After Two Days of Aerial Assaults, Military Moves in to Mop up Lagos, Ogun Creeks

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  • Casualty figure unknown
  • Prepares for onslaught against militants in the Niger Delta
  • MEND wins concessions on freedom for Tompolo, Okah Brothers, Nnamdi Kanu, others

Chiemelie Ezeobi in Lagos and Emmanuel Addeh in Yenagoa

Ground forces of the military Joint Task Force yesterday moved into the dreaded enclaves of the notorious pipeline vandals at the Arepo area of Ogun State and parts of Lagos State to mop up any remaining resistance by the militant groups who had been terrorising the areas since the last few weeks. This followed three days of sustained aerial bombing of the militants’ hideouts in the creeks and mangroves, THISDAY has learnt.

This was as indications emerged yesterday that the federal government might have concluded preparations for an onslaught against unyielding militants in the Niger Delta. Local militants in the delta have claimed several attacks on critical oil and gas facilities in the area, especially since the beginning of this year, with the federal government accusing them of sabotaging the national economy.

As a prelude to what may be one of the biggest military operations in the oil-rich region in recent times, the military authorities have visited the Niger Delta to assess the level of preparedness of the armed forces for the exercise, codenamed, “Operation Crocodile Smile”.

In a related development, Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta said at the weekend it had secured major “concessions and guarantees” in its on-going dialogue with the federal government. The dialogue is a window created by the federal government to try to achieve a peaceful resolution of the issues behind the resurgent militancy in the Niger Delta and attacks on the oil infrastructure. It aims to circumvent a military solution, which many fear may be counterproductive.

MEND said it had won guarantees for the release of its leader, Henry Okah, his brother, Charles Okah, and leader of the Indigenous Peoples of Biafra, Mr. Nnamdi Kanu, among other detained or jailed persons. It said the federal government had also agreed that Mr. Government Ekpemupolo, aka Tompolo, would not be arrested or intimidated whenever he made himself available.

The JTF comprises elements of the Nigerian Navy, Nigerian Air Force, and the Nigerian Army, alongside operatives of the Department of State Services, Nigerian Security and Civil Defence Corps, and the Nigeria Police.

While the aerial bombardment of the armed vandals’ bases in Ogun and Lagos states were carried out by NAF’s Alpha jets, with the trio of the EC135 and the ATR4 as force multipliers, military units on land combed the bombed areas to take out any militants that might still be holding out.

Before the offensive started on Thursday night, the DSS had ferretted intelligence and underground fact-finding while the police were brought in for search and rescue at the fringes of the mangrove for persons who had been kidnapped by the militant pipeline vandals.

The aerial bombardment and subsequent assault on the enclaves by the JTF was part of the military’s operation tagged “Operation Awatse”, an Hausa word for “scatter”, which has land, air and maritime components, with each under a commander. The offensive was initiated to flush out the pipeline vandals and militants operating at Ishawo, in Ikorodu, and Igando areas of Lagos State, and Arepo, Awawa, Elepete, and Ibafo areas of Ogun State. This is in line with the JTF’s mandate of protecting the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation’s pipelines from Atlas Cove to Mosimi Depot.

After months of successfully repelling the vandals from these areas, arresting many and recovering countless stolen products, the displaced vandals had merely retreated from sight. They had moved deeper into the mangroves and thick foliage, where it would be practically impossible for the security forces to track them because of the difficult terrain. They also cut down trees and blocked the already narrow and shallow creeks. THISDAY also gathered that to prevent invasion by the military, the armed vandals had laid booby traps along the narrow pathway that leads to the mangrove.

Investigations revealed that before the bombings, the suspects had become warlords and were illegally siphoning petrol, raping and kidnapping. They had created a fiefdom for themselves and hoisted their flag in the area they declared the “Republic of the Generals.”

The Chief of Defence Staff, General Gabriel Olonisakin, had directed a resort to aerial bombardment after an aerial surveillance, allegedly, revealed that the vandals had moved from accessible areas to the impenetrable mangroves. The military decided to take out the enclaves and hideouts of the vandals once and for all by bombing all the mapped out areas captured in video format by the surveillance helicopters.

THISDAY gathered that at the beginning of the aerial offensive, the vandals had mounted a GPMG gun on one of their boats and attempted to shoot down the military aircraft.

Speaking to THISDAY exclusively, the Flag Officer Commanding, Western Naval Command, Rear Admiral Bobai Ferguson, said although they had battled issues of the weather and the capability of the jets to fly at night, the bombing had to be conducted.

Ferguson said, “The air force went for reconnaissance this afternoon and they went in and came out. After the bombing, the picture of the bombardment was interpreted. We will sustain bombing of the mapped out areas.

