From Chris Uchenna Agbedo

Public Forum



President Tinubu’s presence at the burials of the 17 slain officers and soldiers and his subsequent promises of swift action to address the welfare needs of the widows and orphans left behind are commendable gestures that underscore a commitment to compassion, empathy, and support in the face of tragedy. In a time of profound grief and loss, his leadership offers a beacon of hope and reassurance to the families of the fallen heroes and the country as a whole. His presence at the burials of the slain soldiers is a powerful symbol of solidarity and respect for the sacrifices made by the brave men and women who serve in our armed forces. By personally attending the solemn ceremonies and plucking the right notes of reason and compassion, he honours the memory of the fallen and pays tribute to their courage, dedication, and service to the Nigerian State. His presence not only provides comfort and solace to the grieving families but also sends a clear message of unity and support from the highest levels of government. The commendable actions taken by President Tinubu underscore the importance of leadership that prioritizes empathy, support, and dignity in times of adversity.

The heart-wrenching aftermath of the Okuama killings, which claimed the lives of 17 officers and men of the Nigerian Army, has left behind a profound human tragedy. Among the devastation, the stark reality of four pregnant widows and 30 orphaned children serves as a poignant reminder of the immense personal toll exacted by the mindless massacre of patriotic Nigerians, whose daily routine of professional duty predisposes them to mortgage their dear lives in defence of their motherland. In the face of such profound loss, it only made sense that President Tinubu rose to the occasion on behalf of the Nigerian State to extend compassion, support, and solidarity to those most deeply affected by this tragedy in such swift and comprehensive manner. The widows and orphans left behind by the Okuama killings are now grappling with overwhelming grief, uncertainty, and hardship. For these families, the loss of loved ones represents not only an emotional void but also a practical challenge as they navigate the daunting prospect of rebuilding their lives without the support and companionship of their fallen husbands and parents.

The decision to offer scholarship opportunities for all the orphans of the slain soldiers is a transformative gesture that ensures these children will have access to education and opportunities for a brighter future. By investing in their academic pursuits, President Tinubu not only honors the memory of the fallen but also empowers the next generation with the tools they need to succeed and thrive. This commitment to the long-term welfare of the families reflects a deep understanding of the lasting impact of loss and the importance of providing stability and support in times of need. In addition to educational support, President Tinubu’s pledge of free housing for the families of the fallen soldiers offers a tangible lifeline to those grappling with the emotional and financial burdens of their loss. Providing secure and stable housing not only ensures the physical well-being of the families but also provides a sense of security and belonging in the wake of tragedy. By alleviating the pressures of housing insecurity, President Tinubu demonstrates a compassionate understanding of the challenges facing bereaved families and a commitment to easing their burden.

Furthermore, the decision to confer posthumous national honours upon the fallen soldiers is a fitting tribute to their service, courage, and sacrifice. Recognizing their contributions to the nation ensures that their legacy will be preserved and their memory honored for generations to come. These honours serve as a testament to the enduring gratitude and respect of a grateful nation, ensuring that the sacrifices of our fallen heroes will never be forgotten. Lastly, President Tinubu’s commitment to settling the death benefits of the deceased soldiers within 90 days demonstrates a commitment to expediency and efficiency in providing for the immediate needs of the bereaved families. This proactive approach to addressing financial concerns ensures that families can focus on grieving and healing without the added stress of bureaucratic delays or uncertainty. In sum, President Tinubu’s smart moves in response to the tragedy of the slain soldiers are commendable examples of leadership that prioritizes compassion, support, and dignity. In extending a hand to the families of our fallen patriots, he embodies the values of solidarity, empathy, and resilience that define our nation’s character. As we mourn the loss of these brave men and women, let us draw strength from President Tinubu’s example and reaffirm our commitment to supporting those who have sacrificed so much in service to their country.

