Although, the 2 Division, Nigerian Army, Adekunle Fajuyi Cantonment, Odogbo, was some 15 minutes’ drive from his neighbourhoood, he never gave it any thought.
Then two months into the blissful feeling of being his own landlord, Olutayo heard an announcement on radio that a shooting practice would start in the barracks. He still did not bother about the news, thinking it was strictly a military business that had nothing to do with the public.
He has been living in fear since he moved into the house, even though, a decade has passed. According to him, many of those who built houses in the area were not aware that they would be exposing themselves to stray bullets before moving in.
“The villagers, who are the land owners, have always known about it but they don’t tell those who come to buy land here in order to keep the value of the land high. I moved into my house in November 2007, but two months later, there was an announcement that a shooting practice would start in the barracks.
“We did not know the implication of the announcement until bullets nearly hit a labourer in my house. At the time, the community was just growing, so there were few houses here.
“By the time the exercise was repeated six months later, more houses had been hit by bullets. Many people on motorcycles, vehicles and at bus stops were also hit by bullets. Owners of the houses affected picked the bullets and visited the then General Officer Commanding in the barracks and he came to inspect the damage.
“A lawyer we engaged was able to persuade the army to stop the shooting practice at the cantonment and later, we heard that it had been taken to a location in Abeokuta. A fence was also erected to demarcate the cantonment from the civilian community,” he said.
However, last week, the problem returned and the residents of the communities around the cantonment started losing sleep over the issue again.
“There was calm until last week when the shooting began again. Two people have been victims in one week. On Tuesday, bullets rained on my roof again,” Olutayo added with palpable fear.
Showing our correspondent two expended bullets that had hit his house, Olutayo said he had offered praises to God daily for sparing his young family, that include three underage children.
On July 12, 2017, a private school in Ajobo village, which adjoins Idi-Omo, was forced to close down when bullets pierced through the roof and the ceiling of one of the classrooms, hitting a four-year-old pupil of nursery one in the head.
At the time of the incident, the pupils in the school were taking their third term examination and according to their teachers, some of them fled in all directions in panic. Like the belief of every other person in the community, the management of the school was of the opinion that the bullet was fired from the shooting range of the Army cantonment not far away from the community. Their conviction was based on regular incidents of stray bullets flying into the community whenever the army is holding range classification to train its soldiers.
Three other piercings were noticed on the walls of the school, while three bullets were found on the ground and kept as evidence. Luckily, the pupil escaped death with perhaps an indelible scar after spending about a week in hospital.
One of the school’s senior members of staff, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said, “The children were taking their third term examination when a bullet hit a nursery one pupil in his class. It hit his head and he was covered in blood. We rushed him to the military hospital where he received treatment.
“The shot was fired from the shooting range of the cantonment. We are aware that the shooting classification was going on when it happened. We are also aware that for a few years, such exercise was done somewhere else when residents complained that bullets from the military premises were hitting several people during the exercise.”
Ajobo is one of the four communities affected by stray bullets allegedly fired from the cantonment’s shooting range and indeed, the pupil was not the first or the last victim of the military exercise. Other communities adjoining the cantonment are Omilabu, Idi-Omo and Bola. In fact, almost every house owner in these communities is in possession of expended bullets that had at one time or the other hit his or her house.
Five days after bullets strayed into the school, a woman was hit in the stomach by another stray bullet in Omilabu community. She had returned from work and was at the backyard of her house when the bullet pierced her tummy.
Like the pupil, she was rushed to the military hospital in the cantonment, which also happens to be the nearest health facility that can handle such cases. Therefore, the military hospital has become a rescue home to stray bullet victims in the affected communities; but according to the residents, victims are also taken to the hospital to establish proof that bullets from the cantonment are threats to their lives.
Punch correspondent, who visited the communities while the shooting practice was going on, observed that in some of the houses allegedly hit by bullets, there were holes in the roofs and on the walls.
Holes had also been created in haphazard fashion in the roof of a mosque beside the house of the woman recently hit by a stray bullet, while a house that had yet to be occupied some metres away, had its windows shattered.
