and the use to which Nigerian politicians put it. According to him, his son, a graduate for two years now, couldn’t find employment, and he had had to continue fending for him. Fed up with the situation, he bundled him off to Warri to learn deep sea welding, where he hoped the boy would later find employment with any of the oil mining companies.
In outlying towns and villages along the way, the election was going on. At all the school premises from Aragba through to Eku, Okpara Waterside, Egon, Samagidi, Egbo, election activities were in progress.
However, in Kokori the story was not only different, it was bitter. There was no election. According to the town’s Council of Women, which had taken effective control of administering the town following the ordeal they said JTF meted to them, with most of the men either arrested or having fled town. They vowed not to take part in any election until peace and sanity had been restored to their community.
At the outskirt of Kokori the cab stopped at a JTF roadblock. He searched through the car. When he saw my bag, he sought to know its content. When I told him, he asked to see for himself. I opened it. He asked me who I was; I told. He then sought to know my business in Kokori. ‘Just visiting a friend,’ I replied.
When he saw the small laptop in my bag, he asked me to step out of the car with it. I did and he took me to the shed. Two of his colleagues were about, with one sitting on a bench and cuddling his riffle. The young soldier then asked me to open the laptop for him to see some of the files in it. I did. While it was opening, we started small talk. He picked a file on the desktop and clicked it open.
“You pressmen are always writing false things about us,” he said. “The other day one (not The Guardian), one said we had declared a curfew in Kokori, but we did not. Once it’s six o’clock, they will just lock their doors themselves. Is that how to do things?”
“Well, officer,” I ventured, “in that case, the army should carry the media along by coming out with its version early enough. Rumours have a way of growing wild, you know. If Army Headquarters comes out with its side, we publish it.”
“You are right. You people should help put things as they are and not report falsehood.”
“We try our best, officer.”
At this point, one of his colleagues, bored with the seeming zealousness of his younger colleague, asked in Yoruba to let us go. Just when he was about to let us go, the file he clicked on opened. It was Kalakuta Daries! He looked at me with a measure of benign amusement. I quickly explained that it was friend’s book I’d helped to edit on the life of the late Afrobeat legend, Fela Anikulapo. He didn’t make much of it beyond that. He asked us to go.
A young girl who rode her bicycle passed the JTF roadblock was sternly asked to go back some 50 metres and a roll her bicycle on foot before she could go pass the roadblock. The girl was deemed to be rude and impudent to have ridden pass and not walking!
It was clear my taxi man had been thoroughly discomfited by the encounter; he expressed his relief when he pulled his smoking cab out to a tap in front of a house. His radiator had gone burst and he needed to top water every now and then. He had topped it when we left Sapele.
From the beginning of town and as we inched our way inwards, it was clear Kokori was a deserted town. The taxi man first commented on the near-emptiness. At the famous Egba shrine, said to provide protective juju for Kelvin, we saw some people gathered. We mistook them for those who had come to vote. We drove pass them towards the market; only a few persons who sat in the eaves of rundown houses were about. There were cars smashed in places, smashed louvres and doors in some of the houses as well. The taxi man turned round and drove passed the Egba shrine and the group of people in front of it, a white tarpaulin draped around it.
Up front, he hailed a bike taxi boy for enquiries. The boy looked doubtful if there was a hotel in town anyone could lodge. Finally, he had an idea. Before then, some two women bound for Eku, strongly advised I return to Eku and to conduct whatever my business was because of the unease in Kokori. I alighted and told them I would take my chance. He drove off and, as it were, left me to my fate. The okada boy then took me to where he thought was a hotel. But the man we met said it wasn’t and directed us elsewhere.
When we got there, the big compound was deserted; there was no one in sight. I then asked him to take me to where we’d seen people gather. We went passed them to a restaurant and ordered food. It was past 12noon and hunger had begun to gnaw at me. I realized I badly needed an ally of sorts in town and the bike boy was a starting point. I also bought him food.
After the meal, I asked the woman who runs the restaurant aside. She it was who first gave me a glimpse of things in Kokori. She wasn’t a native but had lived in town long enough to know things. What had happened in Kokori, she said, was unspeakable, as the town was in a grip of fear from the activities of JTF, which, after completing its assignment of arresting the alleged kidnapper, Kelvin, ought to have left town, but instead, they have stayed behind and thereby further unsettling the communal peace Kokori had until then enjoyed.
