The curse of Okuama traged

Festus Adedayo


Curses and magical beliefs are woven together in African politics. A study found out that virtually all African leaders come to power emboldened by beliefs in local magical spells. Francisco Macias Nguema, first president of Equatorial Guinea from the time of the country’s independence in 1968, till 1979 when he was overthrown, was a perfect fit of this. A strongman and one of the most brutal dictators in human history, Nguema reportedly killed between 20,000, to 80,000 out of the total Guinea population of about 200,000 to 300,000 people. This led to his country being nicknamed the Dachau of Africa. The Dachau Concentration Camp, built by Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Germany in March, 1933, is located in the medieval town of Dachau in Bavaria, Southern Germany. It was where Hitler’s hounded political opponents were warehoused. Nguema was perceived, as Nigerians perceived General Sani Abacha during his reign, to be mentally unstable. Medical reports that backed this up emerged even from his early career. For instance, a report in 1968 by the French foreign intelligence service, SDECE, claimed that Ngueman suffered mental disorders and venereal diseases. Claims of this ruthless dictator’s mental situation were further compounded by his rumoured addiction to regular usage of drugs like cannabis. This, he was said to consume through its edible drink derivatives of bhang and iboga which have strong hallucinogenic effects.

More importantly, Nguema believed strongly in magic. While he was president in the 1970s, he openly advertised steep romance with sorcery. For him, voodoo was a vehicle of instilling fear in the people of Equatorial Guinea. He often dropped the narrative at public events that his occult powers were drawn from a collection of skulls he arrayed in the presidential palace. The belief that Nguema was as well a sorcerer permeated the nooks and crannies of Guinea. He also flaunted frequent conversations he claimed to have had with the dead, most especially with the same persons he had ordered their execution. To reinforce the narrative of his spiritual invincibility and supernatural reputation, Nguema arranged his own escape from sponsored assassins. Thus, in 1979, upon his ouster in the coup masterminded by his nephew, Teodoro Obiang Ngueman Mbasogo, Nguema was ordered to be executed by firing squad. However, it became a herculean task sourcing his executioners. No one dared volunteer to execute the old sorcerer. The belief which permeated the whole of the minds of citizens of Equatorial Guinea was that Nguema was a mythical shapeshifter. He had the powers to make a return journey from the land of the dead in the form of a tiger and thus seek vengeance from his executioners. It was so bad that the government of Mbasogo had to import Muslim executioners from Morocco who eventually carried out his death sentence. As the last breath escaped his nostrils, Nguema was rumoured to have cursed Morocco. In a country plagued by belief in sorcery, sympathetic magic and witches, Morocco’s crisis which came later were attributed to the tiger, Nguema, which laid curse on Morocco for lending Mbasogo the sharpshooters who brought his life to an end.

In the light of this, how powerful are curses, or how effective is their perception? In the killing of 17 soldiers of the Nigerian Army in the Okuama Community of Delta State on March 14, 2024, discourses on the curse of oil came to the front burner. Oil resource, generally held to be a blessing to nations, is in the same mould believed to be a curse to them. Nigeria and Venezuela took their rightful positions in that narrative. Were the soldiers martyred in Okuama part of the curse of oil on the Nigerian soil?

Discourses on the link between resources and curse gained currency in the early 1970s. The proposition put forward was that, countries that are richly endowed with natural wealth are most times plagued by violence, do not do well economically, politically, and socially when compared to poorly endowed countries. Two scholars, Paul Collier, a British development economist and Anke Hoeffler, German economist, political scientist, were known for their pioneering works on resource curse. They concluded that resources directly invite loot-seeking rebellion, as well as sociopolitical and institutional decay. Indra de Soysa, (2015) too, in “Oil and the ‘new wars’: Another look at the resource curse using alternative data”, Development Studies Research, 2:1, 64-76 argued that there were empirical evidence which supports the ‘resource curse’ argument in that oil abundance raises the probability of political violence.

