A few years after a breather from their activities, Niger Delta militants appear to have returned to the trenches full time and against the government of the day, write Omon-Julius Onabu, Segun James and Emmanuel Addeh
The Niger Delta militant is smart. He can feel the pulse of the nation and knows where it hurts the most. Unlike his Boko Haram counterpart in the north eastern part of the country, he hardly shoots to kill, but his weapon is as potent as that of the terrorist lurking in the Sambisa forest of the North and whose action is limited to maiming his fellow human being.
The Niger Delta militant’s actions affect everybody – from the president to the man on the street. He knows where and when to strike and can almost predict, what effect his action would achieve. His mission: economic sabotage and he is very good at it.
In Bayelsa State, one of the four biggest oil producing states in the country, the activities of vandals have been on the rise in recent days after a long lull in the activities of the militants. Although there seems to be resurgence in militancy as demonstrated by the enormity of recent damage to pipelines in Delta State and other parts of the Niger Delta, it is clear that no one has been able to lay his finger on the penetrators or understand the reasons for the renewed violence.
However, what can be deduced from the allegations and counter-allegations peddled by well-known former militant leaders in the region suggest that the factors responsible for the current situation range from economic or business interest to political and ethnic factors.
That was the situation a couple of months ago when the one of the most visible leaders of the dreaded militant groups, the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND), Chief Government Ekpemupolo aka Tompolo was declared wanted by the Economic and Financial Crime Commission (EFCC) over allegations that he was involved in fraudulent multibillion naira contracts.
In a 40-count charge, the EFCC alleged that Tompolo and others were accused of laundering billions of naira, being proceeds of stolen and official corruption. Tompolo has never been around to take his plea.
Since the militants know the attitude of the Nigerian government to the killing of her citizens, they tend to go for where it hurts the most, the economy of the nation – oil production facilities.
Thus, following the declaration of Tompolo as wanted by the EFCC, his supporters were said to have taken to bombing of oil pipelines and other facilities that will draw the federal government to the negotiation table.
The latest attack was at the Escravos Terminal and Tank Farm owned by the nation’s second largest oil producing company – Chevron Nigeria Limited – which is located in areas close to Tompolo’s stronghold of Gbaramatu, a move which may have drawn the federal government finally to the negotiation table as the case against the former warlord has been stalled.
As envisaged by the militants, government had feared that an attack on the nation’s economic mainstay would lead to a dwindling in revenue from oil and that a cut in production due to militant activities might spell great doom for the nation.
Spurred by the helplessness of the government, a new militant group which called itself The Niger Delta Avengers has come out and threatened to make the country’s economy worse by acts of sabotage. The threat was made via a statement issued by the group in a response to comments made by President Muhammadu Buhari during his visit to China.
It threatened to make the country’s economy worse by acts of sabotage, particularly in the oil sector. While in China, the President had said oil saboteurs will be treated harshly like Boko Haram terrorists, a comment the group considers denigrating to the Niger Delta struggle and an indication that the federal government considers oil more important than the lives of people of the Niger Delta region.
“The recent proclamation of the federal government to bombard the people of the Niger Delta, as stated in Beijing, China, is a clear indicator that President Buhari and his Northern brothers-led government scales the oil in the Niger Delta far more important than the lives of the Niger Deltans,” the group said.
As a proof of the Niger Delta Avengers potency, the group cited the visit of Vice-President Yemi Osinbajo and Governor Ifeanyi Okowa of Delta State to the Forcados Terminal, where they inspected the SPDC 48 inches export pipeline, which it claimed to have blown up.
“They never cared to see for themselves what the natives (Ogulagha people), the host community are going through in the hands of SPDC as a result of the oil and gas exploration for decades. Ogulagha community is just one of such cases across the Niger Delta,” the statement added.
The militant organisation explained that the decision of the government to send the Minister of Environment and the Vice-President on a visit to the Forcados Terminal after it was blown up shows the importance of the facility to the economic well-being of the country.
“Bonny Export Terminal, Bonny Island in Rivers State, Chevron and Ugborodo Community in Delta State are the heartbeat of Nigeria’s economy, but they are all facing same hardship as the Ogulagha community, which hosts the Forcados Terminal.
“It is a slight on our struggle and quite embarrassing for Mr. President to liken us to his kinsmen (Boko Haram), who are hell-bent on swimming in innocent blood until they Islamize the nation,” added the Niger Delta Avengers.
The organisation also accused the President of deliberately ignoring the menacing activities of Fulani herdsmen, but paying attention to pipeline vandalism, which he wants to use as a pretext to punish the Niger Delta Region.
