■ Govt, Avengers set for final showdown
By CHIDI OBINECHE
Catch 22 affair
ON Thursday July 21, 2016, in a move resonant with searing acuity, the Niger Delta Avengers, NDA after several months of ding-dong race with the Federal Government finally let down the flaccid engagement in the strife-torn Niger Delta region, and opened a hint of a grand canvas of a torrid, free–run of blood. It warned all foreign firms and their expatriates operating in the region to quit or contend with the consequences of staying put. Also on the icy list of the endangered are the two unions in the oil and gas industry, Nigeria Union of Petroleum and Natural Gas Workers (NUPENG) and Petroleum and Natural Gas Workers Senior Staff Association of Nigeria ( PENGASSAN). Brimming with lightening in its “mouth”, the Avengers in its darkening mind flashed the red flag: “Leave all oil fields and terminals because it is going to be dirty very soon.” This is the first time since the grueling internecine hostilities began that the militant group would be baying for blood. The group had earlier warned the Joint Niger Delta Liberation Force, JNDLF and other militant groups that mushroomed in the wake of the birth of the NDA not to soil their hands with blood, and even showed an eager readiness for dialogue with the Federal Government.
Early signs that the skirting had careened off to full blown plodding began when the peace shuttles for truce between the Avengers and the Federal Government caught cold and crumbled inexorably on its face. With this gradient, the parties recoiled and fell back to the use of ineluctable force, even as President Muhammadu Buhari still insists that there is a flourish of talks between both parties.
Opening a mutated vista of raison d’être for the unfolding development, Mr Fred Brisibe, a Niger Delta based human rights activist and co-coordinator of the Ijaw Human Rights Monitor said; “ the agitation is targeted at achieving the Sovereign State of Niger Delta Republic that would afford us the freedom to control our resources. The writings are bold enough on the wall of reality for even the blind to see from his world of darkness that the Niger Delta Avengers, which claimed responsibility for the recent spate of vandalism of oil and gas facilities in the creeks of the Niger Delta may not mark the end of agitation in the region.” Birisibe is not alone on this. The President of the Ijaw Youth Council, IYC, Comrade Eradiri posits that the threat of going dirty by the NDA is not the issue, but the underlying critical factors fueling the crises. In his view, “if the problems are resolved, there will be no NDA, and no threat of going dirty.” Continuing, he said, “This leadership is not serious. Under former President Obasanjo, he took the bull by the horns and did his best to calm nerves in the region. The late Yar’Adua made good concessions with dialogue. Jonathan did the same. He engaged the militants and brought the situation down. NDA is getting support because of failure of leadership.
“They are talking of ceasefire. Ceasefire with who? Are we fighting a war? Fulani Herdsmen are terrorizing everywhere, killing people and sacking communities, but no arrests have been made. But they are terrorizing and arresting our youths and community leaders. Linking the struggle to Tompolo is a distraction. Why are they deceiving people? I was invited to be part of the Federal Government negotiation team, but I turned it down. The Federal Government is unleashing violence on the Niger Delta,” a visibly agitated Eradiri, told Sunday Sun on telephone. Former deputy speaker of the House of Representatives Chief Chibudom Nwuche, however, sued for restraint, saying that an environment without peace cannot develop. Mr Ayo Osibogun, the Chief Executive Officer, CEO of Carbon and Fuels, an operator in the region also called for caution, adding that “there are better ways to approach issues.”
As maneuvers intensify to foster a lithe spirit in resolving the hydra-headed issues in the region, Mr. Government Ekpemupolo, aka Tompolo, presumed face behind the NDA mask, on Friday July 22, 2016 alleged persistent threats to his family and associates from government security agencies, which invariably would undermine any fulsome desire for amicable resolution of the impasse. Tompolo, former leader of half demobilized Movement for the Emancipation of Niger Delta, (MEND) made the declaration in a press statement issued and signed by him. He said he had written severally to the president stating clearly his positions on the multiple allegations leveled against him by some “disgruntled persons who do not like him in the state,” warning that this would be the last time he would write him. “Your Excellency Sir, it is instructive to state that you need me to drive this your change agenda in the Niger Delta region, as I am ever passionate to improve the living condition of the people of the region.
“You are being respected today because of your integrity and sincerity of purpose. Therefore, you need to consciously investigate the issues surrounding the establishment of the University,” he affirmed in tacit allusion to the controversial Maritime University.
Spanners in the works
While Tompolo, who has remained elusive, is abstrusely waving the olive branch, there are insidious and evanescent activities on both sides suggestive of a meltdown. The Minister of State for Petroleum, Dr Ibe Kachikwu who had been the arrowhead in the peace making process had reassured on the heels of the unfolding twist that “the president is interested in dialogue and has mandated the military to halt actions for about two weeks to ensure that a team that will be led by the National Security Adviser, NSA, dialogues with the militants to ensure peace in the region.”