She said when harassment from JTF became unbearable, the women had to come out mass to protest. This action led to JTF to somewhat restricting its activities to the outskirts of town, with occasional patrols through the main artery of town. Since the women’s protest action, the lady restaurant confided, relative peace and calm had returned.
What about the ovie (king) and his court? “They have all runaway?” she said.
“They are afraid that the youth would mob them?”
“Why is that?” I further probed her.
“The people feel they sold out… My son was severely flogged by the soldiers; I had to ask him to leave town for Eku to stay with relatives until calm returns.”
Feeling she had spoken too much to a stranger, she went to attend to her costumers.
Then I felt my way to those who had gathered at the foot of Egba, whom I’d mistaken for the electorate waiting for voting materials and electoral officers to cast their votes. When I got close, I didn’t see anything that resembled electoral materials. I then asked two men if they were waiting for materials to come. They did not respond; they moved away instead.
AT that point, I wanted to photograph the group, but paused briefly to look round. I saw furtive glances on the faces of the crowd, mostly made up of elderly women, some young women and a few young men. The looks I saw sent me warning signals. Something was not right here. I lowered my phone and switched off the camera mode. Then my bike boy called to warn me to be careful what I did. I moved aside and knew instantly that I was among an angry crowd and that I could either be perceived as a security agent or an informer of sorts. So, I waited for them to make the first move. It didn’t take long in coming.
They beckoned for me to come see the women’s leader, who sat eating across the road from the group at the entrance to the shrine. Then the questioning came from all around me in staccatos. Who was I? What was I doing in Kokori? Why had I taken photographs? Where were the photographs? Didn’t I know Egba forbids photographs? One woman actually said even I had taken photographs of Egba, that it would not show to which I chuckled inwardly.
I explained myself as best as I could and that I had come to monitor the elections, which wasn’t exactly the case; instinct for self-preservation rose to the fore. But my being from a nearby community with the same language affinity with theirs helped to cool the tension and aggression. Suddenly, some felt I was the person they needed to tell their grim story to a world shut out to them. That was how I emerged from foe to a friend, somebody they could trust to relate their sufferings and pains in the wake of Kelvin’s arrest and the seemingly Pandora box it had opened.
Egba… A defiled communal deity
The women, who sat in front of Egba shrine, which JTF defiled by breaking down its walls in their invasion of the town in commando-style to effect the arrest of the alleged kidnap kingpin, Kelvin, were in mournful mood. With the absence of the men and the king, Ovie Michael Oneru, they needed to plot their way out of the mess one of their sons had put them. Their deliberations had consumed a number of Schnapps’ bottles that lay around their feet in front of their shrine, which had a white tarpaulin draped round to cover a village god rendered naked by the irreverent acts of outsiders.
With its priest also arrested and in detention, Kokori folks, largely women left behind, a few men and youths, feel powerless and impotent in the face of what they regard as needless aggression from government that should protect them. The women deeply protested a whole community being labeled criminals because of the act of one man. In fact, they pointed at the extensive destruction JTF wrought in the town as unjustifiable in a bid to arrest one man.
Ordinarily in Kokori, and indeed, other local communities, the village deity is sacred and no outsider is allowed to go near it without necessary sacrifices of appeasement. Egba is no different. With the defilement by JTF, Kokori is hard done by, as to who to hold responsible. Worse still, its priest is also seen as Kelvin’s accomplice and in detention. So, no matter the level of defilement and whatever consequences such defilement might bring on the community, for now there is no one to offer the required sacrifices to appease the god.
In the meantime, Egba and Kokori will have to wait until the matter is resolved one way or the other.
Kokori’s local economy is also gravely impaired. With the menacing presence of JTF, the market is ordered closed. Its eight-day circlic market day and daily market activities have been shut down. The women cry out that hunger is ravaging Kokori citizens and that something urgent needed to be done to save them from starvation, as the siege was total.
For those who still remember, the destruction visited on Odi in Bayelsa in 1999 at the inception of current democratic dispensation is fresh. The military had been drafted in to pacify Odi community following the killing of some policemen. But by the time the soldiers’ guns’ smoke had cleared, Odi was laid waste; it was a battleground only imagined in films. It elicited public outcry the world over because of the extent of the human rights violations was total.