“After the bombardment and the interpretation, the land forces will go in today (Saturday) into those places that have been bombarded to comb it thoroughly.”

Disclosing the modus operandi of the vandals, he said, “The NNPC pipes are on the surfaces, so what these vandals did was to dig boreholes and it’s two kilometres away from the pipelines. So you don’t even see them siphoning the products.

“What happens is that these products run into their already dug boreholes, from which they now run into kegs and drums and sell to the buyers. It’s a carefully planned operation.”

The Air Force Director of Public Relations, Wing Commander Ayodele Famuyiwa, told THISDAY that the aerial bombardment was on-going and would be sustained. Famuyiwa said, “The Chief of Air Staff, Air Marshal Sadiq Abubakar, is committed to timely employment of air power in response to Nigeria’s national security imperatives. We have sustained our air power in the North, in the South and now in the West.

“Our Alpha jets conducted the air strikes and we won’t stop bombing that area until the vandals are flushed out and the menace of pipeline vandalism and crude oil theft is eradicated in that area.”

On the casualties, Famuyiwa said he could not confirm the number.

Meanwhile, THISDAY has exclusively gathered that some petrol stations along the Lagos-Ibadan Expressway were already on the watch list of the security agencies. A reliable source said on condition of anonymity regarding the pipeline vandals, “As part of the operations, we also plan to not just mop up their sponsors but also the customers, who patronise them and buy stolen products.

“Already, our intelligence gathering has revealed that some petrol stations along the Lagos-Ibadan Expressway work in connivance with these vandals. Their deal is that these vandals get the stolen products and sell some to them at lower rates.

“We have also located their major market, which is a settlement in one of the creeks. Our intelligence gathering revealed that they sometimes go as far as smuggling the products through Igando creeks to Badagry. We have men stationed already there to block the market and arrest any of them seen trying to make sales.”

During one of the navy’s patrols, it was discovered that from the Awawa area of Arepo, it was easy to ferry the products from Arepo, from where they are transported to different parts of the country and sometimes to neighbouring African countries. Also, in the Ikorodu area, at Majidun, there is a market that handles the trans-border trade between vandals in Ikorodu and buyers from Arepo and vice versa, investigation has revealed.

In the Niger Delta, it is not clear when the military onslaught against recalcitrant militants would fully commence. But a transit camp, which would be temporarily occupied by some of the new security personnel that would carry out the operation, had been furnished in a quiet and isolated area of Yenagoa. The camp was inspected by military chiefs yesterday in an apparent bid to ensure its readiness for the military operation.

As part of a strategy to incorporate local communities into the operation, it was gathered that plans were underway to form a Civilian Joint Task Force in the Niger Delta, like the type helping the security services in the fight against Boko Haram in the North-east.

In the main, the proposed Niger Delta Civilian JTF , it was learnt, would comprise some ex-militants under the federal government’s amnesty programme who would be deployed to help in the gathering of intelligence to tackle the resurgence of violent agitations in the region from where the government gets most of its revenues.

Also included in the overall plan to rout the militants, especially those that have decided not to engage in talks with the federal government, or if the negotiation with them fails, is the deployment of specially trained forces in maritime combat and the rotation of military personnel around the country.

Among those who inspected critical assets in the area recently, in what could be the final preparation before deployment, were the Minister of Defence, Mansur Muhammed Dan-Ali; Olonishakin; The Commander Joint Task Force, Operation Delta Safe, Rear Admiral Joseph Okojie; Chief of Logistics at the Defence Headquarters, Abuja, Major General Austin Okoh; and Flag Officer Commanding, Central Naval Command, Yenagoa, Rear Admiral Mohammed Garba.

The groundwork before the full deployment also aligns with the Chief of Army Staff, Lt. General Tukur Buratai’s assertion last week that the military would from this weekend launch “Operation Crocodile Smile” to engage the recalcitrant warlords.

The operation, it was understood, would afford the Special Forces a chance to practise amphibious exercises in riverine areas in the South-south, especially in Delta and Bayelsa states, which have had intense militancy in the last few months, and then Rivers as well as parts of Akwa Ibom and Ondo states.

Dan-Ali, in company with his entourage of heads of most security formations in the Niger Delta, had earlier visited the deputy governor of Bayelsa State, Rear Admiral Gboribiogha John Jonah (rtd), and informed him and other officials of the state of the new plan to secure the region. The minister added that having succeeded in decapitating Boko Haram in the North-east, the next port of call would be the Niger Delta, which has recently come under attack from various militants groups, with untold consequences for the economy.