This, it argued, provides further proof that the government values oil more than the well-being of the people of the Niger Delta. While claiming it takes no pleasure in violence, the group said it would continue blowing up pipelines to protest the marginalisation of the Niger Delta.
It dared the Presidency to do its worst, saying: “The Presidency can go ahead and setup a permanent security force, as stated by the Vice President when he visited the SPDC, Forcados Terminal. We are not deterred by such threats as we are highly spirited and shall continue blowing up pipelines until the Niger Delta people are no longer marginalised by the Nigerian actors. Yes, the military have sworn to lay down their lives to protect Nigeria. We have on our part sworn to do whatever is necessary to safeguard the interest of the Niger Delta people.”
The group also invited the attention of the federal government and the international community to the plight of the Niger Delta people and alleged that other forms of pipeline vandalism are encouraged by officials of the Nigerian armed forces.
“We want the general public to note that the Nigerian Armed Forces collects three Naira per litre of the sum accruing from the total number of barrels loaded by any vessel in all illegal bunkering activities referred to as ‘black oil business,” it claimed.
It followed this up with a piece of advice to the Chinese government and the international community that any country that lends Nigeria money is doing so at its own risk.
“There will be no litre of crude oil to service the loan deal they planning to do. This also goes to the international oil companies in the country to adhere to our warnings and advise the federal government to heed our demands, especially the development of the Niger Delta Region,” the group concluded.
But President Muhammadu Buhari has vowed to deal decisively with the seeming resurgence of oil theft, vandalism of pipelines and insecurity in the Niger Delta.
This is not the first time there will be a faceoff between the federal government and militants, just as it is suspected to be happening now, the government had in the past been forced to do the bidding of militants just for the oil to continue flowing.
But the most visible of all the ex-militants is Tompolo, who has in recent time been under the radar of the federal government. Tompolo had in an open letter to President Muhammadu Buhari in January this year titled, “Beware of members of your political party”, washed his hands off complicity in the series of attacks on oil facilities particularly in Delta State.
He alleged that certain desperate politicians, lawyers and businessmen in Delta and Bayelsa States were actually the architects of the resurgence in militancy that has manifested in series of attacks on pipelines and other oil installations and facilities in the region.
Specifically, Tompolo claimed that this set of avowed enemies of his were “hell-bent on linking me to the renewed vandalisation of oil facilities in the Niger Delta region, whereas they are the ones carrying out the act to smear my name.”
He noted that he did not reneged on his promise to President Buhari during a visit to him at the Presidential Villa in Abuja, that he would support the government to promote peace in the Niger Delta to enable the government carry out the desired development of the region.
But his enemies appear to be taking advantage of his current problem with the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) to further blackmail him by claiming he was responsible for the recent attacks on oil facilities through alleged media orchestration.
The erstwhile MEND leader insisted in several other statements that certain individuals from the Itsekiri and Urhobo ethnic extraction as well as others from his Ijaw ethnic group allegedly, sponsored by certain politicians from Delta and Bayelsa States, were trying to settle scores because of failure or refusal to grant them certain favours they had sought from him earlier.
The grounds for the grouse, he pointed out, included inability to secure certain contracts especially in the oil and gas sector and various positions in government and even in traditional institution.
“As for the members of the party from my local government area, Warri South-West, they have been involved in illegal bunkering and oil theft activities over the years, which I have been fighting against because of love for country. They know me as a-no-nonsense person. There is this particular one from the same Gbaramatu kingdom with me that has sworn to kill me because I refused to manipulate the ascension to our traditional stool in his favour, when he was not even qualified for it.”
Despite the picture painted by Tompolo that he was being unduly persecuted and a victim rather than the aggressor, his name has continued to resonate in the unending activities of militants and vandals in the Niger Delta, especially in Bayelsa and Delta States.
But regardless of these assurances from the former warlord, attacks on oil installations have continued to rise. Investigations in the area show that despite the continuation of the federal government’s amnesty programme, some key oil infrastructure attacked this year alone include the Nigeria Agip Oil Company (NAOC) pipelines in Brass Local Government Area, of Bayelsa State.
The attack was said to have targeted the pipelines located along Orukari, Golubokiri and Kpongbokiri communities in Brass. Also, a crude oil pipeline belonging to Shell Nigeria Exploration and Production Company (SNPECo), supplying crude to Egbomoturu Flow Station in Southern Ijaw local government area of the state was bombed earlier in the year.
