FLASHBACK: Murder In Ogoni

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Four prominent men in ogoniland lose their lives in a brutal way

It was a tragedy not foretold. But it happened all the same, leaving death as a morbid memento. Four prominent Ogoni sons were killed and their bodies cremated in a gruesome attack. The men – Chiefs Albert Badey, Edward Kobani, S.N. Orage – succumbed to the repeated blows of an implacable mob which stormed their meeting place Saturday 21 May,1994.

The events unfolded with a dizzying speed. Yet, the fallouts lingered, promised a season of convulsions and upheaval. News of the death was received with understandable shock as families and friends struggled to bear the knowledge that the esteemed victims had expired in a sudden, painful flash. The out pouring of filial grief, was accompanied by the actions of Rivers State government, which had blamed the deaths on Ken Saro – Wiwa’s Movement for the survival of the Ogoni people (MOSOP). A blanket order was given for the arrest of all MOSOP executives, a development that complicated the human and political dimensions  of tragedy.

For the bereaved, it was a trying moment. Alhaji Mohammed Kobani survived the attack in which his brother died. In a voice laden with grief and visage, squeezed in anger, he told  reporters, that he, his late brother and Chief Francis Kpai left Bodo, 21st May, to attend a meeting in Giokwo, The ancestral home of the Gokana people. Alhaji Kobani said the meeting at the palace of Chief James Bagia, the Gbenemene Gokana, had been called to organize a reception for two Gokana sons recently appointed into government. One of the new appointees, Dr. Barinem Kiobel, who was commissioner for commerce and industry, breezed into the venue at about  12 noon and left without speaking to anybody, kobani alleged.

The meeting proper started as Edward Kobani addressed the gathering of chiefs,  elders and youths of Gokana, Albert Badey got up to speak after Kobani, but was interrupted by a motorcyclist who rushed in to inform the gathering that Ken Saro – Wiwa had been forced back to Port Harcourt after soldiers had prevented him from addressing Gokana people. According to Alhaji Kobani, the cyclist further informed the gathering that Saro – Wiwa had instructed the youth who had come to welcome him to deal with those who had prevented him from meeting them.

Shortly after the cyclist departed, a mob made up of Gokana youths,  broke into the meeting. Kobani said he pleaded with them to spare the cream of Gokana society; but the mob responded that the assembled elite were collaborating with their enemies and frustrating their struggle for redress. In the beatings that ensued, Badey was the first to give up, followed by the Orage brothers. Alhaji Kobani said the mob was particularly hard on his brother, breaking his skull with a rake after he had fallen. As his strength departed him, the late kobani asked his brother to tell Rose (his wife) “that this is what happened to me.”

The Alhaji further disclosed that he joined Francis Kpai and others running to the shrine for refuge. The mob asked Chief Bagia to pour libation, so that the gods would not frown on the killing of people at the shrine. Bagia refused, and they remained in the shrine until soldiers rescued them.  Alhaji Kobani further claimed that from his shrine refuge, he saw Kiobel address the mob. He also claimed to have seen Barrister Ledum Mitee, MOSOP’s deputy president and well – known human rights lawyer from afar.

The bodies of the dead men were later dumped in a Bettle car and burnt. When the Rivers State Administrator, Lt. Col. Dauda Komo, announced the deaths later that evening, their recovered bones were displayed. Alhaji Kobani was present at the press conference and his eyewitness account was largely adopted by Komo. A Radio Rivers news bulletin of 22nd May quoted him: “the administrator, said that MOSOP activist carried out the action after its leader, Mr. Ken Saro – Wiwa had been politely turned away from a privately – convened meeting.” The Daily sunray of 23 May further quoted komo as saying,  the victims did not “merit the fate that befell them since they were not against the ideals of MOSOP but against the way Saro-Wiwa has been handling the affairs of the body’’

Following  Komo’s orders for the arrest of MOSOP executives, Ken Saro-Wiwa, Kiobel and Ledum Mitee were arrested. A soldier at the Zamami Lekwot Cantonment, Port Harcourt, where they were being held, had disclosed that the Army was detaining more than a hundred Ogonis over the incident. These arrest orders and the unequivocal official assertion of MOSOP’s involvement had transformed the issue beyond the emotional shock of the deaths into the political realm, sources close to MOSOP had disclosed.

