Vanguard (Lagos)

Nigeria: Niger Delta: the Gathering Storm of War

UP till last weekend, many could still not fathom the reality that another batch of foreign oil workers have been kidnapped by militant youths, operating under the aegis of the Movement for Emancipation of the Niger -Delta (MEND) in Delta State barely three weeks after the four expatriate oil workers who were taken hostage in Bayelsa state, last month, were released

The latest victims: Makon Howkins, Coyday Oswalt and Rospel Spell (Americans); John Hudspith and Shadety Senary (Britons); Feisal Mohammed and Semsak Mhadmhe (Egyptians), Anthony Santos (Filipino) and Arab Suwama (Thai) were employees of an American oil servicing company, Wilbros, working for the Shell Petroleum Development Company (SPDC). They were reportedly laying flow lines from a sea barge, number 318, above the 200 nautical miles mark when the militants stormed the barge and seized them.

It was not just that the nation has another case of hostage-taking in its hands but that the Forcados Crude Oil Loading Platform, which is the export manifold for crude oil from the SPDC, Western Division, located 20 kilometres offshore was set ablaze and a trunk line in the Chanomi creek blown with dynamites. It is feared that the recent development would affect export of crude oil from the Forcados Terminal. But the fire, according to available reports was put off later, while the damage done to the facility was being assessed as at press time.

Not a few Nigerians heaved a sigh of relief when the hostage takers released the four "Bayelsa" hostages, last month. The question many are asking is why was a similar incident allowed to occur again? The Joint Task Force (JTF) in the Niger-Delta, headed by Brigadier General Elias Zamani believes that it is the insatiable taste of the Ijaw militants for violence, while the militants lay the blame squarely on the doorstep of the JTF.

Whichever way one looks at it, it is shameful that another hostage taking is occurring so soon in the Niger-Delta when the January incident should have been used to close such inglorious chapter in the country. Undoubtedly, the MEND released the four hostages unconditionally, last month and stated the conditions that could make it launch another operation, tagged "Operation Dark February", yet adequate precautions were not taken.

What is becoming evident in the management of the kidnap saga so far in the Niger Delta, which in itself is not a new enlargement, is that the Nigerian government has not really learnt its lessons or found a solution to the problem in the region.

Before the release of the "Bayelsa" hostages, last month, many Ijaw leaders, including the First Republic Information Minister, Chief Edwin Clark and other groups called on the Federal Government not to use force on the communities suspected to have played host to the militants so as not to escalate or worsen the situation in the region. One of those personally contacted by President Olusegun Obasanjo to free the hostages, Chief Bello Oboko, the national president of the Federated Niger-Delta Ijaw Communities (FNDIC) found himself in a dilemma as he could not guarantee the freedom of the hostages if the JTF would be directed later to arrest the militants and attack Ijaw communities for their omission or commission in the abduction saga.

All was quiet after the release of the January hostages until Wednesday, February 15 when men of the JTF carried out an aerial bombardment on Ijaw community of Perezouweikoregbene, somewhere around Okerenkoko in Gbaramatu kingdom of Warri South-West local government area at about 3.00 pm.

JTF spokesman, Major Said Hammed told Vanguard Features that the operation was not an attack on the community but an onslaught on oil bunkerers who were said to have some barges of siphoned oil in the area. The official position of the Task Force was that its patrol team sighted the ocean-going barges of the oil bunkerers at the Okerenkoko River 24 hours earlier and the Commander, Brigadier General Zamani, briefed and got authorisation from the Chief of Defence Staff, Gen. Alexander Ogomudia to deploy an helicopter gunboat to destroy the barges.

Long before the February 15 raid, the Okerenkoko community raised alarm that the JTF had concluded plans to raid the community and other Ijaw villages. The Task Force said it was not true but the supposed destruction of barges by bombing from a military aircraft gave credence to the suspicion as an explosion occurred, causing fire to spread to adjoining pipelines conveying crude oil from field locations of the oil multinationals to export loading terminals.

Reports said that the flow lines were on fire more than three hours after the attack but the community sources said the attack was directed at Okerenkoko town, regarded as the stronghold of the Ijaw militants in the region. Sources in the community said that many houses were bombed by the military and that up to 15 persons died. But the death story has not been verified.

While the Okerenkoko people were lamenting the onslaught against them, the JTF struck 48 hours later on Ukpogbene, Perezuouweikoregbene, Seigbene and Seitorububor, all Ijaw communities on the grounds of war against oil bunkerers. It was actually a serious operation as the soldiers struck both in the morning and evening of that day.

Enraged Ijaw youths in the area who could no longer take the invasion engaged the military men in a shoot-out and even attempted to bring down the JTF bomber. That, said some sources, led to more pounding of the villages by the soldiers.

