Military’s Scorecard in Niger Delta

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Recently, the military-led Joint Task Force fighting crime in the Niger Delta, gave an account of its activities since the change of its code name to Operation Delta Safe in 2016. Emmanuel Addeh reports

Unarguably, the Niger Delta remains the most important region in terms of its economic contribution to the survival of the entity called Nigeria, at least as it obtains today.

No wonder, therefore, that ‘the powers that be’ in Abuja, the country’s seat of power do not take lightly security issues in the Niger Delta, given the catastrophic effect it would have on crude oil production which Nigeria relies heavily upon as a foreign exchange earner.

To curtail the intermittent disruptions, especially to oil infrastructure and multinationals, the Joint Task Force, a security outfit which has evolved in the last few years, both in nomenclature and tactics, was birthed.

Since then, it has transmuted from Operation Pulo Shield (OPS) which earlier succeeded Operation Restore Hope (ORH) and now Operation Delta Safe, (OPDS).

However, the objectives remain the same: To tackle vandalism, oil theft, illegal crude oil refining, kidnapping, sea robbery and all other forms of criminalities in the region.

But in the course of going about its duties, the headship of the outfit has also come out occasionally to intimate the public as to how far it has gone and what remains to be done. Simply put, the leadership of the Special Force, renders account of its stewardship.

To this end, The Joint Task Force (JTF), Operation Delta Safe, headquartered in Bayelsa disclosed penultimate week that it had in the last 15 months recovered massive high-calibre weapons used by militants and suspected oil thieves in the Niger Delta.

Listing its successes in the fight against criminalities in the region, the JTF, a coalition of all security agencies in the country, noted that the killing of four deadly militants across the Niger Delta states was also a breakthrough in its efforts to rid the region of ‘hostile elements’.

In a joint press conference by the Acting Director of Defence Information, Abuja, Brig.-Gen John Agim and the Deputy Commander of the JTF, Brig.-Gen Kevin Aligbe, the Force also declared that it recovered 1,389 different types of arms and 20,352 items of munitions from criminals.

“From 1 January 2017, till date, the Force has seized and impounded 24 vessels, 191 barges, 234 outboard engines and 476 other types of passenger boats.

“Additionally, the Force has seized 105 tanker trucks, 228 other vehicles and 610 pumping machines as well as 76 generator sets and 5,842 other items being used in facilitating illegalities in the joint operations areas,” Agim said.

According to the Defence spokesman, to make life uncomfortable for the militants and illegal oil refiners, the military also embarked on the destruction of their safe havens and the items used in perpetrating illegalities.

“The Force has in this process destroyed 1,437 illegal refineries, 795 wooden cargo boats (also known as Cotonou boats), 3,872 metal surface tanks and 1,019 plastic tanks. Also, 13,129 drums and 13,343 Jerry cans have been destroyed,” he said.

He added that the use of ‘swamp buggy’ in the JTF’s anti-illegal refining operations had significantly degraded the capacity of illegal refinery operators to revamp destroyed illegal refineries.

Agim declared that since activation, a total of 1,846 persons involved in diverse acts of criminality had been arrested in the JOA, adding that a large percentage of the suspects had been transferred to prosecuting agencies accordingly.

The operation which covers the entire Bayelsa, Delta and Rivers States, as well as the southern parts of Abia, Akwa Ibom, Cross River, Imo and Ondo states, the military said, also saw the clearing of areas of identified militant camps whose activities had threatened national security.

Recalling the killing of some top militants in the region, the JTF noted that many of the operations led to the restoration of full scale oil production in the Niger Delta.

“Several militants have been neutralised and camps destroyed in the process. Furthermore, a high profile militant called Ossy Ibori was neutralised at Ajakpa, Ese-Odo LGA of Ondo State. One Augustine Gbangbanran, who operated along the Sapele/Warri North axis of Delta State, died of gunshot wounds he sustained in an encounter with troops.

“Operations which were initiated in 2017, eventually led to the neutralisation of another notorious militant called Oyawerikumor Peregbakumor (a.k.a. Kariowei) in early 2018.

“Subject had terrorised communities along the Bomadi/Burutu axis of Delta State, and staged high profile kidnappings including that of four British expatriates in 2017 in which one missionary died.

“In Southern Cross River and Akwa Ibom states, Operation Delta Safe carried out an extensive clearance operation from 24 March – 1 April 2018. Prior to the operation, the security situation had significantly deteriorated following violent cult and militants activities.

“Two local government areas of Akwa Ibom State namely Etim Ekpo and Ukanafun were cleared of miscreants who had negatively impacted socio-economic life. The operation was a huge success owing to the synergy amongst the security agencies in Akwa Ibom State with the OPDS,” Agim said.

He noted that on the 11th of April 2018, Operation Delta Safe successfully conducted a covert operation with Special Forces where a high profile militant leader of the Bakassi Strike Force, alias G1, had continued to pose a transnational threat in Cameroun and the coastal territory of Bakassi, Ikang and environs in Nigeria.

