July 17, 2010

Furore over vessel impounded by JTF

ON July 11, the managing director of Tim Afrique Services, an indigenous shipping company based in Warri, Delta State , Captain Bob Timondi made a staggering allegation.

It was to the effect that the Commander of the Joint Task Force (JTF) on the Niger-Delta, Major-General Sarkin Yarkin- Bello demanded N50 million gratification from the company, otherwise, its ocean-going vessel, MV Tim Begele, confiscated by the task force on September 25, 2009, for alleged oil bunkering would be forfeited to the Federal Government of Nigeria.

From the tone of Captain Timondi, who said his company’s vessels had been used in the past by the JTF, Shell Petroleum Development Company (SPDC), Chevron Nigeria Limited and other multi-national oil companies for surveillance operations for over two years in the Niger-Delta, he had reasons to be agitated.

•JTF Commander, Major-Gen. Sarkin Yarkin-Bello...described as baseless the allegation that he demanded N50 million bribe to release the said vessel.

First, he said, the vessel in question was unjustly targeted by the JTF, which illegally seized the supply boat while it was berthed at the Federal Inland Waterways, Warri Jetty, in the middle of the night on the grounds that it was carrying illegal product.

Timondi alleged that the task force tied a wooden boat with crude oil to the vessel after molesting and evacuating the crew members who were detained for two months and that it promptly informed the Naval authorities in Warri, which gave approval for the Automotive Gas Oil (AGO) meant for the vessel’s consumption.

According to him, the company contacted Major-General Yarkin-Bello through a retired general in Bayelsa state, but, he reneged In his promise to release the vessel within three days, only to turn around to demand that Tim Afrique give him N50 million before he would free the vessel.

“Left with no option after two months, we proceeded to the law courts to seek an order of release of the vessel and the court granted the leave to have the crew released and that the JTF should come to court to show reasons why the vessel should not be released. And, again, to our surprise, instead of obeying the court order, he called a press conference where MV Tim Begele was alleged to be one of the vessels caught in the creeks for illegal bunkering.

“Though, he released the crew, but surprisingly transferred the matter to the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC), Port-Harcourt on November 17, 2009”, he added, following which the company equally invited the press to “let the whole world know of the JTF falsehood and its fraudulent maneuvers”.

He continued: “Again, they re-arrested the crew after they realized, upon the demand by EFCC that since the boat that was not released could not have committed any crime without the crew.

Even one of the persons picked up was not a crew member, which shows another sign of recklessness and power mongering of the JTF in the region. It’s shocking that up till this moment, neither the EFCC nor the JTF could give us or tell the world any reason or reasons why our vessel is still being impounded, with a lot of deterioration taking place in the vessel despite all invitations and investigations by the EFCC in the past 10 months”.

JTF debunks allegation

Major-General Yarkin Bello, a lawyer, also spoke to newsmen 24 hours after, July 12, at Yenagoa. He described as baseless the allegation that he demanded N50 million bribe to release the said vessel, adding that he had no powers release a confiscated vessel, laden with suspected stolen crude oil, not to talk of demanding gratification from its owners to set it free.

The content of the vessel, which is the bone of contention, he said, was sent for laboratory test where it was discovered it was a product of illegal bunkering, prompting the JTF authorities to transfer the matter to the EFCC.

It was, however, learnt that the Port Harcourt office of the Commission in its findings said that a prima facie case could be established against the vessel and consequently, asked the JTF to release the vessel, but, that is where the real war started, as the task force stood its ground.

Instead of complying with the  position of the EFCC, Port-Harcourt, it forwarded a letter to the Chairman of the Commission in Abuja requesting that a proper investigation into the matter be carried out with a view to prosecute all those found to be involved in miscarriage of justice.

General Bello maintained that the job of the Joint Task Force, among others in the region, was to arrest any vessel found to have flouted the laws of the land and dismissed claims that there was a subsisting court order on the JTF to release seized vessel.

The owner of the seized vessel, he said had made series of entreaties to get the vessel released to no avail, adding that that he even came in company of a retired senior military officer to plead for the release of the ship, but, he insisted the law should take its course.

