Despite Federal Government’s amnesty in 2009 to repentant Niger Delta militants and regular patrol of the creeks and waterways by security operatives, some of the former warlords and criminals are still neck-deep in pipeline vandalism, crude oil theft and illegal refining in the region, writes Southsouth Bureau Chief, BISI OLANIYI.
The oil and gas-rich Niger Delta states, comprising Rivers, Bayelsa, Delta, Edo, Ondo, Akwa Ibom, Cross River, Abia and Imo, have always been synonymous with agitations for commensurate development and empowerment.
These agitations have unfortunately made their youths to go into militancy to draw Federal Government and the international community’s attention to their plight. But unfortunately, those initiatives were hijacked by criminals, who opted for kidnapping of expatriates and locals for huge ransoms. On the trail of these agitations were piracy, pipeline vandalism, cultism, crude oil theft, illegal refining and other unlawful activities.
In those days of militancy, a visit to an expansive camp of one of the “Generals” in the creeks of Southern Ijaw Local Government Area of Bayelsa State revealed that many of the youths had Master’s degrees and spoke flawless English Language. But they complained of unemployment and as such, had to help themselves by stealing crude oil, either sold for cash to waiting buyers on the high sea or exchanged for sophisticated arms and ammunition.
With the “Generals” and their numerous “boys,” acquiring Armoured Personnel Carriers (APC) and new weapons in their camps, it was easy for them to overrun many facilities of oil companies and confront security operatives, resulting in heavy casualties on both sides.
Not satisfied with pipeline vandalism, crude oil theft and artisanal refining, they opted for high-profile kidnapping, collecting ransoms in Dollars to free their hostages. This action scared investors from the Niger Delta and oil companies’ workers became afraid to move to the creeks.
Worried by the decline in crude oil and gas daily production, endless protests/threats, insecurity and great losses, top management of multinational oil firms and oil servicing companies had to quit the Niger Delta.
However, the late President Umaru Yar’Adua’s administration offered amnesty to repentant militants and it was a huge success, with many of them returning to school, adequately empowered, gainfully employed and became employers of labour.
Many of them are now graduates, while a lot of them have also completed their higher degrees, with many still in various tertiary institutions within and outside Nigeria. The Presidential Amnesty Office is still paying them a monthly stipend of N65,000 each to make their lives more meaningful.
However, since they are accustomed to huge free money, many of them have decided to return to the creeks to continue with their criminal activities and are freely operating despite the huge presence and regular patrols of the area by security operatives.
The oil producing communities in Kalabari Kingdom in Rivers State, through their traditional rulers’ chairman, King Ipalibo Amachree, on October 18 this year, raised the alarm that soldiers were planning to invade the area over suspicion of illegal oil activities.
Amachree said: “Intelligence report at my disposal indicated that soldiers from the 6 Division of Nigerian Army will storm the area. I urge the Chief of Army Staff, Lt.-Gen. Tukur Burutai, Rivers State Governor, Chief Nyesom Wike and relevant institutions to order a halt in the operation for the sake of peace.
“The Nigerian Army must shun acts that are capable of breaching the cordial relationship between the soldiers and the host communities, where they have lived peacefully over the years.
The traditional institution and Kalabari people are not in support of the planned invasion of their communities with swamp-boogy.” He also threatened that the people would resist any attempt to invade their land.
The Nigerian Army 6 Division spokesman, Maj. Charles Ekeocha, however, denied the allegation saying soldiers were not invading the peaceful communities in Kalabari Kingdom of Rivers State, but were after illegal refiners/bunkerers.
He declared that criminals would never be allowed to operate in 6 division’s Area of Responsibility (AOR), comprising Rivers, Akwa Ibom, Bayelsa and Delta states.
Ekeocha, on October 19, conducted reporters round two nearby expansive sites of illegal ‘refinery’ for stolen crude oil in the creeks behind Buguma-Kalabari, headquarters of Asari-Toru Local Government Area of Rivers State.
Buguma-Kalabari, hometown of a former leader of the Niger Delta People’s Volunteer Force (NDPVF) Alhaji Mujahid Dokubo-Asari, an ex-President of Ijaw Youth Council (IYC), has Prof. Theophilus Princewill, the Amanyanabo of Kalabari Kingdom, as king. The monarch is also a former Chairman of Rivers State Council of Traditional Rulers.
A journey in an army gunboat from Abonnema-Kalabari jetty, of Akuku-Toru LGA headquarters in Rivers State, to illegal refining, sites took 32 minutes, while the militants, who were still cooking and operating at the sites, were not afraid of the soldiers presence. The soldiers, however, were not in the mood to attack them.
Swamp-boogy was immediately brought to the sites by the soldiers for total destruction of the expensive equipment and facilities at the refining sites, amid tight security.
Ekeocha, while speaking at the two sites, said the General Officer Commanding (GOC) 6 division, Maj.-Gen. Jamil Sarham, and the Chief of Army Staff, Lt.-Gen. Tukur Buratai, had zero tolerance for illegal bunkering, pipeline vandalism, illegal refining and other criminal activities.
He said: “6 Division of Nigerian Army decided to bring you (reporters) here (sites of illegal refining) so that you can see things by yourselves and know if soldiers are invading any community or to stop oil bunkering and illegal refining. There are still tanks and fire at the sites, indicating that some people are still cooking and operating.
“Soldiers are not invading any community. Kalabari communities are part of Nigeria. The people in the army are Nigerians. We cannot just invade our people. For what?
“We will ensure that pipeline vandalism, crude oil theft and illegal refining are stopped. The exercise will be continuous. We have been speaking with leaders and people of various communities in the Niger Delta that their environment is being destroyed/damaged and degraded by the people who engage in the illegal activities, particularly pipeline vandalism, crude oil theft and illegal refining of stolen crude oil.
“If we pursue the pipeline vandals and illegal refiners today, tomorrow they will be back. The permanent solution is for people of the communities to support the Nigerian Army and provide the needed intelligence or useful information, because the people operating the illegal sites are not spirits, they are human beings.
“People and leaders of Niger Delta’s communities should work with the Nigerian Army and support the government. The crude oil being stolen and the oil facilities being destroyed will negatively impact on the economy of Nigeria, while investors will be discouraged.”
Nigerian Army Division 6 spokesman also said the responsibility of the military would be to arrest illegal bunkerers and refiners, who would be handed over to other agencies of government for further investigation and diligent prosecution, to serve as deterrents to others, while declaring that whatever happened to the suspects after being arrested and handed over would no longer be the responsibility of the military.