The war in the Niger Delta reached a new level last Sunday when the Nigerian military bombed communities in Delta state where suspected militants were supposed to be hiding. In an act of collective punishment, and completely ignoring the civilian population, the three villages of Oporoza, Kokodiagbene and Okarankoko were attacked by helicopter gunships and reduced to rubble by evening. Eighty to a hundred people were killed and some 20,000 villagers have now fled and are taking refuge in the Warri South area. A further 25 people were killed on Monday, reported the Vangaurd website:
"Twenty five persons - six children whose ages range between two and seven; 11 septuagenarians, six women and two other villagers - were said to have been killed yesterday when Kurutie community came under fresh aerial attacks by the Joint Task Force (JTF) on the Niger-Delta. Over 65 persons had earlier been killed and more than 100 injured since the JTF began its offensive against militants last weekend.
However, the Defence Headquarters, while explaining circumstances that led to the all-out battle to oust the militants, warned that the Nigerian military will no longer tolerate or watch criminal gangs slaughter its personnel without response.
It also said no community, particularly in the Ijaw areas, was destroyed or razed down as claimed by many people in the battle area. Director of Defence Information (DDI), Col. Chris Jemitola pointed out that the JTF in carrying out its offensive, has ensured that collateral damage was kept to the barest minimum."
These attacks on civilians are part of a long line of similar attacks over the past 20 years on all the people of the region by successive military and civilian governments. In the early 1990s war was declared against the Ogoni people, culminating in the murder of the Ogoni Nine, including Ken Saro-Wiwa. In 1999 it was the Ijaw people who came under attack as the towns of Kaiama and Odi were attacked. Odi was completely destroyed, hundreds died and thousands were left homeless. Neither of the towns has yet been rebuilt. In July 2002 Itsekiri, Ilaje and Ijaw communities all came under attack. In the last few years the Ijaw people have been the main focus of attack, but essentially the whole region has been under military occupation since 1990. [For more on the response of women to these acts of violence see Nigeria, Gender and Militarization in the Niger Delta.]
The Nigerian military has to take full responsibility for the death, injury and displacement of thousands of mainly women and children. President Yar'Adua has shown himself to be yet another military tyrant. Of course, the military must know that bombing densely populated areas will result in death and displacement, but Nigerian leaders seem not to care how many of their people they kill and maim. This is the Niger Delta, where there is very little infrastructure of any kind. This includes medical care which, even where it is available, is not accessible to the very poor. The situation is not that different from the Tamil population, who have been wounded, driven from their homes and killed in the ruthless genocidal actions of the Sri Lankan Government. It is women, children and the elderly that mainly live in the villages and hamlets and it is they, not the militants, who are losing their lives and livelihoods. It is they who are suffering, and the militancy - together with the kidnapping - is adding to their suffering. It must stop!
It's also worth noting that the latest attacks against the Niger Delta have taken place against the backdrop of the Wiwa v Shell trial, which begins in New York on 27 May. Ken Saro Wiwa constantly spoke out against violence and vowed that not one drop of blood should be shed by any Ogoni person. His passion and belief in self-determination were as strong as any of the militants operating today but he was also adamant that the struggle should be non-violent. This of course did not stop the Nigerian military from attacking villages and killing people but the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta and other militants are not the answer.