Femi Folaranmi, Yenagoa
On Friday, January 17, the coastal Bilabiri community in Ekeremor Local Government Area was shaken to its foundation, as 19 gunboats with armed soldiers in camouflage invaded the community and, by the time they left, several inhabitants of the community had fled into the bush. The soldiers, after a three- hour operation, left in their trail sorrow, tears and agony, which have been the lot of the people of Bilabiri.
The story of the invasion of Bilabiri community started on January 2 when suspected sea pirates attacked one of Nigeria’s dredgers MV AMBIKA operated by Sterling Oil dredger close to Ramos River which is in the Area of Responsibility of NNS Delta. The hoodlums boarded the vessel and kidnapped three foreigners, two Russians. Mr Roman Dmitriev aged 34, Mr Mikhail Finenko aged 31 and one Indian Mr Varonray Anandan aged 29
A six-man troop of the Nigerian Navy was immediately dispatched to contain the threat posed by the gang. “By the time the naval rescue team arrived the sea-robbers had already abducted their victims and were about escaping when the naval team engaged them in a shoot-out. Unfortunately the firepower of the hoodlums was much and four naval personnel died in the process” said a security source.
On January 9 the Flag Officer Commanding (FOC) Central Naval Command (CNC) Rear Adm. Saidu Garba in a press conference with Rear Adm. Ibrahim Dewu, Commander, Nigerian Navy Ship (NNS) DELTA and other top military personnel announced the rescue of the kidnapped victims.
“On Jan. 2 some suspected sea robbers attacked a Sterling Global Oil vessel, MV AMBIKA about 3.2 Nautical Mile off Ramos River entrance. A gun battle ensued leading to the death of four naval ratings and some of the assailants while other members of the gang escaped with bullet wounds.
“During the incident, the assailants abducted three crew members of the MV AMBIKA comprising one Indian and two Russians and moved them to undisclosed location in the creek” he said.
Garba continued “Following intelligence report on the activities of the group to relocate the victims to Ondo state, the military units across the Niger Delta were placed on red alert.
“At about 22:30 on Jan. 7 intelligence report reveals that the victims had been moved to Awoye in Ilaje Local Government Area of Ondo state. Accordingly, the personnel of the Forward Operating Base, Igbokoda were alerted of the development and lay siege to the criminals and rescued the expatriates”
He disclosed that while one of the criminals was apprehended with his weapon and the boat that was used to convey the victims the other members of the group fled into the nearby creek with bullet injuries.
Garba warned that “The Navy will not relent until the perpetrators of the dastard act are brought to book.”
Invasion of Bilabiri
Credible sources said the event of January Friday January 17 is linked to the activities of the gang that killed the four naval ratings as the community is seen as a hideout for criminal elements. By 10.am of the fateful day, 19 gunboats were spotted at the waterside and soldiers jumped out shooting sporadically in the air. Many of the people scampered for safety inside the forest while the soldiers ransacked the community. “The military have invaded our community burning down houses and property and forcing people to flee” Mr Esau Darosha the Chairman of Bilabiri Development Committee said in Save-Our Soul message he sent out shortly after the invasion.
“It happened too quickly. Before we released ourselves some people found themselves in the bush. The next we saw that they came and burnt down houses and palace. As I speak with you some people are still in the bush” says Mr Bazigha David. “We were all in my palace this morning when some of my subjects ran to me to inform me about military presence and asked me to run but I told me that I cannot leave my palace, but they pressurized me to run that they were over sixteen military gunboats at the waterside” says the paramount ruler of the community, King Paul Seide. “As soon as I left my palace they came and burnt down my palace into ashes and that of my younger brother. They did not arrest anybody or left any message. I have returned to my community to meet my palace burnt to ashes.”
Seide who denied that the community harbours sea-pirates and other criminal elements lamented that his staff of office was taken away by the soldiers.
“I had my child strapped on my back and they threatened they would kill me. I rolled on the ground crying and asking them what did the King did that would make them burn the palace. They were just shooting. They also went away with his staff of office” says Mrs Demeteide Passman.
The chairman of Alabini Rural Development Area, (RDA) Mr Paul Seide whose house was also burnt by the soldiers described the invasion as “action taken too far”. While condemning the killing of naval personnel in the area and series of kidnapping that had taken place he called on the federal government to come to the aid of the people who have been displaced and those still hiding in the bush.
He said” It is unfortunate that things in the Niger Delta area are always taken too far. As a community and people, we condemn the military invasion of Bilabiri communities, just as we also condemn in strong terms the heinous crime of some of our disgruntled youths. “I am one of the victims of the invasion as my building was also razed for no just cause and it is very sad and condemnable and should be condemned by all well-meaning Nigerians. As we speak, some of our brothers and sisters who fled are still missing while others including myself, our monarch and others in the Bilabiri 1&2 Communities have been displaced. We are calling on the federal and state governments, representatives at all levels to come to our aid
The Chairman of Ijaw Youth Council (IYC) central zone, Comrade Kennedy Olorogun in a statement by his information officer Kockman Kurubo expressed disappointment with the invasion. “These steady attacks on Ijaw communities must stop. We call on the government to provide aids to the victims of this unwarranted attack on Bilabiri l and ll. We also send our heartfelt condolences to the deceased families and empathised with those whose, houses and properties worth millions had been ravaged as a result of this unlawful attack”. In the same vein the Ekeremor Federated Youth Council (EFYC) frowned at the destruction of Bilabiri community by soldiers.
The President, EFYC, Etolor Prince, described the action of the military as unprofessional.
He said: “The military invasion at Bilabiri community is one too many occurrence in Ekeremor and It is so sad that I have to once again condemn this continuous unprofessional act of the Nigerian military at the slightest provocation.It is so sad and annoying to note that, one will never see them carrying out this practice in the north where our brothers in the military are killed on duty every now and then but our case here is nothing to write home about. They (military) should know that this approach is nothing working and will never work.
Etolor continued “Please, it is high time legal luminaries in our region stand up to this injustice meted on our people. I strongly believe legal actions can go a long way to tackle this menace.
“At this juncture, please permit me to sympathize with the people of Bilabiri I and II communities for the loss and I urge government at all levels most especially well-meaning leaders to immediately come to the aid of our people in any way possible to cushion the immediate hardship caused by this attack”.
The Executive chairman of Ekeremor, Dr. Bertola Perekeme in his reaction who said no sane person will condone the killing of anyone especially military officers on the line of their constitutional duty; however noted that invading communities and burning houses in the guise of searching for alleged criminals is unfashionable in a democratic setting and highly unprofessional.
“These communities need help and protection from security agents because they live in fear and are constantly intimidated. The military should work closely with other security agencies in intelligence gathering and effect arrest to help our people”
As it stands no military formation has owned up to the invasion and the people of Bilabiri have nowhere to run to as they wait on the government and relevant government agencies to come to their aid while they look into the future with trepidation.