■ Dialogue option in jeopardy as Army flags-off ‘Operation Crocodile Smile’
■ Embrace government’s peace moves, experts warn militants
By Onyedika Agbedo
IN SPITE of the ceasefire announced by militant groups in the Niger Delta, the security situation in the region still remains precarious. Analysts, however, believe that the multiplicity of militant groups in the region is at the root of government’s inability to find an immediate solution to the crisis. The Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC) confirmed this much on August 31 when it revealed that the Federal Government had yet to commence any negotiation with the Niger Delta militants because the militants were confused. According to the NNPC, the confusion had made government officials more cautious, as it has triggered “serious concern” in the Federal Ministry of Petroleum Resources.
Group General Manager, Group Public Affairs Division, NNPC, Mr. Mohammed Garba-Deen, who made the revelation, noted that the inability of the militants to abide by the ceasefire agreement announced earlier in the month and the dissenting voices among the various agitating groups in the region had shown that there was confusion among them.
Sunday Sun investigations revealed that militant groups currently operating in the Niger Delta included the Joint Niger Delta Liberation Force; (NGGJM), Reformed Egbesu Fraternity comprising Egbesu Boys of Niger Delta, Egbesu Red Water Lions, and Egbesu Mightier Fraternity; Reformed Niger Delta Avengers; Ultimate Warriors of Niger Delta; Niger Delta Red Squad; and the Otugas Fire Force.
The Niger Delta Avengers (NDA), the arrowhead of the current restiveness in the oil rich region, had recently resolved to end all forms of hostilities, including the threat to declare a republic, but on the condition that security agencies stop harassment and intimidation of their suspected members forthwith.
This notwithstanding, the military had in a test-run of its ‘Operation Crocodile Smile’ in the region killed five militants on Saturday, August 27, in a raid carried out by units of the 133 Special Forces Battalion of the Nigerian Army in Rivers State. The raid was part of the military exercise to train troops for full scale commencement of ‘Operation Crocodile Smile’, a military option designed to rid the Niger Delta of criminal activities and end the bombing campaign against oil and gas infrastructure in the region. The military had in the past few days gone ahead to launch the military operation fully in Rivers and Cross Rivers states. The Chief of Army Staff, Lt. Gen Tukur Buratai, had during the flagged off of the operation in Port Harcourt, Rivers State, urged militants in the region to speak with one voice and embrace the dialogue proposed by the Federal Government. Buratai, while performing the exercise at the Amphibious Training School in Calabar, Cross River State, also reassured the people of region of the continuous desire of government to fight terrorism along its maritime domain, adding that the exercise in the state would go a long way to combating criminal tendencies in the state.
As part of the military operation, the Army, through its spokesman, Col. Sani Usman, recently announced the arrest of a suspected kingpin of the Niger Delta Avengers, Isaac Romeo, also in one of the militant’s camps in Cross River. Usman said the kingpin was arrested with two other persons, Lawson Samson and an elderly man, Iyang Ekpo, on Saturday, September 3. He also announced the arrest of one Gabriel Ogbudje, one of the leaders of the Otugas Fire Force. He stated that Ogbudje was arrested along with his accomplice, Elvis Dweller Ejus, adding that Ogbudje’s group was responsible for the attack on some oil installations in the Niger Delta and the brain behind the threat code named `Crocodile Tears’. Sunday Sun could not confirm whether the Otugas Fire Force is an affiliate of the NDGJM, which had on August 30 dared the military by launching its own counterforce, ‘Operation Crocodile Tears’.
Army, militants face-off continue
To demonstrate its seriousness, the NDGJM claimed responsibility for the recent breaching an Ogor-Oteri major delivery line operated by the Nigerian Petroleum Development Company and Shorelines Petroleum in Delta State. The group, in a statement by its spokesperson, Aldo Agbalaja, claimed the attack, saying it was executed by its Uproot Team B. It said the attack on the oil facility was also to launch ‘Operation Crocodile Tears’ since the military had launched ‘Operation Crocodile Smile’ to supposedly worsen the Niger Delta crisis.
It warned: “The NDGJM will no longer sit quietly watching the endless harassment of our people in various parts of the region by the Nigerian military. They are now killing our people on the basis of mere suspicion; this cannot continue. With the launch of their ‘Operation Crocodile Smile’, the NDGJM is also serving a notice on the commencement of our ‘Operation Crocodile Tears’. It shall from now on be an eye for an eye; for every military atrocity carried out in the creeks and hinterland of the Niger Delta, the Nigerian armed forces will have the NDGJM to contend with.”
The NDGJM also recently warned residents around major oil and gas facilities across the region to evacuate with immediate effect in order not to end up as casualties of militancy.
The group said all marked facilities in the region had been rigged with explosives at strategic points, waiting to be detonated, adding that the detonation was being held back because of the people in the environment.
