IT is a story that breaks the heart: A group of soldiers arrives in town, asks everybody to assemble in an open field for an address by its military commander, encircles the gathering, and then opens fire.
Rat-tat-tat, the bullets keep flying. Ten minutes after, the firing stops. No one is left standing except the soldiers.
The waves blow the clothes of the victims hither and thither -- blood-soaked scarves and head gears of aged women, caps of elderly men, and toys of kids.
You are welcome to Odi, Bayelsa State. That was on November 20, 1999, not in the 14th Century, not in a Hobbessian state. That was a part of Nigeria’s recent history that former President Olusegun Obasanjo is still very proud of. It is a crisis management policy that the Army General who has had the rare opportunity to lead Nigeria as both military and civilian ruler, commends to the current national leadership.
A gang of militants had killed 12 Policemen near the town. When he deployed soldiers to apparently teach the militants a lesson, President Obasanjo reportedly told them not to "waste" bullets. In other words, every shot fired must hit target. Every building in the town, except a bank, an Anglican church and a health centre, was razed to the ground. Till today, the perpetrators have not been apprehended. It is in doubt if any effort has ever been made in that regard.
A similar treatment was given to the people of Zaki Biam in Benue State by the same Federal Government under Obasanjo about two years later. During a protest over the siting of a local government headquarters, some criminals killed 19 soldiers who were deployed to keep the peace. From October 22 to 24, 2001, on the authority of Obasanjo, soldiers killed anything and everything in sight. About 100 residents and passersby were recorded dead.
For the then president was not the need to sift the wheat from the chaff, investigate and identify the perpetrators. He simply gave an order to wipe out the community. Like in Odi, there is no record of any arrest of the culprits. It was enough for the Obasanjo government that the blood of entire villages was spilled in revenge!
It is quite easy for people to forget their pains and anguish of yesterday when faced with new challenges today. That explains why the people of Israel, as recorded in the Bible, had no difficulty thoroughly abusing Moses and accusing him of a genocide plot against them.
They were thirsty but there was no water in sight. So, they demanded why Moses bothered to free them from slavery in Egypt, where they had had at least had regular supply of water. These were people who were recorded to have only a little earlier witnessed the parting of the red sea and the annihilation of King Pharaoh and his army!
The Biblical story easily comes to mind whenever I hear Nigerians complain about the “cluelessness” of the Goodluck Jonathan administration in tackling the Boko Haram menace and wishing that they had a “strong leader” like Obasanjo who would have put an end to “the nonsense.”
That line of argument has gone on for long and, apparently, the retired but not tired Army General Obasanjo enjoys the adulation. He boasted of it recently at a public lecture and openly insinuated that President Jonathan is weak in tackling the menace.
He said: “My fear is that when you have a sore and you don’t attend to it early enough, it festers and becomes very bad. Don’t leave a problem that can be bad unattended. I attended to a problem that I saw; I sent soldiers.
They were killed, 19 of them (were) decapitated. If I had allowed that to continue, I would not have the authority to send security anywhere again. I attended to it. If you say you do not want a strong leader, who can have all the characteristics of a leader, including the fear of God, then, you have a weak leader and the rest of the problem is yours.”
Let us agree, for a moment, that the massacre of the elderly and kids of Odi and Zaki Biam worked in forcibly putting an end to terrorism in both the Niger Delta and Benue State as he claims. Did Obasanjo apply the same high handedness to the Northern part of the country as he is publicly upbraiding President Jonathan for not doing?
The imposition of Sharia rule in many parts of the North occurred during the administration of Obasanjo. A cow thief, Mallam Buba Bello Jangebe was amputated while the advocate of strong arm tactics was in office. What was his reaction? If the imposition of Sharia is for religious purpose, it will endure but if it is a political action, it will die out!
That was what President Obasanjo told the nation and the world. It was a smart way to avoid confrontation with the masterminds of the Sharia rule whose main intent then was crystal clear: To provoke the Federal Government into making any comment or taking any action that would stir a national crisis.
Obasanjo read the action of the Sharia proponents wisely and spoke wisely. Today, many of those who took Sharia implementation from civil and family law to the realm of criminal law have been cited for stealing public funds, denying the people they would have led to war basic necessities. They luxuriate in wealth beyond imagination, stolen from the people. Some of them are standing trial for raiding public treasury, while Mallam Jangebe and other victims continue in poverty.
Obasanjo knew their plot and gingerly walked the minefield. Why does he want Jonathan to apply the Odi and Zaki Biam treatment to states that are under the yoke of Boko Haram, when the group claims to be motivated by religion? Jonathan should deploy soldiers to communities in, say Bauchi or Borno State, gather the innocent old and young, and gun them down? Just like that? Would that not be an open invitation to Al Qaeda to permanently make Nigeria ungovernable?
As an elder, Obasanjo is expected to counsel the administration on the time-tested dictum that you exercise discretion in killing a fly that perches on your male member. That the people of Odi and Zaki Biam have not mustered enough political will and clout to bring those who masterminded the genocide on them in a world war crimes tribunal is no reason for the perpetrators to gloat.
Yes, the killing of Policemen by criminal activists in Odi and Zaki Biam should not have gone unpunished. But the duty of the state is to apprehend the killers, duly prosecute them and apply the maximum weight of law on them. A knee-jerk approach of rounding up everybody on sight and dispensing instant, jungle justice on them is not something to be proud of. It was, indeed, one of the saddest chapters of Nigeria’s recent history.