From Ben Dunno, Warri
In the core of the Niger Delta, anxiety is growing over the massive deployment of troops and military hardware by the armed forces in the last few weeks.
The deployment began barely 48 hours after the Niger Delta Avengers (NDA) issued a threat to resume a bombing campaign against oil assets in the region, in the wake of it withdrawal from the ceasefire agreement reached between the Pan Niger Delta Elders Forum (PANDEF) and the Federal Government at a peace parley in Abuja on November 1, 2016.
Apparently rattled by the threat, which NDA had previously demonstrated ample capacity to back up, the Chief of Naval Staff (CNS), Vice Admiral Ibok-Ete Ibas, took the resolute step of deploying naval forces to the region, in readiness to tackle the threat.
It is significant that the threat by NDA came exactly one year and two days after the peace agreement was reached in Abuja. Moreover it coincided with the annual inspection tour of the CNS to all naval formations under the Central Naval Command covering the entire Niger Delta region to evaluate the state of mind of his officers and men as well as the functionality of their equipment.
NDA’s threat became compelling on the Admiral that he temporarily relocated to the headquarters of the naval command in Warri, where he spent the entire weekend putting finishing touches to strategies to curtail the threat by the agitators.
At the Naval Engineering College, Sapele, the CNS did not mince words in sending a strong warning to the Avengers to expect a very tough military resistance to their latest threat to resume hostilities in the region. He described the threat as an affront to the armed forces, which would not be taken lightly.
One day after the visit of the CNS, the Navy, Air Force and the Army started massive deployment of military hardware such as fighter jets, surveillance choppers, gunboats and stern looking naval personnel in the coastal areas of Delta State, especially Gbaramatu kingdom in Warri South West Local Government Area, the homeland of Government Ekpemupolo, alias Tompolo.
First to raise alarm over the movement of military equipment to the creeks was Chief Godspower Gbenekama, the spokesperson of the Gbaramatu traditional council, who revealed how the intimidating presence of military hardware and personnel was beginning to psychologically traumatize the natives.
He recalled the devastating effect of May 13, 2009, when the military first invaded the community, and warned against the use of force in the area based on the fact that it would hurt civilians especially the helpless women and children in the community.
He noted that targeting communities wrongly assumed to be the hotbed of militancy each time there was crisis in the region was the height of injustice to the good people of Gbaramatu kingdom.
“Gbaramatu people are not at war with the Nigerian government. Why is it that anytime there is crisis anywhere; something happens in Bayelsa or Rivers state, the first place of call is Gbaramatu?” he queried.
“We don’t want what happened in 2009 and 2016 to happen again. So let the military restrain itself and we are still appealing to the Avengers to sheathe their swords.”
He however said that the different military operations in the Niger Delta region would not help the peace process in the region, urging all parties including the Avengers to exercise restraint on grounds that civilians could be caught in the crossfire.
But Commodore Dewu of NNS Delta reacting to this said, “What they are speculating as military deployment is routine patrol along Escravos and the Trans Forcados Pipeline. Once we sense any security concern on that line, our men usually move in to patrol the area. Nobody is deploying any gunboat or jets to specific communities. It is a normal patrol.”
But while trying to comprehend the truth in both claims, the Flag Officer, Commanding (FOC) Central Naval Command, Rear Admiral Abubakar Bello Alhasan, launched “Operation Octopus Grip” Phase Two on Wednesday, November 8, 2017, with an additional 11 gunboats that were all deployed to the Delta creek to further consolidate the military equipment that were already on ground.
And as if these moves were not enough, the Chief of Defence Staff (CDS), General Gabriel Olonisakin, presided at the launching of an additional 2O new 400-horsepower gunboats, newly procured by the Nigerian Navy to consolidate the already existing hardware so far deployed to the Delta creeks.
Speaking at the commissioning ceremony held at NNS Delta in Warri, Gen. Olonisakin, solicited the understanding and cooperation of the local indigenes with the armed forces in the task of protecting the nation’s critical assets, urging law abiding citizens not to entertain any fear as the operation was targeted at the criminal elements sabotaging the nation.
He explained that the reason the Niger Delta environment had come under heavy military watch in recent times was due to the new threat of violence by the NDA, pointing out that the violent agitation is unconstitutional and would not be allowed to go unchecked.
Also reacting, the Paramount ruler of Gbaramatu Kingdom, HRM Oboro Gbaraun II, Aketekpe (Agadagba), warned the military to tread with caution in carrying out its assignment to protect the nation’s critical assets so as not to further heighten tension among residents of the area.
While faulting the surveillance reason adduced by the military authorities for the mass deployment of weapons to the area, the monarch admonished the personnel to be guided by caution and professionalism in carrying out the mission in the area.
Although he lamented the fact that the military had turned Gbaramatu into a battlefield on regular basis, the traditional ruler however warmed that this time around the kingdom would not condone any act of betrayal or sabotage by anybody or group of persons who may wish to take advantage of the present situation to bomb oil installations in his domain in order to provoke the military to anger against his people, insisting that such act would attract dire consequences.
On his own part, sensing the level of mistrust and loss of confidence created by the military operation in his community, the man in the eye of the storm, and who is being sought by the Economic and Financial Crime Commission (EFCC), Chief Government Ekpemupolo, alias Tompolo, had to break his silence. He called on President Muhammadu Buhari to devote more time to the development of the region as against the misplaced efforts to deploy military hardware and personnel to the creeks.
The ex-warlord took a swipe at President Muhammadu Buhari, on the huge sum of money so far expended in the deployment of military hardware and personnel to the Niger Delta region and noted that such funds would have gone a long way in the development of the area.
He stated that the present administration would not have found itself in a situation where it had to concentrate all its efforts on forcing peace on the people of the region through military might, when there are begging opportunities to earn the trust and confidence of the region by consolidating on the developmental blueprint of the last administration.
Specifically, he mentioned the take off of the Nigerian Maritime University, Okerenkoko, the completion of the electrification of Escravos and its environs, which has gone halfway and the activation of the EPZ gas city and deep seaport projects as some of the initiatives taken by the last administration for the growth of the region, which the present government abandoned.
Tompolo, the former leader of the dreaded militant group, Movement for Emancipation of Niger Delta (MEND), who made this submission in a press statement signed by Comrade Paul Bebenimibo, his media consultant, urged the federal government to dissipate less energy on arms build up in the region and concentrate more on the developmental needs of the people in order to enjoy enduring peace.
While waiting to see the result of the outcome in the ongoing negotiation between the stakeholders under the Pan Niger Delta Elder Forum (PANDEF), the people would obviously learn to live with the pains for now as government is not prepared to risk any damage to the nation’s critical assets given the present economic situation in the country.