While President Tinubu’s smart moves to pluck the right notes of reason and compassion is quite commendable, it is essential to acknowledge that compassion must be balanced with accountability, particularly in the face of troubling circumstances surrounding the grisly murder of the 17 military officers and soldiers. The Okuama killings have thrust into the spotlight a crucial debate surrounding the role and responsibilities of the military in civil society. The tragic consequences of military involvement in communal peacekeeping, roadblock checkpoints and other mundane civil activities highlight the risks inherent in blurring the lines between military and civilian functions. At the heart of the issue lies the fundamental principle of military professionalism. Traditionally, the primary mission of the military is to defend the nation against external threats and safeguard its territorial integrity. However, in recent years, military forces have increasingly been tasked with a wide range of non-traditional roles, including peacekeeping, law enforcement, and humanitarian assistance. While these tasks are undoubtedly important for promoting stability and security, they also carry inherent risks and challenges, particularly when military personnel are deployed in civilian settings without adequate training or oversight. By assuming roles traditionally reserved for paramilitary and civilian authorities, such as maintaining roadblock checkpoints and mediating communal disputes, military personnel are placed in situations where they may lack the specialized training, expertise, and legal authority necessary to effectively carry out their duties. This can not only jeopardize the safety and well-being of military personnel but also exacerbate tensions and escalate conflicts within communities. Moreover, the overextension of military forces into civilian roles can have broader implications for military professionalism and readiness. Diverting resources and manpower away from core military functions to support civil activities can detract from training, preparedness, and operational readiness, ultimately compromising the military’s ability to fulfill its primary mission of national defence.

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Another crucial angle to the Okuama tragedy that may merit further interrogation is the possible nexus between the killings and the lethal oil bunkering ecosystem. As we grapple with the aftermath of this senseless loss of life, it is imperative to examine the complex interplay of illicit oil activities, resource conflicts, and security challenges in Nigeria’s oil-rich Niger Delta region. It is obvious that the Niger Delta has long been plagued by a multitude of socio-economic and environmental challenges, chief among them being the illicit oil bunkering industry. This illicit trade involves the theft and illegal refining of crude oil, often carried out by criminal syndicates and armed gangs operating in the region. The lucrative nature of oil bunkering has fueled a cycle of violence, corruption, and lawlessness, with armed groups and ex-militant overlords vying for control of oil-rich territories and resources. In this context, the killings of soldiers in Okuama may be seen as part of a broader pattern of violence linked to the struggle for control over oil resources. The soldiers may have been targeted by criminal elements seeking to protect their illicit activities or by rival warlords seeking to assert dominance in the region. Additionally, the presence of soldiers in the area may have disrupted the operations of oil bunkering networks, leading to retaliatory violence against the military. Furthermore, the resource-rich nature of the Niger Delta region has historically fueled tensions and conflicts over land, resources, and political power. Competing claims to oil revenues and benefits have exacerbated inter-communal rivalries and grievances, further complicating efforts to address the root causes of violence and instability. The Okuama incident may thus be emblematic of broader resource wars and power struggles playing out in the region. Addressing the nexus between soldiers’ killings and the oil bunkering ecosystem requires a multifaceted approach that addresses both the symptoms and root causes of the conflict. This includes strengthening security measures to disrupt illicit oil activities, dismantling criminal networks involved in oil bunkering, and enhancing governance and accountability in the management of oil resources. Additionally, efforts to promote sustainable development, economic diversification, and inclusive governance are essential in addressing the underlying grievances and inequalities driving violence in the Niger Delta.

