Fourteen years after their community was sacked by soldiers, the people of Odi in Bayelsa State are laughing last. But will theirs be the best laugh? This is how it all began. On November 5, 1999, gangsters reportedly killed 12 policemen deployed to keep the peace in that riverine community. Fifteen days later, the government of Olusegun Obasanjo, who only the previous May had been returned to power as an elected president, sent in troops to pacify the community. Three days after, no building was left standing. Locals estimated over a thousand were killed by the troops, but the government said only “armed bandits” were killed and that no building was destroyed.
Recently, Justice Lambi Akanbi, a federal high court judge in Port Harcourt, resolved the argument, ruling in favour of the community in a suit brought by it. The suit filed by the community’s lawyer, Lucius Nwosu, a SAN, asked for N100 billion in damages, a formal apology and an order that the government rebuild the entire community. The judge slashed the compensation to N37.6 billion, to be paid within 21 days, but did not rule on the reconstruction request. In his judgement, Justice Akanbi said the invasion of Odi was a “brazen violation of the fundamental human rights of the victims to movement, life and to own property and live peacefully in their ancestral home.”
The judge described the government’s counter affidavit as “worthless”. Apart from the groundswell of public sympathy that the invasion created for the community, the government and the Nigerian military did not help their case by their half-hearted approach. Their lawyers did not put in an appearance throughout the trial, claiming that they were not formally invited. But there was ample evidence to the contrary. Besides, remarks by sitting President Goodluck Jonathan, himself from Bayelsa where he was deputy governor at the time really undid the case of the military. According to him, when he visited the community afterwards he saw the bodies of “only men, women and children who couldn’t run,” not any militants. And so did Obasanjo’s obduracy that the invasion of Odi was justified – to avenge the killing of law enforcement officers.
The mood of the community was understandably expansive. “Today, this compensation and this justice delivered will show the truth that the people are law abiding and that they believe in the rule of law,” said Perye Brown, a former chairman, Bayelsa State Youth Council. In direct contrast, the Jonathan government showed not too surprising a lack of concern: “Always in the law, arguments can go one way or the other. So really, it doesn’t matter which way it goes,” said Mr. Nkolika Awa, a representative of the federal attorney general who was in court that Tuesday.
The Odi case had a similar trajectory to the 2001 military invasion of Zaki Biam town in Benue State, again ordered by Obasanjo for the killing of a dozen soldiers and policemen sent to the area to separate two warring communities. The matter went to court; the government lost and was asked to pay compensation to bereaved families worth N41 billion. Obasanjo’s immediate successor, late President Umaru Yar’adua visited Benue to personally apologise on behalf of the government for the Zaki Biam massacre.
However, this is where the Odi and ZakiBiam similarity ends. The comments of President Jonathan and his officials on the Odi case show that Jonathan does not consider the judgement an indictment of his administration but that of Obasanjo before him. The two, though kingpins of the ruling Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), have not been seeing eyeball to eyeball of late. It is difficult to say, therefore, if Jonathan will pay the compensation ordered by the court in a case against a different government from his.