The JTF in a press statement on the incident said that the youths engaged the Task Force in a shoot-out while the men were on their lawful assignment. In fact, in the words of Major Ahmeed: "The relentless pursuit of these bunkerers by the JTF has led to the search and destruction of illegal bunkering barges near Okerenkoko on February 15 and 17, 2006. These barges were sighted by the JTF gunship on routine patrol along the Okerenkoko River. The destruction of these barges is meant to serve as warning to those who are still continuing in this illegal business".

He maintained that it was the youths who were giving protection to these illegal bunkering barges that opened fire on the gunship, ostensibly to show their preparedness and this action, he added, equally attracted response".

If the feelers from some privileged military sources before the attack on the Ijaw villages were anything to go by, it was evident that the JTF would launch an attack on the communities suspected to have provided cover, overtly or covertly to the militants during the Bayelsa hostage affair and that appeared to be what played out for the barges would have been destroyed in a less conspicuous way than the method applied in the present circumstance.

Pushed to the wall, the communities invited the MEND revolutionaries, which vowed to commence "another Armageddon in the Nigerian petroleum history" from last Thursday night. Its self-styled Commander, told the British Broadcasting Corporation, last Friday, that, "we are hereby declaring a state of emergency on every multi-national oil industry in the Niger-Delta region. By the end of 96 hours, this region would no longer be safe for foreign investors and their families as MEND's Operation Black February shall demonstrate her rugged guerilla will and dogged intelligence in hunting down foreign foot found in the Niger-Delta region".

"During the operation, he stated, "administrative offices, oil installations, vessels and production machinery shall be sabotaged, and wherever necessary, hostages shall be taken, this time to ply poisonous jagged edged(sword) through the heart of the Nigerian oil policies, as is the case with the 50 years environmental desecration, psychological desolation, economic disenfranchisement and social depression that have been our redeeming franchise so far".

True to its self-acclaimed "rugged guerilla will and dogged intelligence in hunting down foreign foot found in the Niger-Delta region", the MEND activists kidnapped nine expatriates less than 24 hours after their deadline expired and also set ablaze the SPDC crude oil loading platform at the Forcados Terminal as well as the NNPC Escravos/Lagos pipeline.

There is palpable tension at the moment, which could have been spared the nation if the right things were done. A senatorial aspirant in Delta South, Mr. Tunde Okorodudu told VF that the use of force by the military would not stop the kidnapping in the region, while the president of the Youths Conflict Management, Chief Clement Bebemimibo said the JTF was the cause of the problem in the region, adding that until the present Commander, Brigadier General Zamani was redeployed, the region would not know peace. He said that Zamani has served for so long in the region and is now caught in the local politics, hence the avoidable war.

Despite the intervention of MEND, residents of the affected communities are fleeing in their numbers to avoid being caught in the crossfire and the worry is how long will the nation pass and exodus.From the pattern of attacks and counter-attacks between the militan-ts and the JTF so far, it is clear that the MEND knows the topography in the creek better than the JTF and that using force to subdue them could lead to more damage to the nation's economic installations. This, the militants have proved over and over again and the recent incident is just a sampler.

On Sunday in Warri, the Delta State governor, Chief James Ibori who is now facing the heat of what Dr. Goodluck Jonathan of Bayelsa State passed through, last month, met with Ijaw leaders from Gbaramatu kingdom to brainstorm on how the hostages would be released. He reportedly told them of the new stance of President Obasanjo to the effect that the JTF should stop further attacks on the communities and that he (Ibori) required their cooperation to secure the release of the hostages. The president appeared to have mellowed down with his new posture as the militants have sent a deafening message with the fresh kidnap that they were not upstarts and above all, that they are ready to back their words with action. As negotiation continues for the release of the hostages, people are asking who advised the Federal Government to resort to bombarding the communities under the guise of attacking oil bunkerers. Some people said that some security chiefs in order to remain relevant were giving the government wrong advice on how to resolve the matter instead of sitting down to negotiate with the militants since the Niger-Delta problem has been recurring for a long time.

There is also the contention that some people in the military want to justify the huge money being doled out for the operation in the Niger Delta and the only way to do is to create the kind of scenarios that have just been unfolded. My hands are clean - Zamani. What Brigadier Zamani would not, however, agree with even as some buffet the Task Force is that the recent military onslaught was premeditated and that he was involved in oil bunkering. He told (VF) that these were tissue of lies as there was no doubt that barges laden with suspected crude oil were sighted by military gunship and they were destroyed. "How can I be involved in oil bunkering and at the same time be fighting oil bunkerers. Is that possible? Can't you see that this is the handiwork of the bunkerers who we are fighting to smear the Task Force and me. But we cannot be intimidated or cajoled by such blackmail", he stated. Brigadier General Zamani said he was bothered by the call for his transfer or redeploym ent because he was not the one that sent himself to the Task Force, adding that those calling for his removal were only disturbed because the Task Force was attacking their illegal source of livelihood.

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