By Samuel Oyadongha
After nearly four years of witnessing the most complex and vicious conflicts between Niger Delta insurgents and the nation security forces, the Joint Task Force in the creeks of the delta, things may be looking up again for the traumatized people of the region.
The Niger Delta, the engine room of the nation economy may be on the verge of a desperate recovery following proclamation of an unconditional amnesty to all Niger Delta militants in the creeks as well as those in the law court including Henry Okah and Government Ekpemupolo (Tompolo) and other militant leaders declared wanted by the Niger Delta security unit Joint Task Force (JTF).
Though the amnesty offer had already been met with skepticism by some militant groups and opinion leaders in the region, it was also criticized by Amnesty International a london basedÂ human rights advocacy organisation, which said it would not work as it is only â€œtreating the symptoms and not the root causeâ€ of the problem that gave birth to militancy.
So far, four recognized militant commanders who could best be described as courageous have openly agreed to lay down their arms in the interest of peace.
Among militant leaders who have agreed to surrender their arms include Joshua Maciver, Commander Lagos Jackson, Gen Africa Owei and Gen Ogunboss.
Interestingly the first three were recognized by the Joint Task Force and their camps have been in festive mood since the proclamation of the amnesty while communities close to the camps can now heave a sigh of relief.
The communities have been living in constant fear of possible military invasion given the proximity of the camps and the militants having in their possession deadly armoury.
According to the JTF leaked security document on the activities and strength of the insurgents, Commander Africa Owei, now a repentant militant leader has his camp located near the Osiaperemo Creek, adjacent the Okugbene fishing camp, along the waterways in Korokorosei community.
The JTF in the report stated that he has other camps but his main camp remains directly opposite a short canal dug between two waterways, one coming from Yenagoa, after Oporoma, and the other, leading in opposite direction towards Korokorosei, Ikebiri and Azuzuama communities. It is believed that Owei also has another camp at Azuzuama which serves as a hideout.
A weapon inventory by the JTF showed that he has three general purpose machine guns (GPMGs), at least 50 assorted rifles, especially AK 47 and pump action guns, inexhaustible supply of ammunition and dynamites, 17 speedboats which three are locally configured with gun boats, usually mounted on GPMGs.
According to the JTF report, â€œHe (Owei) started out as a political thug before graduating into full time criminal militant. His motive is to become a big-time illegal oil bunkerer, as such; his intent is not the genuine Niger-Delta struggle.â€ He is believed to have lost a lot of his fighters and a major spiritualist in several encounters with JTF troops guarding oil facilities in the southern Ijaw area.
Commander Jackson, also known as Young Shall Grow, now a repentant militant leader according to the Major Gen Lawrence Ngubane report, has his camp at the Azuzuama areas of the southern Ijaw and is loyal to a militant leader in Delta State . He is said to be an upstart in militancy and can boast of about 40 fighters and his group is well armed with AK 47s.
â€œThe Young Shall Grow has a violent disposition. He participated in the abduction of expatriates from Conoil facility in Sangana, Brass local government area in early May, 2007,â€ the JTF boss stated.
For Commander Jackson his decision to surrender his arms and disband his camp was based on the proclamation of an unconditional amnesty to all Niger Delta militants in the creeks as well as those facing prosecution in the law courts, including Henry Okah by Mr. President.
Jackson who said he has already sent his letter of acceptance of amnesty deal to the Joint Task Force (JTF) and State Security Services (SSS) reiterated his readiness to partner with security agencies to restore the troubled region.
He enjoined his confederate in the armed struggle to accept Mr. President olive branch in the interest of peace so as to help stop hostage taking, kidnapping and pipeline vandalisation.
On the mood in his camps, he said â€œthe boys are happy with the amnesty offer as it will allow them the opportunity to return to normal life in the cities unmolested.â€
He expressed gratitude to the press for helping to bring to global attention the plight of the people of the Niger Delta.
Joshua Maciver, the Southern Ijaw born militant it would be recalled was the first among the militant leaders in Bayelsa to renounce armed struggle even before the President mooted the idea of amnesty.
