From Pulo Shield to Delta Safe, can the new security initiative in the Niger Delta effectively contain the rising militancy, asks Emmanuel Addeh
With Operation Pulo Shield in the Niger Delta now finally rested and the birth of Operation Delta Safe, Nigerians expect to see some progress in the war against criminalities in the region, ala vandalism, oil theft, illegal crude oil refining, kidnapping, sea robbery and all other forms of militancy.
But if antecedents are anything to go by, those who believe that nothing much has changed except a modification in nomenclature, given that the structure and personnel basically remain unchanged may have a point after all. Before the scrapping of the Operation Pulo Shield penultimate week, there was Operation Restore Hope, which became operational in the heat of militancy in the oil-rich region.
While scrapping the former outfit and renaming it Operation Delta Safe, the Defence Headquarters noted that the initiative was to restructure the Joint Task Force for better service delivery, efficiency and effectiveness. It noted that the decision was in line with the vision and mission of the Chief of Defence Staff to contain the current security challenges in the Niger Delta, especially protection of critical national assets and provision of security in the area.
The military added that the change had become necessary “in order to inject new tactics and robust operational initiative to tackle the emerging security challenges in the Niger Delta region such as piracy, bunkering, vandalism and other criminalities prevalent in the area”.
Interestingly, in January 2012, the military told the Nigerian public that Operation Restore Hope, as it was then called, was disbanded and replaced by Operation Pulo Shield to boost surveillance in Niger Delta.
Yet, a few years down the line, several militant groups, Niger Delta Avengers (2016-present), Red Egbesu Water Lions (2016-present), and Joint Niger Delta Liberation Force (2016-present), still pose serious threat to Nigeria’s economic survival.
And before them were the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (2004-2014), Niger Delta People’s Volunteer Force (2003-2009), Niger Delta Liberation Front (2005-2014) the Joint Revolutionary Council (2004-2014) and the Niger Delta Vigilante (2004-2009).
The NDA, one of the deadliest in recent times, has also attacked oil producing facilities in the Delta, causing the shutdown of oil terminals and a fall in Nigeria’s oil production to its lowest level in twenty years at a point. The attacks caused Nigeria to fall behind Angola as Africa’s largest oil producer, reduced oil output and hampered the Nigerian economy.
But as they say, history has a way of repeating itself. Despite what was seen as the efforts of the JTF at the time, it took late President Umar Yar’Adua’s amnesty programme to halt the rampaging militants. Just a few years later, the government is again discussing discreetly with ex-militants with a view to stopping the bombings and meeting their demands, despite the evolution of the military outfit.
Incidentally, the current Chief of Army Staff, who was then the Commander of 2 Brigade, Port Harcourt, Brig.Gen. Yusuf Buratai, as he then was, was upbeat when the defunct Operation Pulo Shield was born four years ago. He had told journalists that the operation was aimed at “taking the fight against pipeline vandalism, bunkering, illegal refining, kidnapping and piracy to greater heights.
“The JTF’s task of ‘Restore Hope’ has been virtually completed. We now have a new challenge to fight such crimes like oil bunkering, pipeline vandalism, and you know the oil sector plays a very vital role in our economy. We will not allow it to be destroyed,” he added.
Yet, it remains debatable whether that objective had been met by the transmutation of ORS to OPS and now ODS. However, it would seem that the deployment of the first naval commander to head the security outfit headquartered in Bayelsa, in the person of Rear Admiral Joseph Osa Okojie, may also be strategic as all former coordinators had emerged from the army.
A statement from Defence spokesman, Brigadier General Rabe Abubakar while announcing the change, said until his appointment, Okojie was Flag Officer Commanding Naval Training Command Lagos, noting that his new appointment took effect immediately.
But probably aware of some alleged actions of former commanders which were seen as unprofessional, the Bayelsa State Governor, Henry Seriake Dickson has advised the new helmsman to be properly guided by the ethics of the military profession. He cautioned the new commander to be professional in addressing security challenges in the region.
The governor, who gave the advice when he received the new Commander, also emphasised the need for the law enforcement agents to be neutral in dealing with criminal activities. While commending the federal government for retaining the headquarters of the “Operation Delta Safe” in Bayelsa, Dickson said the operations of the security outfit especially its maritime component had a crucial role to play, as the state is predominantly riverine in nature.