This can only be the explanation of the gory scene in Okuoma community in oil-dominant area of the Niger Delta where seventeen soldiers which included a commanding officer, two majors, one captain and 12 soldiers were brutally murdered. The troops from the 181 Amphibious Battalion deployed in the Bomadi region were reportedly ambushed after they heeded calls to maintain peace between two communities who were locked in skirmishes over land. After their killing, the soldiers and officers were said to have been maniacally decapitated and butchered in the most horrendous manner. While some had their hearts ripped out of their chest cavities, others’ bodies were thrown into the river. Reports claimed that some of the recovered bodies had their stomachs ripped out. Incessant clashes over land, many a times deadly and requests for compensation for oil spills by energy companies in the Niger Delta are singsongs. None of these compares to the inhuman killing of these soldiers and officers which has raised critical questions in need of straight answers.

The question that agitates the minds of many compatriots is whether and how an innocent and dispassionate intervention to keep peace among two fighting communities could have earned the soldiers this level of beastly killing. While many have volunteered tongue-in-cheek analyses of the most logically coherent thing that could have led to the horrendous killing, perhaps the most profound of such was offered by former editor of The Guardian newspaper and Niger Delta leader of thought, Abraham Ogbodo. Ogbodo granted Arise TV interview last week. And he said: “It is not true that a misunderstanding between an Urhobo community and an Ijaw community could actually bring that level of crisis, that level of tragedy that we witnessed. It is not true. It’s not about communal crisis. What level of communal crisis? The combined population of those communities will be less than 2,000 human beings. Where will they get the capacity to wreak that level of havoc? To deliver that degree of tragedy, where will they have the capacity? It’s not possible. It’s like a crime taking place in all these drug enclaves in Latin America, and you will be looking for something else other than drugs. There is no crime that happens in Niger Delta that does not have crude oil and the arising benefits, and how those arising benefits can be allocated,” he said.

A very critical issue raised by Ogbodo was the nature of the military intervention. “What was actually compelling about a peace mission in that place that will require the strategic team going for a tactical mission? So, it shows that there are so many things underlying that we are not talking about. If it was actually for a peace mission, wouldn’t it have been for those community leaders to be summoned to the base in Bomadi for discussions to be held? This was not done – instead, the entire leadership of the battalion went to Bomadi and be so exposed, and if a mission like that was being carried by the strategic team, why was there not enough tactical cover that they were just gotten and taken out like that so cheaply? The Nigerian military! That is uncalled for. So, you will see that there are so many things that are wrong.”

Those rhetorical questions are key to resolving the fog that surrounds the killing of the soldiers and officers. To be sure, their loss has bored a huge crater on the heart of the country. From whatever prism one may look at it, Nigeria and, especially, their immediate families, may never recover from the losses. Apart from the huge investment Nigeria made into their trainings, many of their family members may never be the same again after the departure of these breadwinners of theirs. Having once suffered the death of a loved gallant soldier, it is easy for me to decouple the nature of the grief that envelopes the families of those slain military men. The goriness of their deaths makes the need to unravel the crime urgent. Doing so will also bring closure to agitations that lead to life-threatening incessant violence that happens in the crime scene, apologies to Ogbodo, that the whole Niger Delta region has become.

We have heard, since the agitations from the Ken Saro-Wiwas, of how resource-wealthy states like Nigeria are perennially enmeshed in provision of lower levels of public goods in terms of education, health and general wellbeing of the oil-producing communities. Researchers of resource curse have also found out that there is a general malaise among governments of resource-rich countries which reflects in their neglect of citizens and institutions of the oil-bearing communities. There is a growing intensity of social anger accruing from communities like Okuama against the operators of state. It is anger at how their nature-endowed resource has given access to easy money and unearned income by undeserving buccaneers in Nigeria. The truth is, if successive governments had prioritized the peace of oil-bearing communities and had taken a more than casual interest in it, the officers barbecued like chickens for a festival in Okuama may be alive today.

