Residents of Niger-Delta have raised the alarm over the astronomical increase in piracy, kidnapping, deadly fights among pirates and attacks on oil infrastructure in the region.
LEADERSHIP Weekend gathered that while many ex-Niger Delta militants totally embraced amnesty and are doing well in different fields of endeavours, others did not and have resorted to inflicting hardship on the region to finance their expensive lifestyle, drugs and alcohol dependency.
This is even as oil bunkering, kidnapping, and piracy in the Niger Delta have continued to worsen in Niger-Delta. Recall that maritime piracy emerged with the first armed insurgency movements against the federal government of Nigeria and oil companies in the Niger Delta. The federal government in August 2009, however, granted an unconditional pardon and cash payments to the militants who agreed to lay down their arms, sadly, a lot of them put down their weapons but not all due to greed.
‘’These sets of militants are already used to the expensive lifestyle, besides the fact that they enjoy doing what they are doing, they need serious rehabilitation to halt their way of life. Drug abuse and alcohol dependency have made them financially irresponsible. Most of them could not do anything with the money they got, and they have resorted to their old ways making life miserable for residents in Niger Delta,’’ said Emmanuel Igbudu who resides in the sleepy coastal town of Okpoama in Brass Local Area of Bayelsa State.
Igbudu noted that the crimes in the region are multifaceted, calling on the federal government to step up efforts to tackle the menace.
He continued: ‘’There are people who go into the creeks disguised as oil pipeline vandals but end up terrorising the whole waterways. These are the robbers on the sea, the highwaymen. They steal, they kidnap and sometimes they rape victims.
‘’It is either you have men who are strong enough to fight off another camp that wants to tax you or you pay the tax to a superior group.
‘’Besides these, there are pirates in the creeks who go out to perpetuate all these crimes in the guise that they want to provide for their family. They have less or no formal education and would hardly secure a white-collar job; hence, they resort to the quick means of making money in the neighbourhood.
‘’There are also the market women who bring food and foodstuffs into the criminal hideouts. It is a whole community of its own.
‘’Now, because they are involved in the illegal petroleum pipeline vandalism, they tend to cheat others leading to a breach of contract terms or attack from an opposing faction, they cannot resort to the police for a peaceful resolution. This is why they wage wars against themselves and destroy properties and kill innocent persons in the community,’’ he said.
Evolution of militancy
Maritime piracy emerged with the first armed insurgency movements against the federal government of Nigeria and oil companies in the Niger Delta, following the example of the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND). In August 2009, President Umaru Musa Yaradua granted an unconditional pardon and cash payments to the militants who agreed to lay down their arms. They did give back their guns and many of them acquired skills that are still sustaining them till today.
They were activists who attacked offshore rigs both in protest of the oil industry’s waste and pollution of the Niger Delta’s rivers — compromising the livelihood of millions who fish on the waters.
The men also expressed the indignance and demand of the local communities mainly in the Niger-Delta region that still receive no direct benefits or development from the crude oil obtained from their lands.
Since after the amnesty programme, the region has once again been experiencing the activities of gun-toting gangs who have made the complex network of creeks their home, waiting to pounce on ships sailing through West African waters.
Whereas sea piracy is declining globally, attacks are soaring in the gulf, whose waters wash the shores of more than a dozen countries from Senegal to Angola. Of 195 attacks that occurred on the world’s high seas last year, 82 were recorded here, according to the International Maritime Bureau (IMB), including almost all crew kidnappings.
In Nigeria, counter-piracy efforts are overshadowed by other conflicts like the banditry, Boko Haram terrorism, secessionist movements and the farmers-herders crisis, as well as the poverty that helps drive piracy in the first place.
“Many Gulf of Guinea countries suffer vulnerabilities because of their limited capabilities,” said Kamal-Deen Ali, director of the Center for Maritime Law and Security Africa.
Ali added that it’s even more difficult policing waters than land, adding that once criminals get on the water, they have the opportunity to go in any direction.
It is worthy to remember that during the era of militancy, the groups were both fighting for supremacy among themselves and against the oil companies and the government. They were not harming the indigenous people, people only die when they become victims of circumstance perhaps during crossfires.
