THE judgment of Justice Lambi Akanbi of the Federal High Court that awarded damages against the Federal Government for the military invasion of Odi town, in Bayelsa State in 1999, is salutary and symbolic. The judgment nestles on one of the major foundations of democracy, as provided in section 6(6)(b) of the 1999 constitution: the prerogative of the courts to arbitrate in disputes between governments and individuals. Also, the people of Odi, and indeed most Nigerians, will be gratified by the punitive powers of the courts against the executive, otherwise government powers will be absolute, and absolute powers corrupt absolutely.
Justice Akanbi awarded the sum of N37.6 billion as general and specific damages against the Federal Government, which ordered the military to invade Odi, following the killing of 12 policemen on duty in the town by armed gangs on November 4 and 5, 1999. The judge was thoroughly piqued by the conduct of the Federal Government. He said: “the destruction of Odi was comprehensive and complete; no aspect of the community was spared by what I saw in the pictures showed here”. He went further: “the respondents violated the fundamental human rights of the people of Odi, by the massacre. The people are entitled to fundamental rights to life, dignity and fair play.”
While we strongly deprecate the killing of security personnel sent to maintain peace in the community; it is rather unfortunate that a civilian government could seek to punish a terrorist act by terrorising an entire community. Unfortunately, former President Olusegun Obasanjo gloats over the massacre as an equitable response to a breach of national security by the miscreants who killed the policemen in Odi community. On his part, President Goodluck Jonathan, then a deputy Governor of Bayelsa State claims that: “only innocent people, including women, children and the very weak that could not escape were killed in Odi”. Interestingly, the latter assertion was quoted by the judge, to underscore the award of damages.
We recall also that under President Obasanjo, the people of Zaki-Biam suffered similar destruction, following the killing of soldiers sent to maintain peace between warring communities. In far away South Africa, a protest by coal miners demanding an increase in salary last year turned bloody, and in retaliation, the police descended on the strikers and murdered many of them. These and similar high-handed reactions usually put governments on the spot, as to what amounts to a reasonable force to quell civil disobedience. Where excessive force is used as held by the high court in the case of Odi, the issue of what amounts to a fair restitution becomes the next challenge.
Since life is irreplaceable, the option open to the court is to award damages, and where applicable hold the major actors personally responsible. Unfortunately in the Odi case, the state has not openly taken steps to hold the dramatis personae accountable. For instance, no efforts have been made to find out those actually responsible for killing the 12 policemen. Also, no enquiry was made to hold the troops sent to the town accountable to the rules of military engagement. If, as confirmed by the courts, the entire town was razed down, is it not proper to find out who gave instruction to the troops to act in such manner; or were they entitled to kill and maim as it pleased them?
Regrettably, the civilian population has paid dearly for the conducts of probably small but significant members of our security agencies. Ranging from ‘accidental discharge’ to willful killings and abuses, some of our security personnel need to be weaned from their sense of superiority and invincibility anytime they are dealing with civilians.
Unfortunately, the criminal act of those who murdered the policemen, the indiscretion of President Obasanjo and the excesses of the security personnel sent to Odi, will cost Nigeria’s tax payers N37.6 billion. This is in addition to the loss of innocent lives and properties of the Odi people.