Monday Lines: Murder and vengeance in Okuama by Lasisi Olagunju

I have a very senior police officer friend whose nickname is Ambush. On the front of my friend’s left shoulder is an ugly scar. At the back of the shoulder is an even bigger scar. I remembered Ambush the day it became known that 17 soldiers were murdered in a community in Delta State. My friend got his scars two decades plus two years ago somewhere in the Niger Delta during a routine police assignment. His team walked into an ambush mounted by militants and a firework ensued. A bullet meant for my friend’s heart missed it by an inch. The bullet whistled into my friend’s shoulder, ripped through flesh and bone and escaped. He was carried off the war field by his colleagues with very little hope of making it. But he did. If he was a Yoruba, he would kneel down and affirm that it was his orí that declined taking that destiny of premature death – his inner head refused to accept fatal ambush.

That near-death experience gave my friend his nickname, Ambush. And he loves being so called.

I spoke with the officer last week. His first daughter was about three years old and his wife heavy with the second child when he suffered that shot. The daughter has left the university now, top of her class. We agreed that if he had died in that incident, his daughter’s destiny may have been fatally altered. She would not have had any serious memory of the father beyond his being a victim of Nigeria and the career he chose. We agreed that only the grace of God would have saved the child, the unborn and their mum from life’s effective abandonment.

We discussed the Federal Government’s promise to give the 17 dead soldiers a befitting burial complete with national honours. We thought that was highly thoughtful and commendable. But I pointed out to my friend that national honours do not pay school fees. We agreed on that truth and on the truth that tributes do not buy love and do not give the warmth which only a father and a husband can give. We agreed that life can be really ice-cold for widows and children without fathers or mothers or both.

We discussed other incidents that ended more tragically for persons we knew: The Ombatse mass murder of May 7, 2013 at Alakyo, Nasarawa State, saw a militia kill 74 security operatives. We knew one promising young man among the fallen. Many of those wasted souls were married with children. The ones that were not married had loved ones. What has happened to those they left behind? Some anti-kidnapping operatives were ambushed, overpowered and murdered by vandals in Ikorodu, Lagos State in September 2015. One of them was personally known to us. He was part of our team when we were in government. He left a family and a fiancée. Whatever anyone may have done or may be doing to mitigate the loss cannot compensate for the broken pot and the spilt water.

So, what eventually happened to those who shot my friend? He didn’t tell me. They don’t tell.

You can’t convince soldiers not to avenge their colleagues’ death. Epe is one of the principal towns in today’s Lagos State. It is a community pockmarked by a fissured history of fights and recriminations. It is a two-in-one town made up of Ijebu Epe and Eko Epe. Thirteen years before Lagos became a colony, there was a case of killing and revenge killing of lead warriors in Epe. Celebrated Epe historian, Theophilus Avoseh (1960) recorded in his ‘A Short History of Epe’ that in about 1848, Epe and one of its neighbours, Makun Omi, had a trade dispute. One of Ijebu Epe’s war chiefs was Balogun Agoro. His counterpart in Makun Omi was a strong man called Nabintan. Nabintan warned Agoro not to come to his side to trade or there would be trouble. But Agoro was like William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar who thinks himself “elder and more terrible” than danger. You remember Caesar’s famous rebuff of warnings about the Ides of March: “Danger knows full well that Caesar is more dangerous than he.” For Agoro, it was ibi tí wón bá ní kí gbégbé má gbé, ibè níí gbé. Ibi tí won ba ni ki tètè má tè, ibè níí tè… Like importunate Caesar, Agoro put his feet where he was warned not to. He went to the other side to trade in palm kernels and there was a fight and Agoro was murdered.