The truth is that, soldiers and policemen posted to oil-bearing communities are not innocent peace-keepers. They are grossly enmeshed in the crude craze that is the daily existential pursuit of Niger Delta communities. It is not news that soldiers deployed to oil-rich communities are alleged to be heavily enveloped in the oil-bunkering trade. Some of them even possess their own bunkering crew. This is a pestilence in the Niger Delta. Indeed, illicit trade in crude oil and violence are said to be the only thriving industry in Nigeria’s oil-producing communities. In the words of Ogbodo, “everything is subordinated to oil.” This is in agreement with scholarly arguments which say that resource wealth gives birth to weak institutions that are lax in maintenance of peace and security. Groups within the state then capitalize on this weakness to organize armed violence which they deploy to capture rents. The result is that a resource-dependent state like Nigeria is landlord to persistent violence in its oil-bearing communities. This is because institutions that are expected to bring peace and harmony like the army and police are either too weak to monopolize violence, cannot stop the oil resource itself from inviting looting or have become part and parcel of the problem. In the process, the financing of gory violence by individual state actors like the one in Okuama becomes a fait accompli.

There is also the resource jealousy and resource monopoly angle to the killing of the soldiers in Okuama. The resource-bearing communities see the rest of Nigeria as parasites reaping where they did not sow. On visits to Abuja, the communities see glittering streets paved by their oil money, compared to the despoliation of their lands and the crude-smeared waters they drink. They also know that fat leeches in power and their accomplices from other parts of Nigeria acquire toad-like stature from the wealth of their oil. Niger Deltans thus naturally develop a revenge complex against these Nigerian bugs. Take a look at the list of 17 soldiers killed in Okuama. You will discover that a particular section of the country takes a giant share of the fatalities. None of them is from the Niger Delta. This reflects how the Nigerian state sucks the nectar of Niger Delta while leaving its withered land to its fate.

The macabre manner in which those soldiers and men were murdered was not ordinary killing. It bears the traits of a revenge killing, or a Muti murder. A widespread killing tactic in South and Southern Africa, Muti is a form of human sacrifice. It is meant to achieve power, energy or good fortune and undertaken only after body parts have been precisely harvested while the victim is still alive. The aim is to allow the victim’s shrill cry go up to the sky, in the belief that it would summon deities. Only yesterday, a media report said the Defence Headquarters had confirmed recovering decomposing hearts of some of the soldier victims of the Okuama tragedy. Gouging out hearts, if not for ritual purposes, is a sadistic revenge method that is not undertaken by run-of-the-mill criminals. Could the murderers have been allies of the soldiers and thus saw them as betrayers?

It must be said that some other scholars have said that it is not wholly true that all oil-rich countries suffer the curse of chronic instability and violence. Nor that these countries’ resource opens up warfare in the oil-bearing communities. And that, like the rumoured curse placed by Nguema on Morocco, is a figment of imagination. This was the path trodden by Ross Michael (2012) in The Oil Curse: How Petroleum Wealth Shapes the Development of Nations, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. While Venezuela, Angola and Nigeria affirm the greed thesis of oil resource, states and countries like Texas in America and Saudi Arabia show that the thesis may not be entirely true. These are countries not fraught with Nigeria and her allies’ oil curse manifestations.

The way out of the curse of oil is effective practice of federalism. States where oil resource is found should be allowed to administer it while they pay royalties to the federal government. If we do this, militancy and crises over land which necessitate soldiers being drafted to make peace would be a thing of the past.

Nigeria must unravel the killing of the officers and men of the Nigerian Army who met their untimely deaths in Okuama. Unraveling it will need openness and getting to the brass-tacks of the matter. It must be done by an independent entity, independent of the military. The military cannot be the accuser and judge in its own case. The first thing to examine is the claim of the peace mission that the felled soldiers were alleged to have come to Okuama for. There are claims that the Urhobo and Ijaw that make up the community were not at war with each other; at least not to the level that could warrant “a peace mission”. So if this is the case, why would a whole battalion invade a community that is not at war, with the most plum of its officers? Second, did the “peace-keeping force” fire first at the members of the community, as claimed by some of them? At what point were the officers and men ambushed? In answering these questions, we would be drilling into the base of the issue. It must be done for the sanity of the country.

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