Unknown to many, Bayelsa State tops the Niger Delta States in having the highest numberÂ of militant camps in the region. There are no fewer than 12 militants camps there, with Southern Ijaw council area having the largest concentration of militant bases.
But here, the mood in the mangrove creeks is sour. There is palpable tension in communities on the Atlantic fringe over alleged plan by the nationâ€™s security forces to launch attack on militants camps scattered in the deep swamp of the state.
The fear of the population in the creek is understandable given the ferocity and ruthlessness with which the Joint Task Force code named Operation Restore Hope prosecuted the nearly three-week old war against insurgents in the Warri South West LGA of Delta State .
Many had initially thought that it would be a quick mop up operation aimed at dislodging the militants from their stronghold, Camp 5 and Iroko around the Gbaramatu Kingdom. But the extent of destruction visited on civilian settlements and the attendant loss of several innocent civilian lives is an indication that the federal government is running out of patience with militants in the delta.
Saturday Vanguard investigation revealed that the military campaign in the western delta is now causing anxiety not only among the â€˜boysâ€™ in the various camps in the state but also in the communities in the deep swam of the state.
Though most of the militants, it was learnt, want to leave the jungle and return to normal life in the cities, especially with proposed amnesty being offered by federal government they are not sure if the olive branch would allow them go unpunished if they lay down their arms.
Interestingly, the state which originally was the hot bed of militancy has since turned out to be an oasis of peace in the troubled region.
Credit however should be given to the state Peace and Conflict Resolution Committee headed by Chief James Jephath which transverses the length and breath of the creeks reaching out to the â€˜boysâ€™ on the need to give peace a chance.
This culminated in the historic December 5, 2007 peace treaty signed by 12 militant groups operating in the creeks of the state to end all acts of hostage-taking, pipeline vandalisation and invasion of oil platforms so as to allow the President Umaru Yarâ€™Adua administration implement its developmental agenda for the region.
Though the names of the militant groups were kept under wraps, the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND), the most organized and feared group, distanced itself from the peace agreement.
Under the deal, it was gathered that the camps were getting pay offs from the government to keep the peace. Though the actual amount accruing to theÂ camps could not be ascertained informed sources told Saturday Vanguard this was responsibile for the restoration of peace in the once troubled creek.
The militants who initially rode on the crest of populist slogan of â€˜freedom fightersâ€™ has since degenerated to criminality such as kidnapping for ransom with the result that the locals are now fed up with their activities.
This was demonstrated by the All Ijaw Summit which directed the militants in Ijaw territory to close down camps or face the wrath of the Ijaw nation, a position dismissed by MEND saying it was not binding on it.
Attacks by MEND in the last three years have capped Nigeria â€˜s oil production at nearly 2 million bpd, significantly lower than its estimated 3 million bpd supply capacity.
Hundreds of foreigners have been taken in the delta since MEND launched a campaign of violence in early 2006 to push for what it considers to be a fairer share of the profits from crude oil extraction. Most are freed unharmed after a few weeks.
But from the point of view of most locals, the militants are as corrupt as the forces they claim they are fighting, especially with the endless cases of kidnapping for ransom by rag tag gangs under the guise of militancy.
â€œThey are only interested in themselves and what they stand to gain from the oppressive system they claim they are fighting,â€ said one Ewerikumo.Â â€œThey are more interested in what they stand to gain than talking about a legitimate resistance to government.
â€œTheir struggle is not about seeking reparations for environmental damage caused by the oil industry. It is not about new development in the Niger Delta. They simply want their cut of the lucrative oil trade and this explains the proliferation of camps in the state with each striving to have government recognition.â€
The position of Ewerikumo is further reinforced by claims that the recognised militant camps in the state were getting monthly largesse from the government to keep the peace, a claim that was vehemently denied by the state government describing the alleged report as blackmail and the handiwork of mischief makers bent on tarnishing the good work of Governor Timipre Sylva.
Though the creek of the state has been peaceful, save for the pocket of crisis recorded since the historic peace treaty,Â the event of the last three weeks in neighbouring Delta State where the JTF is locked in bitter war with militants is now causing communities in the deep swamp sleepless nights over fear of possible military attack in search of militants.