“One more time, we are warning and at the same time appealing to residents around major oil and gas facilities across our region to please evacuate immediately.
“This warning has become necessary because of the fact that we do not wish any of our people, for whom we have taken up this crusade, to become casualties of our campaign,” a statement by the group’s spokesman, Aldo Agbalaja read.
Agbalaja had further warned the Federal Government against dealing with Chief Edwin Clark, insisting that the ceasefire declared by the elder statesman on behalf of militants was “a big fat lie, another charade.”
He alleged that Clark and his cohorts were desperate to make money from government, oil companies and the general public out of the present situation in the name of a “non-existent cease fire by the NDGJM.”
Expectedly, the Army, in its terse response to the NDGJM warned the group against threatening Nigerians as it pursues its “selfish and devilish interest.”
The statement issued by the Army Headquarters read in part: “The Defence Headquarters wishes to state, in clear term, that no group or individual has the right to threaten or force residents in any part of Nigeria to abandon their homes in obeisance to certain group’s selfish and devilish interest.
“It is more worrisome that despite the Federal Government’s olive branch to broker peace and proffer solution to the lingering Niger Delta problem, some groups are still fanning the ember of war. The military and other security agencies would remain focused, un-intimidated and will display professionalism in ensuring adequate security to lives and property.
“While the Armed Forces respect the Government’s negotiation with relevant stakeholders in the Niger Delta, the military exercise and operations in the area are not targeted at any group or meant towards making lives difficult for the inhabitants. The ongoing exercise is geared towards enhancing civil-military relationship and building the confidence of the resident on the ability of the military to protect them. The exercise also demonstrates the strength of the troops to purge the region of criminals and economic saboteurs. The Armed Forces would not tolerate any form of criminality in that region.”
The questions that have been bogging the minds of many Nigerians in the face of the foregoing are: Is the dialogue option pursued by the government/Niger Delta elders failing? Why did the Army launch ‘Operation Crocodile Smile’ when many of the militant groups have declared a ceasefire and the destruction of oil and gas infrastructure is abating? Why can’t the militants groups, which claim to be fighting for the welfare of the Niger Delta region, forge a common front in pursuing their cause? Will the affront by the NDGJM to the Army not escalate the already tensed security situation in the region? Why are the militant groups, particularly the NDGJM, spoiling for total confrontation with the military when their elders are relentlessly pursuing the dialogue option? It is noteworthy here that in spite of the rejection of Chief Clark’s team by the NDGJM, his group, Pan Niger Delta Stakeholders Dialogue Team, as at last Tuesday still urged the Federal Government to commence the process for the dialogue by listing its own team, an indication that the elder statesman is undeterred by the NDGJM’s posturing. Or is the whole scenario a ploy by the stakeholders of the region to ensure that they put the government on its toes and subsequently get the best possible result at the end of the crisis?
Security experts dissect the issue
Analysing the issue, the president of the Association of Industrial Security and Safety Operators of Nigeria (AISSON), Dr. Ona Ekhomu, said the current development in the Niger Delta had been predicted. “It was predicted that it would trend in this direction, that is, that more militant groups would emerge. It was easy to foresee that other ethnic groups in the Niger Delta would want to get on the table so they can also discuss about the welfare of their people with government,” Ekhomu declared.
He noted that with government’s softening of its position after its earlier hard-line stance might have encouraged the mushrooming of militant groups in the region. He said: “Early this year, when NDA was speaking they were not taken seriously and they warned that by February, they would commence operation. True to their word they started destroying oil assets in February, which is very unfortunate and must not be condoned. But that is the reality on ground. Now, they have destroyed oil assets to the point that by May, government softened its position. Hitherto, government was threatening total show down with them to the extent that President Buhari himself said that government was going to give them the Boko Haram treatment. Now, following government’s stance on negotiating with them, the NDA has reduced or de-escalated violence. Why I gave that chronology is that when all that was happening, others were watching and when they saw how the NDA’s quest played out, they now believed that when they too started their own violent agitation, they would bring government to negotiate with them. That is exactly what we are seeing playing out in the Niger Delta right now.”
Ekhomu, who is Nigeria’s first chartered security professional, said he could not see the possibility of the groups coming together to articulate a common agenda. “First of all, you know the militant groups have different agenda. For example, the NDA has made its demands clear which include the development of the Maritime University in Okerekoko, among other things. The NDGJM, an Urhobo group, are saying that the Urhobos must be included on the negotiation table. To them, the NDA is an Ijaw thing and if the Ijaws are being heard, they also need to be heard because they also suffer from the despoliation of the Niger Delta environment. Now, with the government’s preparedness to negotiate with the NDA and the insistence by the Urhobos that they must also be involved, my advice is that one more chair should be added to the negotiation table so they could partake. It is always better to talk,” he added.
