In this report, GEORGE AGBA dissects the declaration by the Nigerian Military of its readiness to contain any form of renewed attacks in the Niger Delta region against the backdrop of threats by the Niger Delta Avengers.
Not a few Nigerians believed that much incremental progress had been made by the President Muhammad Buhari administration so far in dealing with the nagging Niger Delta question until the devil suddenly appeared in the details some days ago, with the threat by the Niger Delta Avengers (NDA) to resume hostilities in the nation’s oil-rich region.
Questions are being asked why the country is being dragged again to this once-travelled ruinous route in the quest for peace and stability in the region.
Quite intriguing was last week’s declaration by the Chief of Defence Staff, CDS, General Abayomi Gabriel Olonisakin that the Nigerian Armed Forces will always carry out its constitutional responsibility by strictly checkmating the new threats of hostilities and violent agitation against the country by the NDA.
Perhaps to hammer home his message about the ability and readiness of the Defence Headquarters to carry out its statutory responsibility to the Nigerian State, the CDS, an officer reputed for his trademark less-word-much-work style made sure he chose the place and time he considered right to deliver his loaded message that ended with a sound bite. The defence chief left the NDA and other militant groups toying with the idea of resuming violent agitation in the region- to think twice or go elsewhere.
He spoke at the Nigerian Navy Ship (NNS) Delta at the Warri Naval Base, Delta State while commissioning 20 new sophisticated 400 horsepower boats acquired by the Nigerian Navy to boost its anti- piracy operations and militancy threats.
‘’There have been continued militarization of the Niger Delta and the proliferation of weapons among non-state groups. This unsavoury state of affairs has ominously ended up in a sharp increase in threat level and deepening in conditions inimical to security.
The CDS said, ‘’Recent purported declaration of intent to resume hostilities by the Niger Delta Avengers rather cast an unfortunate gloom on the well being of the region and serves a sad commentary on the security environment.
‘’While the right to agitation is inalienable to any group, its association with violence is unconstitutional and will always be strictly prosecuted by the armed forces”.
His audience had a large number of senior military officers such as the Chief of Naval Staff, Vice Admiral Ibok-Ete Ibas; the Flag Officer Commanding (FOC), Central Naval Command, Rear Admiral Abubakar Alhassan; the Commander of the Joint Task Force (JTF) Operation Delta Safe (OPDS), Rear Admiral Apochi Suleiman and the Commander of the NNS Delta, Commodore Ibrahim Dewu, among others.
There were also political office holders, monarchs and community leaders such as the Secretary to the Delta State Government, Festus Ovie Agas who represented the governor, Dr. Ifeanyi Okowa; the Olu of Warr, HRM Ogiame Ikenwoli; the Orodje of Oke Kingdom, HRM Major General Felix Mujakpero (rtd); the Pere of Ogulagha Kingdom, HRM Joseph Timiyan; Pere of Ogge-Ijoh Warri Kingdom, Couple Oromoni; the representative of the Pere of Gbaramatu Kingdom and spokesman of the Gbaramatu Traditional Council, High Chief Godspower Gbenekama, and many others.
Expectedly, fearing a possible resurgence of such horrible events that manifested in mindless bombing of pipelines and renewed militancy in the oil-rich enclave, some prominent leaders and power centers in the region have started making frantic moves to douse the tension created by the fresh threats by the NDA to resume hostilities, which prompted the stern response by the CDS.
For example, the Bayelsa State governor, Mr. Seriake Dickson last week met with Chief Edwin Clark, leader of the Pan Niger Delta Forum (PANDEF) in Abuja to discuss the NDA’s threats and to seek ways to stem possible escalation of tension and breakdown of law and order in the event that the military deploys more anti-militancy hardware to the region to protect critical national assets and formations.
After his meeting with the Ijaw leader, Gov. Dickson said that their deliberations focused on the need to establish immediate contacts with the federal government as well as the youths who were said to be aggrieved over an alleged disruption of their quarterly meeting with PANDEF in Port Harcourt by security operatives.
Governor Dickson, in a statement by his Special Adviser on Media Relations, Mr. Fidelis Soriwei, was said to have called for an investigation into the circumstances surrounding the disruption of PANDEF’s meeting.