Asked if the community leaders approached the military authority to complain about the latest development, Olutayo said a meeting was held on Tuesday where the representatives of the cantonment said it was impossible for bullets to stray from the barracks into the communities.
Another residence of Omilabu, Alhaja Amudat Aiki, said the norm in the area is that when residents hear the sound of gunshots from the barracks, they know it is time to find a secure abode for fear of being hit.
“When we hear the sound of gunshots, we position ourselves strategically to be safe. If you are driving and you hear the sound, you must park and find a secure place if you don’t want to be hit. Many bullets have dropped on many beds, so we live in fear. There are completed houses that are not occupied because owners care for their safety. Some residents have also packed out of the community,” she said.
Punch correspondent also learnt that the school where a two-year-old pupil was hit by a bullet had been temporarily shut down after the military announced that it was extending the shooting exercise by a few more days.
One of the school’s teachers, who spoke on condition of anonymity, recalled the events of the sad day a pupil was almost killed by a stray bullet.
Describing the event as traumatic for the little kids, the teacher recalled shielding pupils in her classroom from any bullet that might be coming in.
“There was chaos and fear everywhere; I had to use my body to protect the children, even though, I had no bulletproof myself. But I figured that I was the best chance they had to survive should any stray bullet be heading for them. Parents ran to the school to fetch their children.
“After the incident, the military authorities stopped the shooting exercise and the school sent messages to parents that it was safe to bring their children to school the following Monday.
“That Monday, by 9am, we heard the soldiers had started their shooting practice again, so the school authorities quickly sent messages to the parents to pick up their children. Since then, the school has been shut and will only open when its authorities are sure that pupils will not be in danger,” the source said.
A leader in one of the communities, who also preferred anonymity, said the military only made attempt to cover up for what he described as crime against people living in the communities each time the leaders had meetings with representatives of the cantonment. He said a similar thing happened on Tuesday after a woman was hit in the stomach by a bullet.
He said, “We have not been able to meet the GOC and I don’t know why he has chosen to ignore us. This is an issue that has to do with the lives of people. You can hear the gun shots even as we speak. We were at the range during the meeting we had with them on Tuesday and we told them that the bullets were fired from the cantonment. But we were told that the bullets from the guns they were using could not travel as far as the community. That is the theory but the truth is that our lives are threatened.
“When we visited the range, we saw clearly that when the target board is raised and a bullet misses, it will likely stray into the communities. From a higher position where we stood, we could clearly view the communities. The representative of the army said it was possible that saboteurs were trying to discredit the military. We showed them the same kind of bullets fired into the communities at the time of the shooting practice but they said they were not their bullets. I will like the military to engage a ballistic expert to examine the bullets.”
Bullets not from shooting exercise –Military
When asked about the coincidence in the time of the shooting exercise and the time that bullets strayed into the communities, the Deputy Director, Army Public Relations at the division, Col. Ezindu Idima, said enough security measures had been put in place at the shooting range to ensure safety of the lives of people living close to the cantonment.
According to him, there is no agreement between the military and the communities to stop using the range as being speculated, stressing that the range was not used for a period of time because of other reasons and not because of any agreement between the communities and the military. Idima insisted that the weapons being used by the soldiers at the range had no capacity to go beyond the cantonment.
“Leaders of the communities visited the cantonment on Tuesday and we took them to the field so that they could see what we were doing and understand our position on this issue. They were able to see the security measures installed by the Nigerian Army to prevent bullets from straying into their communities.
“There is considerable distance of about three kilometres between the place we use and the next community, while the effective range of the weapon we use is about 400 metres. In other words, this is the range it can travel to have effect on humans. While they were with us, we fired shots at the target board and asked them to call people in the community to ascertain if bullets actually strayed into the communities but nothing happened.”
Idima also disputed claims that the bullets found in the communities were from the cantonment.
“The war heads they brought were probably fired many years ago. They are not fresh. We use AK 47 guns and any ballistic expert will tell you that the war heads are not from us. There is the probability that someone is cashing in on our activity to cause rancour. None of our bullets hit a pupil or any woman recently. People should realise that if we do not train, we cannot defend the nation effectively. The Nigerian Army takes safety seriously. When we stopped using the range, it was not because of any agreement with the communities,” Ezindu said.