*Inside ‘operation crocodile smile’
By Ben Dunno
Dialogue, a word that has become a singsong at every gathering across the Niger Delta region did not come that easy.
First, it was strange, as no one gave it a thought before the series of attacks on oil installations. Then, it became muted at the point the devastation was severe and now, loudest, when it appears the attacking militants are convinced they had done a very good job.
Now, with its adoption as the ultimate panacea for lasting peace by all and sundry across the zone, dialogue has not only turned out a household name but an application reverenced by all stakeholders at every gathering whenever issues that border on both the political and economic future of the region are being discussed.
Although, there had been several attempts on the part of the Federal Government in the middle of the heat to get the dreaded militant group, the Niger Delta Avengers (NDA) who had claimed responsibility for over 85 percent of bombings and severe damages done to oil installations along the creeks to come to the roundtable, these overtures were rebuffed by the militants who were bent on achieving their ‘operation red economy’ agenda.
It got to a point when the militants who obviously were satisfied with the extent of success recorded by their action as the national revenue had further declined due to the over a million barrel of crude oil lost per day, wanted the peace talk. This time, the Federal Government who suddenly developed a ‘thick skin’ was no longer forthcoming in talking most especially with the proliferation of the militant groups who had started discrediting one another and laying multiple claims to the havocs carried out.
The buck-passing between the Federal Government and the militant groups on alleged insincerity of purpose by both parties, especially the government to convene a genuine dialogue continued round in circle even as the international observers and political watchers within the country were trying so hard to be rationale in their evaluation of the situation in order not to be seen to have judged wrongly.
This was the scenario until, Friday, August 19, 2016, when the prominent Ijaw national leader and former Minister of Information, Chief Edwin Kiagbodo Clark, convened a stakeholders meeting of all Niger Delta coastal states at the Conference Hall of the Petroleum Training Institute (PTI) in Effurun, near Warri, to enable all the ethnic nationalities in the region including the traditional rulers, political class, activists and youth leaders come together and deliberate on how to resolve the crisis plunging the revenue base of not just the affected states but the entire nation.
At the meeting that could best be described as unimpressively attended perhaps, due to the short notice to the various stakeholders across the zone, two key words that played out among the participants who unanimously craved for peace across the region were dialogue and genuine restructuring. It was indeed an occasion that afforded Chief Clark, another opportunity to display his usual sense of patriotism both in the speech read on his behalf and remarks made on the occasion.
Speaking against the backdrop of secession threats by the Independent People of Biafra (IPOB) and the dreaded militant group, Niger-Delta Avengers (NDA) who had announced October1, 2016, as the date to declare the Niger Delta Republic, as well as the Adaka-Boro Avengers, who are still insisting on going on with the threat regardless of the appeals from the leaders in the region, the Octogenarian spared no word in expressing his opinion about the indivisibility of the nation and admonished the audience to see more potential in a collective decision to be united as one while emphasizing that the nation’s strength lies more in its population, diverse culture and the unity of the people which must not be compromised for any reason, by anybody, group or any ethnic nationality seeking self-actualization.
Apparently aligning himself with the demand for restructuring of the country earlier canvassed by the Niger Delta Avengers as the only condition for ceasefire, the Ijaw national leader maintained that the country requires genuine restructuring to arrive at finding a lasting solution to the political issues that led to agitations and armed struggle among the able-bodied youths not just within the region but across the length and breadth of the six geo-political zones in the country.
He went on to allay the fears among many who believe that restructuring was a new political device invented by the elites especially from the southern part of the country to divide the nation, insisting that rather, a genuine restructuring would guarantee a better future for a united Nigeria.
According to him, “My strong belief is that only genuine restructuring of the political administration of the country will remove most of these problems in the country. With such, the issues that lead some of us to take up arms will be resolved. I posit that the answers to many, if not all, of these issues are contained in the Report of the 2014 National Conference. I salute well-meaning persons who have supported the call for restructuring in the country”.
Also speaking on the occasion, the Delta State governor, Senator (Dr.) Ifeanyi Okowa, who made it clear that he was not there to apportion blames as to what led to the pitiable situation the region had found itself, however noted that it has become absolutely necessary for the stakeholders, including the multinational oil companies, government, community leaders, the political class and the youths to yake responsibility for the present challenge.