But in a swift reaction to the development, a civil advocacy group, Concerned Professionals’ Congress (CPC), expressed support for the declaration by the CDS that the Armed Forces of Nigeria should strictly checkmate the new threats of renewed hostilities and violent agitation against the country by the Niger Delta Avengers.
The group’s Chief Media Strategist, Mr. Emeka Nwankpa, asked traditional rulers, community leaders, elders, youths, students, the clergy, professional associations and the elders’ councils in the Niger Delta to engage the faceless militant organization and stop it from issuing threats that could bring untold hardship on the innocent people of the troubled oil-rich region and the entire nation.
The CPC, an advocacy group promoting peace, good governance and democracy in the country, urged stakeholders, especially the youths of the region to expose the masterminds of past bombings of pipelines, stressing that there was the need to resist moves by miscreants to use their territories to vandalize strategic national assets that could cause more hardship for the innocent and helpless people of the Niger Delta.
‘’This so-called Niger Delta Avengers are not avenging anything for the Niger Delta people other than cause mayhem and pursue their selfish and senseless agenda. Nobody supports threats that bring untold hardship on the people they claim to be fighting for’’, Nwankpa said.
The group recalled the last series of highly successful peace visits by Vice President Yemi Osinbajo to the Niger Delta and restated its belief in sustained dialogue as the key to resolving the critical and fundamental issues of poverty, neglect and environmental degradation of the region.
Nwankpa particularly drew attention to the revelation by the CDS that there had been a continued militarization of the region through proliferation of weapons among non-state actors, thereby increasing the threat level in the area.
Quoting an official report released in 2009 before the Presidential Amnesty Programme was established for repentant Niger Delta militants by the late President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua Administration, Nwankpa disclosed that about 30,000 militants surrendered over 2,500 sophisticated guns and 300,000 rounds of ammunitions.
Noting that the huge haul of the weapons surrendered might have meaningfully returned peaces to the region, he gave more statistics of the weapons to include 39,880 assorted arms comprising 482 automatic arms, 20,132 ammunitions, 295 magazines, 18,971 locally-made guns recovered in Delta and Bayelsa States, 82, 406 arms from Rivers, 9, 748 from Cross River, 9,725 from Ondo, 969 from Akwa Ibom and 722 from Edo.
But beyond the huge weapons haul, Nwankpa noted that because the situation in the Niger Delta is different from that in the North East where pure military operations have proved to be the key option, there is the need for all levels and tiers of leadership in the country to be involved to find a lasting solution to the Niger Delta conundrum.
‘’Our optimism stems from the fact that the Vice President, during his last peace trips to the region brilliantly underpinned the key message that peace is the recipe for growth and development. He called for a new narrative for the region that downplays violence and promotes peace and stability for robust engagement and sustainable investment’’, he said.
In his response to the fresh threats of violence in the region, Gov. Ifeanyi of Delta State has advised the federal government to prevail on respective states to embark on relevant interventions to make life more meaningful for oil producing communities, especially in road construction in the creeks as is being done now in the state.
His Chief Press Secretary, Mr. Charles Aniagwu, gave assurance that the state would continue to engage the federal government on ways to attend to the various issues raised by the Avengers but warned that Deltans stood to lose more if the group made good its latest threats to withdraw from further cooperation with the federal government.
According to him, ‘’without the enabling peace, we cannot progress in that direction’’, even as he appealed to the Avengers not to embark on further attacks on oil facilities in the Niger Delta.
‘’We passionately appeal to the Niger Delta Avengers not to resume hostilities, because Deltans will be the greatest losers. We are barely recovering from the effect of previous attacks and it is our honest appeal that they still give peace a chance by allowing for peaceful engagements with the Federal Government and other stakeholders”, said Aniagwu.
Comrade Godwin Erhahon, a politician and trade unionist based in Benin-City believes that the government will gain more mileage in the quest for peace in the region when it fast-tracts its developmental agenda in the Niger Delta, pointing out that it should also drive its actions with a deliberate policy of appeasement.
he said, ‘’The avengers may be seen as militants but the truth is that anybody who knows the level of damage done to the Niger Delta soil and the aquatic life by oil exploration will appreciate the fact that the Niger Delta people have reasons to be aggrieved. But for the first time, you are having a government that is sincere and is working seriously towards alleviating the sufferings of the Niger Delta people.
