By Mbah Okemsinachi, Yenagoa
King Paul Seidei
For members of Bilabiri Community in Ekeremor Local Government Area of Bayelsa State, it has been intense agony, suffering, lamentation and fear following the invasion of the coastal community on January 17, 2020 by a joint army and naval operation who with sporadic shooting, forced the indigenes to flee into the swampy forest for safety. The invaders subsequently burnt down targeted houses and everything within which have rendered elders, men, women and innocent children homeless and helpless.
Before the invasion by the military men who surrounded and attacked the community with 21 gunboats for reasons yet to be explained, Bilabiri was a kingdom known for peaceful coexistence, hospitality and being law-abiding. The people are mostly known to be farmers, fisher folks, canoe carvers, and timber lumbers so the invasion was a surprise to many.
A visit to the community on a fact finding tour took about two and half hours ride from the Warri waterside in Delta State. Though a small coastal community on the Atlantic Ocean stretch along the Agge axis sharing a boundary between Bayelsa and Delta states, the remoteness and geographical location of Bilabiti makes it difficult for commercial boats to access it easily unlike Agge, Burutu and other coastal communities on the same route which attract much sea farers.
Massive destruction of properties
Smoke from the ruins
Close observation at Bilabiri community revealed that some of the houses were neatly constructed with plywood, aluminum windows, panel doors and zinc; only a few were concrete block houses. This according to sources, was due to the high cost of transporting building materials from Delta State to the community in addition to the huge cost of constructing block houses because of the difficult terrain. And these have now been destroyed by the military invaders.
No official statement on the invasion has been released by the Joint Military Task Force on Bilabiri but there had been an earlier report some that unidentified gunmen attacked a foreign vessel ‘MV AMBIKA’ working for a Sterling Oil firm at the Bilabiri part of the Atlantic Ocean which led to the killing of four Naval personnel and the abduction of two Russians and one Indian some weeks ago. It was alleged that the gunmen were youths from the Azagbeni and Bilabiri communities which may have warranted the launch of a joint military operation to fish out the killers in the area.
But the operation appeared targeted at a few individuals and particular houses and not the entire community as had always been the case in any operation by the military to uncover, capture or bring down perpetrators of heinous crimes and kidnappers of foreigners based on intelligence report.
National Point saw a community in ruins. Buildings were razed to the ground only a few concrete block buildings stood bearing heavy evidence of being torched. Evident were remains of burnt belongings in the razed buildings. Smoke was still emanating from some of the ruin.
In addition to millions of naira worth of properties burnt to ashes in the course of the military operation which include the palace of the traditional ruler and that of his brother, some of the victims disclosed that physical cash amounting to millions of naira which they recently collected as rent from their tenants and kept inside their houses were taken away by the military men.
Narrating his ordeal, the Ibenanawei of Bilabiri Mein Clan, HRM King Paul Seidei (JP) said he was in his palace around 8 to 9am in the morning of January 17, 2020 when his subjects ran down to alert him that they saw many gun boats coming ahead of the community and urged him not to stay inside the house.
“So I came out of my palace, I then saw the naval gun boats. They were 21 gun boats. Before I got to know, the community, the whole kingdom has been surrounded by naval officers. They now said I should take a step because we don’t know why they captured our community.
“So I now passed to a corner before I could know, they came directly and burnt down my house. At first, they pointed at my house, burnt down my house before my younger brother’s house. Before we came out of the bush, everything was burnt down. Nothing left with me.
“As you are seeing me only this trousers and this singlet am wearing are the only things left with me. My house was burnt down, the money (millions of naira) I kept in my house got lost. The cash missed, nothing was left. They burnt down everything.
“I have a stool and if you talk of wears and other things infact in this riverine area, nobody owns properties like the way I do. Nothing was saved even my wives’ clothes, even the two generators that I have and three motor saws that I have, everything was burnt down. Even my staff of office, I don’t know whether they took it or burnt it, I don’t know”, the traditional ruler narrated.
He said there is a procedure for even invasion but that was not the case with Bilabiri.
“Before a military personnel will come to a place and burn down the place, at least there must be something and am still asking the federal military, what was the reason why they came to burn down my kingdom, houses and millions of naira were missing in respect of this ugly act.”
Razed down buildings
According to King Seidei, some people who ran into the thick forest for safety are still missing and since community members came out from hiding those whose houses were burnt down are now homeless.
And hunger is another major complaint.
“We don’t have where to live, we sleep on ordinary ground, there is no way for them to eat. The old men and women in the villages, they are crying and suffering. Still, people are still missing in the bush. Like me, throughout today we have not even eaten, my wives, my children we have not even tasted common water because there is no way for us to get food or whatever.
“At times I sleep on top of my father’s grave outside here with my wives and children. What will we do? I have one janglover (swing) at the water front, I can go there and sleep like as a mad man; purely mad man. A whole king, homeless, moving like a mad man!