With its leaders either in detention or away from public  view, the MOSOP was just beginning to challenge the official view. A statement signed by its acting Secretary, Dr. Apollos Bulo, declared that ‘’MOSOP condemns the recent incident in Ogoni land where four prominent men were cruelly murdered’’ While affirming that it expects wrong-doers to be properly punished, the statement noted that not all Ogoni people belong to MOSOP or the organizations allied to it. ‘’The deceased were full-fledged members of MOSOP even though they had on-going disagreement in policy matters with the mainstream of the MOSOP organization. There was nothing in that disagreement to warrant violent destruction of life and property,’’ the statement explained.

In a letter addressed to Komo, the organization had declared that MOSOP ‘’rejects unequivocally, any linkage with the incident and denounce your hasty conclusions that the acts were carried out by MOSOP activists in Gokana.’’ It therefore requested the release of its leaders detained over the incident.

The political differences which the mainstream MOSOP admits to have had with the deceased were well-known in the contest of Rivers State politics. Indeed, the reality of these differences raises curious questions about the accounts given by Komo and Alhaji Mohammed Kobani. They both said that the meeting was organising a reception for Dr. Barinem Kiobel, the commissioner for commerce. But Kiobel, an academic, is a MOSOP activist who leans towards Saro – Wiwa’s mainstream faction. The personalities assembled at the Giokwo meeting largely belonged to the opposing tendency. Kobani’s account became less plausible, given his allegation that kiobel directed the operations against people who were merely organising a reception for him.

By Komo’s own admission, Saro – Wiwa was prevented from attending a privately convened meeting, while the Giokwo conferees were allowed to meet unmolested until the mobs’ attack began. Also, Kiobel had been occupying his new seat for months. Why was the reception just being planned? What was really happening in Ogoni?

The preparations for the constitutional conference seemed to provide the immediate locus of reference. Ken Saro – Wiwa’s mainstream MOSOP was not impressed by the circumstances surrounding the planned confab. Yet, it decided to participate because it reasoned that a boycott would give the Ogoni ticket to the faction coalesced around Garrick Leton, Edward Kobani, A.T. Badey and others. The Leton – kobani group too, saw in the delegates’ election, chance to proof that Saro – Wiwa’s putative popularity amongst the Ogoni’s is a mere fluke.

Thus, Leton and Kobani, who had lately been seen as active members of the Southern Minorities Forum, sought the Forum’s dispensation to exclude Ogoni from the planned boycott of the confab. That granted, they set to work. On Wednesday, 18 May, Leton was seen at Alabo Graham – Douglas’ Port Harcourt home and the duo had told people that plans were afoot to disgrace Saro – Wiwa at the confab polls. Leton confirmed this to reporters when he said that his group had proposed one Ken Saro – Nwiyo, a member of the defunct SDP. The advantage in this choice is obvious: the similarity in the names of the two candidates was likely to hurt Saro – Wiwa.

Disturbing also was the active support given the Leton group by Alabo Graham – Douglas, a non –Ogoni – Graham – Douglas’ accessibility to the federal power structure was wellknown, an attribute he displayed by endorsing and installing Rufus Ada – George as Rivers State governor in 1992. The former minister achieved this by introducing Ada  George to General Sani Abacha. Abacha subsequently saw to it that Babangida endorsed him.

This Graham-Douglas link also rebounded negatively on the Leton group. Abacha was known to be trying to penetrate the Southern Minorities Forum through the Alabo who shocked some of his associates in the forum with an open endorsment of the Abacha regime in a Vangurd interview. These known links with the state deepened suspicions around the Leton group, suspicions which were hardly assuaged by a meeting komo had with Leton, Kobani and Briabi on Friday, 20 May, a day before the Gokana killings. That week, Port Harcourt was agog with rumours of the grand plan to stop Saro – Wiwa. Even the government – owned Tide echoed the settlements in a backpage story on Sunday.

