On November 20, 1999, the Nigerian military, reportedly acting on the orders of then President Olusegun Obasanjo, invaded Odi, a predominantly Ijaw community in Kolokuma/Opokuma Local Government Area of Bayelsa State and killed many, burning the community to the ground.
The attack, which has been largely described as a massacre, was said to be in response to the killing of 12 policemen and an ambush of soldiers by a militia that used the civilian population of Odi as its cover.
In a manner only fit for external aggression, the military launched a ‘total offensive’ on the small town.
The infantry moved in, killing all in their path, including unarmed civilian residents of the community. After days of assault, Odi laid in ruins. Houses tumbled in flames and decomposing bodies lined empty streets. The survivors fled.
A range of estimates have been given for the numbers of civilians killed. Human Rights Watch concluded that “the soldiers must certainly have killed tens of unarmed civilians and that figures of several hundred dead are entirely possible”, but the government insisted it was much lesser, putting the death toll at 43, including eight soldiers.
Twenty years after the incident, PREMIUM TIMES returned to Odi. Although life has returned, commerce and infrastructure are still poor.
On November 17, the newspaper’s health reporter, Ebuka Onyeji, spoke with Goddey Niweigha, the community development chairman of Odi town. They discussed how the community has moved on from the ugly memories of the incident.
Mr Niweigha who witnessed and survived the massacre shared how he escaped, how the massacre birthed the spread of militancy in the entire Niger Delta and why Odi people will never forgive former President Obasanjo and then Bayelsa Governor Diepreye Alamieyeseigha.
PT: What comes to your mind when you remember the Odi massacre?
Niweigha: It was an unforgettable day. Odi will not forget that incident even in the next 100 years. The river and roads were covered in blood. It is better imagined than remembered. I lost my younger brother, Daddy Ken; I lost my mother and father that faithful day. One of my brothers was shot and all his intestines gushed out. It was an ugly memory. After the massacre, only three buildings remained in the entire community: the bank; the school and the health centre.
PT: We learned that what led to the killings was that some members of Odi community ambushed and killed some policemen. Is that true?
Niweigha: The truth is that Odi people never converged and planned to kill policemen or anybody. We are peaceful in nature. It was a gang of bandits called ‘Asawana boys’ that killed the policemen. They are the ones that brought this mayhem on us because they were using Odi as their safe haven at the time.
The gang was formed by a group of thugs used by late former Bayelsa Governor Diepreye Alamieyeseigha. He recruited them for the 1999 governorship elections. He bought them guns they used but after winning the election, the former governor abandoned them in Yenagoa, the state capital so they became violent and notorious.
The governor now directed the police to chase them away from Yenagoa. The gang even fought with the police and some of them were killed before they ran away only to accommodate themselves in Odi and plot their attacks from here. In retaliation to the killing of their members, they ambushed and killed about 12 policemen, including a Deputy Commissioner of Police who were passing through Odi. This is what caused the military invasion.
PT: Are you saying that the gang was holding Odi under siege?
Niweigha: Yes, the gang took over Odi as their hideout. Even though the military informed us that they were coming to fish out the hoodlums, we could not chase the gang away from Odi because they were in control of everything and everyone.
PT: Did the community leaders try to tell the government that look, we are not involved in the killing of the policemen?
Niweigha: We told the government but they said the information they had was that every youth in the community was involved. Then, I was the youth president. We tried our best to push those hoodlums away but we couldn’t. They were holding us on ransom. They even imprisoned and disciplined members of the community who disobeyed them.
PT: How did the massacre start that ill-fated November 20?
Niweigha: The gang was aware the military was coming, so they were prepared. They fortified themselves and staged a defense of Odi, their hideout. It was not just an ordinary invasion. At first, there was a gun battle between the military and members of Asawana gang and the entire Odi community was the warzone. Both parties were shooting for hours until the gang was overpowered eventually.
From Odi junction, the shell from their guns will enter people’s houses, bullets were flying all over the place. Before you know it, someone’s hand or legs will be dismembered from that distance. Many died from stray bullets. The military was shooting rocket launchers and we didn’t know how to stand the situation. Only a few of us were lucky to escape.
PT: Where were you on that day and how did you escape?
Niweigha: I was one of few that escaped. I was here in my house when it all started. As the youth president, I assembled some of our people and we planned our escape. We left Odi around 9 p.m. in the night and followed the river to the next community. Our advantage is that most of us can swim very well.
PT: Can you give an estimate of the number of military men who invaded the community?
Niweigha: Thousands I would say but we couldn’t count. They were too many. They blocked all corners and exits in Odi and neighbouring villages. Only a few of us were lucky to escape.
PT: But Beyond those that died from stray bullets, did the military actually enter inside the community to kill unarmed people after they overpowered the gang?
Niweigha: Yes, they did. They came in and settled here for days. They killed people who they felt were not innocent. It was a bloodbath. When they see you and feel you might have a connection with the hoodlums, they will just kill you. They killed mostly young people, especially those with marks on the chest.
PT: What does it mean for an Odi man to have a mark on the chest?
Niweigha: That mark is our power, that’s our protection from gunshots and machete cuts. There is a leaf I will chop (eat) and if they shoot me “e no go enter”. Those are the kind of powers we have. Many of us have these marks on the chest as a symbol of protection.