Battle for relevance
While the discussions were going on, two gas truck lines belonging to the Nigerian Petroleum Development Company (NPDC) at Owhrode community in Udu Local Government Area of the state, about 20 kilometers away from the venue of the meeting, were simultaneously blown up by militants.
Taking responsibility, a new militant group operating from the upland area of the region, the Niger Delta Greenland Justice Mandate (NDGJM) who were desperately seeking relevance in the ongoing struggle discredited the entire Stakeholders meeting both in terms of the credibility of the convener, Chief E.K Clark and the resolutions reached.
Spokesman of the militant group, Gen. Aldo Agbalaja in a statement, noted that “He (Clark) does not have the mandate to convene a meeting or speak on behalf of the Niger Delta, the Niger Delta Greenland Justice Mandate is not in support of that so-called stakeholders’ meeting, which by the way was populated by the same gang of breast-pocket politicians who in the six to seven years of Goodluck
Jonathan’s presidency, ruled with him, looted the nation and raped the Niger Delta”.
Also on the same page was the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) who dissociated itself the meeting based on the same line of argument of lack of confidence in the ability of the convener and his cohorts to genuinely carry everyone in the region along irrespective of sentiments shared along ethnic nationality, political affiliation or ideologies of then various groups who had been involved in the armed struggle for justice.
MEND’s Spokesman, Jomo Gbomo, admitted that even though the group respected Chief Clark as an elder statesman, they do not have the conviction that the stakeholders meeting he convened judging from the representation had all it takes to carry all the stakeholders across the region along, more importantly as it was perceived by other ethnic nationalities in the region as only championing an Ijaw agenda in the Niger Delta struggle.
Another opposition came from the Itsekiri ethnic nationality with the Olu of Warri, Ogiamme Ikenwoli and the opinion leaders under the auspices of Warri Study group discredited the Stakeholders meeting as not being a pan Niger-Delta affair, but an Ijaw agenda.
In a statement signed by the Palace Administrator, Chief Emmanuel Tetsola, the Olu dissociated the Itsekiris from those who claimed to have attended the stakeholders’ meeting as well as the recent meeting with the Minister of State for Petroleum, Dr Ibe Kachikwu, at Chief Clark’s house in Warri.
Even in the face of opposition, the dreaded Niger Delta Avengers (NDA) reaffirmed its commitment to cease fire and embrace dialogue based on its conviction in the resolutions reached at the meeting.
Military steps in, as communities cry out
Ironically, while the horse-trading was going on among various groups across the region, the Federal Government was busy planning the deployment of troops to the region. First was the rebranding of the Niger Delta Military Task Force from “Operation Pulo Shield” to “Operation Delta Safe” and consolidated with additional personnel, sophisticated military equipment and fresh mandate in fighting the war against oil theft and pipeline vandalism across the region.
And as if this was not enough, the military also embarked on an amphibious exercise across the region, codenamed, ‘Operation Crocodile Smile’, which witnessed heavy deployment of military hardware, especially gunboats, armored tanks, helicopters and fighter jets to the region. The exercise, which was launched from state to state across the region by the Chief of Army Staff (COAS), Lt.
General Tukur Buratai, saw Delta State creeks and upland areas in major towns and cities heavily militarized immediately after lunchof the operation in Sapele on Saturday, August 27, 2016 by the COAS who later paid a courtesy visit to the Olu of Warri, Ogiamme Ikenwoli to intimate him of the exercise which he said was primarily designed to train military men and officers in the act of fighting creek wars.
However, since the commencement of ‘Operation Crocodile Smile’, there had been series of complaints of violation of human rights by residents and groups from across the region. First was a concerned Niger Delta group, Ijaw Peoples Development initiative (IPDI), who urged the Federal Government to discontinue further deployment of troops and military equipment to the region in order to reduce the apprehension of an imminent attack among residents along the riverine communities especially in Delta state.
The group, in a statement by its acting spokesman, Mayor Timi Ogobiri, noted that “Our attention has been drawn to the report of propose massive deployment of military officers with heavy military equipments under the pretend of conducting purported amphibious training exercise in the creeks”.