The historian wrote that a violent cry for vengeance rent the air in Epe: “The news of his assassination was soon broken to the Ijebu Epe, who trooping out to retaliate, drove and forbade the Makuns from fishing in their creeks. Makun people became apprehensive and as they were reduced to starvation by the measures taken by the Epes, they quickly appealed to Awujale Anikilaya to use his regal office to pacify the Epes. To engender mutual reconciliation and understanding, a date was fixed by the Awujale for the Epe and Makun people to meet at Epe Oju Alaro, Lagbade. During the settlement, however, Balogun Omini (of Epe) suddenly and without warning shot Nabintan dead with a gun. This resulted in a civil war. Omini praised himself for having revenged the assassination of Agoro and named himself ‘Omìní pa ohùn oba dà’ which interpreted means ‘Omini altered Awujale’s order for reconciliation.’ That was how it became a proverb in the town that ‘Ohun tí ó se Àgòrò tí kò bò ní Makun, òun náà ló se Nabintan tí kò bò ní Epe’ which means ‘the thing that prevented Agoro from coming back home from Makun has also prevented Nabintan from returning from Epe.’ The historian noted that the Awujale, who was initially angry at the killing was later pacified. Oba Anikilaya ‘winked at the offence’ and the fugitive offenders ‘returned to their respective homes.'”

Do not kill the Igúnnugún (vulture) of warriors so that you can live to see the year end. Kill the hornbill (àkàlàmàgbò) of the army and die this month. There is always a price to pay for every enemy action directed at soldiers.

Because we are far removed from the experience, some people are making excuses for the mass murder of soldiers in Okuama, Delta State. It takes very horrendous amounts of destruction for a storm abroad to make news at home. Distance is a factor when we interrogate tragedies. The farther they are, the less empathy we feel for the victims. Should it be like that? In my very long years as a reporter covering governors and governments, and in my short years in public office, I encountered and befriended persons across all professions. And, these included civil servants, doctors, nurses, soldiers, policemen, SSS operatives. Some of them have grown old and have retired. Some are dead. Many have grown tall and big and are still in service. They all dote on me and I monitor their career welfare and their personal wellbeing the way mother-hen casts furtive glances at its eggs. Every news of attack on service men or death in active service gives my heart a skip. Photographs and names of the murdered soldiers were released last week. I scanned the faces and skimmed through the names, holding my breath. None of them was known to me but all of them shared the human space with us. They did not deserve that death.

How should we mourn them? Or how are we mourning them? A gush of regional and ethnic emotions flood our common course. Our partisan reactions question the humanness of our existence. The soldiers who fell were some parents’ sons; some ladies’ husbands; some children’s fathers. Their children no longer have a father to hug them; the kids do not again have a father for them to hug. The dead were brothers to some persons. The courses of those streams of life are altered forever – some now flow inexorably to extinction. It will only be in dreams that things will smell nice again for those families. Yet, we ethnicise the mass murder and conditionise condolence for the lost souls. Some pillory their memory because of the cyclone of their colleagues’ anger.

All through military history, those whose hens break soldiers’ pot of medicine always suffer mass loss of eggs. You heard that young soldier who went online to vow a revenge of the killings? I heard him and felt a chill at the cadence in his carefully chosen words: “We take good things to good people, bad things to bad people. Since you don price, you must collect.” That does not sound like a hollow boast from a lone wolf. If you think it is, scroll back to August last year when bandits killed scores of soldiers in Niger State. The Chief of Defence Staff, General Christopher Musa, uttered these words in August 2023: “When you have to bury your own, you feel very pained. I call on all commanders and troops all over Nigeria that we must avenge this. Those who did this and those who continue to kill our men wherever they are, we will smoke them out.” The young soldier issued his promise of revenge in poetry; the CDS’s pledge of vengeance was in plain prose. Those who wreaked the latest havoc in Delta should have listened to Musa’s unleavened words of last year. If they had taken heed and followed the word and the law, there would not have been this hackneyed talk about another deathly journey to Odi and a deadly detour to Zaki-Biam.

‘Revenge in Warfare’ is the title of an editorial comment published on May 27, 1861, by the defunct American newspaper, Springfield Daily Republican. It was in the early weeks of the American Civil War. A unit of soldiers from Massachusetts going to Washington was attacked by a pro-secession mob in Baltimore. The mob killed four soldiers. The newspaper said the Massachusetts troops “were proceeding so peaceably upon their patriotic errand, they had responded so promptly to the president’s call, the attack upon them and its fatal results thrilled the country’s heart, and men could hardly be restrained from taking the task of vengeance into their own hands.” There was a response from the troops, and the walls of Baltimore itself bore testimony to that day of murder and vengeance.