Just outside the state, the militants have also blown up the Chevron Nigeria Limited pipelines feeding the Abiteye flow station and another pipeline conveying gas from Escravos to Warri, Lagos and Abuja belonging to the Nigeria Gas Company (NGC), a subsidiary of the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC), also attacked by the marauders. Oil pipelines were also attacked at different points along Opudebubor, Okpelama and Kpokpo area, Chanomi creek and Sahara.
There is no one reason as to why the menace has increased as those who spoke with THISDAY did not agree on why there has been a significant rise in the attacks of oil facilities in the Niger Delta. But many know that though the bombings predated President Muhammadu Buhari’s government, his disposition to the use of force to resolve the Niger Delta imbroglio is not helping matters.
In 2006, the government of Chief Olusegun Obasanjo was forced to replace the commander of the Joint Task Force on the Niger Delta, Brigadier Elias Zamani by Tompolo. But the situation changed when President Umar Musa Yar’Adua took over.
Flashback to 2009
Whatever prompted Tompolo to order the arrest of 11 soldiers and an officer of the Nigerian Army, who were on routine patrol along the Escravos River, nobody can say. After all, the military men are aware of his Camp 5 republic. There had been a mutual understanding to avoid each other following a detente between the federal government and warlord in 2006, when the government removed a JTF commander to please the militants.
The military as a deliberate policy do all they could to avoid all confrontations with the warlord and his army of militants. This was the situation until things got to a head in 2009, when the militants overreached themselves.
But like any other evil day, the militants from Camp 5 waylaid two patrolling gunboats of the Joint Task Force (JTF) and arrested the 12 soldiers before matching them before their leader. That was the last that was heard of the soldiers, but for their gunboats which were later traced by a civilian helicopter belonging to an oil company operating in the area to a swampy creek behind Camp 5, nobody would have known what befell the men.
The same day, two Ships – a cargo and an oil tanker – heading for the Warri port were hijacked and forced into the narrow creeks by the militants. The cargo ship was laden with oil installation equipment which was of little value to the militants. It was allowed to leave later. But the other, MC Spirit, which was taking Premium Motor Spirit (PMS) to the NNPC jetty from where it would be pumped to the northern parts of the country, was detained.
The ship had a twenty member crew made up of 16 Filipinos and four Nigerians. The ship had hardly passed through the Escravos Bar into the river by Okerenkoko when trouble started.
Militants in three speed boats fired shots at the ship in order to force the captain to stop. Realising the kind of cargo on board, the captain lowered the gang way for them to come aboard. As soon as they enter the boat they started beating the Filipino captain, who had identified himself. He was soon matched away from the boat with two others into Camp 5.
According to Mr. Hakeem Olaniyan, one of the four Nigerian crew members, about ten fully armed militant were stationed with them until the next day when two 5000 metric tons capacity barges were brought to start siphoning the fuel from the ship. Later in the night, the remaining 13 Filipinos were matched to Camp five leaving only the four Nigerians and the militant guards on the ship.
Early in the next morning, four new barges were brought to continue the siphoning of the fuel. But about mid-day, words came that military gun boats have been spotted coming towards the camp.
Olaniyan said that all the militants suddenly left the ship and before long, about 13 boats with at least 10 persons each took off towards the military boats that were approaching the camp.
“We are at the highest part of our ship watching as the boys moved towards the soldiers shooting. Suddenly, the soldiers’ boats turn back. We were surprised as we watch the militants pursued them before turning back towards the camp in jubilations.
“All of a sudden, military helicopters arrived from nowhere and they started blowing the boats out of the waters. It was the most horrific thing I have ever witnessed in my life. In less than five minutes all the boats and their occupants were gone, blown to bits. As we look, the military boats started coming back, approaching the camp.
“To our horror, they started shooting, we were afraid as the siphoning was still going on and this may ignite and blow us all out of the waters. Then the Filipinos were brought out to the waterside by the boys as the helicopter was raining fire over the camp.
“We thought that this will stop the soldiers, but they continued shooting at every body. They took off – Filipinos and all. We were on the ship with nowhere to go. The soldiers entered the camp, after about one hour or so, the shooting stopped. They brought some of the Filipinos out of the forest where they had run to. Some of them had gunshot injuries.”
The surprise attack on Camp 5 met little or no resistance, which proved to the military that the invisibility of Tompolo was media hype like the weapons of mass destruction attributed to Saddam Hussein by the Americans.
However, it was a bloodbath along the Escravos River on the fateful day as no less than 200 persons including men, women and children were killed. Camp 5 was laid to ruin with no living thing left alive. The military invaded the camp in 14 gunboats aided by four helicopter gunships in an operation which military spokesman, Col. Rabe Abubakar called “condone, search and rescue mission.”
