ON Tuesday, soldiers attached to the 16 Brigade of the Nigerian Army allegedly invaded Azagbene community in Ekeremor Local Government Area of Bayelsa State, burning down houses after chasing residents away. The soldiers were said to have been on the trail of suspected militants who allegedly killed two of their colleagues guarding a crude oil facility in the area. According to reports, the militants had arrived in the community in a speedboat on Monday night and opened fire on the unsuspecting soldiers, carting away their rifles. Lamented a community member: “When the soldiers entered our community, they directed us to leave because they were going to burn everything to the ground and that anybody that failed to comply with the directive would be killed. Before some of us left the community, I saw the building of our paramount ruler on fire. Even my family house has been burnt to the ground. As I speak to you, we are suffering for a crime we didn’t commit.”
But the army did not take kindly to the allegation. Spokesman for the 16 Brigade, Major Danjuma Jonah, confirmed the death of two soldiers but denied that his men burnt down buildings in the community. He said: “Our men did not burn down houses in Azagbene community. We are only combing the community and neighbouring towns in search of a soldier that is missing as a result of the attack that led to the death of two other soldiers. We are carrying out the search for the missing soldier in conjunction with the leaders of the community. So, that is what is going on now.”
In our view, this denial is rather typical of the Nigerian Army after attacks on communities, and raises a number of questions. Who carried out the arson in Azagbene? Why was there no report of arson in the community before men of the 16 Brigade went in search of the killers of their colleagues? Were the heart-rending pictures of burnt down houses and smouldering heaps published in the media sourced from a movie? And what about the displaced residents of the community? Who ordered their sudden relocation from their ancestral homesteads? Who set fire to the palace of the traditional ruler of Azagbene? Major Jonah’s account of the event in Azagbene leaves many questions unanswered. It is unimaginative and suspect.
At this very moment, residents of Inen community in Oruk Anam Local Government Area of Akwa Ibom State have reportedly fled their homes over alleged planned reprisal by soldiers. If and when the community is invaded, the action would be a reprisal over the killing of two soldiers and the abduction of an expatriate worker which occurred last week at a construction site in the area. That attack was reportedly carried out by some gunmen. And it would not even matter that leaders of the community led by the head-in-council of the Inen clan, Johnson Obosi, have denied the allegation that their people were behind the killing of the two soldiers and the abduction of the expatriate worker.
In evidence here, as in previous tragedies marked by the shedding of innocent blood, is the myth of the unknown soldier. Nigerians would easily recall the murderous activities of these “unknown soldiers” over time, including the killing of Mrs Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti on February 18, 1977 and the sacking of Odi community in Bayelsa State on November 20, 1999, a horrendous incident that took the nation by storm and led to considerable backlash in the international community. Sadly, these attacks are not likely to abate, let alone stop permanently, in the current regime of criminal latitude given to soldiers to invade communities at will, intent on revenge.
To be sure, we are not against the plan to arrest the killers of the slain soldiers in Azagbene community. They must be fished out and treated in accordance with the laws of the land. There is, we believe, no reasonable citizen that would deny the fact that those felons ought to be given their just deserts. If anything, failure to arrest and prosecute them can only embolden other similarly minded criminals to stage such murderous attacks on gallant officers and men of the armed forces sacrificing life and limb to preserve the country’s territorial integrity and keep it safe. What we frown on, and what every right-thinking citizen should object to, is the practice of making entire communities to pay for the sins of a few errant members, and in a way that makes complete mockery of the country’s democracy. Crucially, these attacks would still have been unwarranted even if it was the perpetrators of the crimes that were at the receiving end, for the laws of the land have outlined the processes required to deal with such persons.
We commiserate with the families of the slain soldiers in Azagbene and call on the army authorities and the government to ensure that their entitlements are paid promptly. At the same time, however, we ask the authorities to fish out the perpetrators of the arson in the community and punish them to the fullest extent allowed by law. Through no fault of theirs, residents of Azagbene have been rendered homeless and disconsolate and life may never be the same again for them even when reprieve comes, as it should, by way of governmental rebuilding of the community.