Residents raise the alarm over increased attack
A member of the local community in Niger Delta, Erekosima Odaremete, a human rights lawyer in Port Harcourt, Rivers State told LEADERSHIP WEEKEND that militancy started as cultism among some restive youths in the early 2000s and grew into an organised armed campaign to fight for the control of oil resources in the Niger Delta. They acquired guns and other ammunition to match the pushback by Nigerian security forces.
The Niger Delta militancy ravaged the Nigerian oil sector between 2004-2009, bringing it to a near-standstill. In response, the Nigerian government initiated the amnesty programme.
“I know some of them who are currently electricians, tailors, and into different kinds of businesses. They were given the amnesty payment to help start the business and a lot of them are doing well today.
Most of them who gave up their weapons and embraced the amnesty programme are doing well today. My cousin was one of the beneficiaries. He built an apartment and today he is a landlord with tenants paying rents to him,” said Odaremete.
He explained that for these sets of people, what motivated them to join militancy was their unemployment and all the problems that come with lack.
“It was indeed poverty speaking, they were not really cut out for violence. They were not really robbing, raping, looting, or doing anything against the people intentionally. That is why Tompolo and others are still held in high esteem,” he explained.
According to Odaremete, “Since they are not Asari Dokubo amongst others, they cannot really claim that they are fighting for the Niger Deltans anymore. They have now resorted to vandalizing oil pipelines, taking the oil to their own refineries and selling the finished products.”
Many residents have expressed their worry over the situation here. “We the people of the Niger Delta are not happy with the situation here. The worst is that since the pirates are people who know the ins and outs of the creeks, it is hard for security officials to apprehend them because they know how to manoeuvre and get away with it.
“People who are not part of this area don’t know what we suffer. They always shout, “oil money.” It’s not happening in every part of the Niger Delta though but in parts close to the sea. For those of us residing at the edge of the sea; this is our story and it’s still ongoing with no end in sight,” Odaremete said.
At the moment, LEADERSHIP Weekend gathered that their most sought-after item was the engine of speedboats for their nefarious activities on the sea. The Yamaha Speed Boat outboard engine sells for about N300,000 to N2,000,000 depending on the horsepower.
Odaremete said, ‘’It’s a way to make quick money. Those who are into the illegal oil refinery need the speedboats to transport their products off the creeks.
‘’They will accost a boat and take the engine while leaving the boat and the passengers aboard to float on the waters until a rescue boat comes from the mainland. The pirates don’t steal from the oil refiners because they are not helpless like the innocent passengers on the boat. They go for the next best victim who are mostly the travelers on the waters.
‘’The pirates are not cultists or militants; they are armed robbers on the waterways. Sometimes, they are unfortunate to encounter Nigerian Navy patrol officers and are killed in shootouts.’’
Last month, these pirates attacked Peace Koikoibi and carted away all her valuables alongside that of the passengers. She told LEADERSHIP WEEKEND that she and her fellow travellers were not the actual intended targets.
“There is a King in one of the communities in Okpoama Brass. His enemies were trying to assassinate him. He got the information and passed through another route with another boat,” Peace said.
They mistook Peace’s boat for that of their victim. The boat driver ran and escaped into the swamps. The passengers were caught.
The driver, Mr Godfrey Enwefa said that he recognised some of the pirates and that they were from the community. He ran home and informed other community people who mobilised against the pirates. They called the attackers and demanded that they release their victims unharmed. Peace and her fellow travellers were eventually released but not with their valuables.
“The most dangerous of the pirate attacks for the local people is identifying any of them. If you recognise them, they will most likely kill you. They don’t let anyone who recognises them live,” Enwefa added.
Recalled that for several years, governments in the region have cooperated on joint missions to make the gulf safer – but with mixed results.
As a panacea to solve this menace, a deeper social and economic dynamics hinder progress, experts say. Each state in the region has unique and crosscutting forms of insecurity. These include cultism, piracy, land struggles, election violence, and gangs. They are also driven by issues like drug abuse, poverty, unemployment, and environmental pollution. Militants-turned-pirates are striking farther out at sea. Nigeria’s security forces are stretched thin, battling an insurgency in the country’s north, and ethnic conflicts in the Middle Belt.
However, one crucial agreement, the Yaoundé Code of Conduct, was signed in 2013, establishing faster information-sharing and response between member countries. Foreign navies protecting their countries’ interests also patrol the international waters outside each country’s territorial zone. And in 2019 Nigeria, was the first to introduce legislation specifically criminalizing piracy. (Previously, pirates were tried under armed robbery laws.)