The federal and the Delta State governments Monday appealed to the Niger Delta Avengers (NDA) to put paid to its threat at the weekend to resume hostilities in the oil-rich region, admitting that their demands were in tandem with the development plans for the region.
Making this appeal at the State House, Abuja, after a meeting with President Muhammadu Buhari, the Minister of Niger Delta, Mr. Usani Uguru, said the federal government is committed to the development of the region, citing a recent presidential directive for the take-off of the Maritime University, Okerenkoko, with N5 billion as one of such commitments.
His appeal came just as the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) confirmed Monday that one of the British hostages, Mr. Ian Squire, who was kidnapped last month in Delta State, has been killed and three others freed.
Squire was one of four Britons abducted by suspected militants on 13 October in the state.
But even as the threat of resumption of hostilities was sending jitters down the government's spine, a splinter militant group, the Reformed Niger Delta Avengers (RNDA), and ex-militant leader, Mr. Government Ekpemupolo, better known as Tompolo, Monday engaged in recriminations over who was behind the threat.
The NDA at the weekend had threatened to withdraw from further dialogue with the federal government.
The militia group, which was responsible for several attacks on oil installation last year and had more than halved Nigeria's oil output, said it would resume attacks on the facilities over the federal government's failure to meet its demands.
But the Niger Delta minister, who commended the collaboration among stakeholders in the region so far including the Avengers, said Monday that the patience and understanding shown so far should be sustained until all efforts come to fruition.
According to him, the goal to establish modular refineries as alternative to illegal refining activities was still ongoing, disclosing that the government in its commitment to bring the plan to fruition had placed advertisements in the media and people had shown interest.
Furthermore, Uguru explained that patience was required to bring this project to conclusion because the project requires the creation and design of the necessary procedures for the operation of such refineries, a process he said would require some time to complete.
He explained that the process needed to be thoroughly designed with a view to ensuring its sustainability, observing that even though the project was designed to be private sector-driven, the federal government was also involving state governments to avoid sabotage after its commencement.
The minister, however, added that the door was always open for any group in the region which intends to engage the federal government in any kind of dialogue or discussion over emerging issues, saying such groups will be warmly received.
"My message is not just verbal, it has been demonstrated by the fact that at all times, the government of which I am part in my role as minister in charge of the region, we have been appealing to them to just be patient with us, because most of the time, the issues that are brought up are those that tend to portray the quest for development of the region. And that is all we have been doing.
"They should be patient with us. These issues raised genuinely for the benefit of the people of the region are being attended to.
"For instance, the Okerenkoko University, you are aware that the vice-president has directed that that the university must take off. And he also directed that a minimum of N5 billion be budgeted for the take off of the university.
"So it's a matter of patience knowing that some of these things have a procedure. It will not be because it did not happen the way they wanted that it would not happen. Everything has a planning phase and a phase for execution.
"We are glad so far that all the parties have listened to one another - the government, the Avengers, elders and so on - and we would wish that this continues.
"So we would advise that all of us should remain calm and see the things that we agitated for coming little by little.
"The first issue that all the promises that have been made are not coming to fruition is not correct, because I just talked about the university.
"The other issue is the communities being part of the surveillance of the petroleum infrastructure in the region. And of course, you know that the consideration of modular refineries, which they had also talked about as a sub-sect of how they can be engaged instead of what is called illegal refineries, are also going on because the process of building a refinery or even getting the necessary procedure to establish such is not just a one day affair.
"Advertisements have been placed. People have indicated interest and of course, to make sure that it is sustainable, the government is getting the state governments involved, but they will be private sector-driven so that all concerned will be on a common page to be able to be sure that when ever it takes off, there is no frustration or sabotage.
"Then, your next issue of meeting with the Avengers, for us as a government, there hasn't been any group from the region that has tried to meet with any arm of government that has been rebuffed.
"So if any person makes such overtures, we will be happy to receive them. We have been receiving different groups. We are not limiting our dialogue or discussions to any particular group.
"So anybody that says he is relevant in the process and comes forth, we will be happy to receive them," he stated.
Also making a similar appeal to the militants in the region Monday, the Delta State government appealed to the Avengers not to resume attacks on oil and gas infrastructure in the Niger Delta.
Acting Delta State Governor, Mr. Kinsley Otuaro, while appealing to the militants to rescind the decision, assured them of the federal government's commitment to continue the peace process on the Niger Delta's regional development.
