By Simon Ebegbulem, Benin City
General Charles Omoregie, the Commander of the Joint Task Force in the Niger Delta (JTF), spoke to Sunday Vanguard and some French journalists in Yenagoa on the latest operations of JTF in the creeks of the Niger Delta. He warned that JTF was ready to combat “ criminal elements” in the creeks, vowing that current operations would not stop until militants are flushed out of the creeks.
Can you tell us about the on-going operation you launched in the creeks?
You will recall that last year, after a critical review of the situation in the Niger Delta, the Federal Government decided to give amnesty to all the militants in the region, with a view to bringing them to the round table and ensure a complete address of the issues at stake, which will eventually bring the desired peace and economic growth in the region. When that amnesty was granted, ex-militant leaders and their followers embraced the programme and now the post amnesty programme is being implemented.
And, that post amnesty programme includes a variety of issues, re-orientation of the militants, re-integration into the larger society, acquisition of skills so that they can be self employed and re-absorbed into the larger society.
Thereafter, we began to see renegade militants, those after accepting the amnesty, reneged on the agreements in the amnesty and have gone back to the creeks to continue pipeline vandalisation, harassment of oil workers, kidnapping, which is the most horrifying monster of all, of expatriates and Nigerians in their legitimate duties, harassment of market women in the waterways, rape and other crimes. These attitudes impact negatively on the society and they are unacceptable to us.
And, a responsible government will not sit down and allow such criminality to continue. This is no more freedom fighting, it is criminal activities. That is why government is making concerted effort, through the JTF mandate, to ensure that these criminals are rid from the watersways and the creeks to enable the citizens and foreigners carry out their legitimate duties in the Niger Delta.
Since some of the militants have decided to go back to the creeks, does it mean the amnesty programme is not working?
The amnesty programme of the Federal Government is working perfectly well. It is just that the criminal intent in some of these boys made them to go back to the creeks. The amnesty progamme is a long term project. First of all, after submitting their arms and ammunitions, they are moved to a camp where they are psychologically treated in accepting the amnesty programme.
From there, they are moved to various skill acquisition centers fully sponsored by the Federal Government. Allowances are paid to them monthly, every thing about their welfare is taken care of. We look at those who have gone back to the creeks as those who want to continue their criminality with a view to bringing down the laudable programme of the Federal Government.
But they are very few of them, we have over nine thousand of them in camp and they are all engaged in different skill acquisition programmes. But these few renegades who went back to the creeks want to continue with their criminal activities and they are the ones this last operation is targeted at to ensure that we have a peaceful region where economic activities will blossom.
Recently, JTF freed 19 hostages from different parts of the creeks. Can we know how you were able to achieve that without bloodshed?
It was a military operation carried out with a lot of intelligence. JTF operates in three states, Delta, Bayelsa and Rivers. These people were kidnapped outside the three states, but they were brought into my domain by the militants. So, it now became my responsibility to ensure that they were released in good health. We first of all identified the camp, studied their modus operandi and with a lot of intelligence network gathered, the operation was planned. But, above all, we were very mindful of the safety of the hostages.
First of all, there was a broadcast by the Chief of the Defence Staff, appealing to the citizens; communities in that environment to evacuate to enable the military carry out the operation. We were very conscious of collateral damage which will impact negatively on the operations of the Joint Task Force. The communities were advised to leave their environment which they obliged. So, the criminals were now the target and that was how we rescued them.
Can you say that time is up for these militants in their fight against government?
I do not want to use the word fight but operation. The last major operation in Rivers State, a large number of them are beginning to have a rethink that it will be better for them to embrace the amnesty rather than going back to the creeks because there is no hiding place again for them to hide in the creeks. We shall smoke all the nooks and crannies of the creeks and fish them out.
Do you panic when the militants vow to blow up more oil pipelines and wreak more havoc in the region?
To them it could be a serious threat, but, to us, it is a threat of a drowning man in the river. The Federal Government has the military will, the capacity and power to neutralize any threat from any quarters within the territorial sea of Nigeria.
