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Death and Destruction in Okuama: Army’s Broken Promise “No Retaliation” Leads to Unimaginable Suffering

Okuama Murder: Community lies in ruins despite Nigerian Army’s “no retaliation” promise.

Residents Demand Answers: ‘Why Has the Delta State Government Failed to Protect Us?’


By Phillip Anjorin, Sunday Awosoro, and Praise Cole

Okuama residents deliberate in a sober mood. Credit: Sunday Awosoro/DUBAWA.

The phrase “Peace Mission” was plastered across tabloids and amplified on social media, but it was a cruel contradiction for the Okuama community in Delta State’s Ughelli South Local Government. The reality was a decimated community, concealed corpses, and a deserted town with graveyard silence on March 14, 2024. DUBAWA’s investigation fact-checked the military’s “no retaliation” promise amidst a deluge of information disorders that complicated the crisis.

Okrika Emmanuel spread his arms like a father about to embrace a lost son while describing his once expansive family residence. But when DUBAWA’s gaze followed his direction, all that was left was the rubble of a building that once existed. 

Behind his tinted glasses were eyes that had seen his wife’s death in 2023 and now the worst days of his life—living as a refugee in his homeland. Before retiring from civil service in February 2023, he had built a home and a hotel for his post-retirement needs. His wife had three compounds, but after the siege, only ruins remained.

Mr Emmanuel is standing in front of his ruined properties. Credit: Sunday Awosoro/DUBAWA

“My 35 years of suffering have just been destroyed. It’s terrible for me. Even the state government hasn’t paid my pension. To eat is now a problem. My only hope was the hotel, which has now been demolished,” he told DUBAWA.

Mr Emmanuel and other community members had recently returned from exile after an eight-week siege by the Nigerian Army following the gruesome murder of 17 military personnel on March 14, 2024. The most viral claim was that soldiers had an altercation with youths who then carried out the horrific act, as shown here and here

Gruesome pictures and videos of dead soldiers on the Forcados River shores circulated widely, drawing global attention. Using Media Cloud, DUBAWA discovered that the incident peaked on March 16, with 8.40% of media content nationwide.

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Fortunately for Emmanuel, he was in Warri during the military invasion, unlike Mary Macaulay, an 80-year-old woman who endured the eight-week ordeal in the debris of her own home, anticipating death as the hope of rescue dimmed with every passing day. 

Mary Macaulay after getting rescued. Source: Ewu Clan Development Forum

Kewe Amanese, the medical doctor attending Mary at the Hospital Management Board Government Hospital in Ewu-Urhobo, Ughelli South LGA, said she miraculously survived.

“When she came in, I saw an elderly woman who was chronically ill-looking with peri-orbital sunkenness, bilateral leg swellings, and bony prominence all over. So I made a diagnosis of protein energy malnutrition with severe anaemia,” Amanese said.

Mary’s survival was attributed to her strong will. She suffered without adequate food or water, sustaining over 15 deep wounds and taking four pints of blood to recover from an 8 per cent PCV. “She’s seriously malnourished, and it will take her a couple of months to regain her initial state,” Amanese added.

Mary, as of May 31, 2024. Credit: Ewu Clan Development Forum

How social media-driven information disorder complicated the crisis

Rumours of impending doom had spread fear among residents after different accounts claimed that the army was on a peace mission to settle the communal dispute between Okuama and Okoloba. Brig. Gen Tukur Gusau, Defence Information’s acting director, mentioned Delta youths as the culprits but did not specify Okuama. However, social media already anticipated the military’s reaction, with some users calling for the community’s demolition.

Sulaiman Adebayo (@PoojaMedia) deleted tweet calling for community demolition. Credit: @IamTheIroko/X

A few days after the military pulled out, DUBAWA visited Okuama to investigate how information disorder contributed to the conflict. DUBAWA found that among other claims this report fact-checked, the military’s actions contradicted their claims of non-retaliation.

Journey to the Badlands

Before DUBAWA’s arrival on May 18, 2024, our fixer facilitated a meeting with the Ewu Clan Development Forum, the umbrella body of all 17 communities in the Ewu Kingdom, including Okuama. Edewor Egedegbe, the forum’s secretary general, revealed that the conflict began on January 27, 2024, when three Okuama indigenes were murdered over a land dispute with Patrick Akpobolokemi, an influential figure from Okoloba recently discharged and acquitted of N8.5 billion fraud case –during his tenure as the Nigerian Maritime Administration and Safety Agency (NIMASA)’s former director-general– with the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC).

Mr Edewor (in white). Credit: Sunday Awosoro/DUBAWA

On Feb. 2, 2024, the community wrote to the state governor, Sheriff Oborevwori, and the police commissioner, Olufemi Abaniwonda, to address the situation but received no response. Only to see military officers arrive on a “peace mission” and request that the community leaders follow them to the Army base in Bomadi on March 14, 2024. 

The community refused to follow them without their local leaders’ presence. Amidst a heated exchange, the military departed and was attacked by strange boats on the Forcados River, according to multiple witnesses and the Ewu Clan Development Forum. The forum identified 101 Okuama residents who died: 86 in the attack and 15 in the forest.