Kokori might have been spared Odi treatment in some details, but the aftermath of JTF’s onslaught on the sleepy community is no less disquieting. Whereas several youth were said to have been involved in the killing of Odi policemen, the same cannot be said of Kelvin as kidnapper in Kokori. So, why visit such widespread destruction on an entire community when only one of its members was wanted, and eventually arrested? Indeed, it was the pacification of Kokori.
Along the lone road built by Shell, by far the only development provided from external sources, carcass of burnt cars litter the way. One was upturned and left on the roadside. A truck of soft drinks owned by a businesswoman just before the market is burnt with its content. No less than five houses are smashed to the ground, one of the belonging to Kelvin’s father.
From street to street, louvres and doors to houses are smashed in. Vehicles parked way off the main road were not spared. In parlours, broken TV screens bear testimony to the unwarranted destruction on an entire community for the sin of one man. Close to the king’s palace wall, two cars are torched.
All over Kokori, the psychological would inflicted on the locals is still visible. Majority of Kokoris have been cowed in exile to save their skin. Regularly, military vehicles patrol the town, ostensibly looking for troublemakers. The extent of wreckage is huge, as the army brought in a bulldozer to perfect its acts of destruction. From all indications, the army knew well in advance what it wanted to do, and did exactly so. Kokori was a battleground for the soul of one man.
Although the women couldn’t produce anyone who was raped, they alleged that the soldiers entered houses and did other havoc apart from the destroyed cars and houses. Women, they said, were not spared the fury of the military, who saw it as opportunity to deal Kokori a blow. Also, two young men reportedly shot dead by JTF were carted away. Some were said to have fled into streams and drowned. As yet they could ascertain how many people died, as many have also fled into exile to either escape JTF or possible mob action, especially among Kokori’s prominent people believed to have acted in concert with JTF in bringing Kokori to its knees.
Egweya… In Kokori, women in power
In front of Egba, the communal deity, the women had taken charge in Kokori. The king and his council and other prominent citizens had all fled town in apparent fear of reprisals, with the state government putting pressure on them to produce Kelvin or why it took so long to get the notorious man. And like the proverbial Nneka, ‘mother is supreme’, Kokori women have seemingly risen up to the challenge of seeking the soothing balm to their ravaged community.
Although Kelvin as kidnapper is the story that has gone abroad, a new and contradictory twist has been added to the Kelvin saga. Kokori Council of Women, with the support of some of the youth brave enough to remain, are in command position and demanding for the town’s long neglect to cease and for development to come to assuage their suffering.
In a fashion reminiscent of Aba Women’s Riot, Kokori women are demanding for long denied rights to the communal oil wealth being mined by Shell. Everywhere you look, the grimness of the poverty in Kokori is written in bold letters. The town is still a cluster of poor houses in dire need of rehabilitation; even the human persons are no better than the small houses that dot the town.
They were embittered that no development of any sort had come to the community in spite of playing host to some 36 oil fields. This is the reason they claim had led to Kelvin being arrested. According to oletu egweya, a wiry middle-aged women leader, Kelvin’s father owned most of the land on which most of the oil fields in Kokori are situated. She stated that Kelvin had only just opened the eyes of the community to the shady deals involving some prominent members of the community in collusion with Shell. As a result, he was being hunted down.
They questioned the rationale behind Kokori’s unrelenting poverty in the face of so much oil wealth being mined from its land. Kelvin, they claimed, was their hero, who had only confronted the powers in the community to own up to the fraud they were perpetuating against the other hapless citizens. For these aggrieved women, the rampart destruction was the work of the king and his chiefs to silence the growing awareness among the populace on what they were being denied.
If it wasn’t so, they alleged, why didn’t the king stay to mop up the mess in town? Why did he and his chiefs run into exile? Yes, they want peace, but it had to be peace that guaranteed development and progress for Kokori from proceeds from its oil wealth from which they had been excluded. They said Kokori had suffered for too long. They bemoaned acute lack of infrastructural development in the community. Apart the from primary school, no other presence of government could be felt in Kokori. The only secondary school is in shambles. In Kokori, there’s no healthcare facility, portable water. The Post Office is a shadow of what it should be.
With JTF laying siege in town, the women said there was hunger, as they could not go outside town to do business with neighbouring communities or vice versa.
The women had a simple plea for government. They should be saved from suffering, moreso as an oil-bearing community like others in the Niger Delta. Specifically, they implored President Goodluck Jonathan and Delta State Governor, Dr. Emmanuel Uduaghan to come to their aid and remove JTF and bring sorely needed infrastructural development the community.