Edward  Kobani

As it were, those plans crashed with the tragic deaths of those eminent men. Badey was regarded in Rivers State as a competent administrator who was being tipped for the foreign service in the 1970s. But he seemed to prefer the Rivers civil service which he eventually headed as secretary to the government. Kobani studied History at ibadan and became principal of several secondary schools. He subsequently became a Commissioner. Kobani eventually became a businessman and farmer. He was survived by a wife and seven children. The elder Oragie was a businessman while the younger was a Commissioner in the State.

The split in MOSOP happened in June,1993. Saro-Wiwa had won a vote, 11-6 at the steering Committee, endorsing a boycott of the June 12 elections. Leton and Kobani, both SDP topnotchers, rejected this boycott. Leton disclosed later, that they even considered the pro-Saro-Wiwa vote as having been fraudulently obtained. Leton explained that Saro-Wiwa brought ten non-members of the steering to that decisive meeting and their votes gave him the victory. But Saro-Wiwa’s position proved popullar among the people and was embraced by many Ogonis. Leton and Kobani felt angered and turned in their resignations as president and vice – president respectively. Angered by the Ogoni boycott, the federal Government detained Saro – Wiwa. He was elected president in absentia while Ledum Mitee acted for him.

Leton insisted that their opposition to the Ogoni boycott was anchored on the progress they perceived they were making in talks with the Babangida regime. In one meeting at Abuja, Leton, Badey, Kobani and Saro – Wiwa presented a nine – point agenda, one of which was the creation of an Ogoni State. The Government delegation rejected the demand for a state but promised to grant them additional local government areas. The regime also requested the Ogoni leaders to forward a list of Ogoni unemployed graduates and some idea of what is done in other oilproducing parts of the world. For Leton, these concessions ought not to be compromised by a boycott

With this break with Saro – Wiwa, Leton and Kobani formally returned to the fold of chief Kemte – Giadom, and J.P. Bagia. This marked a strong alignment. In May 1993, Orage, Bagia, Kemte-Giagom and other Ogonis  had signed an anti-MOSOP advert in the TIDE. They expreessed support for all actions government might take to protect lives and property. They professed to have met on this advert for May 4th, the very day Soldiers shot dead Friday Agberator Otu, an Ogoni youth. This inflamed passions against them and they were seen as sell-outs. Leton and Kobani themselves felt aggrieved by that advert. But their later-day hobnobbing with the same people stained them with charges – abandoning their moderation for collaboration.

‘’They are not the cream of our society. They are the scum,’’ screemed a MOSOP member when asked about the Leton group. Leton does not agree that their moderation looked more like collaboration. ‘’The elites have been trying to save the place,’’  he asserted.

Lt. Col. Dauda Komo

 

Ideologically, Saro-Wiwa also seemed set apart from the Leton group. While he rejected Biafra, Leton, Kobani and Koghara served the stillborn nation. Ignatius Kagbara was Biafra’s ambassador to the United Kingdom. Kobani was in the Biafran Consultative Forum, while Leton worked in Research and Production(RAP), producing oils, chemicals and soap for the Biafran war effort.

But they managed to achieve accommodation until the 1993 split. Relations had so soured that Leton declared flatly of Saro-Wiwa ‘’he murdered my friend,’’ while Saro-Wiwa’s group had labelled Leton’s faction as the ‘’vultures.’’

Yet, the government seemed set to use the tragedy to strike hot blows against MOSOP, a movement whose activities contributed to forcing the national question into national discourse. MOSOP’S EXAMPLE HAD INSPIRED other minorities who had risen to assert their rights. Ken Saro-Wiwa , then , 53 and diminutive of size, personified this struggle,splashing his mission with a remarkable mix of wit, hitting sarcasm and diplomacy.

While he remained detained with Mitee, Kiobel and many other Ogonis, the rump of MOSOP was organising to get Gani Fawehinmi to their defence. A tough battle seemed to lie ahead, similar to the Zaman Lekwot case, what with official presumption of Ken’s guilt and the propaganda blitz already mounted to get the public to believe their guilt, said an Ijaw friend of Ken’s ‘’he is too civilized to meddle in murder

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