Femi Folaranmi, Yenagoa
“The action of the army is barbaric and unacceptable,” Denzil Amagbe Kentebe, a prominent member of the Ijaw Elders Forum (IEF), Lagos, thundered at the other end of the phone with Daily Sun. He had called to bare his mind over the invasion of Azagbene community in Ekeremor Local Government Area, Bayelsa State, on July 23, 2019, said to have been carried out by soldiers attached to the 16 Brigade, Nigerian Army.
Thirty days after the invasion, ruins of building and a desolated land now pass for the once serene Azagbene community. Kingsley Prezi, a human rights activist from the community, said: “The people of Azagbene community are now living in internally displaced peoples (IDP) camps in neighbouring communities. The soldiers came and burnt down all houses, the only houses spared were those whose owners the soldiers knew personally. The community is deserted. The Federal Government has not sent relief materials. Bayelsa State government has also not sent anything.”
Investigation revealed that the destruction was a collateral damage inflicted on the community when suspected sea pirates raided a flow station, killed two soldiers, kidnapped one and carted away their rifles. It was the abducted soldier that the troops were searching for when they allegedly razed the community.
However, spokesman for the army brigade, Major Jonah Danjuma, said: “Our men did not burn down houses in Azagbene community. We are only combing the community and neighbouring towns in search of one soldier who is missing as a result of the attack that led to the death of two soldiers.”
Danjuma said the search was carried out in conjunction with leaders of the community.
However, Ijaw leaders are not buying the explanation of the Nigerian Army and have condemned the action of the military. The Bayela State House of Assembly, in a motion moved by Ogbere Michael, condemned the “dastard and barbaric acts of the Nigerian Army. Military officers are being killed daily in northern Nigeria, no community has been burnt down or destroyed.”
Tare Porri (Ekeremor Constituency 3), lamented: “But in Bayelsa, it has become a common ritual of the Nigerian military to raze down our communities, kill our people and render them homeless.”
Former president of the Ijaw Youth Council (IYC), Miabiye Kuromiema, echoed Porri’s sentiments: “We must not let Nigerian Army win the narrative that it is right to destroy a whole community in the course of facts that they believe suspected criminals live there. The duty of security services is to track down and rein in criminals.
“It is their duty to create the right atmosphere for community to cooperate with them to provide intelligence. When security services perpetrate crime of genocidal proportions against harmless and unarmed communities to intimidate them on the pretext that suspected criminals are harboured in or by communities, the security services turn out to be the worst criminals. They must be called to account.”
Mr. Ebi Isedirikonghen, indigene of the community, in an open letter, appealed to representatives in the National Assembly and the Bayelsa State House of Assembly to stand up for the people of the community: “Everybody is aware that, on July 23, 2019, Nigerian soldiers invaded Azagbene community, beat everyone in sight and burnt down 54 residential houses thereby turning the community into a ghost community.”
Curiously, the state government has not lived up to expectation on the matter. Aside from the Commissioner for Information and Orientation, Mr. Daniel Iworiso-Markson, who mentioned the issue while briefing newsmen after the state executive council meeting, the state government has not acted on the recommendation by PAF that it should set up a judicial commission of inquiry.
Worse still, a delegation of government officials expected to have been constituted to visit the community because of the magnitude of the incident did not materialise. Rather, it was a delegation led by the chairman of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), Mr. Moses Cleopas, that visited the community. He met with community chiefs and stakeholders and condemned the killing of soldiers and condoled with the Nigerian Army and families of the slain soldiers: “As a party that has zero tolerance for criminality, we appeal to the security agencies to, within global best practice, fish out the criminals responsible for this dastardly act and bring them to book. We equally solicit with any individual that has any genuine information as per the whereabouts of these criminals to report to the security agencies for investigation and onward prosecution, in accordance with the law.
“The party frankly pleads with all Niger Delta youths, irrespective of any party divide or affiliation, to shun criminality and invest all their God-given potential/energy into meaningful ventures that shall enhance and empower our peaceful collective living as a people in a disadvantaged placement in a nation we have found ourselves.
“The party condemns in totality the total destruction and razing of all shelter and economic means of livelihood by soldiers as we all know that ‘two wrongs can never make a right.’ The party strongly feels that, in global best practices and rules of engagement, no trained arm of military or security formations will not put into consideration innocent civilian populace in their attempt to apprehend criminals or curb criminality.
“We feel this was not fully complied with in the case of Azagbene community, where a greater percentage of innocent people, including the aged, both pregnant and breastfeeding women, religious homes like churches and pastors’ residences, and all their economic means of livelihood were burnt to ashes, thereby throwing them into untold hardship.”
The only female aspirant on the platform of the PDP, Tari Oliver, said: “The unlawful invasion of the military has led to the destruction of property of Bayelsans.”