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.

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