Mr Patrick Tari, a forty-three-year-old man who is a native of Odi, Kolokuma/Opukuma Local Government Area of Bayelsa State, who witnessed the November 20, 1999 ‘Odi massacre’, gives an account of the grim episode in this interview with GODFREY GEORGE
Tell us a bit about yourself.
My name is Comrade Tari Patrick. I am an indigene of Odi of Kolokuma/Opukuma Local Government Area of Bayelsa State. I am a political activist and social mobiliser. I was the state Chairman of Mass Mobilisation for Good Governance, a local government coordinator of Nigerian Youth Congress and presently, a member of the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta.
How best can you describe Odi community?
Odi is a community of 11 compounds (clans). This means we have more than 100,000 persons in that community. It is well-known, because of its proximity to a community called Kaiama, which is the home of the late Major Isaac Adaka Boro, a one-time minority rights activists.
How old were you in 1999 and what can you say led to the ‘Odi massacre’ that year?
I am 43 years now. So, this means I was 21 years old then. I was in Odi when that incident happened. There were some slight issues that ensued between residents of Odi and government officials.
What ‘slight issues’?
It was basically an argument between the residents and the military, because of the oppression in our region. So, at a point, this oppression became too much to bear.
As of 1999, Nigeria was under civilian rule, with former President Olusegun Obasanjo in power. What kind of oppression were the people of Odi subjected to?
Niger Delta is a region where our people deal in fish farming and related products. We have residents who do not have reliable sources of income but only rely on fish farming to survive, since the oil firms in the region refused to employ the people of the region. What they (the oil firms) do is to employ outsiders from other states and also bring in expatriates. For example, in a firm like Shell, the majority of the workers we see are from other states. Where a manager in Shell is a Yoruba man, he employs his brother and brings him into the company. At that point, we, the natives of Bayelsa, were forced to react to these injustices being done to us. They tagged us unexposed or uneducated people – this is the lie they always sell to the world – but, I can tell you that we have a whole lot of graduates roaming the streets without jobs. When it comes to technical and practical aspects of the job, we have vast knowledge, but we are not recognised and given opportunities. What we get, at best, are menial jobs as labourers.
So, this was part of what precipitated the crisis of 1999?
Yes. When the farmers went to the farms, the military men took bribes from them before they were allowed to go through the security checkpoints with their produce or loads. The business class was not left out, as they were also made to bribe their way into their community, especially when they went outside the state to buy goods for sale.
Petty traders within the local governments had to pay between N100 and N300, to be able to sell their goods without harassment by the military. The community then decided to rise up to say ‘This is not right! This is oppression!’ This was when our people decided to fight back. As a young man, I cannot stand a situation where you beat up my mother, because you are wearing khaki. I will not allow it to happen. Even a lazy man cannot watch you beat his father; he will fight you. It is either you kill him or beat both of them. At some point, it became so bad that there was no food to eat. One of those days, our people saw a truck carrying foodstuffs and a few work equipment and they held it hostage.
Who owned the truck that was held hostage?
The truck was en route to Port Harcourt. A few boys from Odi and neighboring communities who heard that a truck had developed mechanical faults around the area came around, and began carting away some bags of rice. This caused an issue with the military and one of the Joint Task Force officers shot one young man from Kaiama, whose name was Godswill Tombara, dead. This angered the boys and a fight ensued between them and the security operatives.
What do you remember took place on November 20, 1999 and the days that followed?
Before that day, the soldiers had come to Odi, but they could not gain access into the community.
Why was this so?
A few persons were leading a protest to protect the community. Before November 20, 1999, we had had a series of threats from the soldiers. They were around Sagbama and Opokuma Junction. The soldiers were harassing anyone coming towards Odi. The soldiers were frustrated because they could not gain access into the community. The soldiers were scared, knowing full well that the boys were ready to fight and die for their community.
Why do you think the soldiers were scared of coming into the community when they were armed? Were the Odi youths also armed?
We are Nigerians. When the matter got to a point we decided to defend ourselves. So, at the end of the day, it became a do-or-die affair – you kill us or we survive the struggle.
So, you are saying the boys were armed?
No, they were not armed, but they were ready to defend themselves. We had already told our parents and loved ones to leave the community on hearing rumours that the military were coming to wreak havoc, but few of them refused to go. The day they came, they used bombs and grenades to level the community, starting from the junction.
What can you say about a report that 12 police officers were murdered in Odi by some unknown men?
Former President Olusegun Obasanjo ordered them (the soldiers) to invade Odi but this is democracy. Human beings are not animals. If a crime is committed, what is the reasonable thing to do? Is it not to investigate and find out who did it and why? Nobody in Nigeria has the mind to fight a military man in uniform, except he is provoked to heights of anger where he will tell you: ‘I will die today; if I don’t die, you will die!’ This was the point the boys were. The government was wrong in its actions. It was supposed to find out what exactly led to these killings, look for the culprits and arrest them, not order soldiers to burn down an entire village – houses, schools, churches, hospitals. The only thing standing was the building housing the First Bank of Nigeria Plc, The building was rented from my uncle, a retired Army General, Gen. Jeffrey Tombiri. He is alive as we speak. One of the survivors, a retired Army officer, who knew the rule of engagement, was only spared, because he waved the Nigerian flag. They took this man round the community and made him watch as they maimed his people, destroyed their properties and raped their women.
