Chiemelie Ezeobi writes that the ongoing Operation Awatse, the Hausa word for ‘scatter’, has really lived up to its name by dislodging the notorious pipeline vandals, who once held sway in Lagos and Ogun creeks
It was a well planned operation that ran seamlessly. These pipeline vandals were a law unto themselves. Having created a republic codenamed ‘The General’s Republic’ with a flag hoisted to mark the land as theirs, they ran a pipeline vandalism and oil theft syndicate that denied the nation of petroleum products worth billions of naira.
Given that these oil pipelines belonging to the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC) were virtually on exposed on the surface of the soil, these vandals, dug boreholes two kilometres away from the pipelines and siphoned the products illegally. These products then run into their already dug boreholes, from which they now scoop
into kegs and drums and sell to the buyers both within Nigeria and to neighboring countries at lower rates.
THISDAY investigations revealed that before the bombings, the vandals had become war lords and were involved in illegally siphoning petrol products, raping several residents and kidnapping. They had also entrenched themselves further in the area to the extent that they created a republic in the area.
Within those creeks, there were increasing cases of kidnapping, rape, acts of vandalism and armed robbery operations continuously perpetrated by these vandals, who always come out of their enclaves to terrorise civilians in the nearby communities, especially in June. At the Ishawo community, cases of kidnapping abound especially that of the Redeemed Christian Church of God (RCCG) pastor and the recent abduction of the Oba of Iba, Oba Goriola Oseni, who was recently rescued.
All that was until July 28, 2016, when the Joint Task Force codenamed Operation Awatse, commenced the aerial bombardment of Fatola, one of the hideouts of the notorious pipeline vandals in the Arepo area of Ogun State, as well as other creeks and mangroves of Ishawo and Igando areas of Ikorodu in Lagos State; then Awawa, Elepete and Ibafo areas of Ogun State.
After the intensive aerial bombardment and subsequent invasion of the enclave by the Nigeria Air Force (NAF) fighter pilots, that lasted for nearly a week, the ground forces then moved in to mop up and destroy the camps, just as they arrested 11 of the vandals.
Codenamed ‘Operation Awatse’, an Hausa word for ‘scatter’, which has both the land, air and maritime components in place, is championed by the Joint Task Force (JTF) comprising the elements of the Nigerian Navy (NN), the Nigerian Air Force (NAF) and the Nigerian Army (NA), alongside the Department of State Security Services (DSS) and the Nigerian Security and Civil Defence Corps (NSCDC) and the Nigerian Police Force (NPF).
Hinged on the pilot scheme of Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR), the Air Force had deployed two fighter jets, one MIG 34 and ATR4 aircraft for the operation. But with so many targets in the creeks, it was gathered that the vandals had set up observation posts, which are manned by their heavily armed duty post guards. The surveillance videos obtained by the NAF Beachcraft (NAF 202), showed that the vandals were heavily armed and they had the GPMG, which they mounted on their gunboats.
Also, the video surveillance at night showed the vandals doing incantations, probably to use voodoo power to protect their camps and foil subsequent bombardments by the NAF pilots. Although the video had no sound, the vandals were however seen dancing around and chanting repeatedly with white handkerchiefs tied round their arms.
The Vandal’s Modus Operandi
THISDAY gathered that the aerial surveillance video obtained by the NAF aircraft showed millions of kegs containing the stolen petrol products, which were chained together and hidden in the creeks. At the Arepo area in particular, the video showed a massive oil theft cartel, operating their well-oiled operations in the creeks.
Disclosing the modus operandi of the vandals, a senior military officer who spoke on condition of anonymity said, “The NNPC pipelines 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.”
Meanwhile, THISDAY also exclusively gathered that some petrol stations along the Lagos-Ibadan Expressway are already on the watch list of the security agencies. Speaking on anonymity, an impeccable source said, “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. Asides this, 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.”
THISDAY investigations also revealed that from the Wawa area of Arepo, it is easy to ferry the products from Arepo, from where it is transported to different parts of the country and sometimes to neighbouring African countries. Also, at the Ikorodu area at Majidun lies a market that handles the trans-border trade between vandals at Ikorodu and buyers from Arepo and vice versa.
To the uninitiated, the route from Ikorodu to Arepo would seem curvy and confusing because the route forks into two, with the one on the left leading to Arepo from where the product is sent to different parts of the country. The market is hidden out of sight and inwards the creeks but are accessed by these vandals without stress.