Following the interview at Ughelli, we journeyed further to the ancestral land of Okuama, where we met Mr Emmanuel and Revd. Abraham Agbere, the spiritual leader of the Catholic Church in the community since he arrived in Jan. 2021. The church still stood, but his vicarage was gone. Agbere told DUBAWA that he fled on March 15 after seeing calls for the community’s demolition on social media.

Now, Agbere counts his losses: “I feel so bad. For instance, I had 15 bags of Garri and ten oil jerry cans. They were looted. I left money and church uniforms. Nothing was left,” he said.

The church became the community’s haven after the soldiers’ withdrawal. “There was nowhere to stay; they had to be here [the church]. Some of them organised the food they’re now eating,” Agbere said.

Esiteru Votte, a 57-year-old mother of five, recounted the mayhem in pidgin, “They wanted to arrest our chairman, and we women present firmly held on to him. The army started shooting, and we all ran helter-skelter. Many died in the bush, and we haven’t seen some of the others.”

Esiteru Votte, 57, sorrowfully recounting her experience. Credit: Sunday Awosoro/DUBAWA

“We only eat fruits with fish and sleep in groups inside the bush. I gave birth to five children, and only two are with me. I’m yet to see the rest,” she added.

Crisis disinformation spreads on social media

Since the incident, various claims have gone viral on social media, causing tensions online and offline. One claim by Emeka Gift Official (@EmekaGift100) showed boats in flames, attributing it to the Nigerian Army’s retaliatory actions. 

A keyframe of the viral video. Source: @emekagift100/ X

The account also claimed that children and women were burnt alive by the Nigerian Army, who he said had declared war on the region. This prompted questions about military inaction against similar treatment from northern insurrection and harsh treatment against the people from the Eastern part of Nigeria. However, we analysed the video using InVid WeVerify and found that the incident was a fire outbreak in Nembe, Rivers State, from January 2024 – unrelated to the military’s visit to Okuama.

The distance measured between Okuama and Nembe on Google Earth. Credit: Phillip Anjorin/DUBAWA

Another narrative suggested soldiers got into a brawl with youths after shooting two community members, leading to the siege. According to the claim, the encounter happened when the soldiers got into town, requesting to see the community shrine and chief priest. This was also false; our investigation showed that 17 soldiers died, not 12. The claim had no basis in credible reports, though many Facebook accounts shared it.

Infographic visualisation of Facebook pages sharing the shrine narrative on Datawrapper. Credit: Phillip Anjorin/DUBAWA

The ruins in pictures

A viral video showing burning buildings was compared with on-field evidence. The community was in ruins, with buildings demolished, including the only primary school there. The Catholic church, the only building left untouched during the siege because it housed the soldiers, became the shelter for about 70 returnees. DUBAWA retrieved old footage showing the community’s appearance before the demolition to put things into perspective. The videos were shot in 2012 when the community experienced a heavy flood.

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Before and after Aderha Primary School in Okuama. Slider design by Phillip Anjorin/DUBAWA

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Some residential apartments and their remains. Photo slides by Phillip Anjorin/DUBAWA

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Destroyed solar streetlights in Okuama. Photo slider by Phillip Anjorin/DUBAWA

Some demolished buildings were found near St. Peter’s Church (L). Source: Sunday Awosoro/DUBAWA

The burning houses, the boathouse, and the concrete boundary were labelled 1,2,& 3, respectively. Credit: Sunday Awosoro/DUBAWA

Ruins of the Baptist Church in Okuama. Credit: Sunday Awsoro/ DUBAWA

Okuama Community Hall in ruins. Credit: Sunday Awosoro/DUBAWA

Editor’s warning: To avoid displaying graphic content, list, pictures and videos of the dead can be accessed here.

“Community were Accomplice”- Defence HQ

The Armed Forces’ deleted cryptic tweet. Source: TheCable

The Armed Forces’ cryptic Twitter post, “The audacity,” hinted at their response. Contrary to the military’s disclaimer of non-retaliation, DUBAWA confirmed that all houses, schools, a primary healthcare facility, churches, a community hall, a hotel, and streetlights were demolished.

In an exclusive interview with DUBAWA, Maj. Gen. Edward Buba, the director of the Defence Media Operation, affirmed the military’s professionalism and questioned the community’s integrity. 

“Whatever went on in Okuama was to recover our arms and ammunition that were cut away when those personnel were killed. The military has released a wanted list of about eight people associated with the killings. Where are those people?” he asked. 

“They’ve gone into hiding. Do the community members know where they are? Of course! Some of them know where they are, but they’ve done nothing to assist in the investigation or to apprehend the people. 

“So, what are we talking about? They’re all accomplices,” he said.

Another promise: Governor to rebuild in Okuama in 3 months

Since the conflict began, the community has received support from various organisations, including the Ughelli Diocese of the Anglican Church and the Catholic Diocese of Warri.

Sheriff Oborevwori, the Delta state governor, met the Ewu Clan Development Forum on May 25, 2024, promising to rebuild the community’s schools and health centre within three months. The Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) Camp in Ewu, where residents were encouraged to migrate, was set to accommodate 800 guests, though the bed capacity was only 300.

Okuama has been a victim of the Army’s broken promise. Will this be another failed promise?

*This reporting was completed with the support of the Centre for Journalism Innovation and Development and the Open Society Foundations*

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