Do we have children born out of these rapes?
I cannot give a report of that nature, but I know that anyone they raped, they killed.
You witnessed this first-hand?
Yes. We were at the north boundary of the community, holding our own end. But you know government is government, no matter how much you fight; you will run out of your defence materials. At that point, we, the youth, decided to leave the community. So, we boarded boats and left. This was when they fully had their way to burn the other half of the community, which we had prevented them from accessing.
Did you lose any loved one – family or friend – to the massacre?
I know persons who lost their parents. I know of a distant relation, who lost his father, Jesu.
There was some official report from government that put the death toll from the incident at 48. What do you have to say about this?
In Nigeria, if two million persons are killed, they will tell you it was five persons. That’s the pattern of the military. Same thing happens in military reports. If they kill 10 million military men, they will tell you it is just one that died. They killed a whole lot of people, not 48. We should be talking about a double of 48, if not more; within a hundred or thereabouts.
Did the government do anything about these killings?
They never did. The people of Odi had to fight it out in court and won.
Is it true that N15bn was paid by the Federal Government as compensation to the community after Odi won the case against the FG?
Yes. The N15bn was not even enough. You cannot compare life to money. People used the money to dig foundations for buildings; this gave the community a little face-lift, but the people that we lost that day are gone forever.
Was this money shared amongst everyone affected?
Yes. Every son and daughter of Odi, who came to register in that process, got their own share. From ages 0-18 got N200, 000; 18 and above got N500, 000.
Did the event of that day in any way shape your outlook on life?
The truth about life and the things we have been able to learn about the events of the day is that the government is not being sincere to the people of the Niger Delta. We know that they have never respected our rights. All they do is lie to us. We have learnt to manage what we have left and how to give our children a decent life, and make sure they don’t see the kind of things we saw on that black Saturday.
Were you emotionally affected by the things you saw that Saturday?
The events of that day affected me emotionally, but by the grace of God, I have grown past it. It was 22 years ago. We have slowly walked out of it; but, there are a few things you will see, and it will take your mind back to the events of that day.
People have likened this massacre to the Lekki shootings of October 20, 2020, during the #EndSARS protests. Do you share in this sentiment?
Yes. This is because the same thing soldiers did to us in 1999 was what they did at Lekki. They cannot tell us that the government did not give that instruction. Innocent persons were killed. When will we step out of this page, where a democratically instituted government will wake up and kill its citizens? This is not acceptable; we are not running a military regime. Nobody is being held responsible for all of these killings. Even if ours was worse, what they did at Lekki is unacceptable.
What do you think of the various panels set up by the government to investigate the matter? Do you feel they did enough?
There is no panel that they will put up anywhere in this country that will indict the government. In Rivers State, for instance, Ken Saro-Wiwa was murdered by the government; they killed him unjustifiably. No panel was able to bring him back to life. So, constituting a panel is a waste of time. They come up with different cock-and-bull stories that do nothing but make a joke of the situation.
Some commentators have said that the Odi massacre gave birth to the Niger Delta piracy and militancy in the South-South region of the country. Do you agree?
No. This is not true. Before the massacre at Odi, there was militancy. The boys did not just go to the creeks to vandalise oil pipes and kidnap people; they had reasons. The region has been marginalised from time. Do you know, the wealth, when it comes to the oil sector of this country, lies in the hands of the Niger Delta people, but the common Ijaw man does not have potable water to drink? I can confidently tell you that there are still communities in this time and age in the region that do not have drinkable water? Such communities include the likes of Lobia, Ezetu, Kolama, Ekini, Pere-Toru-Gbeni and a host of others. To travel from Yenagoa to these communities will take between three to four hours on water. There are no access roads; most of them have not set their feet on tarred roads since they were born. Sachet water is sold for N30; these people are forced to survive in very harsh conditions. In the end, they have nothing, as they are mostly poor fishermen. The oil firms pollute the waters, thereby killing the fishes and act like nothing happened and no compensation is paid to help these people cope with life. They do not have farms; they are forced to survive anyway they can. These boys did not know how to break pipes; they were taught by the expatriates. A common Ijaw man does not know how to break pipes; they were taught by others. They drill our oil and run it down to Kaduna, where they have refineries. You expect these boys to be quiet?
Have the people of Odi truly forgiven the Federal Government after the payment of the compensation?
We have decided to move on with life. Whether the government comes in or not, we must survive. So, we keep pushing. We do not have personal grudges against the government. The deed has been done, and so nothing can be changed. We just want to make sure that our children do not go through the pain that we have gone through in the past.
Source: The PUNCH