The author of author of Effective Personal & Corporate Security, however, said in spite of the disagreements amongst the militant groups, government might not explore the idea of full military operation in the region. “Government has never taken any option off the table. Even when government was threatening fire and brimstone earlier in the year, it was still making overtures for negotiation. To my thinking, however, we have a very difficult situation here. What do I meant by that? Our intelligence agencies through their laziness and inefficiency have been asleep while Niger Delta youths were amassing all kinds of military weapons. Like they say, 70/80 per cent of small arms in West Africa are here in Nigeria. So, the point is, as long as the militants have capability, they can destroy our assets and cripple us. If you remember, during the late President Umaru Yar’Adua’s time, our oil output was down to 600,000 barrels per day. That was when Yar’Adua got determined and said we must reverse the trend by having the Amnesty Programme. And what happened thereafter? Production quickly went back to over two million barrels per day. Now, if that was the case then, are we waiting until we get back to the 2009 level before we do something? That will be very stupid; it would mean we are not learning from history. So, let history be a guide for us and show us the way forward.”
Ekhomu advised the militants to shun militancy in the interest of the country. “Government revenues are down because our oil output is down and the price per barrel of crude is less than half of what it used to be. Now, the point is, if government makes certain concessions, the militants should back down. And very importantly, the militants should refrain from destroying oil assets because that will not make their point. Government already knows they have capability. The essence of doing something like that is to show they have capability. Now, they have achieved that and government is talking so they should stop all that rascality and focus on the dialogue.”
He added: “The militants should also look at other ways of moving their agenda forward because the era of seeing an easy money is really gone forever. The government of the day cannot find enough cash to just give to anybody to play around with. There is now more probity and frugality; and the anti-corruption mantra is for all Nigerians, including the Niger Delta.”
Also speaking on the issue, the Chief Executive Officer of Goldwater & Riversand, a national security consult firm based in Lagos, Captain Aliyu Umar Babangida, warned that both parties were running out time to end the crisis. “Both sides are running out of time. If our computations of events as they unfold and analysis of information is anything to go by, then sooner than later, something will yield. The pendulum could swing either way — to the table or to the trenches. It’s all a function of time,” Babangida said.
He said the prevalent security situation in the Niger Delta was indeed pathetic. He explained: “Dating from 2003 to date, we have on our data base, some 22 militant groups nationwide, 15 of which are from the Niger Delta; and that’s a whooping 68 per cent of militant groups in Nigeria. This percentage of militant groups have cogent but misguided grievances and given the nature of their demands, we see a trend in our computation of outcomes so far. Basically, they do not show a commitment or inclination to dialogue per se; and this is because there is seemingly no composition or context of dialogue overtures that goes down well with, or appeals to them; somehow, anyhow, something always comes up to stall the process.
Do not forget they are 15 groups, all of which are not particularly aligned in any significant way, hence there are as many demands and terms as there are groups. From our database, there are indicators that they even defect from faction to faction.
“My take here is both sides and government will eventually lock horns given the wishy-washy mutually suspecting ambience of the entire situation. Those behind the militants seem to have more grudges than they are willing to declare. The decrepit state of the Niger Delta is a standing fact, issues of marginalisation and neglect no less. This, however does not seem to unite the various groups to the negotiation table, as other mundane demands are diluted into the real issues as it were, not mentioning inter and intra group divisions and disclaimers. All this surprisingly occurs in, and is about the same area we all know and refer to as the Niger Delta. I dare say the militants seem to be warming up for a showdown with the nations Army; this confidence most likely is because of the shoddy initial handling of the Boko Haram insurgents in the North-east. This has actually degraded the nations Army immensely and given confidence to other like minds to toe the line of rebellion as an option to address grievances. As things are, time is running out. The two parties, government and the militants, shall either meet at the table or lock horns. Time will bring about either of both. This is my dispassionate opinion of course.”
Babangida said the multiplicity of militant groups in the Niger Delta should not come to anyone as a surprise given that it was hitherto a lucrative business in the region.
“Militancy was lucrative some years back. If today they are rife in their numbers, under any guise, genuine or not, it should not come as a surprise. In our analysis at Goldwater & Riversand, we projected a spike in the numbers; particularly with the image bashing our forces were allowed to take in Borno and its environs. Our firm also projected worst case scenario possibilities, which I cannot in fairness to our nation itemise here.
At this point, I tell you for a fact, from indicators and accompanying analysis on our database, only two militant groups have shown proclivity to the cause and pains of the Niger Delta situation as it were. Their efforts though disruptive and militant is also being subverted by other rent seeking, gain driven and sponsored groups of militants. The indicators are right there in the open. Isolate these two genuinely impassioned agitator groups for dialogue and chances are high we shall make a headway.”
Babangida opined that it would be rare for the militant groups to come together as a group to pursue their goal. “It’s not impossible; more like it’s a rare probability though, given their ego laden, mutual distrust and suspicion of one another. Most of these groups except two will quarrel over any agreement reached with government even if they merge,” he declared.