It is on record that he was the first to genuinely denounce militancy in the region on July 18, 2008.
The move he said was taken after a closer review of militant activities and realizing it was counter productive to the development of the region.
Maciver according to the JTF report has his camp located at an abandoned fishing port around Olugbobiri area, which is very difficult to access. He has more than 300 fighters and his group is armed with AK 47s and GPMGs.
Intelligence report then reveals that he may have acquired rocket propelled grenade (RPG) launchers, with foreign mercenaries sighted in his camp, training some of the boys on handling the weapons. Itâ€™s suspected that he travelled to South-Africa in 2007 where he made arrangements to acquire RPGs.
JTFâ€™s weapons inventory indicated that he has 100 AK 47s, 15 GPMGs and seven RPGs. Military sources said he has a hostile disposition towards the JTF and â€œabhors direct contact with government/security officials or with political stakeholders,â€ a claim he (Maciver) dismissed when he spoke with newsmen saying he was at no never involved in any altercation with the JTF.
For Gen Ogunboss, a Commander from the Niger Delta Vigilante Force in the upper senate of MEND not much is known of him until he dislodged Prince Igodo from the Bomo axis.
Like others mentioned he denounced armed struggle and expressed willingness to surrender his arms even as he pleaded with the federal government to tackle the problem of underdevelopment plaguing the Niger Delta so as to prevent others from picking up arms against the Nigerian state.
His words, â€œFrom the days of our fathers the Niger Delta people have been dialoguing with the people of this country until we appeared on the scene since dialogue has not achieved anything. Go to Oloibiri where oil was first discovered and it is no longer habitable.
â€œIf they believe our carrying of arms is what is preventing the development of the region, we are also prepared to lay them down but they should put at the back of their mind that several mistakes have been made in the past by successive administrations who at the promptings of a cabal reneged on what they promised.
Imagine the recent arrest of Asari- Dokubo after the proclamation of amnesty by President Yarâ€™Adau, only for them to say it was a mistake.â€
â€œThe same river we excrete is the same river we drink from. We donâ€™t have functional water system, no electricity, no good education facilities, the two buildings you see in this community are owned by the community.
Whenever there is a flood, our children cannot go to school. Our people donâ€™t have access to good education.â€
Though he faulted the use of the word amnesty saying the Niger Delta struggle was not a war situation and amnesty can only be given to those who are in war and have committed an offence he however described â€œthe gesture a welcome development since we are not comfortable with the way people paint all of us as criminals but they should realize that something provoked the present situation in the Niger Delta.â€
On amnesty without developing the region he said, â€œWe donâ€™t believe in policies but actions, do something in the Niger Delta. We have swamps bigger than The Third Mainland Bridge in Lagos , why canâ€™t structure be put here.
The mistake our leaders would do in this country is after we have accepted this amnesty willing from our heart for the love of this country and they fail to see reason with us on our dreams which we have been interpreting every day.
The Federal Government said they would develop the Niger Delta, they should not make a mistake because that would be worse off.â€
â€œI want to tell the people of this country the implication of not abiding by the legal component of the amnesty. It would be so sad if at the end of the day we are disappointed. We are talking about amnesty and until now Henry Okah is still dying in detention.
We are talking about amnesty and Asari- Dokubo was arrested based on what they call wrong information. Please they should not make mistake so that by tomorrow when we have accepted the amnesty and lay down our arms we donâ€™t see things being put in place. We need speedy actions in the Niger Delta.
We love this country like every other Nigerian not matter what the names we call us. The problem of the region cannot be solved by burning down our communities with high caliber weapons.â€
As at press time, the only recognized militant leader in Bayelsa State who is yet to openly renounce armed struggle is Victor Ben aka Gen Boyloaf , a former ally of Asari Dokubo.
Boyloaf, one of the former trusted foot soldiers of the leader of the Niger-Delta Peoples Volunteer Force (NPDVF), Alhaji Dokubo Asari, according to the JTF report has three camps: One in Ezetu, another in Azuzuama, both in southern Ijaw, while the third is in the Agge flank, a border community between Ekeremor and Southern Ijaw local government areas.