In spite of the large concentration of camps in the state, most of the militant camps operate as independent cells but can rally together to fight a perceived enemy.
The situation is however different in Odi community where the natives can now sleep with their eyes closed following the arrest and eventual killing of Ken Niweigha, a militant leader who incidentally was the coordinator of the state governmentâ€™s security outfit, â€˜Bayelsa Volunteerâ€™ in the area before his alleged sack for being in possession of illegal weapons.
The women and children of the community had to embark on peaceful protestÂ and gave the deceased militant leader 48 hours to proceed on exile, failure of which they threatened to invoke the spirit of the gods of the land against him.
The late Ken Niwegha, who allegedly led the killing of some policemen, including an Assistant Commissioner of Police in Odi, Bayelsa State in 1999, which led to the invasion and destruction of the town by the military, was reportedly killed in a cross fire, following an alleged attempt by members of his gang to rescue him.
For four year after his escape from prison where he was standing trial, alongside nine others, over their alleged involvement in the death of the policemen during the famous Port Harcourt Prison break in 2005, â€˜Daddy Kenâ€™ as he was fondly called, held sway in his native Odi.
The deceased not only enjoyed government patronage which saw him becoming the coordinator of the state government owned security outfit, Bayelsa Volunteer in Odi at one time, he made fortune for himself with the result that he lived like a lord and was feared by his people.
For other communities in the state having militant camps close their settlements the fear of the JTF is the beginning of wisdom and this has forced many of the natives in such places to flee their homes following alleged plan by the nationâ€™s security forces to launch attack on suspected militants hideouts in the mangrove swamp.
Although the JTF has called on the people to dispel any such fear the people are still leaving in their droves.
The JTF through its spokesman, Col Rabe Abubakar, while dismissing the rumour said, â€œI donâ€™t know where people do get such information. The JTF has said it many times that it has no plan to attack any community. We want to reiterate that we are not targeting anybody or community but criminals.
â€œTherefore, innocent community members should disregard this rumour and continue their normal life and businesses, as we are friends to law abiding citizens.â€
The JTF, however, solicited the cooperation of the communities on vital information on militantsâ€™ hideouts in their vicinity, with a view to getting rid of them without inconveniencing any innocent persons.
The several assurances from the JTF, notwithstanding, the locals are apprehensive, especially given the conduct of the military in the neighbouring Delta where its operatives, not only went after the rag tag militants, but vent their anger on defenceless civilian settlements in what appeared to the implementation of the leaked secret security document written by the former commander of the Joint Task Force Major-General Lawrence Ngubane.
Entitled, â€œStrategies to stem out militant activities within the Joint Task Force, Operation Restore Hope area of responsibility,â€ the 26-page manuscript is the most insightful paper in recent times, detailing the names of the militant groups in the region, their leaders, weapons in their possession, location of their camps, how the JTF perceives their potency, their Achillesâ€™ heel, how the military can overrun them and implications of military onslaught.
The JTF offensive on Gbaramatu Kingdom was not accidental; it was a planned operation by the task force as the second option given to Chief of Defence Staff was to conduct massive attacks on at least two major camps (one each in Bayelsa and Delta states respectively).
â€œThe successful routing of major camps in both states would significantly reduce or eliminate militancy in the Niger-Delta. The routing of major camps would dissuade minor camps from further militant activities while discouraging those who were at the verge of joining militancyâ€, Ngubane stated.
The JTF, as a military outfit, would not, ordinarily, be blamed for suggesting that a military option be taken to tackle the militants. That is what it was set up to do and it has no other job other than waging war against perceived enemies of government. The only thing is that since the menace of militancy started in the Niger-Delta, military option has not really helped; rather it has, more often than not, exacerbated the crisis.
Though the JTF acknowledged the importance of political solution in its brief but it was not happy that the militants were getting too powerful with the credibility the politicians were conferring on them with their frequent visits to their camps.
For instance, Ngubane said, â€œThe political masters have to pursue dialogue with a view to persuading the militants to lay down their arms. It is envisaged that this is a viable means granted that the Niger-Delta political and traditional leaders are sincere and not just using the crisis as a means of livelihood. All promises for physical development should be based on timed programmes so that evaluation of progress can be possible.
The Niger-Delta political, traditional and militant leaders would undertake to ensure peace and security as long as development efforts are on course.