A Recap of Operation Awatse
The intensive offensive air strikes were initiated to flush out the pipeline vandals turned militants operating at Ishawo and Igando areas of Ikorodu in Lagos State; then Arepo, Awawa, Elepete and Ibafo areas of Ogun State, given that the JTF was tasked with the responsibility of protecting the NNPC pipelines from Atlas Cove to Mosimi Depot.
After the previous months of successfully repelling the vandals from these areas, arresting many and recovering thousands of stolen products, the displaced vandals had merely retreated from sight. They had moved deeper into the mangroves and thick foliages, where it would be practically impossible forces to track them because of the difficult and tenuous terrain.
They also cut down thick trees and blocked the already narrow and shallow creeks. THISDAY also gathered that to prevent invasion by the military, the suspects had laid bobby traps along the narrow pathway that leads to the mangrove. Their method worked until recently when the military decided to activate its air power.
But this time around, although the military were initially directed against using air power to bomb the area, the Chief of Defence Staff (CDS), General Gabriel Olonisakin, had cause to change his mind after an aerial surveillance revealed that the vandals had moved from accessible areas to the impenetrable mangroves. With that, the Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) was carried out before the actual bombing occurred.
Therefore, on Thursday, July 28, in an unprecedented move, the military decided to take out these 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.
Meanwhile, before the offensive started on Thursday night, the DSS had already helped out in ferreting intelligence and underground fact finding while the police were brought in for search and rescue at the fringe of the mangrove for some persons who had been kidnapped by these suspects earlier.
So, on that fateful day, the military deployed its fighter jets, attack helicopters and Alpha jets not just to bomb the area but as a show of force multiplier and show of force. Thus, when the aerial bombardment began at midnight, pandemonium had erupted as the residents of the area thought militants from the Niger Delta had struck.
But addressing journalists the next day at the conference hall of the Western Naval Command (WNC), the Flag Officer Commanding, WNC, Rear Admiral Fergusson Ducas Bobai, assuaged all fears, adding that the offensive would continue until the vandals are given a run for their money.
Given that the Operation Awatse has intensified efforts to clear out the enclave permanently, Bobai said they would this time go beyond that to get to the chief sponsors of the vandals, to know who armed them with the heavy duty weapons they were toting.
He said, “Last month, we got a directive from the Chief of Defence Staff (CDS), General Gabriel Olonisakin, to carry out an operation in Arepo and dismantle the vandal’s camps scattered around Ishawo in Ikorodu, Ibafo and Arepo in Ogun State.
Initially, we were directed not to use air power when we carried out an assessment of the area, the vandals had moved from accessible areas to the mangroves.
“We got back to the CDS informing him that taking out the target is through air power and we were directed to do a general assessment and deploy attack helicopters. But before then, we were in touch with Lagos and Ogun State Governments because the Areas of Responsibility (AOR) were within their domain.
“First, we deployed a surveillance aircraft to go see the area and we analysed the videos and pinpointed the areas to be destroyed. The revelation from the video showed that a lot of pipeline vandalism was taking place in the area. We could see loads of jerrycans chained together in the area.
“The inaccessibility of the area helped their trade. Aside the fact that the water is shallow, they cut down trees and blocked the waterways. On Thursday, we initiated action and we knocked down some. Later, the surveillance aircraft went up for another video surveillance to survey the area. In the video, one of the canoes had a GPMG gun and the interpretation is that what is happening there is well planned, given how well armed they are.”
However, Bobai said one of the major challenges the military offensive is facing is the inclement weather. He said, “The weather is one of the major challenges because the clouds are low. So, the helicopter is finding it difficult to manoeuver. However, we will continue our offensive.”
On Saturday, the ground forces attempted to move into the dreaded enclave of the notorious pipeline vandals at the Arepo area to mop them up after three days of sustained aerial bombing of their hideouts at the creeks and mangroves.
Before the bombings continued on Sunday, the land component; Army, NSCDC and the police were able to identify the getaway routes and blocked it, while the maritime component, which is the navy, had also blocked the escape routes especially that of Abeokuta, Ogun State.
On Monday, Bobai, while harping on the Chief of Naval Staff, Vice Admiral Ibok Ette-Ibas’ mission, which is “to deploy a naval force that is well trained, organised and highly motivated to discharge its constitutional roles professionally and efficiently for the defence of Nigeria in ensuring her economic prosperity” said the navy has zero tolerance for crude oil theft, pipeline vandalism and other maritime illegalities.
