As an adventurous lad, my parents weren’t given to direct farming as it were, but they owned pockets of farmlands which were contracted to people to cultivate on their behalf. Each time we were in the village, I would clamour to join those who were contracted to cultivate the farm or close relatives to either go for planting, harvesting or clearing, depending on the time of the year.
I enjoyed the harvest periods. If I went with my maternal grandmother, I could be assured of roast yams, a makeshift tent and sometimes palm wine to garnish whatever food she gave. She would let me play, break palm kernels, climb on trees, hop on ridges, aim at birds or chase bush rats unhindered. That wasn’t the freedom I enjoyed if I went to farm with any other person. One of my favorite farms was the one located in soja (Soldier) barracks. Soja barracks stood on a hill with beautiful scenery of valleys, hosting palm trees and greeting other imposing vegetation. From the farm in soja barracks one could see the twin cloudy mountains in Cameroun.
One day, after my adventure in the farm, I returned home to ask my mother why the location of the farm was named soja barracks. That was when she narrated the story of Ugep Massacre by soldiers of the Nigerian Army. I remember her saying, “Oh we were in Washington DC then, your Daddy received a telephone call that Umor was under attack. Two days later, we watched the report on television news with the caption, “Ugep a ghost town?” We watched how the town was deserted, smoke from burnt properties hovering the skies, while goats and domestic animals roamed the streets.” She was busy and unprepared to answer the question; she rushed through. I was confused and didn’t probe further until recently.
It was the midnight of a Christmas Eve, when children were sleepless and eager for day break in order to celebrate Christmas with their new clothes, toys and abundance of rice and chicken. Youngsters and older people had had their fill of either Palm wine, ogogoro or whatever it was they drank at the time, and may have been in a stupor. Ugep was razed down by a battalion of the Nigerian Army. It was gathered that a notorious battalion used to quell the 1967 civil war was sent to Ugep after the then Head of State did not know what to do with the Batallion. General Yakubu Gowon thought that the best place to dump them was in Ugep instead of disbanding them.
Yet, the people of Ugep were good hosts to the soldiers. At first, the government had not provided the soldiers with a barracks. So, all of them lived communally with the people. Quite a number of the soldiers were housed for free; those who were meant to pay rents owed their landowners. They drank on credit, mingled and made friends with the Ugep people easily. Even when the government finally built their barracks, some still lived within the community.
Soon as they moved to the barracks which was close to farms of the villagers, the Soldiers began to harvest and feed on the crops of the farmers with careless abandon. When the farmers complained and reported the matter, many of them were severely beaten and brutalised on different occasions. This then established an acrimony upon which the events of December 24, 1975 took place.
A few days before the event took place, a disreputable soldier of the battalion who was always given to drunkenness and suffered occasional epilepsy was declared missing. The soldiers rumored that he was killed by the people of Ugep. The Commandant. the home of the Battalion then, Col. Mohammed Shuwa issued the order to the officers and men of his battalion to look for his missing officer. The officers went on rampage. They later ambushed the town at midnight, killing innocent men, children and raping their women who were eagerly waiting to celebrate Christmas the following morning. They set the entire village on fire and burnt down many structures.
Days after the order was carried out in the most brutal manner, the corpse of the said officer was found in a gutter, where he fell. The post mortem which was carried out by the then military governor of Cross River State, Paul Omu and the panel of Inquiry which was headed by General Mamman Vatsa showed that the soldier choked on his sputum and died. The report of the panel is in the “Bibliography of the Nigerian Government Commission of Inquiry: Reports and Accompanying White Papers from 1920 to 1980″, By M.O Afolabi tucked in the annals of the University Press, Ibadan..
What happened in Ugep is not different from what transpired in Odi, Baga and Zaki Biam. The only difference is that whilst Odi, Baga and Zaki Biam has been investigated by the different human rights violation organs of the Nigerian Army, Ugep Massacre has gone unnoticed, uncompensated and unworthy of mention in any of the annual human rights reports from the 1970s, 1980s, till date. Immediately after the massacre, Col. Shuwa was removed as Commandant and replaced by a Captain. Shuwa was later named Federal Commissioner of Trade and Works between 1975 to 1979. He rose up to the rank of a General and was killed recently in 2012 by the rampaging Boko Haram.
The Ugep massacre was not a civilian/army clash as it is claimed to be. Perhaps, it could have be a deliberate effort by some officers of the Nigerian Army to wipe out an innocent community?
On the December 24, 2015, it would be exactly forty years since the massacre. Forty years is significant in numerology, mysticism and symbolism. In Christendom, it is the number of liberation. All over the world, the people of Ugep who witnessed this massacre would for the first time commemorate this event with poetry, art, drama and public lectures. The heroes who protected women and children would also be honoured on this special celebration. The people of Ugep are now ready to tell their own side of the story but would the world be just and fair enough to just listen and learn?
Mbasekei Martin Obono is Executive Director at Cybercrimes and Fraud Prevention Foundation. Follow @martobono on Twitter