Although Victor only established his camps in the state from February to March 2007, he appears, according to the task force, to have the most organized group. The strength of his fighters is estimated at 200 – 300. Before now, he was operating from the Port-Harcourt axis with Dagogo Farah.
He reportedly has in his camp 15 GPMGs, 120 AK 47 rifles, 15 long range BMGs, three RPGs and 20 double 150 horsepower speed boats. He is truly a militant with solid credentials of being affiliated with the MENDâ€.
In terms of their activities, the JTF rates Joshua Maciver (who had since renounced violence in the wake of the federal government planned amnesty) as the most deadly of the five militant groups in Bayelsa followed by Africa Owei.
While all the above mention leaders have agreed to surrender their arms the same cannot be said of MEND, a shadowy group, which has continued to spurn the amnesty offer describing the gesture as â€˜Greek Giftâ€™.
This intransigent position of MEND according to analysts might not be unconnected with the situation in the creeks of the delta where the natives are still being treated as conquered people by the JTF.
â€œIt is only in the creeks of the delta where people including our chiefs and traditional rulers are made to raise their hands and their walking sticks which is part of the paraphernalia of their office when ever their boats approach any military checkpoint.
What is more humiliating than this? Can that happen in any other part of the country. Why must we be treated like dog all because of the oil in our backyard?â€ lamented a militant during a trip to one of the camps.
A situation where defenceless civilian settlements are being destroyed and thousands of innocent natives rendered homeless under the guise of pursuing militants makes mockery of the amnesty says analysts.
Given this scenario, the sincerity of the federal government amnesty offer is being doubted by a section of the militant groups and this may be responsible for the discordant tunes within the militant groups.
â€œIf this position remain unchanged, it is unlikely that much can be achieved in sixty days,â€ lamented Andowei Kuro.
The trust of the militants must be won first said a concerned Niger Deltan, â€œthe previous status quo of neither peace nor war seemed to suit key stakeholders, while the region suffered both sides continued to play political chess with the collective destinies of the people.â€
In spite of the massive military presence in the delta the militants are still sabotaging the nation economic interest in guerrilla styled operation prompting analysts to declare that â€œonce you are unable to master a rebellion, the only option open to you, is negotiation.â€
As a way of quelling the uprising in the region, analysts argue that many never thought the insurgents could wield so much power through the barrel of the gun adding that they will only relinquish this power if they are given something in return.
But for repentant militant leader, Joshua Maciver who last week raised an alarm over several failed attempts on his life since his renunciation of militancy about a year ago said he chose to leave the world of militants in the creek on realizing that it was doing more harm than good to the development of the region.
The former militant leader who thanked God for sparing his life added â€œI want to place on record that my camp and armoury was ambushed last year October and November by some criminals who took away some of my arms.â€
In an interview held at Government House annex where he is taking refuge currently Maciver said, â€œI called you to day to share my joy at the recent proclamation of amnesty by the federal government to those still operating in the creeks and others arrested and standing trials for activities relating to militancy.
â€œIt is on record that I was the first to genuinely denounce militancy in the region on July 18, 2008. The move was taken after a closer review of our activities later reasoned to be counter productive to the development of the region.
â€œThe decision to lay down my arms at that time, I would like to emphasis was not borne out of any premise of monetary overtures or inducement by the governor of Bayelsa State, Chief Timipre Sylva but with sincerity of purpose.â€
The repentant militant leader who recalled that some of his former colleagues saw his action as betrayal calling him names however expressed happiness with the presidential amnesty and the willingness of other militants to lay down their arms.
He thanked Governor Timipre Sylva for providing him logistics to denounce, through the disarmament and reintegration and empowerment programme for all militants wishing to leave the creeks and embrace peace.
Maciver who also expressed willingness to surrender his arms said the amnesty has further portrayed the Yarâ€™Adua led administration as a responsive government.
The repentant Maciver like others called on all those in the creeks to come out and surrender their arms within the sixty days stipulated time for all militants to turn in their arms.