‘’I am appealing to the Niger Delta people to cooperate with the President towards implementing the programmes that he has initiated in the new budget, because it shows that the Federal Government, for the first time, is serious about the Niger Delta development and the alleviation of the suffering of the people of the region.
‘’If they go violent again now, destroying pipelines and oil installations in the area, it will take us miles backwards and nobody will in the end benefit from such violence. So I am appealing to the Niger Delta youths to trust that President Buhari is sincere in what he is doing, and that why he has not been able to do everything he promised is because of the circumstances which he met on ground himself”.
Otunba Gbenga Olaninoye, a journalist and social crusader thinks that instead of issuing fresh threats of violence, the militants should have given the government ultimatum of between three and four months to actualize its promises in the region, stressing that the take-off of the Ogoniland clean-up is a good testimony that government will live up to its promises.
With the successful dislodgement of Boko Haram’s last stronghold in Sambisa by the gallant and courageous Armed Forces of Nigeria, many expected that Federal Government’s attention will shift to the Niger Delta to checkmate the economic sabotage and other crimes and criminality such as crude oil thefts, illegal bunkering and robbery being perpetrated there by local militias.
A major source of the renewed militancy in the region, in the opinion of observers, is the strategic restoration by the federal government of the constitutional and statutory responsibility of the Nigerian military in the protection and safeguard of oil and gas pipelines in the region, a major policy shift from the former Jonathan administration which had officially engaged militants and ethnic militias to protect the pipelines in multi-billion naira contracts that saw new billionaires and millionaires emerge overnight.
The coming into power of President Buhari literally signaled a return of the statutory protection of the nation’s waterways to the military, especially the Nigerian Navy which is known to be better positioned, equipped and trained for that critical assignment. Moreover, overwhelming is the need to ensure that peace reigns in the region for unhindered crude exploration in order to garner more revenue into the federal coffers.
This, perhaps, explains why a major strategic restructuring, re-modelling and re-calibration of the military operations had to be carried out by the visionary Chief of Defence Staff, (CDS), General Olonisakin who renamed Operation Pulo Shield with Operation Delta Safe, with a policy directive aimed at protecting lives and property and the critical oil installations in the region.
A top navy personnel who declined to be named said, “We need peace in this region and the rest of the country. The youths of the Niger Delta should give peace a chance. Their political leaders and representatives can adequately present their grievances to the government in a manner that promotes peaceful discussion, negotiation and resolution. The military leadership only carries out orders by the political masters and we have no power to counter such orders. We need peace, not war, in the Niger Delta region.
‘’To ensure peace, our military should be on ground to protect civilian lives and property and our critical national assets, i.e. the oil and gas installations. This region is the mainstay of Nigeria’s economy by virtue of the vast deposits of crude oil. Because Niger Delta is a region of this country, protecting the people and the oil wealth is our constitutional responsibility. The youths of the area should allow government to exploit the oil deposit for the use of everybody. We therefore want the leaders of the Niger Delta to prevail on the militants to eschew violence. The mission of the military in the region is for the overall good of the natio”.
Bassey Effiong, an Abuja-based commentator observed that restiveness in the region heightened in 1999 with ethno-religious and, sometimes, regional militias taking the center stage thereby threatening the peace, unity and stability of the federation.
He cited injustice, elite irresponsibility, criminal environmental neglect and under-development as responsible for the insecurity, violence, cultism, kidnapping and criminality in the region.
Minna-based scholar, Buba Shekarau, contended that the fundamental issue in the Niger Delta is poverty manifesting in youth restiveness and hopelessness in the midst of oil prosperity but he called for their cooperation with the government by avoiding undue altercations with the military whose mission in the region, he said, is to protect lives and property and guarantee the safety of critical infrastructure in the area.
“The Nigerian military, like most militaries around the world, is a highly-professionalized peace-keeping force that operates in line with its Rule of Engagement. Our military have conducted themselves very well in the country and in foreign missions”, Shekarau noted.
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