Vengeance and payback are ready companions to incidents of murder. In Yoruba, we say Akóda oró, kò dàbí àdágbèhìn – vengeance is always meaner than the original act of wickedness. You may call it retribution or reprisal or payback. If you like call it anything. All the wounded desires is to smash the thick walls of the enemy. A Second World War Soviet writer for the army wrote about why Germany must suffer fire. “When you walk through streets in the smoke of a conflagration, there is no pity in your heart. Let it burn – it is not a pity! I do not feel sorry for houses, I do not feel sorry for things. I do not feel sorry for the city. We have no pity left for Germans. Payback has come to Germany. May the robber’s nest become ashes and decay. Let them! Not a pity!” Whether in Russia or in America or in Nigeria, soldiers think that thought for whoever is the enemy that has visited them with death. It didn’t start with modern armies.

The Warrior Ethos governs the conduct of soldiers. It has done so from Achilles to today, coast to coast. Americans have formalized the Ethos into four pledges: “I will always place the mission first. I will never accept defeat. I will never quit. I will never leave a fallen comrade.” Not leaving a fallen comrade is at the heart of the present ‘war’ in the Niger Delta. And, if the military are not yielding the space to our pleadings for kindness and forgiveness, it is because the officers and men know as Prussian General, Carl von Clausewitz (1780-1831) observed in his ‘Vom Kriege’ that in the dangerous business of war, “the mistakes which come from kindness are the very worst.” So, if the air is presently heavy from Delta to Bayelsa in pursuit of the killers of our soldiers, the forces expect us to understand.

But, I join in pleading with the military. If they stay too long in that space, grass may start growing under their feet. More importantly, the innocent should be spared from sharing in the fate of the sinner. Indiscriminate recriminatory operations won’t prevent the sinner from committing the next sin. If they could, there would not have been Zaki-Biam soon after Odi; there would not have been Okuama after Zaki-Biam. How many officers and men have we lost in this democracy to killings such as the latest in Delta State? Even the authorities may have lost count. It is obviously rain that is yet falling. We do not know who will be next. And there will be another one unless we say enough.

How to say enough should be the present conversation. If Nigerians won’t stop killing Nigerian troops in Nigeria how about another look at the architecture of our forces, the structure of their formations and the social texture of their operational deployments? I have read low-toned social media whispers on the ethnic configuration of the Okuama casualties. More than 90 percent of those names sound northern. Why? From comments and commentaries on the tragedy, I could glean some sounds of fear and lack of trust in the fairness and justice of the forces. Martha Nussbaum, American philosopher and professor of Law and Ethics, said “a fearful people never trust the other side.”

We send policemen and soldiers to the north east, they get killed by terrorists bred locally; we send them to Zamfara and Niger states, they get killed by homegrown bandits; we deploy them to the Niger Delta, wanton militants give them the grasshopper treatment – they kill them “for their sport.” Why don’t we start sending children of death to death? If we, henceforth, send the children of fire to fire, will they still get charred? Send Yoruba soldiers and policemen to Yorubaland; send children of the creek to the creeks. If they misbehave, their misbehaviour will be to their people; if they are attacked, their attackers would know they are attacking their brothers. Everyone would know the compounds of who killed whom.

A word for the Niger Delta. It should rethink its ways. Every feud should not draw the sword. Tomorrow always eludes the land that allows every disagreement to end in war and bloodshed. Why do you think some lands are deserts and some are oases? Ask myths and legends. They have lessons to tell on how some soil sucked forbidden blood and suffered the eternal curse of aridity; nothing grows there again. Modern warfare would call it scotched-earth effect. Yet, some tragedies could be avoided if only patience is offered a seat in the heart of anger. That is why our elders warn that even when you are right, if you don’t fight right, you lose all rights. They say if you must fight, fight with sense:

E má bínúkínú

Kí e má baà j’ìjà k’ijà;

E má j’ìjà k’ijà

Kí e má baà j’èbi k’ébi.


Do not be unduly angry

So that you won’t fight undue fight;

Do not fight undue fight

So that you won’t be unduly guilty.

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