According to him, his refusal to comply with the plea to free the ship must have informed the resort of Tim Afrique boss to blackmailing him with a view to tarnishing his image and that of the task force, which has waged a relentless battle to stamp out oil bunkering in the region.

His words, “I have no powers to release vessels arrested, so why should I demand for N50m as alleged. In the history of my stay in the JTF, I have never released any vessel arrested. It is entirely false that I demanded gratification from him.”

According to him, he would have failed as a military officer if he had allowed the vessel, reportedly laded with illicit consignment to be released after his men had risked their lives to intercept it.

The JTF boss, who once rejected an appointment to serve as a military administrator because of his interest in professionalism, noted that if he had wanted to make money, he would not have joined the army in the first instance, but, gone into private business. According to him, whoever made the allegation of his demanding N50m bribe “should be ashamed of himself.”

Gen Bello who described illegal bunkering as the mother of all ills in the Niger Delta said, “It is the base for proliferation of illegal weapons in the troubled region. As we are quite aware, proceeds from illegal bunkering are used to procure weapons and those behind it use it to empower their boys for territorial control.”

Describing the illegal trade as multifaceted, he noted with sadness that legislation against illegal bunkering is weak and stressed the need for special court to try offenders.

He,  however, expressed happiness that oil  bunkering has reduced greatly in the region,  adding that  few days ago,  nine barges laden with stolen crude oil were arrested at Benneth Island alongside eight suspects and the latter would be handed over to the EFCC for prosecution.  The JTF boss added that the security would spare no effort in curbing the activities of the illegal bunkerers in the region.

JTF’s word against Tim Afrique

At the moment, it is JTF’s word against that of Tim Afrique Services Limited. While the latter muscularly maintain that its vessel was not involved in oil bunkering, the JTF said the vessel was involved in oil bunkering.

The company in an open letter to President Goodluck Jonathan said there was a subsisting court order of the High Court, Effurun, Delta State , asking the JTF to release the crew and show cause why the vessel should not be released, but, Major-General Yarkin-Bello refused still remained adamant.

A JTF source, on the other hand, stated that it was not true that there was an order against the task force as claimed by Tim Afrique and advised that people should not make unfounded allegations against the task force because of its battle against oil bunkerers.

EFCC link
On the surface, the present feud looks like a matter between the task force and Tim Afrique, but, looking deeply, it is not so. What is playing out is a scrimmage between the task force and the EFCC, Port-Harcourt over the handling of cases of oil bunkering and economic sabotage handed over to commission for investigation and prosecution.

Undoubtedly, the EFCC, Port-Harcourt, had come out with a verdict on the present case, which the task force found unacceptable, and subsequently, Major-General Yarkin-Bello wrote the EFCC boss in Abuja and was awaiting response.

EFCC findings are to the effect that the product found in the service tank of the vessel was pure AGO and was not contaminated in any manner as claimed by JTF; that approvals to load diesel into the service tank were valid; and the personnel of the company were not present when the task force collected samples of the AGO for test.

Saturday Vanguard reliably gathered that the JTF saw the findings of the EFCC, as an attempt by some persons in its Port-Harcourt office to frustrate the efforts of the task force in getting rid of oil bunkerers in the region.

Our dependable source said, “A good number of the cases of oil bunkering transferred to the EFCC, Port-Harcourt ended up with the suspects finding their way out of the grip of the law and even though, the task force is not prepared to be at loggerheads with another government agency, it is not ready to succumb to a situation where cases  sent to the EFCC are treated off-handedly by officials in a particular unit of the commission, who feel they are in the position to take some major decisions.”

“It demoralizes men of the JTF that are sent on such dangerous missions and you know that Major-General Yarkin-Bello vowed in April, last year, shortly after the task force was restructured that he would do everything possible to tackle oil bunkerers in the region.

He swore, if you remember, that he would not spare retired military generals found to be aiding and abetting oil bunkering”, the source added.

He explained, “It’s through that big men, including retired military generals are involved in oil bunkering. They are the ones that buy the vessels and give to their boys to do the bunkering business in the creeks while they are in Lagos , Abuja and other cities, but, I want to correct the impression that the JTF is fighting retired military generals.

No, that is not true. Major-General Yarkin-Bello only said he would not spare any retired general that is found to be involved in bunkering, so it is not that he is fighting a war against his retired colleagues.

