By Emmanuel Addeh in Yenagoa
Against the grain of public opinion that militants in the Niger Delta are fighting for a fair deal for the people of the region, a prominent Ijaw chief, Wilfred Ogbotobo, yesterday described the agitators as criminals and terrorists.
The local chief from Nembe Kingdom, Bayelsa State, who defended the recent military operations in the region, also said allegations of military highhandedness in the region were unfounded.
Ogbotobo, who spoke in Yenagoa, also said accusations by a human rights body, the Civil Liberties Organisation (CLO) that a community in the kingdom was invaded by the military, were untrue.
He added that rather than flay the military represented by the Joint Task Force, Operation Delta Safe in the region, the troops should indeed be commended for exhibiting a high sense of professionalism.
According to the Nembe indigene, since the arrival of the military in the coastal town, relative peace has returned to the community in which at least 10 soldiers have been killed by suspected criminals in the last one year.
He said despite several provocations, the soldiers had always maintained commendable restraint, maturity and discipline, in strict compliance with rules of engagement while carrying out their assignments, in “extremely vexatious and distressing environment in Nembe territories.
“The public could recall that on two different occasions, in the span of one year alone, the Nigerian Army suffered a gruesome loss of about ten troops who were killed in cold-blooded, unprovoked attacks on a security post, at Tombi Jetty in Nembe City.
“The circumstances solicited general outcry and condemnations even in the community and, could have been exploited as a golden opportunity for a military invasion and destruction of Nembe City or other areas of its territories.
“Rather, the military high command visited Nembe City to demonstrate understanding; dispelled the fears of the community; chased and apprehended the criminals, in a commendable, most professional conduct.
“No community was invaded or sacked. The soldiers did not go after and harass innocent, peaceful and unarmed persons in any community,” he said.
He advised rights bodies in the region to be even-handed in their reportage of the activities in the region, noting that the activities of militants were further endangering the Niger Delta.
The CLO chairman in Bayelsa, Chief Nengi James, who is also a chief from the kingdom, had last Saturday claimed that troops searching for militants invaded the town, attacked residents and burnt down houses, schools and churches.
But Ogbotobo said the allegations were “speculative,” adding that the presence of the army has made the town “safe and secure”
He posited: “The things that urgently need to be probed are the totality of the terrorist atrocities committed by the militants, that have caused untold hardships, environment destruction and human wastage.
“And (the militants) have grounded every conceivable economic activity in the creeks of the hinterlands.
“Nembe Kingdom and its territories must be freed of lawlessness and criminality. Nembe is a great civilisation and culture abundantly endowed on the face of the earth.”