They also demanded amnesty for Kelvin, as it happened to other militants in the region. For them, Kelvin’s crime is no worse than what others had done in bringing attention to the plight of locals in the oil-bearing region, whose fight brought focus to the environmental and socio-economic issues.
SOS from Kokori Women
“Egweya wadoo, ukwori wadoo, eya ukwori wadoo!
We are suffering greatly in Kokori. Men, women and children are suffering. The money that is coming to Kokori from the activities of the oil company is not getting to us. Only a few have cornered it for themselves and are enjoying it. They are using the money to marry wives from outside town. This is what we want a stop to; we don’t want to suffer any more. We call on Uduaghan and Jonathan to ease our suffering. The soldiers are not allowed us to go to our market or farms. Our children are not going to school. This is our suffering.
“Is it good that we should suffer like this? We have many fields producing oil yet we are suffering. We want peace in Kokori. But they should open our market so we can resume our normal lives. We want our father (Egba priest) that was arrested to be released. He had nothing to do with why soldiers came.
“What we are saying are no lies. We are really suffering here in Kokori. We know that we are number two in oil production in the state. What should government have done for us? I’m asking? As we are here, government has not done anything for us. Look at this road; we suffered so much before Shell eventually tarred it for us. Apart from this road, no other roads are made in Kokori. We don’t have electricity. If they manage to bring it, the accompanying bills will be so huge we can’t pay. They will bring bills of N5,000, N10,000, N12,000. What are we using in our houses that make them bring these bills? If we protest, they cut our cables and take them away. Is it supposed to be like that?
“They have been doing us like this, but we did not complain. We have been attending to our farms, planting yams, okro, cassava, attending our markets, no problem. Then one day, we saw soldiers come, and that our father called Osegba does nothing but say prayers. He only prays for us, good prayers, not to harm anyone. Or is something wrong with a person saying prayers? (a loud chorus of NO! from the crowd).
“On September 25, we were inside the shrine saying prayers. Then we saw a lot of cars, armoured cars and soldiers. In our shrine, strangers are not supposed to enter. But they came inside and started beating up everybody in sight. They took our chief priest outside and started beating him. After which they took him away; any man that showed up, they took away.
“They killed many; they entered houses and destroyed property. They beat up anyone they saw. They raped women and girls they liked. They burnt cars. If you enter the streets, you will see the houses they destroyed. As if that was not enough, they brought with them bulldozers and broke down many houses. I just can’t count them.
“We are calling on Uduaghan and Jonathan to come and see for themselves what their soldiers did to us. They have to come and see with their own eyes and sit down with us so that we can discuss the sore point in this community. We are number two in oil producing communities; should we be empty-handed like this?
“We want peace; we want peace. We don’t want fight. We don’t want soldiers again in Kokori. Let the soldiers go; they have been beating up our people. Our men have run away from us because of soldiers’ harassment. We are very angry. We want normalcy returned to Kokori.
“On the kelvin they took away, they should bring him back to us. He opened our eyes to the evil going on in this community. Before we knew it, they said they had arrested him. Why did they arrest him? We don’t know. It’s because he does not want his parents and the entire community to suffer being that we are an oil-producing community. He’s fighting for us. We were blind before but he came and opened our eyes. We need settlement from government and Shell.
“We are a defenceless people; we don’t have hands; we don’t have legs. People that don’t have hands or legs, it’s God that fights for them. We do not know how to fight; it’s God that is fighting for us. If government does these things for us, there will be peace. We want peace. We want peace! (All the women and children that had gathered took up the peace chant)
“We want amnesty for Kelvin. Didn’t Jonathan give amnesty to Ijaw youths fighting for justice? He should extend the same to us here. We need development in Kokori.”
AFTER the women addressed me with their grievances, they undertook to show me round town to see the extent of damage the joint military action had wrought on a broken community. It left bile in my palate.
Thereafter, I elected to leave town in another route, which turned out to be a bush path. I didn’t want another encounter with the JTF; the fellow that interrogated me earlier would want to know why I was leaving town so soon having told him I was there to see a friend.
And as the bike-boy tore through the forest path that had water patches in part, I reflected back on the haggard old folks of Kokori and the brutality they’d endured in the hands of those living off taxpayers’ money, fellow Nigerians, who happened to be on the other side of justice.
It was after all government. Whoever investigates government and comes out with justiceable verdict?