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Killing of 17 soldiers at Okuama: Matters arising

The unfortunate, recent incident of massacre of as many as 17 soldiers including a Lieutenant Colonel, in the estuarine community of Okuama in Bomadi Local…

The unfortunate, recent incident of massacre of as many as 17 soldiers including a Lieutenant Colonel, in the estuarine community of Okuama in Bomadi Local Government Area, of Delta State while they were on a peacekeeping mission among warring communities, has not only attracted outrage and condemnations as well as deep seated emotions across the entire country. It has also heightened concerns over another angle of the raging wave of insecurity in the country, which is the widening threshold of threats to our security personnel. While the security personnel are engaged in fighting insecurity as being perpetuated by the declared foes, in constitutes a serious detraction to their effort when they have to also guard themselves against unexpected threats from otherwise friendly factors in designated insecurity flashpoints, to which they are deployed.

And it remains urgent that this angle is considered with dispatch if the efficacy of the country’s security operatives can be guaranteed. For just as a soldier fights on his stomach, so he can also perform, only to the extent of the cover and protection availed him. For if the security personnel deployed to flashpoints get attacked routinely by unexpected foes, it constitutes the worst case scenario of the country fighting itself, as its defenders get attacked by the defended. While it may be argued that mischief minded assailants could adopt unsuspecting persons to act as human shield, military operations, hardly offer soldiers the liberty to always resolve blindly between a human shield and an actual assailant. That is why this factor needs to be addressed in the country’s security architecture, if the factor of collateral damage which accompanies military operations in civilian   zones, can be checked.

Notionally, security operatives are to deploy with clear cut appreciation of the permissible risks in any operation. This just as the incidence of suicide in any security operation, is only allowed under circumstances of inevitability. It is therefore against such a backdrop that the ugly incident of Okuama, which claimed the lives of these gallant Nigerian soldiers and innocent civilians who were caught in the cross fire, needs to be considered, while the sympathy of this column goes to their heartbroken families for losing such resourceful members at this time.

According to media reports, the soldiers led by Lieutenant Colonel A. H. Alli, were ambushed by armed assailants on their way back from a peace keeping operation in the community. At present the military operations there has degenerated into the search of the culprits – a situation that cannot be executed without collateral damage to the affected communities. Hence the reports of damage to property loss of lives and distortion of normal livelihood, in the communities associated remotely or otherwise with the fleeing culprits.

The situation has also earned an additional twist with the order by President Bola Tinubu to the military to fish out the culprits even with no human casualties, instead of assigning such task to the police. By this the president has sidelined the police from such a task and tacitly deepened further the twists in the crisis, as it remains to be seen how such a presidential order can be carried out in the battle scenario, in which the search for the assailants is ongoing.

Meanwhile, it is easy to recall that the Okuama incident is coming just a few months after the killing of the Police officer – Superintendent Amgbashim Bako while he was on active duty, in Ahoada East Local Government Area of Rivers State. According to the former Rivers State Commissioner of Police Emeka Nwoyi, the late police officer was lured by his killers – members of the dreaded ‘Icelander’ cult that they were ready to surrender and make peace with the authorities. Through this act of subterfuge, they led him out into the killing ground where they not only killed him but even beheaded him in order to display his head in public. It eventually took the collaboration of the Police and the Air Force to bring the assailants camp under subjection. In almost a similar fashion the late soldiers were on a peace mission and were returning to their boats when they were ambushed by their attackers, after they had concluded their mission. In both cases is the ambush element clearly pronounced.

With virtually every community in the Niger Delta teeming with a complement of armed security personnel who are routinely drafted there to keep surveillance on the oil resources of the country and not the people, the situation has several implications including the following. First is the likely loss of trust of the security personnel in the host communities. This is bound to attract further flashpoints between the security personnel and the respective host communities. Second is that the loss of trust may engender increase in safety consciousness of the security operatives and their resort to increased suppression as well as control of the host communities, with the result of restricted liberties and movements of the latter.

Granted that the fore going situation offers no good prospect to the host communities of any contingent of security personnel, it serves the better interest of the political leadership of any host community to see themselves as part of the security architecture of the country.  They therefore need to address themselves to any tendency that may lead a hosted security contingent to be compelled to quarantine them and define the terms on which their people should live their daily lives, just because of the recalcitrance of a few vagrants.

In another vein, with an estimated 200 million illegal weapons circulating in Nigeria and the restive Niger Delta likely to have a lion share, a new dispensation of fostering peace in the region remains urgent as the present recourse to military solution is proving sub-optimal on a progressive basis. This calls for a more home grown conflict management regime that will engage the political leadership comprising the traditional rulers of these communities, and other actors more directly.

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