Though the defence minister noted that negotiation was still on the table and indeed insisted that the federal government was talking with the warlords, he maintained that applying military force to dislodge the armed agitators remained a potent option, saying, “We cannot rule that out.”

On fears about the effect of the military operation on the innocent civilian population, Dan-Ali said, “There has never been war without peace. We are not saying we are going to war, all we are doing is internal security work and it is not war, so you can’t be claiming collateral damage.

“We know our rules of engagement. We cannot just use force like that without any mandate. So, collateral damage does not come in. As far as we are concerned, we are just trying to stop criminality in the area.”

During a separate meeting with Bayelsa State government officials, Dan-Ali solicited the cooperation of all to make the exercise a success. He said, “During our last meeting with the vice president, with all the South-south governors in attendance, we all agreed that whatever security arrangements we have must involve the people within the area. I am here to reinforce that decision where all the governors and locals will have to be part of our security architecture.

“We have succeeded in the North-east, where we have that arrangement. The local JTF or civilian JTF, as we call them, have helped in our operations, especially in gathering intelligence.

“One of the cardinal arrangements is to have a pure assessment of how we can involve or imbibe them in the new security architecture called operation ‘Delta Safe’

“We are also of the opinion that some of these operations that will be conducted will help us to identify some of the illegal websites used for rumour or rumour mongering or selling our armed forces in a bad way and involvement in activities that shouldn’t be.

“We are getting some of the amnesty students that have graduated and they can be involved. They are being paid. As negotiation is going, we are all stakeholders and we should all be involved.”

The minister also said, “There would be constant rotation of our security personnel so that some of them will not be involved in illegal activities as a result of overstaying.

“We are also training a special brigade to add to what we have on the ground and we require some element of assistance.”

While fielding questions from journalists, Olonishakin “The military has the constitutional duty to ensure peace in the nation. Whatever we will need to do to ensure that will be done. We have allowed the truce so that whoever wants to talk can be given that opportunity. But we also have to make sure that our troops are ready so that the truce is well implemented.

“However, I want to call on those who are still sabotaging our critical infrastructure to put on their thinking caps and come to the negotiation table. We in the military will ensure that our critical infrastructure is protected. We will ensure that anyone found sabotaging the economy is properly dealt with and all the criminals are brought to book.”

Meanwhile, as part of efforts to circumvent the use of military tactics to resolve the Niger Delta crisis, MEND said in a statement yesterday signed by its spokesman, Jomo Gbomo, that in its negotiations with the federal government, the latter had also conceded to the release of “Obi Nwabueze; review of the life sentence handed to Mr. Edmund Ebiware; based on a proposal put forward by the Aaron Team representative for Abia and Imo states, Senator Adolphus Wabara, conditional release of IPOB leader, Mr. Nnamdi Kanu, and others, if they renounced their agitation for a ‘Biafra Republic’.”

Other concessions won by MEND, according to the statement, include, “That Mr. Government Ekpemupolo shall not be arrested, harassed and/or intimidated whenever he makes himself available as a delegate of the MEND Aaron Team 2; that, international arbitrator and conflict negotiator, American Dr. Judith Asuni, shall be accepted as the representative of the Niger Delta Avengers (NDA) on the MEND Aaron Team; that the criminal charges against Urhobo freedom fighter, Mr. Kelvin Prosper Oniarah, shall be reviewed;

“That, the life sentence which was handed to seven soldiers in 2008 who actively supported the Niger Delta struggle be reviewed under the Presidential Amnesty Programme.” It said the affected persons were Major Suleiman Alabi Akubo, Sergeant Mathias Peter, L.Cpl Alexander Davou, L.Cpl. Moses Nwaigwe, L.Cpl. Nnandi Anene, L.Cpl. Taatihi Emmanuel, and PTE Caleb Bawa.

As part of the agreements, MEND said while the military would be carrying out its exercise, code-named Operation Crocodile Tears, “MEND would commence a meet-the Government-Actors-and-People tour of the Niger Delta region code-named ‘Operation Moses’.

“While ‘Operation Crocodile Tears’ is aimed at ensuring the combat readiness of the Nigerian Army in amphibious and internal security operations in the Niger Delta as well as check criminal activities like kidnapping, pipeline vandalism, piracy and other forms of criminal activities spearheaded by the NDA in the region, MEND’s ‘Operation Moses’ is essentially to inform, educate and generally sensitise the citizenry in the Niger Delta, particularly the government, the youth, oil companies, elders and militant community on the need to ceasefire and support the President Muhammadu Buhari administration in its determined bid to proffer sustainable solutions to the current Niger Delta crisis.”

In a surprising reversal, MEND ended its statement with, “Long live the Niger Delta…Long live the Federal Republic of Nigeria!”