Kingsley OMONOBI, Abuja
After every operational tour of combat zones or theatres of operation, be it internal security or foreign peace support, by service chiefs of the military to their officers and soldiers on ground, there are usually traditional regimental ways of saluting the top generals to show appreciation for the way and manner they had discharged their share of responsibility for the welfare and readiness of troops.
And so, when it was time for the officers and soldiers of the Joint Task Force for the Niger Delta, deployed to the notorious Camp 5 militants den of front-line ex-militant, Government Ekpomupolo, alias Tompolo, to give 3 hearty cheers to Air Chief Marshal Paul Dike, CDS, after he addressed them, the loudness of the cheer and morale displayed by the troops, is the highest this reporter has witnessed during such operational visits in a long while.
Aside the officers and soldiers on ground Camp 5, naval officers and ratings onboard the Naval Patrol Warship, the Cat Class NNS Obula, which docked in the sea few kilometers off Camp 5 for added security, gave a majestic display of salutation and loyalty to the CDS right in the waters while the fast attack â€˜Mantraâ€™ gunboats carrying Dike and his delegation sailed round Obula in a diamond formation.
For about two hours, the 2 Mantra gunboats, carrying the CDS, Commander of the Joint Task Force, Major General Sarkin Yarkin Bello; his deputy, Brig-General Nanven Rintip; Commanding officer, NNS Delta, Commodore Agba; Deputy Chief of Defence Intelligence newly promoted Air Vice Marshal Faloyin, Principal General Staff officer to the CDS, newly promoted Air Vice Marshal Gbolahan Adekunle and Director of Defence Information, Colonel MohammedÂ Yerima, accompanied by five Jedi gunboats, sped through the dreaded waters of the Chanomi Creeks to Camp 5 which could count as headquarters of militants in the Ijaw heartland.
Dike who was carrying out a post amnesty tour ofÂ the Niger Delta creeks and oil platforms to assess the situation on ground and how the situation has impacted on oil business which is the nationâ€™s mainstay also used the occasion to drum it into the ears of the troops on the need to key into the amnesty programme.
During the two hour trip to Camp 5, this reporter who had the opportunity of working and heading the Warri Bureau ofÂ Vanguard between 2003 and 2005 at the height of the Warri crises and witnessed the deadly wave of militancy that accompanied it, could not help but marvel at the calmness and peaceful serenity the once dreaded Chanomi creeks turned out to be.
For emphasis, these same Chanomi creeks were notorious for hostage taking particularly of foreign oil workers. Many foreigners and their Nigerian counterparts were killed along the creeks by desperate militants. Oil vessels were hijacked at random and illegal bunkering along these creeks were of monumental proportions. Several times, local houseboats transporting traders including women and children were attacked, their wares stolen, women raped and some killed in the process and their bodies dumped into the creeks.
Many officers of the Joint Task force, the Nigeria Navy and the Police Maritime unit, were killed along these Chanomi creeks. It will be recalled that after most of the robbery incidents that occurred in Warri and environs particularly the robbing of banks and financial institutions, the hoodlums who usually brandished very sophisticated weaponry, escaped through the waters of the Chanomi creeks.
To quantify the amount of billions of dollars worth of illegally bunkered crude oil or the destruction of oil platforms or the damage done to oil pipelines through the use of grenades, dynamite and other explosives from militants whose activities emanated from the notorious Chanomi creeks, would take months if not years to compute.
To make matters worse, Camp 5 is so centrally located that militants could launch attacks on ships and tankers carrying crude oil to the high seas. They could launch attacks at Excravos where there are so many platforms, other deep sea oil platforms and threaten a blockade of seafaring activities between Delta, Ondo, Edo and Bayelsa states. It was also a base from where many of the illegally siphoned crude oil from the many pipelines crossing the creeks was sold to oil merchants.
Therefore, to many who only heard and read of the problems of the Niger Delta from afar, they would not understand the weight of the sigh of relief that has swept through the length and breadth of the Niger Delta following the capture and takeover of Camp 5 by the JTF.
However, the exploits of the Joint Task force in bringing about this tranquility must be situated against the backdrop of the able leadership and direction provided by the CDS who apart from carrying out governmentâ€™s directive regarding the actual operation of snuffing out threats of militants and demobilizing their camps across the region, had the added responsibility of ensuring motivation of his men in very difficult environment.
In fact, a sizeable majority of people in the Niger Delta whose livelihood depended on the waterways view the peace, tranquility and calmness that is being experienced in the area today, as the handiwork of God, using President Yarâ€™adua on the political side and Chief Marshal Dike and the armed forces on the military side.
However, it is pertinent to say that the experience ofÂ what CAMP 5 itself looked like was amazing as the sizeable location which could be likened to a city in the Swamp, had a well planned outline, with its own crude oil depot, an ammunitions depot, sea component of weaponry including 3 mounted gunboats which had been demobilized by the joint Task force and several defensive mini-bunkers from where armed militants could take on enemy forces who might attack the camp. There was also several escape routes and structures where hostages were kept.
Therefore, it had to be the firepower of the Nigerian Airforce from the air that played the principal role in neutralizing these mini-bunkers and the mounted gunboats before the Navy and land forces moved in and captured Camp 5.
Following the thunderous ovation that followedÂ his address to the officers and men whom he congratulated for their gallantry in very difficult terrain, an elated Dike, having seen the rugged living conditions of the troops inside the camp, assured he would make the place more habitable for them adding more goodies are in the works.
His words, â€œI am extremely proud of what you are doing here for the nation. I bring the best wishes of Mr. President. With the peace we are now experiencing, our next task is to key into the Amnesty programme and the best way to do this is to win the hearts and minds of the people hereâ€.
â€œWe cannot win the people hearts if we donâ€™t have respect for the rights of the people. We cannot win their hearts if we go around extorting the same people we are supposed to protect. We cannot win the hearts of the public by engaging in acts inimical to development and growth of the country. I will feel very sad if you engage in actsâ€.
â€œOn our part at the DHQ level, we are trying to work out an allowance for those who lost their lives in their course of the operation. For your kitting, orders have been placed for the full compliments to enable you weather the pressure hereâ€.
â€œHow long are you going to stay? For as long as is necessary to keep the peace. For the officers, you must lead by example. It is only be so doing that you get the respect from your subordinates. You must show that the Nigerian military is moving away from the old normsâ€.
â€œWe have submitted a new terms and conditions of service proposal to the federal government because we realize that the old TACOS is not in tune with present realities and all mistakes associated with payment of allowances in the past, have been corrected. So there should be no excuse to fall out of lineâ€.
For the oil companies whose platforms litter the creeks and seas of the Niger Delta terrain and who are currently smiling to the bank under the new environment of tranquility, the presence of Air Chief Marshal Paul Dike is a massive boost to new air of freedom pervading the creeks.
The fact that he came down his hallowed heights in Abuja to actually sail the difficult terrain of the creeks for about 4 hours without incidents, is the sign the people have been waiting for to really get convinced that at last, the waterways are secured and free from deadly militants and business can return as usual.