by Dare Lawal
In the highly politicised Nigerian environment of 2013, there is a way to look at Tuesday’s judgement in which Justice Lambo Akambi of the Federal High Court, Port Harcourt ordered the Federal Government to pay the sum of N37.6 billion as compensation to the victims of the Odi invasion exactly 39 months after former president Olusegun Obasanjo ordered a military invasion of the community. It is seemingly a validation of the ways of President Jonathan and an indictment of one-time president Obasanjo. Yet another sub-plot in their ongoing battle for supremacy.
For 13 years, the people of Odi sought justice. There have been arguments in support and against that move by the Obasanjo administration. In fact it recently came to the fore again when supporters of the former president like Femi Fani-Kayode recommended the ‘Odi treatment’ for Boko Haram, wondering why President Jonathan wasn’t considering that route. Even Obasanjo himself who has severally criticised the administration’s handling of security situation in the country is known to favour the Odi treatment for Boko Haram. Although the ex-president changes his position daily like a ping pong ball.
But the current president and his men have adopted a cautionary approach, choosing to play it safe, with some of its spokesmen, including Reuben Abati, the media and publicity adviser, speaking strongly against going the Obasanjo way in handling Boko Haram.
Justice Lambo on Tuesday gave his verdict, and it agreed with the Jonathan ideology. There is a need to “curb the excesses of the Executive and to send a clear message that the days of tyranny are gone and gone forever,” the judge said. He also described the military action as genocidal, brutish, reckless and a gross violation of the rights of the victims to life and to property.
The irony of it all was that in arriving at the judgement, the judge relied on statements made by President Goodluck Jonathan himself on the NTA. Justice Akambi said that even President Jonathan asserted recently on the Nigerian Television Authority (NTA) that no militant was killed in Odi during the military incursion but innocent civilians. Hence, the claims by the president’s counsel that the troops were deployed in Odi on November 20, 1999 to flush out secessionist militants who had killed seven policemen and unleashed mayhem in the community was false.
He had words of commendation for the president. He said that Jonathan’s statement on the Odi matter was an acknowledgement of the enthronement of the rule of law as opposed to the enthronement of guns and an assurance to the international community that Nigeria was now governed by those who respect the law. The judge’s statement alluded to the publicly held opinion that as president, Olusegun Obasanjo, never respected the rule of law.
One wonders however, following Jonathan’s public assertion on the NTA that the ODi killings affected only innocent people, why the FG was still in court and why it did not seek an out of court settlement with the plaintiffs. How can the president both support and oppose the Odi killings?
Tuesday’s judgement was for a class suit filed by Prof. Kobina Keme-Ebi Imananagha, Chief Ndu Gwagha, Chief Shadrack Agadah, Mr. Idoni Ingezi and Mr. Nwaka Echomgbe. The N37.6 billion must be paid within the next 21 days, according to Justice Lambo.
The plaintiffs had through their counsel, led by Lucius Nwosu (SAN); Lawal Rabana (SAN) and Ifedayo Adedipe (SAN), urged the court to declare that the invasion of Odi and its attendant assault, battery, maiming, shelling, shooting and cold-blooded murder of Odi indigenes and the destruction of their property by Nigerian armed forces under the command of the president, was tantamount to a gross violation of the people’s fundamental human rights to life, dignity and personal liberty.
The respondents were the President and Commander-in-Chief of the Federal Republic of Nigeria; Minister of Defence, the Chief of Defence Staff and Attorney-General of the Federation.
The plaintiffs also argued that the deployment of troops by the President and on the order of the Chief of Defence Staff, which led to the wanton destruction of lives and property of the people of Odi, was a gross misuse of power vested in the state.
As is usual in cases like this, the FG team tried to play some delay tactics. As the judge was about to deliver judgement on the matter, counsel to the Minister of Defence and a director in the Ministry of Defence, Malam Jimoh Adamu, told the court that he had filed a fresh application seeking an extension of time on the basis that his principal was not served any of the court processes.
But Justice Lambo was having none of that. He dismissed the application after going through court records, which indicated that the Attorney-General of the Federation was duly served.
According to reports:
The judge expressed dismay that the wanton killing of innocent persons in Odi by the military had battered the image of Nigeria and portrayed it as an enclave inhabited by primitive people. He said the action of the military was not only unconstitutional but also reckless and an outrageous behaviour.
He observed that even if taken for granted, it was the responsibility of the government to protect lives and property, it could not offer justifiable excuse for its reckless engagement in the wanton massacre of innocent persons in Odi.
Justice Akambi who described the destruction of Odi as comprehensive and total as nothing was spared by the marauding soldiers, said the Federal Government brazenly violated the fundamental human rights of the victims to movement, life and property and to live peacefully in their ancestral home.
He ordered that special damages of N17,618,871 and general damages of N20 billion be paid to the community as compensation. He also issued a perpetual injunction restraining the respondents and their agents from invading Odi and bombing the place.
Following the murder of seven policemen in Odi by armed youths in 1999, then President Olusegun Obasanjo had threatened to declare a state of emergency in Bayelsa State if former Governor Diepreye Alamieyeseigha failed to produce the killers.
Precisely on November 10, 1999, the former president issued a 14-day ultimatum to fish out the killers, but on November 20, troops were deployed in the community where they engaged in destruction of lives and property for five days.
Lead counsel to the plaintiffs, Nwosu, lauded the judge for his courage to ensure that Executive recklessness was checked. Similarly, counsel to the President and Chief of Defence Staff, Akolika Awa, lauded the judge irrespective of her clients losing the matter.