ABUJA — Fourteen years after the Odi community in Nigeria's Niger Delta was flattened in what many call a 'massacre,' a Nigerian court this week ordered the government to pay the community nearly $240 million within the next three weeks.
Exactly what happened in Odi, a town in oil-rich Bayelsa State, is still unclear. Human Rights Watch says gang members in Odi killed twelve policemen in early November 1999.
A few weeks later, Human Rights Watch says soldiers raided the town of about 15,000 people, destroying almost every single building and possibly killing hundreds of people.
Locals say it was thousands who died, and the attacks were racially motivated against ethnic Ijaws, with soldiers writing, "We will kill all Ijaws” on demolished buildings. The government of the time still defends the raid, saying it was rooting out terrorists and destroying their base.
This week, a Nigerian judge ordered the government to pay the town nearly $240 million within 21 days for what it called a "brazen violation of the fundamental human rights of the victims to movement, life and to own property and live peacefully in their ancestral home."
Perye Brown, a former chairman of Bayelsa State Youth Council, spoke outside the courtroom. “I find it very exciting. It has been really, really a breakthrough for the people of Odi, especially the young people of Odi, a lot of whom lost their parents, a lot of whom lost their sort of livelihood that would have earned them an education and [allowed them to] pursue their aspiration," Brown said. "But today this compensation and this justice delivered will show the truth that the people are law abiding and that they believe in the rule of law.”
Nigeria’s attorney general, Nkolika Awa, represented the government in the trial and was surprisingly unconcerned by the verdict. “I found that the judge put in a lot of work. Always in the law, arguments can go either way or the other. So really, it does not really matter which way it goes,” Awa stated.
Awa’s lack of concern could be because this decision does not really implicate the current government. In fact, it implicates the government of former President Olusegun Obasanjo, a critic of President Goodluck Jonathan.
Bayelsa is also Jonathan’s home state and the heart of his support base. Late last year, he told reporters he went to Odi after the incident and saw the bodies of old people, women and children, but no militants.
Hilary Uguru contributed to this report from Port Harcourt, Nigeria.