PT: I learned they also killed the king of the community during this massacre. Is that correct?
Niweigha: The king felt he was the king so when he comes out to say something, they (soldiers) will listen to him. That’s why he was bold to come out in a bid to try to talk to the military but he was shot from a distance. That was King Bolo Efeke of Odi.
PT: In your own assessment, how many people died? How many houses were razed?
Niweigha: When we checked it was about 1, 240 houses that got burnt. We can’t give an accurate figure of the people that died because every day till the year (1999) ended, we were discovering corpses all over the community, especially in the bush. Almost a thousand people died I think.
PT: How were they buried?
Niweigha: When we came back, the ones we recognised we took them to the cemetery and buried them. I also knew that there were some of them we couldn’t even identify their faces and some bodies that were dismembered, we put these categories all in one grave.
PT: How was the court case on the massacre resolved? The court ordered that N37.6bn should go to the community as compensation, but the Federal Government has so far paid N15bn, is that true?
Niweigha: The case started in 2000 about a few months after the incident. We won and they awarded that we will be paid 37 billion. In 2013, during Goodluck Jonathan’s regime, FG paid N15 billion but the lawyers took N6 billion from that amount.
We agreed with the lawyers that if they win the case, they will take 40 per cent of whatever the FG will pay as compensation because Odi people did not have money to pursue the case. The lawyers fought the legal battle from 2000 to 2014 so out of the N15bn, they took N6 billion which was 40 per cent of the money.
PT: How then was the remaining N9bn shared? Where some used for community development?
Niweigha: We initially agreed to split the money into different categories. About N4billion for community development; N2bn to the injured ones and the rest to the entire community. But in that process, some notorious groups from this community who contributed nothing when the case was going on came from nowhere and said they were the ones to decide what is going to happen so they hijacked the money and said they will be the ones to share it. That was how no single community project was done with that money. It was hijacked against the will of the entire community.
PT: But I read a report that said the money was shared. Odi indigenous residents were given N500, 000 while those…?
Niweigha: Wait let me explain. When those hoodlums took over the sharing, first of all, they settled themselves. Some even collected as much as N20 million each. Professor Zibarafo Okugei is the leader of that group.
PT: Are you saying that Odi people like you and others did not benefit at all from that money?
Niweigha: From that money, I only got N500, 000 as a resident. Anybody from 25 years upwards, they gave N500, 000 while indigenes who do not reside in Odi received N300, 000. For the burnt houses, they gave N3m for block houses and N6m for upstairs.
PT: Have your people forgiven former President Obasanjo? Or do you feel no amount of money is enough to pay the debt?
Niweigha: We are still angry with Obasanjo but most especially, late Alamieyeseigha because he was the one that caused this problem by giving arms to these thugs during the election yet he went back to report to the president that Odi community is disturbing.
In all South-South governors then, Alamieyeseigha was the first to sign that Odi should be brought down. We are still very much unhappy with the late former governor and Obasanjo.
PT: As governor, what did Alamieyeseigha do for Odi community after the massacre?
Niweigha: After that incident, he awarded contracts for the building of 10 blocks of building in the 10 villages in Odi. However, we cannot forget what he did and how he brought this mayhem on us.
PT: There were speculations that Obasanjo handpicked Goodluck Jonathan as running mate for late President Umaru Musa Yar’adua as a way of compensation to Odi people and Bayelsa for the massacre. How true is this?
Niweigha: Yes, that is what we heard but Jonathan did not even do anything for us when he came into power.
PT: Are you saying President Jonathan did nothing for the people of Odi throughout his administration?
Niweigha: He did not do much. In his regime, FG awarded us 500 units of houses but Jonathan diverted part of the money. Tompolo (Government Ekpemupolo) took 80 units to his community and they gave us 80 units while Goodluck took the rest to his community. Even the 80 units they gave us, only 40 were built and they were not completed. [A spokesperson for the former president denied the allegation.]
PT: How does the community remember those they lost. Is there any form of remembrance event especially on November 20?
Niweigha: The day is always remembered mildly. We don’t make it a big event. It’s a day of sober reflection. We just go to church and do thanksgiving and come back home and tell stories about our loved ones. Many people lost their entire families that day. We remember all of them. So many people lost their parents too.
PT: Do Odi people still bear any grudges against the military? How is your relationship with the army?
Niweigha: We don’t really have any issues with the army anymore. We have many of our brothers serving in the military. We have people in the army and in the Navy.
We forgave the army because at those initial times when those hoodlums were coming into the community, we were supposed to stop them but we didn’t. We did not even know that an incident like this will come much later so by the time we feel let us go and deal with them “water don pass garri”. So we also blame ourselves somehow.
PT: Where there members of the community among the gang?
Niweigha: Yes, Odi people were there and people from neighbouring communities too. It was a combined squad.
PT: Do you think the massacre escalated the widespread of militant activities in the Niger Delta?
Niweigha: That military invasion made so many youths in the entire Niger Delta region to join militancy at the time. After the massacre, many young people restructured themselves as leaders of different militant groups. As the youth president then, we tried to stop them but they spread to other parts of the Niger Delta.