While stating that they were not unaware of the plot by the Federal Government to carry out the genocide of innocent women and children in the riverine areas especially Gbaramatu kingdom, the group said “It is so sad that oil fortune in Niger Delta have turn to cause sorry and more death in the region, such deployments are meant for external aggression, Nigeria is due for sanction for committing war crime severally in the Niger Delta region”.
“The deployment of heavy troops in the creek is suspicious, If it were a genuine training exercise why the massive deployment of troops and equipment? Where is the military barracks which they want to carry out their training exercise? Since the history of Nigeria, have military embark on such amphibious trainings in the creeks? When does the creek become suitable for army training? It queried.
In his reaction, a prominent Ijaw leader and spokesman of the Gbraramatu community in Warri South West, Chief Godspower Gbenekama, who is also the Acting Secretary of the Gbaramatu Traditional Council, viewed the military presence as counter productive to the peace process being sought by government and now embraced by the people of the region.
According to him, “the military has always been in the Niger Delta especially in our area, Gbaramatu. Military has always been there, the Navy has been there, the JTF has been there and I think they have been able to maintain law and order in the region for all these decades. But for the federal government to deploy other troops outside the JTF, outside the operation Delta State and call the team crocodile tears or crocodile cry or whatever, what is all these?
“I think the federal government should know that we belong to this nation and we have resolved to remain in this nation.
All these formation of crocodile tears will not tell well. The main presence of military in our region is enough threat for people to run talk less of going about their daily business in these areas. The
Presidency should rescind its decision to deploy troops to our areas. If there is an opportunity for round table, why not explore that opportunity rather than saying they want to go and destroy the place. I think all these deployment of military hardware will not do anyone any good.
Government should be mindful that this action would only bring distrust between the government and the people and thereby compounding the already tensed atmosphere in the region.”
The umbrella body of the Ijaw youths worldwide, the Ijaw Youth Council (IYC) also condemned the alleged harassment of residents of riverside communities by the military carrying out the exercise in the region and urged President Buhari to call the operatives of the military formations to order in the interest of peace across the region.
According to the statement signed by IYC spokesman Mr. Eric Omare, “The Ijaw Youth Council (IYC) Worldwide called on military officers carrying out the military operation styled ‘Operation Crocodile Smile’ in the Niger Delta to stop the constant harassment and intimidation of innocent villagers along the Warri and Forcados Rivers in Delta State.
For the past two days, villagers plying these rivers have been subjected to all manners of harassment and in some cases, deprived of access to their communities
“Several people going to communities like Ogulagha, Odimodi, Ijaw Oborotu, Forcados and other surrounding communities were denied access to these communities. This has resulted in shortage of food with possible humanitarian crisis in the affected villages. This is condemnable and totally unacceptable. The military must have respect for human rights in their activities in the Niger Delta. We therefore, call on the military high command and the federal government, particularly President Buhari who is the Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces to call the military officers on operation crocodile smile to order.”
Also reacting to the issue of intimidating military presence, the Paramount ruler of Siembiri Kingdom, (an Ijaw Community) HRM Pere Charles Ayemi-Botu, described government action of calling for dialogue and at the same time deploying troops as double-speak with dire consequences of either “shooting oneself on the foot or throwing away the baby with the bath water.”
According to him, “Sequel to the acceptance of cease fire, courtesy of Monarchs and the Leaders of the Niger Delta, ten days ago by the Niger Delta Avengers and other militant groups, one would have expected President Buhari to announce his dialogue team as he did in early June, 2016 when he declared two weeks ceasefire, preceding his medical trip to the UK.”
He wondered why President Buhari chose to deploy troops to the region under the pretext of a military exercise rather than announcing his dialogue team with the representatives of the people. He stressed that by this singular act, the President has displayed his insensitivity to the region and consequently sent negative signals to all Nigerians, the international community and the whole world that the stage is now set to crush the militants at a time they have accepted cease fire.
“We have been making frantic and passionate appeals in conjunction with the United States Consul General, Mr. John Braye to both the Federal Government and the Militants to sheathe their swords and embrace dialogue in other to proffer lasting solutions to the Niger Delta quagmire”, he stated.