“Concertedly, our troops dislodged the militant group’s camp at a creek along Efut Esighi in Cross River State where several arms and ammunition were recovered and some of the militants neutralised,” he added.

According to him, all the efforts are in line with the Chief of Defence Staff, General Abayomi Gabriel Olonisakin’s directive, as well as meeting the strategic expectations for the establishment of OPDS.

“Hitherto, the incessant destruction and sabotage of oil facilities resulted in a drastic drop in crude oil production which affected the economic fortunes of the country. Likewise, attacks on gas pipelines further affected the power generation capacity of the nation.

“As at when the Force was activated on 24 June 2016, oil production output of Nigeria had dropped from about 2.2m to less than 900,000 barrels per day. It is gratifying to note that as at date, the production levels are averaging about 2.5 million barrels per day.

“Indeed, the NNPC management recently affirmed that pipeline vandalism had dropped significantly. These tangible successes have further spurred the Task Force to improve upon this standard to drastically reduce breaches on oil infrastructure in the JOA,” Agim said.

In his remarks, Brig.-Gen Aligbe, who also heads the land component of the JTF and is Commander 16 Brigade, Yenagoa, said feedback from the prosecuting agencies showed that 66 cases were prosecuted, 48 were successful, two cases were lost, while others were ongoing.

On allegations that the JTF in the region was complicit in the pollution of the Niger Delta, occasioned by the black soot in Port Harcourt, Gen. Aligbe refuted such insinuations.

Aligbe, Deputy Commander of the Joint Task Force (JTF), and Commander of the land component of Operation Delta Safe (OPDS) in the Niger Delta, told journalists that there was no conclusive evidence that the military was culpable.

The occurrence of the black soot which had elicited concerns over its effect on public health is believed to cause respiratory diseases, leading Nigeria’s Ministry of Environment to declare an air pollution emergency in the affected areas.

But Aligbe, who is also the Commander of 16 Brigade in Bayelsa, argued that if indeed JTF activities were responsible for the pollution, Delta State and parts of Bayelsa which have a concentration of the operations of the force would have been heavily affected.

He added that the military had graduated from the alleged indiscriminate burning of illegal refineries to the current practice where seized vessels are ‘mechanically’ destroyed.

“Our operation continues to evolve and we continue to adopt methods that are environment-friendly, we are doing a lot of mechanical operations using sea vehicles, and heavy equipment to destroy these illegal cooking points instead of just incinerating as it were.

“Where these vehicles or vessels are taken close to land, they are taken to designated points, safe areas and they are destroyed in these locations. So, the issue of environment degradation and of course the health hazards posed to the populace is taken into cognisance.

“That is directly linked to the protection of civilians. In the areas we do surgical operations, narrow down to specifics instead of invading communities and have a blanket rounding up of individuals. We are intelligence driven against designated targets to take out these elements and the equipment they use,” he maintained.

The senior military officer added: “It will not be correct to say it is the destruction of illegal refineries that is responsible for soot in Port Harcourt. There are illegal refineries in Delta, in Warri. Have you heard of soot in Warri the way it is in Port Harcourt?

“There are industries in Port Harcourt that emit soot. That does not remove the fact that the activities of these illegal refiners may also contribute to what they are experiencing there.”

According to him, the military now deploys heavy machinery which also mitigates the effect of the destruction of illegal refineries on the environment.

“We get swamp buggies into those areas and take them where they are destroyed without affecting people. The illegal operators are only able to extract about 30 per cent of the content of crude oil.

“The rest 70 per cent is left in the general areas. From the point they steal to the point they cook these materials are several kilometres and they use chains of pumping machines, 20 to 25 sometimes. This is what leads to degradation of the environment,” Aligbe insisted

On civil-military relations, the JTF said a number of community relations activities were undertaken to touch base with the operating environment, where the Land Component of OPDS, led by Aligbe, a thoroughbred officer, undertook a complete renovation of the famous Oloibiri Oil Well 1, the first commercial oil well discovered in Nigeria at Otuabagi in Ogbia Local Government Area of Bayelsa State.

“It was done basically to add tourist value to the iconic site. The site was signposted and this has not only attracted tourists to the iconic oil well but enhanced greatly the profile of the site as the mother of all commercial oil wells in Nigeria.

Additionally, a number of medical outreaches were conducted in the JOA with huge success. Medical items were donated to the maternity and paediatric wards of the Federal Medical Centre, Yenagoa, with medical outreaches conducted at Azagbene and Obama towns where troops of OPDS are deployed.

“The land component also renovated a primary school at Uzochi community in Rivers State. This was done to encourage the IDPs who returned to their community to have access to conducive learning environment for their children and wards. This is in line with the drive to enhance confidence of the community in the operation,” the JTF leadership noted.

Also, in pursuance of its civil-military obligations, the JTF carried out engagements with companies and communities in areas where friction existed.

“So far, over 140 issues have been resolved amicably. It is worthy to state that host communities in the JOA prefer OPDS arbitration through CIMIC to conventional legal system.

“This is due to the quick dispensation of issues. With these interventions, the Force has minimal cases of human right abuses occasioned by confrontations with troops by aggrieved communities,” the military said.