How the clouds gathered
From available information pieced together by Sunday Sun, the Federal Government unwittingly provided a fertile ground for the rapid degeneration of the conflict. Under pressure, NDA had backed down tactically in its offensive to see if government was sincere with the peace process. Rather than show commensurate commitment to its self-espoused peace cause, the government resorted to a hide and seek game with the militants. The National Security Adviser, NSA, balked and did not lead the government team as widely expected. There was no concrete outline for dialogue left behind by the president who was at the time holidaying in London. After the president’s return on June 19, there was nothing to show interest and inspiration in the planned dialogue in his carriage, mien and utterances. Indeed, it was speculated then that some xenophobic hawks in his party had exploited the London
vacation to hoodwink him to review his stance on dialogue as an effective means of ending the siege in the region by militants. Although Kachikwu had submitted a template to stem the crisis to the president, which was considerably in the president’s favourable consciousness, the counter disposition of his “inner kitchen cabinet” put him at sea, and within days, like a receding eventide meadow, the sun began to set on dialogue.
The aborted settlement
Subterranean investigations by many of the stakeholders in the resurgent Niger Delta debacle point to the fact that Tompolo holds the key to the end of the crisis, even as he continues to disclaim the NDA. It was further discovered that the ex-militant is willing to make sacrifices, which includes forfeiting his frozen account, seized properties and a willingness to co-operate with the government to end bombings of oil installations and pipelines, a position he has often stated even during his meeting with Buhari before the president was sworn in, and in his open letters to him. But the snag to these was that he would not consent to ploys to nail the coffin on the Maritime University, and would not also catalyze these processes unless the charges against him by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, EFCC are dropped. The meltdown became more apparent with many stakeholders in the region engaging each other in a running battle of relevance. The power play and intrigues compounded the situation and sent confusing signals to the president and other interested parties. The equation, therefore, invariably swung towards reading the lips of the president, who has equally not helped matters with his shyness of manner and spirit on the issue. “Until we resumed operations, nobody reached out to us and government did not establish any genuine platform to address our grievances,” the NDA postmarked. And to give vent to its renewed bombings, it said “This is another phase of the Niger Delta struggle to reclaim our resources for posterity. Some mischief makers can tag it Ijaw struggle, but our short, medium, and long term plans are for us, the people of the Niger Delta, to control our resources and develop our land and pay tax to the central government.” In line with this philosophy, Tompolo had during the 2015 governorship elections in his native Delta state played an influential and yeoman’s role as godfather to many politicians, including singlehandedly producing the current deputy governor of the state, Kingsley Otuaro, a legal practitioner, and upsetting the political equation of the state. He was also said to have swung the December 8, 2015 governorship primary of the Peoples Democratic Party, PDP in favour of Ifeanyi Okowa, despite the clear choice of the sitting governor, Emmanuel Uduaghan.
Enter the Xenophobes
As the spanner swirls round, a new group of northern hardliners comprising retired and serving military officers have virtually seized the battle against the militants with their own virtuoso blueprint, which Sunday Sun learnt, the president is easily disposed to. The group has impressed on the president that Tompolo is the mastermind of NDA, and they have infiltrated into and recruited from the ranks of some former ex-militant leaders and few South-south leaders to hunt down Tompolo and his associates. The hunt is being executed by a joint team of the Navy, Army, and the Department of State Services, DSS and they are already claiming to have hauled in some suspects. The NDA has, however, denied the claims as “outlandish.” The group is coordinated by a high-end government official whose office has availed them with extensive logistics and other details to facilitate the location of Tompolo’s hideout. “If they do not use Tompolo’s boys to arrest him, they will attack his suspected hideouts in the creeks any moment from now,” Sunday Sun learnt during the week. Indeed, the army high command, last Tuesday warned NDA to either accept dialogue or face war. Many are wont to interpret the threat as both pre-emptive and claustrophobic.
The final battle
Obviously aware of the change of position of the Federal Government, the NDA may have resolved to either die with the lions than sink with weasels. This is baring the last minute intervention of MEND. In a memo sent to Buhari, MEND emphasized the primacy of continuing with dialogue, and the inclusion of Tompolo in the AARON II team which it is proposing. MEND described Tompolo in the memo as “notable ex-militant leader; philanthropist, traditional title holder and mobilizer of amazing capacity.” With the highly tense situation, and if none of the two contending forces yields to the other, the battle line is drawn, which will ultimately alter the course of the struggle for ill or good. With all flanks at full alert, Sunday Sun learnt from a good source in the presidency that the battle to secure the nation remains a challenge and would be pursued without let or hindrance. It was further gathered from the source that President Buhari would in no way respond to Tompolo’s letters because, “Tompolo is a fugitive from the law. Should he be writing to the president? He should go and answer the charges leveled against him.”
With the military getting set to launch what it tags Operation Crocodile Smile, which according to the Chief of Army Staff, involves the training of Special Forces Troops in Amphibious and IS operations in riverine areas in the South-south states of the country, the stage appears set for the final showdown.