The Christmas Eve on the 24th of December, 1975, did not look bleak but expectant.
Nigeria was under the then leadership of the indefatigable General Murtala Mohammed who was the then Military Head of State and Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, who took over the reins of political governance of the country on the 29th July, 1975.
General Mohammed came into power in a bloodless Military Coup led by disillusioned Military Officers that toppled the 9 (Nine) years old Military Regime of then General Yakubu Gowon (who was attending a Summit of the defunct Organization of African Unity (OAU) now African Union (AU) in the Ugandan Capital, Kampala, on the 29th July, 1975.
The present Cross River State of Nigeria was then known as South Eastern State which comprised of the present Cross River State and Akwa Abasi Ibom State of Nigeria.
The then Military Governor of the defunct South Eastern State was late Colonel Paul Omu. The Chief of Army Staff was the then Brigadier Theophilus Yakubu Danjuma (July 1975 to October 1979).
There was a Battalion of the Nigerian Army in Ugep which was under the control of the then 13th Infantry Brigade of Nigerian Army based in Calabar under the Command of Colonel Mamman Jiya Vasta.
This was the period before the Local Government Reforms that took place in 1976 and consequently there were no Local Government Areas then in the country. The different States in the country then were divided into Divisions.
The South Eastern State was politically and administratively divided into Divisions. The Divisions in the then South Eastern State were Calabar, Akamkpa, Ikom, Odukpani, Obubra, Ogoja, Obudu, Oron, Etinan, Uyo, Itu, Abak, Eket, Ikot Ekpene, Opobo.
In 1975, I was about Nine years old. I was in St. Andrews Lutheran Primary School, Ishibori, Ogoja.
My Father, late Daniel Ofem Obono-Ubi, was then the Chief Technician in the defunct Post and Telegraphs (P&T) Department of the Federal Ministry of Communication in charge of the Ogoja and Obudu Divisions of the defunct South Eastern State.
On the 24th December, 1975, my father decided to send me to Ugep to spend Christmas.
In the morning of 24th December, 1975, my father bundled me into his official pickup truck and instructed his driver to drop me in Ugep. I was very excited that I was going home to spend the Christmas with some of my siblings at home.
The pickup truck arrived Ugep at about 6pm from Ogoja and I was dropped off by the driver at our family house. But the driver to my father decided to return to Ikom rather than sleeping in Ugep.
I was given a hearty welcome by my siblings and members of my father’s extended family and expectantly looking forward to enjoying a merry Christmas.
I was really tired and worn out and went to bed early. However, at about 11pm or thereabout, I was suddenly awoken by my step-mother in a panic stricken and trembling voice.
All the children were woken up and asked to leave the house. When we came out of the house, I saw huge fire balls around the neighbouring houses but did not really understand what the commotion was all about.
We were taken to a nearby bush where I observed that hundreds of families were also taken to. In my childhood innocence I did not really understand what was happening.
We slept in the bush throughout the night. The next morning at about 9am, a town crier came and announced that everybody should return home.
It was when we returned home I discovered to my consternation that nearly all the houses in the neighbourhood were burnt down by rampaging soldiers over alleged molestation of a soldier earlier that day in town.
All in all nearly 80 per cent of the Ugep Town was burnt down by the irate soldiers.
There were numerous families that were left stranded and had no shelter. We were told that soldiers from a battalion of the Nigerian Army then stationed in Ugep had burnt a substantial part of Ugep homes and killed many people.
I was later told that the Federal Military Government had constituted a Commission of Inquiry under the Chairmanship of Justice Okuridibo to look into what has become popularly known as Ugep Massacre to determine the immediate and remote causes of the incident.
The official narrative of the incident should be in the Report of the Commission of Inquiry. I am yet to lay my hand on a copy of this Report which should give an insight at least from the perspective of the Federal Government of Nigeria on the immediate and remote causes of this gory incident.
I also learned that the then Federal Military Government distributed relief materials and paid a token sum to families affected by the destruction of houses and properties to rebuild their homes which was grossly out of tune with the momentous and incalculable damages suffered by the Ugep Community.
It is unbelievable that the 24th December, 2015, is the 40th Anniversary of the Ugep Massacre!
Undoubtedly, this incident was among numerous horrendous infractions of human rights that were committed from the period 1966 to 1979 at the height of the Military Regime.
Recall that in 1999 when the 2nd elected President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, Chief Olusegun Obasanjo, took the helm of the affairs of the country, he constituted the Human Rights Violation Investigation Commission headed by the erudite late Justice Chukwudifu Oputa to investigate cases of abuse of human rights that took place in the country in the period 1966 to 1999.
Despite this, the Ugep Community failed to avail herself of the opportunity to file a Petition concerning the genocide and infraction of the human rights of its people on the 24th December, 1975, and demand for payment of adequate compensation from the Federal Government of Nigeria.
It is well settled that in cases of infraction of human rights, there is no time limit for the victims to seek redress. In other words, the fact that 40 odd years have rolled by does not defeat the case of the abuse of human rights that the soldiers of the Nigerian Army perpetrated against the hapless people of Ugep Community on the 24th December, 1975, that led to loss of human lives and properties.
Ordinarily, the claim for compensation against the Nigerian Army and the Federal Government of Nigeria would have been defeated by the long passage of time as a result of the Public Officers Protection Act and the law of tort of Cross River State of Nigeria which prescribes 3 (Three) Months and 5 (Five) Years respectively in which cases could be filed seeking redress for the injury inflicted on the People of Ugep on the 24th December, 1975.
I, therefore encourage the People of Ugep to file an action before the Federal High Court of Nigeria under the provisions of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, 1999 (as amended), against the Nigerian Army and the Federal Government of Nigeria respectively seeking for compensation and apology for the ugly event that took place on the 24th December, 1975.
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