Why JTF boss is unbending

And in this case between the task force and Tim Afrique, he told Saturday Vanguard that his men performed a good job by tracking down a vessel with suspected stolen crude and it would be wrong of him to stand firm and ensure that justice was done.

The commander confirmed he had been receiving threat messages because of his resolute stand against oil bunkering in the creeks of the Niger Delta, saying, and “I believe these are the guys behind the threat to my life. That I have refused them to eat from the creek of the Delta, so if they cannot get you, they assassinate your character.”

He did not disclose the length to which oil bunkerers have gone to deal with him for his “stubbornness”, but, Saturday Vanguard learnt it got to a stage where soldiers started escorting his children to and fro school in Abuja with arms and the movement of his wife, who was also provided security was restricted because of the threats by oil bunkerers to eliminate them since he was bent on stopping their business, despite monetary offers made to him.

It was gathered that virtually every soldier in the JTF knew that their boss was threatened by oil bunkerers for refusing to accept money and close his eyes to their business. Major-General Yarkin-Bello grew suspicious because the threats assumed another dimension about the period he was under pressure to release some vessels and barges that were confiscated by oil bunkerers.

A text message believed to have been sent a retired military general who is a heavy investor in the oil bunkering business to the JTF boss,  which was obtained by Saturday Vanguard reads, “Hello, Gen Bello, u av succeeded in stopin source of our income n the sea, remember u only av security in Yenagoa, wat abt Abuja?

4 ur inf, we av been after ur family for sometime now, especially ur driver. Remember Niger-Delta is not urs but it is our land. What goes around comes around. Is pay back time now, remember we re in d same system even though we are out. Watch and see”.

On the same day, a similar message was sent to the driver of Major-General Yarkin-Bello. It reads: “Hello, u can nt escape bcos of ur general in JTF, we re coming 4 u soon. It was sent to his driver soon after the aforementioned message was sent to his boss, who is based in Yenagoa.

Our source said the JTF boss was, in deed, traumatized by the threats to eliminate his wife, children and driver, and so, besides providing security for his wife and children by suspected oil bunkerers, the task force went a step further to probe the source of the threat message.

“I will not tell you how it was done, but, with the aid of technology, the source of the call was traced to a particular location in Abuja , occupied by very prominent Nigerians. But the problem that was encountered is that these people can buy a SIM card and use it just once. So, it was difficult to trace the owner and user because it is not registered”, he added.

Don’t be deceived – Captain Timondi
Captain Timondi does not, however, thinks “Major-General Yarkin-Bello “is refusing to release the vessel based on a hidden agenda or playing out a script or attempting to do the biddings of enemies”.

He said in the open letter to President Jonathan, “We have been made to be aware that Major Gen Yarkin-Bello is planning to sell our vessel to some persons if forfeited to the Federal Government”. In his opinion, “Major-Gen Yarkin-Bello is deliberately fanning the embers of mischief in a bid to brew fresh crisis in the Niger-Delta and truncate the agenda of this administration toward restoration of enduring peace in the region.

He called for a high-powered probe into the activities of the JTF boss, pointing out that his company’s vessel, Tim Timondi , was on JTF surveillance operations for over two years at the Forcados Crude Loading Platform (CLP) while Tim  Lucy and Tim Grace were also on surveillance operations for Chevron/Southern Gas Construction for three years and in all of these operations, “we have never been found wanting and have never done any business contrary to marine support operations and any laws of the Federal Republic of Nigeria”.

Yarkin-Bello adamant on due process Information at the disposal of Saturday Vanguard indicated, that there was, in actuality, a plan to dispose off the items confiscated by the task force, some of which are littering its premises and harbors.

But the JTF commander had since sent a memorandum to his officers that no official of the task force would be involved in auction in any manner. He was particular that any auction sale of items seized by the task force must be approved by the appropriate federal authorities and carried out with all due process.

For insisting on due process, his superiors have reportedly commended his straightforwardness.

“But left to him”, our source said, “any vessel, barge and other bunkering gadgets  recovered from oil bunkerers will  be destroyed, otherwise, they will deployed for the same purpose in future even after they have been lawfully auctioned.”