The region and Delta State in particular were just heaving a sigh of relief after the cessation of hostilities a year ago, he said, adding that violence could never be an alternative to peace anywhere.
He cautioned that apart from the economic losses and security concerns, resumed hostilities were bound to have grave consequences for the environment in the areas where the oil facilities are located.
Otuaro noted that a lot of progress has been recorded in the oil and gas industry following the cessation of violent activities in the region in the last few months, resulting in increased oil output and revenue to both the state and federal government.
He said President Buhari had on several occasions reiterated the federal government's commitment to addressing the development concerns of the Niger Delta region and urged the militant groups to give government a chance to do so in a peaceful atmosphere engendered by dialogue.
Joining the appeal, the Chief Press Secretary (CPS) to the state governor, Mr. Charles Aniagwu, also urged the militants to sheathe their swords, saying the state had the most to lose should they go ahead with their threat.
In a statement Monday, he said: "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 engagement with the federal government and other stakeholders.
"This appeal for peace remains imperative because without the atmosphere of peace, no meaningful negotiations and development can take place.
"Resumption of hostilities will not be in the interest of our people but a major setback to the plans and aspirations of the state.
"We have continued to appreciate our brothers in the struggle for their continued patience and cooperation while we engage the federal government on ways to attend to the various issues being raised by the group.
"As a state, we have made several interventions to make life more meaningful for oil bearing communities, especially in the area of road construction in the creeks and without the enabling peace we cannot progress in that direction."
Navy Ready to Tackle Threat
But even as the federal and Delta State governments appealed for calm and continuing dialogue, the Chief of Naval Staff, Vice Admiral Ibok-Ete Ibas, said Monday that the Nigerian Armed Forces are prepared to contain any threat of hostilities by the Avengers and other militants in the region.
He said the threat by Avengers did not meet the Nigerian Armed Forces unprepared and vowed that nothing would be spared in the task of protecting the nation's critical assets.
Ibas gave the assurance while speaking to journalists at the Nigerian Navy School of Engineering in Sapele, Delta State.
He noted that the efforts of the Nigerian Navy to eliminate piracy were already yielding positive results.
Vice Admiral Ibas, who was on a tour of the facilities and stations in Delta State, added that increased oil output in the Niger Delta was a testimony to the success of the Navy's strategy to curb criminal activities in the region's creeks.
Ibas said the Nigerian Navy and the other arms of the Armed Forces are prepared to take on the challenge, adding that the Navy would devote its resources to protect the nation's assets.
"The threat by the Niger Delta Avengers, threat by kidnappers, threat by sea robbers, sea pirates and threats by all criminals are threats that the Armed Forces of Nigeria have a responsibility to contain, we don't wait until a threat comes from anywhere before we act.
"What we are doing is protecting lives and properties so that any threat, especially against the nation's assets or individuals, is taken very seriously and the Nigerian Navy will continue to do what it has to do to protect the assets and properties of Nigeria," he said.
British Hostage Killed
Meanwhile, a British hostage kidnapped last month in Delta State has been killed and three others freed, the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) confirmed Monday.
Ian Squire was one of four Britons taken by suspected militants on 13 October from the oil-rich Delta area.
The British High Commission and Nigerian authorities negotiated the release of Alanna Carson, David Donovan and Shirley Donovan.
The FCO said it had been a "traumatic time" for those involved, reported the BBC.
An FCO spokesperson said that Nigerian authorities were investigating the kidnapping, adding: "Our staff will continue to do all we can to support the families."
The four Britons were abducted at about 02:00 local time last month, when suspected militants stormed a rural community they were living in.
According to reports, Dr. and Mrs. Donovan have lived in Nigeria for the past 14 years, running a charity called New Foundations, which gave aid to remote villages in the oil-rich Niger Delta.
Relatives of the four said they were "delighted and relieved" that Ms. Carson, and Dr. and Mrs. Donovan, had returned safely.
"Our thoughts are now with the family and friends of Ian as we come to terms with his sad death," they said in a statement issued on their behalf.
"This has been a traumatic time for our loved ones who were kidnapped and for their families and friends here in the UK," it said.
The FCO currently advises against all but essential travel to much of Delta State, saying there is a "high threat of criminal kidnap".