He 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.”
On Tuesday, the JTF sustained the tempo in flushing out the dreaded pipeline vandals occupying the creeks and mangrove in Lagos and Ogun States. Although the weather hampered plans by fighter jets of the NAF to sustain its four days aerial bombardment of the creeks, surveillance and reconnaissance however continued.
By Thursday, the ground forces were finally able to access three of the camps and destroyed what was left of it and on Saturday, they had accessed the headquarters of the vandals and completely brought down the structures.
Also dispelling rumours that innocent civilians were bombed, the Defence spokesman, Brigadier General Rabe Abubakar, said, “There is no way innocent persons would be hit because what we are doing is ‘precision attack on registered target or identified location’.
No innocent Nigerian was hit. The attack is on the criminals who hide in the creeks.”
Urging people to desist from tagging the criminals as members of a particular ethnic group he said, “We are not carrying out military attack on Ijaw, we are carrying out the operation against criminals. We don’t tag them. Militants are militants. We don’t want to know if they are Hausa, Igbo or Yoruba, our war is against pipeline vandals and oil thieves.”
Successes Recorded So Far
During the operation, the anti-pipeline vandalism Joint Task Force (JTF), were able to smoke out 11 notorious pipeline vandals due to the ongoing aerial bombardment. This is just as it has identified and bombed four key targets (observation posts) in the hideouts of the notorious pipeline vandals, which was manned by heavily armed duty guards.
While confirming the arrests, Bobai said they would sustain the aerial bombardment and to assess the level of successes recorded, the FOC alongside other security agencies had an after battle assessment after the initial five-day aerial bombardment.
Representing the services were the General Officer Commanding (GOC), 81 Division Headquarters of the Nigerian Army, Major General Isidore Edet; the Air Officer Commanding (AOC), Air Force Logistics Command, Air Vice Marshal Sani Ahmed and the Commander, Nigerian Army 9 Brigade, Brigadier General Sani Mohammed. Others include the Lagos State Commissioner of Police, Fatai Owoseni; the Commandant, Nigerian Security and Civil Defence Corps (NSCDC), Tajudeen Balogun; and the Director, Department of State Security Services.
According to Bobai, the decision to therefore sustain the aerial bombardment, was to ensure that the four key targets gotten on the surveillance videos are knocked out using precision attack on registered targets. He said, “After using some of their surveillance aircraft to carry out reconnaissance of the areas since Thursday, the Nigerian Air Force pilots were at the Logistics Command to brief us.
“Through the surveillance gathered, we identified four key targets, which we believe we knocked off and there is confusion in the vandals’ camp. The Nigeria Air Force over the weekend used their Alpha Jets and helicopters to identify the targets and so, we had to call all the agencies involved to do an after battle assessment.
“We have watched the video that the reconnaissance aircrafts have captured and we are very convinced that there is need to sustain the operation. Therefore, we are going to sustain and continue to mop up the ground as the Nigerian Air Force continues to use their air power to neutralise some other areas.
“Already, we have arrested 11 suspects who are being processed and we are profiling and interrogating them to ferret out further clues from there, which will assist us in the operation. We have 11 suspects in our custody. They are still being processed. All the security agencies are involved in this operation to avoid infiltration of other areas by militants. It will not be limited to Arepo. If we get information that some of them have escaped and are in another area, we will go after them.”
On the millions of kegs containing the stolen products, which were sighted in the surveillance videos, he said they will set them all ablaze because the terrain is too difficult to bring them out. He said, “We will set them ablaze because it’s not easy to recover any of the stolen petroleum products stored in jerrycans in the creeks. There is no need going into task that will be fruitless.”
The Air Force’s Input
Although the navy chairs the JTF, the aerial bombardment, surveillance and reconnaissance is being carried out under the leadership of the AOC Logistics Command, AVM Sani Ahmed, who coordinates and guides the air component of the entire exercise.
The strength of the air component lies in the Beachcraft aircraft, the Maritime Patrol Aircraft (ATR4), two Alpha jets and the MIG 34 aircraft, which is used for close support and has mounted rifles, guns in front for dropping rockets.
Also, speaking, the Air Force Director of Public Relations (DOPRI), Group Captain Ayodele Famuyiwa, confirmed to THISDAY that aerial bombardments are ongoing and would be sustained, adding that although the vandals have been displaced, operations will still be intensified to neutralise their criminal activities.