It was a one way battle. The militants had no chance. It was like using a sledge hammer to kill a fly. To a visitor to the infamous Camp Five located barely five nautical miles from the Escravos Export Oil Terminal and Tank Farm, it is just another community in the Niger Delta.
Located on the bank of the Escravos river on the only navigable side of the over one kilometre wide river, a situation that made all users of the river to the Warri port at the mercy of the lords at Camp 5, who determine who passes at any time to and from the Warri port, including war ships belonging to the Nigerian Navy!
Before 1999, Camp 5 was actually a camp built and operated by the Bilfinger+Berger Oil and Gas Company (B+B), a subsidiary of Julius Berger Nigeria Plc. The camp was used to house both the expatriate and Nigerian senior staff of the company.
Camp five was built with houses in five row, besides the utility buildings, which houses two massive 5000 kva generators, water treatment plants and the beautiful camp club house which helps the oil workers to let off steam in the deep mangrove forest.
B+B was then working on the Odidi Integrated Gas Project, when the Warri Crisis began. At the beginning, things were working smoothly until the area became too hot for the comfort of the expatriate oil workers and they decided to demobilize and move out of the area completely.
But this was at a time Tompolo was gaining notoriety as a militant leader in the area. He asked the company officials to move out in peace but leaving everything in the camp as it was. The shocked officials of the company, some of whom had experienced a dose of the ruthlessness of the militants quickly left.
Tompolo and his men moved in. They retained the original name of the camp and soon expanded it as his army grows. Because it was at an open area, a situation which made his bunkering operation exposed to everyone that plies the river. Tompolo moved that operation to the Iroko Camp.
Today, Camp 5 is no more. The camp which has hosted a serving Vice President, some governors and a large number of government officials both at the federal and state level has been levelled and turned to rubbles under the mighty boots of the Nigerian Armed Forces.
Fast Forwards 2016
Now, Tompolo is on the run, a fugitive from the long arms of the law as he has been declared wanted by the federal government. The activities of the militants have also forced oil companies operating in the area, especially Chevron and Shell to begin the immediate closure of their oil production activities in the Niger Delta.
With the new situation, the nation has continued to lose over 250,000 barrels of oil production per day, a situation which forced some of the oil companies to declare Force Majeure on oil supply from Nigeria.
Many people in the region consider the president’s statement recently in China to bombard the region and treat suspected crude oil vandals like Boko Haram terrorists as a denigration of the supposed Niger Delta struggle and an indication that the federal government considers oil more important than the lives of people of the region. That aside, the spike in pipeline vandalism and associated crimes, just a few days after the federal government filed charges against Tompolo, may not be a mere coincidence.
Analysts opine that whoever is sabotaging the pipelines is doing so to get the federal government to make more concessions to the ex-militants, as a result of the intention of government to wind down the amnesty programme and its decision to prosecute known leaders of the struggle, who have breached the law.
But leader of the Ijaw Peoples Development initiative, Comrade Austin Ozobo, who was actively involved in the struggle leading to the granting of amnesty to the youths of the region, disagreed.
Ozobo believes that if nothing else, the deprivation, hunger and what he described as a total neglect of the oil-producing region is responsible for the increasing destruction of crude oil platforms in the Niger Delta.
Reminded that the neglect and lack of development have always been there, even when President Goodluck Jonathan was in Aso Rock, which fuelled rumours that the boys went back to the creeks because their ‘brother’ was defeated in the last election, the IPDI leader noted that the suffering in the region has never been as bad as what obtains today.
“It is out of joblessness, frustration, the poor treatment and total neglect of the region. We produce the national cake but there’s nothing to show for it. The grievances are growing and that’s the cause of the sabotage that you see around. You wouldn’t hear about any of our youths or intellectuals mentioned when they discuss the oil sector. People are not happy, so they don’t feel a sense of loss when they destroy these platforms,” Ozobo said.
According to the ex-agitator, the youths bombed the facilities because they are not benefitting from the oil in their land. “Until the government develops an enabling environment and engages the youths of the region, nothing will work.
“Abacha killed Ken Saro Wiwa thinking it will end the trouble; ex-President Olusegun Obasanjo demolished Odi, it didn’t work; They caged Asari (Dokubo), it didn’t work; they killed John Togo, it didn’t work and now the next target is Tompolo and it will not work,” he fumed.
On whether the prosecution of Tompolo will increase the tempo of vandalism, Ozobo said, “The so-called prosecution of Tompolo is not responsible (for the fresh armed struggle). Even if they kill him today, the trouble and struggle will continue,” he concluded.
