• MEND confirms dialogue with FG, group says it’s pushing for release of Okah brothers
By Senator Iroegbu in Abuja, Sylvester Idowu in Warri and Emmanuel Addeh in Yenagoa
Baring any major progress in the ongoing dialogue between the federal government and stakeholders in the Niger Delta to end the attacks on oil and gas installations, the Nigerian military is in process of wrapping up plans to launch a major offensive against the militants sabotaging facilities in the oil-rich region.
However, the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) confirmed yesterday that the federal government was in dialogue with militants, not criminals in the region, through oil companies and the law enforcement agencies.
Despite the attempt at a détente, reliable sources informed THISDAY that the federal government was losing patience with the militants whose activities have disrupted oil and gas output and in turn revenue accruable to the government.
It was on this basis that the Group Managing Director of the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation, Dr. Maikanti Baru, met with the Chief of Defence Staff, General Abayomi Olonishakin, and other top brass in the military last Thursday and appealed for their assistance in securing and safeguarding oil and gas assets in the region.
The NNPC boss warned that the country was in danger of not being able to execute the 2016 budget if the oil losses brought on by the militancy are not nipped in the bud.
In response to the visit, Defence Headquarters (DHQ) spokesman, Brig-Gen. Rabe Abubakar, told THISDAY yesterday that the military and other security agencies were leaving no stone unturned at maintaining security across the nation, including the Niger Delta.
Abubakar vowed that the military “shall continue to operate within our rules of engagement to deny the any group freedom of movement and action in order to curtail their excesses for the national interest of our country”.
He however stated that the military was going to be patient until the outcome of the ongoing negotiations with the militants and various stakeholders in the region before taking any major operational steps.
“We are not going to be pushed to respond to their criminal activities, as negotiations with our political leaders are ongoing. However, that doesn’t mean that we have shut our eyes to the ongoing sabotage in the region.
“We are mindful of our roles of maintaining security and protecting our strategic infrastructure and assets in that general area. We will maintain a higher level of professional presence to thwart any wanton activities.”
In the same vein, a senior military officer told THISDAY after the meeting with the NNPC that the military was preparing and ready for a major onslaught against the militants.
The officer said even though more resources and equipment would be needed, especially for the Nigerian Navy, the time being used for the dialogue would provide them the opportunity to gather intelligence and fine-tune strategies with other security agencies on how to tackle the menacing militants.
“I think we are ready to move and gather more intelligence so that whether it is an all out offensive or surgical operation, we will be able to hit them hard with minimal collateral damage.
“Things are shaping up with the establishment of the Command and Control Centre for Operation Delta Safe,” the source said.
The Chief of Army Staff (COAS), Lt-Gen. Tukur Buratai, during a press briefing early this month confirmed that the command and control of Niger Delta region had been handed over to the Nigerian Navy.
Buratai said that the navy was more conversant with the terrain and would have the edge in dealing with the militants inside the creeks.
He, however, added that the army still maintained an amphibious division and the land component to support the navy and other security forces in a confrontation with the militants.
But as the military waits on the sidelines to launch its offensive against the marauding militants, one of the groups in the region, confirmed yesterday that the federal government was in dialogue with militants through oil companies and the law enforcement agencies.
MEND said that the federal government would not dialogue with criminals in finding a solution to the renewed crisis in the Niger Delta.
The militant group, which no longer employs violence in its agitation for development of the region and a greater share of its resources, said in a statement by its spokesperson, Jomo Gbomo: “The federal government made it clear during our meetings that negotiating with criminals is out of the question.
“The Niger Delta Avengers and internet-based militant groups such as Joint Revolutionary Council, Ultimate Warriors etc. – an Ijaw opportunistic tribal assembly – which were compromised to keep silent during the six years of Goodluck Jonathan’s misrule and neglect. Pirates, pipeline vandals, oil thieves, commercial kidnappers, waterway robbers, political thugs, and miscreants all fall under this category.
“The Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) wishes to confirm that indeed it has been in preliminary talks with the federal government through oil companies and law-enforcement agencies as revealed by President Muhammadu Buhari on Thursday, July 21, 2016.
“These preliminary talks are the precursor to a wider dialogue between the federal government and the MEND Aaron Team 2 peace initiative, which will seek to find solutions to the short, medium and long-term future of the Niger Delta region.”
Its statement contrasted with that of the Niger Delta Avengers, the group that has claimed responsibility for the recent wave of bombings of oil assets, which at the weekend said it was not in talks with the federal government.
Also, another group, the Ultimate Warriors, rejected MEND’s statement on its dialogue with the government.
Describing the once dreaded MEND as mere jobbers, the Ultimate Warriors maintained that the only agenda on the militant group’s programme was to ensure the release of the Okah brothers currently in jail in Nigeria and South Africa.
According to the group, the much talked about MEND Aaron Team 2 which is positioning itself to lead the entire Niger Delta agitators would only cause more trouble amidst the many groups in the region.
A statement released on behalf of the group by its spokesman, Sibiri Taiowoh, argued that having earlier rejected the Amnesty Programme, the brothers should not benefit from it.
“Our attention has been drawn to a statement credited to the defunct MEND that is now an internet-based group of jobbers.
“We want to let the public know that the MEND that we know under which the likes of Tompolo, Boyloaf and other ex-warlords operated has since been disbanded by the group of ex-agitators who were registered under the Amnesty Programme.
“The current MEND and its so-called Aaron Team 2 is a concoction of the Okah brothers and family,” the group alleged.
The Ultimate Warriors said that the sole aim of this so-called “MEND and the flaunted Aaron Team is to get Henry Okah and Charles Okah pardon under the Presidential Amnesty Programme”.
“But they have forgotten that the Okah brothers were actually the ones who tried to sabotage the Amnesty Programme initiated by the late President Umaru Yar’Adua and former President Goodluck Jonathan.
“Is it the amnesty that the Okah brothers declared as a sham and they never supported that they want the president to use to pardon them, or what kind of clemency are they trying to push for the Okahs?
“Is it not funny that the MEND that is now Okah’s business is asking for amnesty for the Niger Delta Avengers and giving conditions to have them added to the dialogue team when the same MEND cannot openly ask for amnesty for the Okah brothers, instead they are trying to sneak into the house through the backdoor.
“We are against the MEND Aaron Team arrangement because it is utterly against our mission and their aim is in conflict with ours.
“What they are pushing for is freedom for the Okahs that they are trying to use to sabotage our agitation for resource control, rapid development, and freedom for the poor people of the Niger Delta,” the group argued.
It maintained that MEND was nowhere when this “new face of the struggle started”, adding: “They should stop trying to lord it over us.”
“What is happening is that MEND is trying to leverage on the renewed crisis to press for the release of the Okahs through the Amnesty Programme which the duo failed to support at inception.
“We pity the statesmen that the so-called MEND is assembling under their concocted Aaron Team 2. It is better they all back out from the Aaron Team plot because the government is not prepared to commence the dialogue from their perspective.
“More so, we haven’t given the so-called MEND Aaron Team 2 any go- ahead to pick our representatives or constitute a dialogue team for us.
“This struggle is not for Okah and MEND cannot pick people for the entire Niger Delta.
“We are not going to hand it over to MEND to constitute a team for us. If the government truly wants to dialogue, the grandstanding by the so-called MEND might be a clog. This is our position,” it said.