To be in top form in the on-going war against militancy and other forms of criminality in the Niger Delta, the Nigerian military recently undertook exercises to brush up the skills of its men in weapons handling and marksmanship. Emmanuel Addeh reports

It was not an occasion for the faint-hearted. The air was filled with the booming sound of guns. It was, indeed, a tense atmosphere as the trainees (officers and soldiers) kept strictly to instructions by their senior officers (the trainers), who were not ready to forgive any unnecessary errors.  For the senior officers and their lieutenants, it was an opportunity to show those seated, including civilians, that the Federal Government’s investment in their capacity to tackle security threats in the Niger Delta was not a waste.  

Operation Delta Safe

Four joint sectors of the Operation Delta Safe (OP DS), the codename under which the special outfit operates, were to take part in the competency test of arms which would prepare them for any confrontation with the ‘bad boys’, a term used to described the criminals in the creeks who usually engage in sea robbery, pipeline vandalism and militancy.

The OP DS deployed to protect oil installations in the Niger Delta comprises the Nigerian Army, Nigerian Navy, Nigerian Air Force, Nigerian Police, the Department of State Services (DSS) Nigeria Security and Civil Defence Corps (NSCDC) among others. 

 Relative Peace 

Although there is relative peace in the region, especially in relation to the former outright destruction of oil facilities, which usually resulted in the shutdown of the affected platforms and loss of revenue to the country, such confrontations between the military and the criminals are often commonplace. 

 While destruction of oil facilities seems to have piped down, other forms of criminalities including kidnapping, sea robbery and cultism pose as a serious concern.  

JTF Mandate 

The mandate of the Joint Task Force (JTF), comprising all the military and paramilitary forces, continues to expand to curb these burgeoning acts of criminality. The expansion of this mandate lies in the fact that different communities continue to complain of intermittent raids by the hoodlums, while traders along the waterways of the Niger Delta have repeatedly reported the forcible seizure of their wares by pirates. Not left out are those who have turned abduction for ransom into a cash cow. 

Weapons Handling 

So, it was for those reasons that several senior military officers  converged at the Elele military cantonment shooting range, Rivers State, to formally conclude the training exercise put together by the JTF headquarters in Yenagoa, Bayelsa State, to combat the existing threats. According to the JTF, the shooting and marksmanship exercise which also witnessed an inter-sector skills at arms competition among the four sectors of the force based in the region was to enhance the precision of troops in the battle against criminals in the region. 

At the ranger were Commander, JTF, Rear Admiral Suleiman Apochi; Rear Admiral Saleh Usman, Flag Officer Commanding, Central Naval Command, Bayelsa; Air Officer Commanding,  Mobility Command, Air Vice Marshal, Stephen Onuh and Commander, Land Component, JTF, Brig.-Gen Kevin Aligbe who also doubles as the Commander 16 Brigade, Bayelsa. Other senior officers were: Brig.-Gen IM Obot, Deputy Force Commander, OpDS; Commander, NNS Soroh, Bayelsa, Commodore Felix Esekhile, among others. 

During the competition, sector three won the gold trophy, sector two clinched silver  while sector one went home with the bronze after various tests including accuracy in hitting targets, best shot, compliance with the rules and stripping and assembly. 

Governor’s rating

At the event, Governor Seriake Dickson of Bayelsa, who was the special guest, reiterated that the performance of the military depends largely on their skills which should be constantly sharpened by training. Dickson who spoke through his Deputy, Rear Admiral John Jonah (rtd), appealed for the sustenance of the culture of periodic training of the armed forces to help them overcome the security challenges facing the country. 

He noted that the Niger Delta environment, which consists of creeks, swamps, rivers with settlements along the Atlantic coastline was a very difficult terrain for military operations, adding that the challenging terrain was a blessing in disguise as it provides a suitable training environment for the military and other security agencies.  The governor therefore urged the officers and men to take the competition seriously and imbibe all the skills they had been taught in their everyday professional reality. 

Combat Readiness 

The gains of a combat ready military cannot be overemphasised. A strong believer in this ideology, Rear Admiral Apochi noted that the training exercise was designed to enhance the combat readiness of the troops in view of the enormous risks they face in the field of operations. 

Apochi said, “The need for training cannot be over emphasised, more so due to the composition of the force with personnel across the services of the military. It is also to make the personnel from different services work as a team. The training is to make the personnel more proficient and increase their precision to defend themselves when under attack and to defend the citizens and oil infrastructure. 

“The Skills at Arms contest was just an icing on the cake aimed at building team spirit, understanding amongst personnel from various services who are perhaps training together after their deployments to the joint force.” 

Quoting Tsun Tzu, the famous Chinese military strategist, Apochi said that military training remained an integral part of combat discipline, which is a prerequisite for mission accomplishment. 

“The mandate of OpDS is to protect oil and gas infrastructure, deter and prevent militancy, crude oil theft and sea robbery or other criminalities within our joint operations area that could impact negatively on our area of operation,” he stated. “Our troops need exposure to these kinds of trainings not just to enhance their state of preparedness but to ensure precision. The skills at arms will also enhance cooperation across the forces.”

The FOC, Central Naval Command, Rear Admiral Usman, in his comments, said the exercise was to prepare the military to be battle-ready anytime they are called upon. 

Usman stated, “When you train, on the D-day it becomes easier. Even the sound of the weapons alone is a form of training. Security personnel will know the kind of weapon by the sound, whether it is GPMG, AK 47 or just a pistol. These trainings keep you abreast. 

“These soldiers are deployed to various areas of operation in the creeks in the north east and other areas and it is about confronting the bad boys. You have seen criminals arrested with more sophisticated weapons. So, the best shot takes the day. You don’t just wait till when your life is taken. So, their life and destiny are in their hands.  

“This is the first for the year and for the result, it is rated above average because not everybody here fired a shot. For the men on the battlefront, the morale is high. If you have any of those who took trophies in your team, you are home and dry.”

AVM Onuh, who is in charge of air mobility in his remarks, said the exercise was important for the fact that the forces always have to be combat-ready for any eventuality.  

“This is a range classification exercise for the OpDS joint operations. The importance of this cannot be overemphasised. Continuous assessment makes you perform better and know how well you will do in real time. This is a real time exercise that people are being assessed on. 

“The JTF is given the responsibility of securing the Niger Delta, so they have to be at their optimum at all times. These kinds of events should take place regularly,” Onuh advised.  

Reward for Success 

 At the end of the event, certificates of merit were presented to those who were tops in the exercises, including Lance Corporal Eze Bitrus who emerged the winner of the best shot at target. Best ‘stripping and assembly’ award went to Private Mikano Millan from sector three while the same sector also got accolades for the use of women soldiers in  the entire wrung of the competition. 

Some of the participants were also exposed to actual combat situations where they were expected to hit special targets in moving and roughly driven military vehicles. However, there were also boos for those who did not measure up to the standard set by the crew of umpires, who painstakingly ensured adherence to the rules. 

As the heads of all the military and paramilitary forces  drove out of the venue of the range classification, they were satisfied that the officers and men under their command were more prepared to face any threat to peace in the Niger Delta.