Tompolo, Militia Group Trade Barbs
It is uncertain if the kidnapping had any link to the threat issued last weekend by the Avengers, which is headquartered in Delta State, to resume hostilities in the region, but as news of the death of one of the British hostages and the release of three others got out, ex-militant leader, Government Ekpemupolo, also known as Tompolo, Monday distanced himself from the planned attack on oil facilities by the militia group, maintaining, however, that Nigeria is at a crossroads.
Tompolo, who has been in hiding since the Economic and Financial Crimes (EFCC) declared him wanted over corruption allegations when he was a contractor for the Nigerian Maritime Administration and Safety Agency (NIMASA), also warned the NDA and the splinter RNDA not to link him to their planned hostilities against the federal government.
According to a statement issued by his media consultant, Mr. Paul Bebenimibo, the former commander of the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) stated that nothing would make him to resort to the destruction of oil facilities he once protected in a contractual arrangement under the Goodluck Jonathan administration.
"The attention of High Chief Government Ekpemupolo, alias Tompolo, the Ibe-ebidouwei of Ijaw Nation, has been drawn to media statements by the Niger Delta Avengers (NDA) and the Reformed Niger Delta Avengers (RNDA), accusing him of working with Federal Government of Nigeria, thereby maligning the Niger Delta, on the one hand, and working against the Federal Government of Nigeria as the brain behind the planned attack of oil facilities in the region, on the other hand.
"Ordinarily, we would have ignored these media statements by these so-called Avengers and Reformed Avengers because it is not a new tactic by these groups in bringing Tompolo's name to whatever thing that happens in the Niger Delta region because of his legal battle with the government.
"Let it be stated at this point that Tompolo is not the only person having legal issues with the present government.
"Let us also state here that these accusations do not take away from the fact our dear country is at a crossroads. Eminent Nigerians have repeatedly said in recent times that Nigeria has never been divided like this since her independence in 1960," he said.
Tompolo called on the federal government to urgently address the issues and agitations currently troubling millions of Nigerians.
"The restructuring/true federalism of Niger Deltans in the oil industry, the Ogoni clean-up campaign, relocation of the headquarters of the international oil companies, establishment of modular refineries, resumption of academic activities at the Nigerian Maritime University, Okerenkoko, and so on, are very germane issues that the government needs to address now, so as to shame mischievous elements in the polity.
"We wish to reiterate our stand that nothing will make Tompolo to resort to the destruction of oil facilities that he once protected under a contractual arrangement. Those that have ears, let them hear," he warned.
However, a coalition of militants under the RNDA dismissed Tompolo's claim that he was not behind the recent threat to resume hostilities in the Niger Delta, saying rather than look elsewhere for the forces behind the Avengers, Tompolo should be quickly reined in by the authorities to neutralise the threat.
A statement by the leader of the RNDA, 'Majar-General' Johnmark Ezonebi, alleged: "RNDA wishes to state categorically that the so-called high command of the Niger Delta Avengers (NDA) is none other than Tompolo who is presently on the wanted list and is hiding in the creeks for sins against the region.
"He used the struggle to empower himself and his immediate family and a few cronies. The self-acclaimed spokesperson of NDA known as Major-General Murdock Agbinibo is none other than one of the apostles of Tompolo who has deserted his Warri home and is on the run with his master."
Further refuting claims that the RNDA comprises disgruntled politicians in the region, Ezonebi accused the Avengers as well as Tompolo of using the Niger Delta struggle to empower themselves and their families.
The group said it severed ties with Tompolo and the NDA when it became obvious that the struggle had been "personalised for selfish gains, even when some of our dedicated fighters had paid the supreme price for the region".
"We wish to state that the statement by NDA is clearly the hand of Esau and the voice of Jacob because of the way the federal government treated PANDEF (Pan-Niger Delta Elders' Forum), following the withdrawal of the mandate by militants," the RNDA added.
The coalition vowed to join hands with the federal government to "smoke out" Tompolo and his boys from the creeks where they claimed he is currently hiding.
It described the Avengers' threat as a cover up to get the government's attention, declaring that there was no NDA until Tompolo was declared wanted by the EFCC.
The group wondered why the activities of the Avengers centres around only Gbaramatu Kingdom in Warri South West Local Government Area of Delta State and Burutu which share boundaries with Gbaramatu Kingdom, Tompolo's homestead.