Youths restiveness can be effectively curtailed if the political leadership undertakes job creation to engage the youths productively.â€ But the fear of the people is why then did the JTF choose military option if it knows that the problem is physical development of the region?
The task force, however, deserves some praises for the thorough job done on the profile of militant leaders, their camps, and arms in their possession and how to dismantle them.
A military source told Saturday Vanguard that in spite of the militantsâ€™ vast knowledge of the mangrove terrain coupled with the absence of link road between the hinterland and the mainland which could have made effective policing of the area difficult,Â the nationâ€™s security forces have the wherewithal to dislodge the militants from their camps in a couple of hours, if given go ahead to launch conventional war on the militants in the mangrove swamp.
â€œThose of you in the media have helped to mystify these miscreants called militants by giving them undue publicity. May be,Â you donâ€™t know military have the capability to rout these criminals masquerading as freedom fighters if they deployed their conventional weapons against them (militants).
All the military need do is to mount their heavy weapons, several miles from the creeks and will destroy the camps.
But it is being mindful of the devastating consequences on the immediate surrounding,â€ he said. According to him, not even all the general purpose machine guns (GPMGs), assorted rifles, especially AK 47 and pump action guns, inexhaustible supply of ammunition and dynamites, speedboats, which are locally configured with gun boats, usually mounted on GPMGs and rocket propelled grenade (RPG) launchers in possession of the militants can stop the military from overrunning the entire camps in the creek of the state if given the go ahead.
â€œSome few miscreants cannot continue to bleed the nationâ€™s economy. This criminality in the creek must stop,â€ he sounded tough.
As it is, nobody knows when the military will eventually closed in on the camps. But feelers from all indications are that the Ijaw nation is opposed to the continued existence of the camps in which Southern Ijaw of Bayelsa is known to have the highest concentration and is also host to five of the most notorious militant groups as stated in a security report compiled by the former commander of the JTF Major General Lawrence Ngubane.
Below is a breakdown of the various camps as compiled by the JTF. The one led by Commander African Owei, a jail bird with a murder charge against him is located near the Osiaperemo Creek, adjacent to the Okugbene fishing camp, along the waterways in Korokorosei community.
According to the JTF, 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 task force, 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.
Joshua Maciver, according to the report, is also a former jailbird like Owei (though he has since renounced militancy with a view to getting the federal government amnesty). He escaped from the Port-Harcourt Prisons during the 2006 jail break and his camp, located at an abandoned fishing port around Olugbobiri area, 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€
He is also working his way to become a big-time illegal oil bunker, and his major targets remain the facilities of the Nigeria Agip Oil Company (NAOC). His motive of acquiring RPGs is to target military aircraft, as he is of the opinion that only an aerial operation can dislodge him.
He is said have since renounced violent agitation and has left life in the creek for the city but it could not be ascertained if his lieutenants followed suit.
Victor Ben, 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, Ben only established his camps in the state from February to March 2007, he appears, according to the task force, to have the most organised 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. The JTF said, â€œVictor Benâ€™s intent in the Niger-Delta region is purely criminal, and is known to have a violent disposition.
While he started out as a foot soldier in the NDPVF, Victor Ben is bent on becoming an illegal oil bunkerer, and it is suspected that he wants to overrun Owei and Maciver to become the principal militant leader in Bayelsa State . He is truly a militant with solid credentials of being afflicted with the MEND.â€
Commander Jackson, also known as Young Shall Grow, 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. He was also the militant that led the attack on vice president, Dr. Goodluck Jonathanâ€™s country home in Otueke, Ogbia local government area, and was the one who coordinated the attack on Yenagoa,â€ the JTF boss stated.
In terms of their activities, the JTF rates Joshua Maciver (who had since renounced violence in wake of the federal government planned amnesty) as the most deadly of the five militant groups in Bayelsa followed by Africa Owei. The task force believes that Victor Ben is likely to overtake the others because of his current supplies. The fourth in its ranking is Commander Jackson and Prince Igodo brings up the rear.
â€œOnly recentlyâ€, Ngubane stated in his brief to the CDS, â€œAfrica Owei and Joshua Maciver took supplies of ammunition, while Victor Ben took delivery of 17 new boats with new engines.â€