Dr. Godwin Uyi Ojo, Executive Director, Environmental Rights Action/Friends of the Earth, Nigeria (ERA/FoEN), a group of environmentalists advocating a better deal for the poor people in the region, also aligns with Ozobo.
“First and foremost, the poverty level in Nigeria and indeed in the region is very high, though beyond that, pipelines vandalism is economic sabotage. Oil companies should stop criminalising local people, when they make demands. The amnesty programme was never going to be the solution. The surveillance contracts, instead of being given to the youths of the area, were given to militants.
“These poor people have been subjected to years of degradation and injustices. The PIB should address this. The amnesty programme was faulty from the beginning. It was to reward the armed rather than the majority of the people. Entrepreneurs of violence were the major beneficiaries. It was just a stopgap; it did not and will not solve the problem.”
Spokesman of the of the Joint Taskforce, Operation Pulo Shield, the security outfit constituted by the federal government to deal with the issue of pipeline vandalism and associated crimes in the region, Col. Isa Ado, told THISDAY he wasn’t willing to speak on the renewed activities of militants in the region.
“I just came to town after an assignment. I am not in a position right now to speak on the fight against insurgency in the Niger Delta,” he said. But whatever the reasons for the fresh hostilities in the region, from where almost all the revenues for running the country comes, pundits opine that deploying military force in the area which has not worked in the past, will still not work this time.
Tokenism, which the amnesty programme is believed to represent, will also not solve the problem, not even supporting another politician from the region to become president will as has been shown by the defeated immediate past government.
It is widely held that only a systematic, well thought out and a meticulously implemented development plan will reduce the growing tension in the strife-torn area, easily Nigeria’s goose that lays the golden egg.
According to a close aide of Tompolo, the camp of the embattled ex-MEND leader has continued to deny any involvement in the perceived renewed pipeline vandalism or the specific reason for the development.
“We do not know the reason there is an apparent resurgence of militancy in parts of the Niger Delta. In fact, we are not aware of any trouble in the Niger Delta region. All we clamour for is peace and tranquility, which will bring about growth and development to our dear country.”
Another former militant leader and self-styled ‘General’ said the new challenges might not be unconnected with the “shabby treatment of ex-militants by the federal government through the Amnesty Programme despite everything we have done to cooperate with them for security in the Niger Delta.”
He claimed that amnesty office has not paid those on the payroll of ex-militants even though President Buhari had stated his desire not to abandon the amnesty programme instituted by the administration of the late President Umaru Yar’Adua, which many believed had created a relatively peaceful atmosphere in the oil-rich region.
The ex-militant leader stressed that he had been finding it “difficult to control my boys, who are under me under this amnesty thing because the amnesty office has not been doing very well; they’re not ready to give us the monthly stipend.”
Another aspect of this discourse that could not be wisely ignored is the persistent complaints from non-violent agitators in the Niger-Delta about the priority attention the government has given to the “repented” violent agitators.
It would appear that the national security agencies in the region have been cautious in dealing with seeming resurgence of militancy amid threats by the federal government to adopt tougher measures against pipeline vandalism by setting up a special security outfit on pipeline protection and deploying “more sophisticated weapons” in the oil-rich region.
It is, perhaps, noteworthy that some influential individuals and businessmen as officials of the Delta State Government were prevented from joining the entourage of the Minister of Defence and service chiefs, who visited Delta after the pipelines blown up with explosives in January. The point of attack was at Egwa 11 located in Warri South-West Local Government Area of Delta State.
The Minister of Defence, retired Brigadier-General Mansur Mohammed Dan-Ali, was accompanied on the January 18, 2016 visit by the Chief of Defence Staff, Major-General Abayomi Gabriel Olonishakin, Chief of Naval Staff, Rear Admiral Ete Ekwe Ibas and other senior military personnel.
This is apparently in the light of the claims and counter-claims by certain individuals vis-à-vis the allegations made by Tompolo even before the bombing of the strategic oil pipelines.
Thus, the defence authorities are ostensibly wary about the integrity and innocence of some of influential personalities and businessmen even though they were enjoying close relationship with the security personnel, including those attached to the joint security task force, code-named Operation Pulo Shield.
We are not deterred by such threats as we are highly spirited and shall continue blowing up pipelines until the Niger Delta people are no longer marginalised by the Nigerian actors. Yes, the military have sworn to lay down their lives to protect Nigeria. We have on our part sworn to do whatever is necessary to safeguard the interest of the Niger Delta people