The brutal and senseless murder of professionally trained officers and soldiers in Okuama has sent shockwaves through the nation, prompting grave concerns and raising pertinent questions about the circumstances surrounding their tragic deaths. As we grapple with the aftermath of this horrific incident, it is imperative that we confront these questions with honesty, accountability, and a commitment to uncovering the truth. The brutal murder of these officers and soldiers, the reprisal invasion of Okuama and adjoining communities, and other unanswered questions demand thorough investigation and transparent answers to ensure justice and prevent future tragedies. What were the factors that led to the soldiers’ deployment in a civilian dispute, and were proper risk assessments conducted prior to their mission? At whose behest were the soldiers invited to mediate between the so-called warring communities, and what assurances were provided regarding their safety and security? What were the orders given to the soldiers, and were they adequately trained and equipped for the tasks they were assigned? Furthermore, what prompted the reprisal invasion, and were there alternative strategies for addressing the situation that could have minimized civilian casualties and prevented further escalation of violence? How can we ensure that military deployments are guided by clear mandates and objectives, and that soldiers are adequately trained and equipped to handle the complexities of civilian engagement? What mechanisms are in place to prevent the misuse or abuse of military power, and to uphold the principles of human rights, rule of law, and democratic governance? How were the perpetrators able to carry out such a brazen and audacious attack with impunity? Is there any nexus between the soldiers’ brutal murder and the oil bunkering criminal enterprise in the Niger-Delta region? Endless questions!

Furthermore, the loss of these thoroughbred military officers and men in a setting that was not formally recognized as a ‘war zone’ raises troubling questions about the evolving nature of conflict and the shifting dynamics of security threats in Nigeria. The fact that our soldiers were targeted and ruthlessly attacked in what should have been a relatively peaceful environment highlights the adaptability and audacity of criminal elements, as well as the inadequacies of our security infrastructure in responding to emerging threats. The manner, in which the professionally-trained and high-calibre officers and soldiers fell helplessly, like helpless chicken to the prowling jackboots of predating hawks, raises troubling doubts about the adequacy of the intelligence, planning, and risk assessment processes that preceded their deployment. While the military plays a crucial role in defending the country against external threats, its deployment in civil matters such as mediating communal disputes can carry significant risks and unintended consequences. The foregoing tends to provide the basis for questioning the claims that the 17 officers and soldiers gruesomely murdered in the course of the so-called peacekeeping mission died in ‘active service’ when they were cut down as ‘meddlesome interlopers,’ intruding into issues outside their strictly traditional military roles. Surely, the dangers inherent in blurring the lines between military and civilian functions underscore the need for clear guidelines and protocols to govern such engagements.

Perhaps, it may it not be totally out of place to question the validity of labeling the soldiers’ deaths as occurring in ‘active service’ when they were tragically cut down while mediating in issues far removed from their traditional roles. The notion of ‘active service’ typically connotes engagement in activities directly related to national defense or security, such as combat operations or peacekeeping missions in recognized conflict zones. However, in the case of the Okuama incident, the soldiers were deployed to mediate in communal disputes, a task that falls outside the purview of their core military functions. The tragic outcome of the Okuama mission underscores the inherent risks and challenges associated with military involvement in civilian affairs. While the military undoubtedly has a role to play in promoting stability and security, it must be deployed judiciously and with clear objectives and mandates. Engaging in activities beyond the scope of traditional military functions not only exposes soldiers to unnecessary risks but also blurs the lines between military and civilian roles, potentially undermining the effectiveness and legitimacy of both institutions. Moreover, the misalignment between the soldiers’ mission and their training and expertise raises troubling questions about the adequacy of risk assessment and decision-making processes within the military hierarchy. Were proper protocols followed in assessing the security situation and determining the appropriateness of military intervention in the Okuama dispute? Were soldiers adequately trained and equipped to handle the complexities of civilian mediation and conflict resolution?

Perhaps, it is a legitimate concern to worry about steps being taken to apprehend those responsible and bring them to justice without getting entangled in sweeping extra-judicial killings of innocent citizens and meting out the horrendous ‘Odi treatment’ to Okuama community. Recall that the National Leader of the Pan-Niger Delta Forum, Chief Edwin Clark raised an alarm about the military raid on his country home in the Kiagbodo Local Council Area of Delta State, warning that if he dies suspiciously or if his death is linked to state actors, no one can tell how far the fir will rage. “I call on the various state actors to let me live in peace and treat me with the kind of respect that I deserve, having served this country for nearly 70 years, and still serving even at the age of 97 years, until it will please the Almighty God to call me home…If I die today as a result of a natural occurrence, it will be a joyful celebration. However, if my death is linked to any dubious means by some overzealous state actors, no one can tell how far the fire will rage,” the elder statesman warned. Of course, it only makes sense to aver that relevant authorities must address the elder statesman’s legitimate concerns with the seriousness they deserve and ensure that his worst fears were promptly nipped in the bud. All the same, the Okuama killings serve as a grim reminder of the sacrifices made by dedicated members of our armed forces in the defence of our country and the protection of our citizens. They put their lives on the line every day to uphold the principles of peace, security, and stability. Their avoidably senseless deaths represent a profound loss not only for their families and communities but for the entire Nigerian State. The failure to adequately protect them and uphold the rule of law only emboldens criminal elements and undermines public trust and confidence in the authorities.