“As am speaking, am still looking up to the federal military. What was the reason why they came to burn down my house? The federal military should come and tell me why they burnt down my houses, my palace and some other houses. I am taking this opportunity to talk to the federal government to come to our aid and rebuild back our houses and millions of naira were missing, some of our people are still missing”, Seidei lamented.
In his reaction, the Chairman, Bilabiri 1 Community, Bazigha David said they heard that JTF was coming and by the time they realized what was happening, some of indigenes have already fled into the bush scampering for safety.
“The next information we got was that they just came in burnt down houses, burnt down the palace of our king without any explanation for their actions. As I speak some people are still in the bush”, he stated.
Demeteide Passman, a native of Bilabiri Kingdom said she confronted the military men while they were burning down houses and they threatened to shoot her even as she was carrying her child on her back.
“I rolled on the floor and I said they should kill me. What is our king’s offence to warrant burning down his palace? They shot sporadically and took away the king’s staff of office. Even the old women ran into the forest at the sight of the invaders. Up till this moment, our children are still missing”, she said.
Speaking on the Sterling vessel attack by sea pirates alleged to be youths from his community, the Bilabiri King said the operation did not take place anywhere near his domain, adding that he does not have any criminal or sea pirate as a youth in his kingdom.
According to him, only last year he went after some hoodlums trying ti misbehave around his domain, collected their tools and handed them over to the military so the attack on his kingdom is a big surprise.
He said, “The way you heard it was the way I heard. The operation was not taken by my entire environment. I only heard it. The incident occurred off shore not even here. It is what I heard. So I don’t see anything of that nature. I don’t have any sea piracy here in my kingdom.
“On the 9th of November, 2019, I for one and some other persons which, the government know, I only heard some bad guys were trying to do rubbish and I struggled and tried hard to bring them down here. Before we got there, they have ran away and I brought their speed boat with 115, three guns, a machete, three helmets and one bullet proof.
“I brought those things here last year and called for the JTF to come and take them in my own palace. How can I see a criminal moving in my community and leave him free? He cannot. Once I see you, I hold you responsible and I take you to the government. The government knows the best thing to do with you not me. But in my own community here, I don’t have somebody like that.”
However, there is another angle to the invasion pointing at possible rivalry over the kingship. About two days before the military invaded Bilabiri kingdom, the leadership of Bilabiri 2 community it was gathered, issued a press release alleging that there was a syndicate parading himself and impersonating as the leader of Bilabiri Kingdom with intent to blackmail the community.
According to a release to that effect issued by the leadership of the committee and signed by the chairman of the community’s Community Development Committee (CDC), Mr. Esau Darosha and the Deputy Highness, Chief Isaiah Couple, the alleged impersonator and self-acclaimed king, Mr. Timipamone Ogun was King Paul Seidei’s political rival who contested the traditional throne with him and lost.
The statement further claimed that Mr. Ogun was allegedly supplying false, baseless information to malign the person of King Seidei and urged the military authorities to verify the claims, investigate the sources of informants and discountenance all information emanating from the unscrupulous element.
The statement read, “For the avoidance of doubts, the Bilabiri Kingdom has only one monarch, His Royal Majesty King Paul Brake-ere Seidei, who is a second class traditional ruler and fully gazetted by the Bayelsa State government and recognized by law. Therefore, anyone parading himself or acting as the king of Bilabiri Kingdom is an impersonator and should be treated as such.
“We are calling on the security agencies particularly, the military to investigate and verify the veracity of information and identity of anyone claiming to be the leader of Bilabiri Kingdom. We want to assure the military of maximum cooperation to locate and bring to book the perpetrators of this heinous crime. We must not condone the atrocities of disgruntled elements to avoid repeat. We further restate our cordial relationship with the Nigeria military and all other security agencies.”
King Paul Seidei insisted that Mr. Timipamone Wilson Ogun has been impersonating up till date and seems likely the person who must have misinformed the military to invade his kingdom and burn down his palace.
“If somebody is behind this ugly situation, it is known by the person. I wrote out a letter that it was one Mr. Timipamone Wilson Ogun, a self-claimed king, an impersonator and impersonating up till date.
“He was the one who was trying to contest with me before I became king because in my own view, before somebody came out and pointed at some selected houses, he is the brain behind this issue. I see no reason why government will come for no reason and burn down a king’s palace.”
It was gathered that no death has so far been confirmed or any injury recorded during the whole incident except one stranger who sustained serious injury when he hit a stick in the bush while running for his life and sources said he left to go back where he came from the next day being Saturday.
The total number of persons still missing in the forest cannot be ascertained as at the time National Point visited but it was disclosed that about four persons came out from the sea shore on Tuesday, January 21 and were taken out of the community on Wednesday for treatment. It took them days to get to the sea because of the thickness of the forest.
Meanwhile, the chairman of Alabini Rural Development Area (RDA), Hon. Frank Seidei whose house was also razed during the military action has condemned the invasion, describing it as an action taken too far. He called on the federal government to address the suffering of the displaced people.