He called for non-interference in their activities in the interest of national peace and stability because of the strategic position the Niger Delta occupies in the country.
In his response, Okojie said the federal government deemed it necessary to “re-engineer” the security outfit as part of efforts to tackle insecurity effectively in the country. According to Rear Admiral Okojie, the task of achieving enduring peace and stability remains a joint effort involving the governments, community leaders and other stakeholders of the affected states, particularly in the maritime areas covered by its mandate.
The new Commander said the outfit would adopt a holistic approach in maintaining law and order, rather than use brute force. He, however, warned criminal-minded individuals to steer clear of the region as the Operation Delta Safe has acquired adequate resources to deal decisively with those, who are bent on sabotaging the government’s efforts towards promoting economic growth and prosperity.
But as Okojie resumes, one of his major tasks, many believe, would be the protection of his men, many of whom have died in the region, some of the deaths totally unwarranted. For instance, on June 1, 2016, a Nigerian Petroleum Development Company (NPDC) Houseboat deployed at Ejere junction in Warri South Local Government Area was attacked by suspected armed militants group.
“During the deliberate attack, two soldiers were killed, one wounded, one soldier missing while four civilian staff attached to the houseboat were shot dead. The attack occurred when other members of the troop were on pipeline patrol,” army authorities confirmed.
Even the CAS recently lamented the deaths. “They have been attacking our troop’s locations, killing our soldiers. We will not tolerate them. We will deal with them according to the law. We will look for them wherever they are. They (militants) are not agitating for anything, they are just into crime. Communities should be patriotic enough to expose these criminals. They have nothing to fear.
“They should help fish out these criminals killing our soldiers. We will not tolerate that. They must come out to help. They have nothing to fear. Everybody, every Nigerian should expose these criminals. They have nothing to fear,” he said.
In a similar manner, three soldiers attached to the JTF were killed in an ambush by a gang of unknown gunmen in Foropa, Southern Ijaw Local Government Are (LGA) of Bayelsa State. Same way, three naval officers were drowned by suspected militants in the same Bayelsa and their corpses discovered days after.
Aside that, it is widely held that Okojie must police his men and ensure that cases of complicity of some of the officers fighting criminalities in the region, like in a report sometime ago detailing the complexities of ongoing massive oil theft in Nigeria’s oil rich, do not recur.
The report, published by Stakeholder Democracy Network (SDN), after what it said was an extensive research, averred that there was extensive evidence that some corrupt members of the JTF were actively participating and profiting from oil theft and illegal oil refining.
According to the report, a “relatively small number” of top ranking JTF officers have criminal ties to the tap point owners, oil theft unions and camps managers – the most profitable part of the chain.”
The reports adds that at the top of the oil theft chain, the tapping point, the most lucrative part of the business chain, top ranking JTF officers own shares alongside technicians and couriers.
“During the tapping process, the JTF ensures the surrounding waterways are clear so workers can install the tap without disturbance,” the report alleged.
SDN also revealed that during its investigation, a kind of ‘protection money’ is paid after which vessels are granted open passage through the transport corridor. But the JTF command in the Niger Delta had dismissed the report, noting that none of his men had been court martialed over oil theft. The killing of innocent persons, especially those who ply the waterways, observers affirm, must also stop.
A human rights activist and state representative, Environmental Rights Action (ERA), Mr. Alagoa Morris noted, “One of the worst opponents to contend with is the one, who is very scared of you and lacks confidence. He would not hesitate to kill you with the smallest opportunity. The shooting and killing of innocent, harmless and law-abiding citizens by soldiers in the creeks is no exception.”
With his job clearly cut out, all eyes are on Rear Admiral Okojie to at least, minimise all the vices that have set the region and indeed the nation back in the past and curb the excesses of his men. Will he make the difference? Nigerians are watching…
But if antecedents are anything to go by, those who believe that nothing much has changed except a modification in nomenclature, given that the structure and personnel basically remain unchanged may have a point after all. Before the scrapping of the Operation Pulo Shield penultimate week, there was Operation Restore Hope, which became operational in the heat of militancy in the oil-rich region