He said, “The Chief of Air Staff (CAS), 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.
“There are strong indications based on analysis of the enclosed footage on Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR), as well as Strike and, Battle Damage Assessment (BDA) missions undertaken by NAF aircraft that the vandals have been sufficiently displaced from their current locations at Arepo while their criminal activities have also been heavily disrupted. NAF is at present operating in four zones across the country to tackle various forms of internal security challenges. They include insurgency in the North-east; cattle rustling, kidnapping and armed robbery in the North-west; militancy in the South-south; and pipeline vandalism in the South-west.”
An On-the Spot Assessment
In two separate operations, the acting Inspector General (IG) of Police, Ibrahim Idris and the FOC, Western Naval Command, Rear Admiral Bobai, also recently visited the dreaded creeks in Lagos and Ogun States and the duo also ordered for the immediate demolition of the vandal’s buildings.
While the IG had gone straight to Ishawo in Ikorodu to see the extent the Operation Awatse Joint Task Force had gone, the FOC had however extended his tour not just at Ishawo but to Arepo, Ibafo and Elepete. Bobai, who is the chairman of the JTF, again reiterated the resolve of the military to rid the area of their responsibility of pipeline vandals, who constitute economic sabotage on the nation’s resources.
He also said that given the numerous successes recorded by the joint task force, they were encouraged to sustain the operation and ensure that all the nooks and crannies of the creeks were secured. Following the success of the several aerial bombardments, the ground troops would be deployed to enter the hinterland part of the creeks and mop up the remaining suspects
He said, “We went for an on-the-spot assessment and following the success of the aerial bombardment by the Air Force, the ground troops will now be deployed to go in and mop up. So far, the operation has been successful with the arrest of 11 suspects so far in our custody. We will sustain the tempo however. The job is not over yet. But be rest assured, we will finish it.”
On the other hand, the IG ordered for the immediate demolition of houses used by pipeline vandals in the Ikorodu area of Lagos after some of the buildings used to siphon fuel were discovered by the JTF.
The IGP who was on an on-the-spot assessment of the Ishawo, said so far, two locally made guns, two Generator sets, eight dane guns, 32 live ammunition, two laptops, a General-Purpose Machine Gun(GPMG) magazine, AK 47 rifle , I8 cutlasses, Police badges and voters cards were recovered from the houses.
He said with the recovery, the police would be able to trace the suspects as the account numbers of the depository and the banks were known and while encouraging the security operatives keeping vigil in the volatile areas, he also pleaded with fleeing residents in Arepo and Ikorodu to come back home since the police and other sister agencies are on ground to provide adequate security in the area.
Idris also charged the residents cooperate with the operatives by providing them with information on the activities of criminal elements within their vicinity. He however, praised the military exercise that was carried out jointly with the police to curb the activities of the militants within the area, adding that Operation Awase, was a tremendous success as the militants have been completely chased out.
The IG also said the police high command would deploy gunboats and patrol boats to tackle the problems of insecurity in our waterways. Ibrahim, who was on his maiden visit to Lagos, in the company of the Deputy Inspector Generals of Police, Joshack Habilla and Folunsho Adebanjo, of Operations and ICT Departments respectively, said efforts were on to check criminals operating at creeks and waterways across the nation.
On the security on the waterways he said, “I have assessed the police deployment there and we are trying to see how we can improve on the deployment in the creeks and waterways. We are looking at ways to enhance the marine police. The governor (Akinwunmi Ambode) was talking on the gunboats and patrol boats and these are the areas we are going to tackle on to see that we have more deployment on the creeks and waterways from Lagos up to Calabar and Delta. We are going to increase visibility policing to tackle insecurity. It’s one of the preventive measures to stop crime.”
Also, the Commanding Officer of the ground component, Lieutenant Colonel Julius Ogbobe, also explained to the IG the sketch of the locations of the enemies and how they carried out the operations. He said the soldiers said they could not access the creeks, and called on the state government to assist them to build an access road to make it accessible, adding that the state government should assist in bringing cutting machines to clear the creeks.
Given the clear-cut successes recorded by the JTF in 12 days so far, the onus lies on them not just to sustain the tempo, but to also ensure that these vandals never get to return to those creeks to perpetuate acts of illegality, like was obtained in the past.