Femi Folaranmi, Yenagoa
The price of violence is always dear to pay. And the people of Amassoma community in Southern Ijaw Local Government Area of Bayelsa State can testify to that.
Right now, the people are paying dearly for the violence that erupted in the community recently, leaving in its wake deaths, life-threatening injuries and destruction of property of the Niger Delta University (NDU) and the Bayelsa State Police Command.
The boisterous Amassoma, host community of NDU, has been turned to a ghost town. A visit to the community after what is now referred to as Black Tuesday would confirm that the community is a shadow of it former self. Though Governor Henry Seriake Dickson has stepped in to calm the situation, the events of May 22 would remain indelible for long.
The seed of the mayhem that gripped Amassoma that fateful day was planted with sustained protests by the Raphael Biweribo-led students union government of the university in April over a hike in school fees.
The management of the NDU and the Bayelsa State government had insisted that there was no hike in school fees but the students maintained that the management was lying. The matter was yet to be resolved when the indigenes of Amassoma community were irked over the decision of the governing council of institution to disengage 1,700 non-teaching staff, in line with the implementation of the Dickson administration’s public service reforms.
The Bayelsa State government, concerned about the backlash the decision was attracting, clarified in a statement by the Special Adviser to the Governor on Media Relations, Mr. Fidelis Soriwei, that “the overage workers who were recently disengaged from service by the management of the Niger Delta University were not sacked but retired.”
According to him, “three months’ salaries were approved and released, in addition to the retirement benefits of the workers affected by the ongoing implementation of the reforms in the tertiary education sector of the state.
“The narrative in the public domain that the affected workers were asked to go without benefits was a lie masterminded by mischief-makers.”
The explanation from the government did not stop the call for a seven-day mass protest against the Dickson government.
The first day of the protest witnessed large turnout, as women and youths carried a mock coffin against the Bayelsa State government and locked the gate of the institution. For observers that had been puzzled over the hard stance of the Amassoma community on the issue, Mr. Doifie Buokoribo, a former media consultant for late governor Diepreye Alamieyeseigha and now publicity secretary of the All Progressive Congress (APC), gave an explanation: “From accounts already in the public domain, the former governor of the state, the late Chief Diepreye Alamieyeseigha, had acquired large portion of community land in Amassoma for the establishment of the Niger Delta University while he was in office. The acquisition was based on an understanding with the natives, who are mainly crop farmers and fishermen and women, that they would be compensated with liberal employment opportunities at the Niger Delta University for the loss of their means of livelihood. The understanding remained until recently, when about 1,700 of the locals were sacked in one fell swoop.”
The view has, however, been disputed by government officials that insisted that no such understanding existed.
According to investigations, a meeting between the chief of staff, Government House, Talford Ongolo, and stakeholders, including the traditional rulers of the area, agreed on resolutions for peace to reign. It, however, rejected the idea of a memorandum of understanding (MoU) between the Amassoma community and NDU
“A memorandum of understanding between NDU and host communities is not necessary at this point, because it will affect all other higher institutions. But the host communities and NDU should maintain a cordial relationship,” the resolution stated.
Investigations revealed that the people of Amassoma, saddened by the refusal of the peace meeting to accommodate their request for a MoU with NDU, rejected the resolutions and demanded to hear directly from Dickson. And on Tuesday, May 22, when the people sighted a detachment of policemen and operatives of Nigeria Security and Civil Defence Corps (NSCDC) forcefully opening the gate of the school, all hell was let loose.
“The police and men of the Nigeria Security and Civil Defence Corps were overwhelmed by the crowd rushing towards them. They first retreated into the premises of the university and called for reinforcement. Later, they started shooting teargas canisters at them and later bullets. Many were injured and about three persons were shot dead,” Ebikemi Peters said.
The account was not different from the narration of a top police officer who lamented that the police were not expecting what they met on the scene.
“It was not what we expected. We were shot at by some youths wearing black clothes. They had AK-47 with them and they shot at us and so we had to fire back. Two policemen that were caught by the people were beaten to a state of coma. One of our top officers ran into the mob and his car was seriously vandalised,” he said.
The police spokesman, Asinim Butswat, in his reaction, confirmed that “evidently, some non-workers of the Niger Delta University had infiltrated the riotous crowd.”
A statement from Soriwei in defence of the police said “security operatives had a right to self-protection when they come under attack in the discharge of their lawful responsibilities.”
His counterpart in charge of public affairs, Daniel Alabrah, pointedly blamed hoodlums and cultists for causing the mayhem in Amassoma.
“Intelligence reports indicate that those involved in the Amassoma incident on Tuesday, May 22, were cultists and hoodlums who hijacked complaints from the ongoing implementation of the public sector reforms in the state to perpetrate acts of violence in the community. The hoodlums attacked and vandalised the police division, part of the university and attempted to disarm security personnel who were deployed to keep the peace. These elements were not staff of the NDU and were not affected by the reforms,” he said.
A statement from Buokoribo, however, put names to the victims of the Amassoma crisis and accused the Bayelsa State government of deploying armed policemen to kill protesters.
“The state government chose to deploy force to reopen the university, instigating the melee, and spilling blood. Our hearts go out to the families of the slain and injured Amassoma community members. Some of those killed include Jacob Eyigha, Paul Orus, Godnolie Gagede, Joseph Kpoun, and Douglas Moses, all APC members. Eyigha was assistant legislative officer in Ward 9, Orus was ex-officio member of the party’s executive committee in Ward 2, Gagede was financial secretary in Ward 2, Kpoun was ex-officio member in Ward 2, and Moses was APC chairman in Ward 2.”
Curiously, the names of the five persons mentioned by Buokoribo are not on the list of those disengaged by the NDU, which has raised posers on their role in the Amassoma violence.
Alabrah and the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) chairman in Bayelsa State, Mr. Moses Cleopas, believe the reaction of the APC and listing of its members as victims of the violence “is a vindication of Governor Dickson’s position that the APC in Bayelsa State is a party of criminals.”
Buokoribo has countered attempts by the officials of the Bayelsa State government to rationalise the killing as “the height of callousness.”
Dickson steps in
Dickson has since stepped in to broker peace to stop the opposition from exploiting the crisis for political gains.
“The state governor, the Honourable Seriake Dickson, who held meetings with various stakeholders, including the leadership of the community and the governing council of the Niger Delta University, expressed regrets over the sad incident and assured that the government would pick the bills of the injured and the burial expenses of the victims.
He said a formal delegation would also be sent to commiserate with the bereaved families while those detained by the police would be released, stressing that efforts were on to ensure the reopening of NDU to resume academic activities as soon as possible. He called on the people of the state to be wary of those he described as failed political leaders and desperate aspirants bent on fomenting crisis to destabilise the state,” Alabrah said in a statement.
As the dust settles, Bayelsans await full disclosure on the Amassoma crisis and the new terms for peace.