Also not left out is an Urhobo community in Delta State, Akperhe Olomu in Ughelli South council that has accused the authorities of the new military task force, Operation Crocodile Smile of human right violation against one Mrs. Amrevweatefa Odada, a septuagenarian and three others now in custody at the 3 Battalion, Effurun Barracks in Uvwie council area of the state.
The community had alleged that the Director, Army Public Relations, Col. Sani Usman, disclosed in a statement that the suspects arrested in the early hours of August 31st were being questioned over a relative hitherto, declared wanted, Gabriel Ogbudje, who is still at large. However, the community are seriously against the continued incarceration of those arrested insisting it’s a gross violation of their human rights.
Reacting in a statement signed by its spokesman, Mr. Sunday Okoyoyo, the community stated , “this is impunity and lawlessness at play.
How lawful is it for soldiers to arrest and detain a septuagenarian mother of a wanted person alleged as a militant. How lawful is it to arrest his extended relatives, handcuffed and paraded as suspects? The Army has been looking for Tompolo for months to no avail, but they have never raided his extended family compound to arrest and detain his father, mother or siblings for questioning in the absence of Tompolo. Why would they now arrest a more than seventy years old Akperhe women and others in a location distant to from where their target resides?”
“Even after arresting them, why keep them there indefinitely? We demand her immediate release and the three others arrested with her.
Their continued detention is unlawful and a violation on their human rights”, it noted.
Also lamenting the situation, one Mrs. Koko Patani, mother of Henry, (one those arrested along with Madam Odada) said, “My son is not a militant, he stays with me, he only goes to his father’s house to sleep at night. My son is innocent and I want him released. It is so sad because I am a widow and I don’t even know where and how to go about seeking his release. I don’t know who to help me. They should bring back my son.”
Onesan Ekeke, mother of Vincent, (one of the arrested suspects) in tearful tone muttered, “My son stays in far away Auchi in Edo state.
He arrived the village on Friday for a burial ceremony. He was supposed to travel back with his boss the Thursday he was arrested. Someone told me he was arrested by soldiers. My son is not a criminal nor a militant, I want him released. I am a widow, I have no one to help me, and this oppression is too much for me. The soldiers should go and find real criminals.”
Oyivwaro George, an uncle to Henry, (also one of the arrested suspects), said, “This is oppression, this boy has been in this village suffering since the death of his father. It is wicked to just wake him up and arrest him for doing nothing. We are helpless. Whoever arrested him should release him, we beg in the name of God”
Also, indigenes of Kokodiagbene community in Gbaramatu kingdom of Warri Southwest local government area of Delta State have cried out over heavy military presence in the riverside communities in search of criminals and militants, urging President Buhari to prevail on the operatives of these special task forces to be more professional in discharging their duties in the region.
The community, in a statement signed by its Chairman, Comrade Sheriff Mulade, alleged that as a result of the heavy military presence in patrol boats in search of militants in the creeks, residents now live in fear of going out so as not to be mistaken for militants by the invading soldiers, adding that this had increased hunger in various homes as villagers now keep themselves in door in order not to incur the wrath of the military personnel.
Meanwhile, the Niger-Delta Greenland Justice Mandate has threatened to carry out reprisal attack on any military action that infringes on the fundamental human rights of the Niger-Delta indigenes in any community across the region.
The group which described its recent action of blowing up some major oil and gas facilities within its upland territorial areas as child play, warned of more severe attacks on specific oil and gas targets in the region and urged civilians within the targeted areas to evacuate these locations in their best interest.
In a statement signed by its spokesman, Aldo Agbalaja, the group who disclosed that it decided to name its latest operation ‘Operation Crocodile Tears’ as a counter-operation to the ‘Operation Crocodile Smile’, recently launched in the region by the Nigerian armed forces, vowed that any further harassment or killing of innocent people in any part of the region by the military would henceforth receive equal response from its operatives.
With the stage now set for what could best be described as the ‘clash of the titans’, it’s only hoped that the federal government would make good its promises to have a genuine dialogue with the trusted stakeholders from the area so as to avert bloodletting in the volatile region.