As we navigate the aftermath of the Okuama tragedy, let us not lose sight of the need for accountability and justice. While President Tinubu’s support measures for the families of the fallen soldiers offer a measure of comfort and relief, they cannot substitute for a thorough and impartial investigation into the events that led to their deaths. In essence, the circumstances surrounding the so-called peacekeeping mission of the killed soldiers demand thorough scrutiny, making the establishment of an independent panel of inquiry imperative. The Okuama tragedy has left a deep scar on the Nigerian State’s conscience, prompting questions posed in the foregoing that cannot be ignored. An independent panel of inquiry offers the best chance of obtaining answers to these pressing questions. Such a panel comprised of impartial experts and stakeholders would have the authority to conduct a thorough investigation into the Okuama tragedy, free from political influence or bias. Its findings could shed light on the chain of events leading to the soldiers’ deaths and identify any lapses or failures in protocol that may have contributed to the tragedy. Moreover, an independent inquiry is essential for ensuring accountability and justice. Those responsible for any1¹ misconduct or negligence must be held to account, regardless of rank or position. By uncovering the truth and holding wrongdoers accountable, an independent panel of inquiry can help prevent similar tragedies in the future and restore public trust and confidence in the military and government institutions. Additionally, an independent inquiry can provide much-needed closure and healing for the families of the fallen soldiers. By offering a transparent and impartial account of the events leading to their loved ones’ deaths, the inquiry can help the families understand what happened and why. It can also provide assurance that their concerns are being taken seriously and that steps are being taken to prevent such tragedies from occurring again. In light of the gravity of the Okuama tragedy, the establishment of an independent panel of inquiry is not merely desirable but imperative. What is more? In the aftermath of the Okuama tragedy, it is imperative that we confront the complex realities of the oil-rich Niger Delta region with courage and resolve. By addressing the probable nexus between soldiers’ killings and the oil bunkering ecosystem, we can begin to chart a path towards peace, stability, and prosperity for all communities in the region. Only through concerted action and a commitment to addressing the root causes of conflict can we hope to break the cycle of violence and build a more just and sustainable future for the Niger Delta and Nigeria as a whole.

Moving forward, it is imperative that military engagements in civilian affairs are guided by clear guidelines, mandates, and objectives, and that soldiers are provided with the necessary training, resources, and support to carry out their duties safely and effectively. Furthermore, there is an urgent need for a broader national conversation on the appropriate role of the military in civilian affairs and the principles that should govern such engagements. By fostering greater transparency, dialogue, and collaboration between military and civilian stakeholders, we can ensure that military interventions are conducted in a manner that respects the rule of law, upholds human rights, and advances the broader interests of peace, stability, and security. On a final note, one recognizes President Tinubu’s compassionate gestures as a testament to his commitment to supporting the families of the fallen soldiers. Nonetheless, they needed to be complemented by a commitment to uncovering the truth and ensuring accountability. Only through transparency, accountability, and justice can we honour the memory of our fallen patriots and prevent similar tragedies in the future. Indeed, it is only by confronting the truth, holding those responsible to account, and addressing the underlying causes of conflict and insecurity can we hope to prevent future tragedies and build a more just and peaceful society for all.

•Agbedo is Professor of Linguistics & Director, Centre for Igbo Studies, University of

Nigeria, Nsukka