While condemning the kidnapping and killings of some military personnel in the area by some youths, Hon. Frank said it is sad and regrettable that innocent people including women and children are suffering from the action. He also said some of the indigenes who fled into the forest were still reported missing.
“It is unfortunate that things in the Niger Delta area are always taken too far. As a community and people, we condemn the military invasion of Bilabiri communities just as we also condemned in strong terms the heinous crime of some of our disgruntled youths.
“I am one of the victims of the invasion as my building was also razed for no just cause and it is very sad and condemnable and should be condemned by all well-meaning Nigerians. As we speak, some of our brother and sisters who fled are still missing while others including myself, our monarch and others in Bilabiri 1 and 2 communities have been displaced.
“We are calling on the federal and state government representatives at all levels to come to our aid at this period”, he said.
In a related development, the leadership of the Ekeremor Local Government also condemned the invasion of Bilabiri Communities and burning of houses by men of the Nigerian military.
Reacting to the invasion, the LGA chairman, Dr. Bertola Perekeme who said no sane person will condone the killing of anyone, let alone military officers on the line of their constitutional duty, noted that invading communities and burning down houses in the guise of searching for alleged criminals is unfashionable in a democratic setting and highly unprofessional.
The local government chairman urged the military to exercise restraint and demonstrate professionalism in line with international best practices.
He expressed regret that communities, whose inhabitants live in fear and apprehension over activities of some criminal minded elements, are also being invaded and destroyed by the military in the face of provocation.
In his words, “These communities need help and protection from security agents because they live in fear and are constantly intimidated. The military should work closely with other security agencies in intelligence gathering and effect arrest to help our people”
Dr. Perekeme sympathized with the military over the loss of four officers during an exchange of fire with suspected sea pirates along the Ramos River early last month and warned youths of the area to shun criminality.
Also, chairman, Ijaw Youth Council, Central zone, Kennedy Olorogun has called on the federal government to direct the Nigeria military to explain to the people why they invaded Bilabiri Kingdom and burnt down houses starting with the palace of the king, noting that erecting houses is a difficult task there because of the terrain.
“Building houses in our terrain here is difficult. If government doesn’t do anything about it, some of these people whose houses were burnt down may be homeless for the rest of their lives”, Kennedy pointed out.
Contacted, Captain Winston Timipamone Ogoun in a telephone chat blamed king Paul for being part of the killings that attracted the military to the community. He said he is not an imposter but the paramount ruler of Bilabiri Kingdom, describing himself as His Royal Majesty King Dodo II, a titled he said he inherited.
According to him, kingship in the kingdom is not by election but through the gods and seers of the land who approve either the son or grandson of the deceased to qualify for installation.
But in a swift reaction, King Paul Seidei said Winston Ogoun has no right to the throne as his father was from Azagbeni and not Bilabiri Community though his mother is partly Bilabiri. He pointed out that Azagbeni Community is not close to Bilabiri but situated in a different clan entirely.
“If he said he inherited the throne, where did his father come from to have taken over from him? For him to say he took over from his father with all his education, he is a born liar. He normally accuses me of being an Egbesu priest because if two people are vying for a stool and one wins, the one that failed will always say what he wishes”, Seidei stated, explaining off Winston’s accusation as borne from rivalry.
Captain Ogoun, while not disclaiming the story that he may be linked to the destruction, alleged that King Paul Seidei and all those whose houses were burnt were responsible for the killing of the four naval officers and subsequent kidnapping of the expatriates.
According to him, in the course of rescuing the kidnapped expatriates, a member of the sea pirates was caught with gun and it was him that led the military to Bilabiri to show them their ring leaders who send them to carry out evil operations.
He said on getting to the community to pick them masterminds, they ran away and that was why their houses were burnt.
He said, “This is not the first time Paul has killed a naval personnel. In 2008, they also did one in off shore River Dodo. So whatever they must have said, they are all fallacies and that is the truth. There is a Highness called Soldier Dede in that community (Bilabiri) why didn’t the military burn his house?
“The military went there and as you saw, they did not burn the whole community down. They burnt selected houses. Then you (should) ask yourself, why will it be selected houses and somebody who called himself, “he is like this”, his house too will be burnt? Those whose houses were burnt are actually the culprits and they ran. The Nigeria government went there to pick them, they ran away; that was why their houses were burnt with the young man who was caught while they recovered the white men.
“It was the boy that led them to show them who are the culprits who sent them. That man (Paul) you met is the Egbesu priest that is backing them with charm to go for sea piracy. In2006 when MEND invaded the same community, they blow up his house. So that is what is happening in Bilabiri. The military was not wrong in going to invade that place or going to burn down those houses,” Captain Winston stated.
While the accusations and counter accusations rage, the Joint Task Force is yet to issue any statement on the invasion. When contacted on telephone, the JTF media officer said he has to talk to his Superior first before any response. All effort made to reach out to him through text messages proved abortive. The community still awaits explanation from the JTF to understand why they were so attacked.