But what do you have to say on the arms the militants possess and their strategies?
Yes, their arms differ from one camp to another depending on how they are able to acquire the equipment. Yes, we have recovered rocket launchers, General Purpose machine guns, we have recovered automatic weapons, AK47s, locally-made weapons, double barrels, a lot of dynamites, radio sets, military kits. The last major operation in Port Harcourt , we recovered 44 AK47 and 14 General Purpose Machine Guns and a lot of dynamites from them.
And, I want to say that they are operating on individual orientation. I think they want the government to believe that they have big network but they are criminals with evil intent. They want to lay credence to their activities to say they are big and well-organized organisation. But, I do not think so, they are just pocket of criminals operating but there is no doubt that they could have some sponsors.
How do you cope chasing militants in the difficult terrain where you have creeks and waters?
Yes, we work in a difficult terrain because these militants live in these creeks; they are masters of the creeks. They know where and when to hide from JTF and we find it a little difficult chasing them. But like I said with good intelligence we are able to overcome such challenges. Yes we have a lot of creeks, but we also have a lot of equipments that we can use in the open sea and the creeks but they are masters of the creeks because they were born and bred in the creeks.
But, may be it is a little bit difficult for you to erase them from the creeks due to the support they enjoy in their communities?
No, I do not agree because the communities have been very helpful to us in intelligence. They have assisted us in our operations.
But, why do you give security to oil companies is it proper?
Most of the oil companies in the Niger Delta fulfil their obligations to the Federal Government therefore they need to be protected to be able to carry out their socio-economic activities which will later benefit the Federal Government by way of paying royalty, employment for our people and others, so, we have the mandate to protect them to ensure that their operations are not hindered by the activities of militants. And, remember that most of these oil companies are in joint operation with the Federal Government.
So, ones the Federal Government facility which has strategic importance to the survival of this country, then we must protect such facilities not just the companies. The federal government interest must be protected in these companies. We provide patrols to cover them and we safe guard the water ways.
But do you think that militancy is dead in the Niger Delta with the present situation of things?
As long as we are concerned, they are almost dead and we are going to ensure that they are finally nailed in the coffin so that we will have the desired peace in the Niger Delta region to ensure development. And that is what I think was the initial quest of the people, development of he region and government is making concerted effort to develop the region by establishing NDDC, the Niger Delta Ministry and other bodies.
So the government is more than ever before very very committed to the development of this region and the only way development can strive is to ensure peace and that peace is what JTF has been mandated to provide, to allow companies to provide the development.
But do you not think that oil companies are part of this problem because we have visited communities and they complained that oil companies have failed to carry out their social responsibilities in these communities even while milking their oil?
The communities deserve to be developed and that is what the Federal Government is doing but theses criminals are preventing the federal government from carrying out the development. And, that is why we want to remove them from this region to ensure development is carried out.
Yes, their apprehension is right because if I produce oil in my community I deserve a corresponding development to show for the exploration and that is what the government is doing but these criminals are the ones obstructing development from being carried out.
For example, the Federal Government is trying to establish a school some where, but militants went there to disrupt the workers and they ran away. Now the community is deprived of that Federal Government developmental project which has been approved by law to that community. That is unacceptable.
When you say you fight for the emancipation of the people, will you go back raping peoples wives, their children, harassing innocent people?
Do you go back stopping them from getting development, kidnapping fellow Nigerians, foreigners. That is not fighting for any emancipation. You cannot be harassing people, raping their wives and kidnapping them for ransom and say you are fighting for emancipation.
They are emancipating their private pockets.
All the militant leaders have all embraced amnesty and I can tell that they are all working with the Federal Government and the JTF to fish out these criminals from the creeks. We released 19 hostages, 12 are Nigerians, four are from Niger Delta so what are you emancipating. They are not fighting for any course any more because there is no need for it any more.
The Federal Government is taking care of all the problems very holistically. So, they should give peace a chance and allow development to come in.