BY EGUFE YAFUGBORHI, Port Harcourt
Transformed from Operation “Restore Hope” to “Pulo Shield”, the Joint Task Force is scoring reported victories against crude oil thieves but giving corresponding leverage for renewed killings, kidnapping and other violent crimes in the coastal region.
It has been nine months since the report of a changed mandate for the Joint Task Force, JTF, in the Niger Delta gained prominence.
In January, the Defence Headquarters after an appraisal of the interventionist security force put together to tackle security challenges posed by modern day militancy in the region, declared it is divesting the task force’s foundation garb as “Operation Restore Hope”.
The authorities felt at the time that the string of brutal insurrections among a violent segment of predominantly distressed youths of the region which made the JTF’s occupation unavoidable had died down. The guerrilla struggles initiated by the likes of Asari Dokubo in the ’90s and peaked from 2004 with increase in the number of warlords with dedicated armed followers, led to the frightening destruction of lives and property.
At the height of the war of attrition between the relentless gangs of insurgents and a suppressor Operation Restore Hope, the civil population caught in the crossfire suffered cruel deaths and economic losses. Most vulnerable were oil workers who died or were traumatised in repeated attacks or abduction for ransom as well as the local population who lost folks, property and suffered displacement, in some instances, at the hands of their own brothers in arms.
With the Federal forces raising the superiority of military hardware employed in the clampdown on the militants, some party in the hurtful episode had to give in to end the growing bloodbaths concentrated in coastal Niger Delta.
The denouement of that ugly chapter of the JTF/militants oil wars in the creeks came May 2009 with the JTF’s punitive aerial bombing of Gbaramatu Kingdom after militant forces reportedly loyal to reformed warlord, Chief Government Ekpemukpolo a.k.a Tompolo, ambushed and killed soldiers in the waters of their Warri South West stronghold.
The crushing impact of the Gbaramatu bombardment and the fear that it could be extended to other militant hideouts in fiercer dimensions quaked virtually all the gangs wherever they were operating in the mangroves of the Delta. Added to the disarmament kick-starting Federal Government patronising amnesty that followed, the army authorities, by 2012, felt the task of restoring hope from the sage of militants has been satisfactorily met.
This informed the metamorphosis from Operation Restore Hope to Pulo Shield, Pulo meaning oil in Ijaw. That meant the new mandate was primarily “operation protect the oil”, implying that the concern for the threats to lives and property were pushed backstage.
Explaining it in January, Commander of 2 Brigade, Port Harcourt, Brig-Gen. Yusuf Buratai, said: “The JTF task of Restore Hope has been virtually completed. We now have a new challenge to fight such crimes like oil bunkering, pipeline vandalism, and you know the oil sector plays a very vital role in our economy. We will not allow it to be destroyed”. He emphasised that the force will now be dedicated to curbing incidents of oil sabotage in the Niger Delta.
The new mission as explained includes, but not limited to, elimination of pipeline vandalism, crude oil theft, illegal oil refining and illegal oil bunkering. It also covered the elimination of piracy and all forms of sea robbery within its area of responsibility to create conducive environment for the operation of the nation’s oil and gas industry.
Living up to the new mandate, Pulo Shield may have earned a handful of testimonies to prove it meant business. The Force’s spokesperson, Lt. Colonel Onyema Ugochukwu claimed nearly that 1,000 “major illegal refineries” and about 2,700 cooking points operated by the criminal saboteurs have been destroyed within the past six months since JTF got a fresh mandate from the Defence Headquarters.
The stock-taking recorded over 927 illegal refineries wiped out, 21 vessels, 86 barges, 293 Cotonou boats and surface tanks with total capacity of 17, 515, 320 litres of products destroyed while 86 suspects have, within the period under review, been apprehended and handed over to appropriate prosecuting authorities, including the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, EFCC.
In further operations post-dating this report, more victories have been scored against illegal refineries and crude oil thieves with Bayelsa, Rivers, and Delta sharing the highest cases of uncovered sabotages in that pecking order.
However, as the new JTF intensifies the chase after those connected with oil sabotage, the growing concentration on shielding the pulo have been provoking consequential rebirth of all nuances of criminalities associated with militancy that endangered lives of the civil population in the region. Top on these renewed crimes are the repeated cases of kidnap for ransom, killings and piracy against marine operatives.
Operating with respect for no one, these criminals have recently attacked, robbed and killed oil workers, fishing operatives, including locals, in various commercial ventures in the waterways. They have also renewed kidnap for ransom in the coast and upland.
In the recent high profile cases, four expatriates in the employ of marine giant, Sea Trucks, were held for days before being freed on payment of undisclosed ransom.
Last month in Bayelsa, aged King Richard Seiba of Okordia Kingdom was forced out of his palace in the dead of the night and navigated to a hideout in the creeks by armed abductors who initially demanded N70million for his release. The monarch suffered ten days of abuse and hunger in the hands of the kidnappers before being released at an undisclosed cost.
Admitting the motivation the new mandate has given to the renewed armed attacks on and offshore of the region, JTF’s Deputy Commander and Chairman, Bayelsa Security Stakeholders Forum, Commodore Abimbola Ayuba, said it all attests to the remarkable success Operation Pulo Shield is recording in putting out oil theft and illegal refineries in the Niger Delta.
“With the new mandate, JTF has been clamping down on crude oil theft and those involved in cooking oil with a new commitment to nip the crime in the bud from the point of supply. So if they (saboteurs) can no longer steal the oil, they may resort to piracy and other armed attacks in the waterways and that includes inclination to cultism which is what is being experienced now,” Ayuba said.
These strings of renewed violence in the midst of rebranded oil protecting JTF and the self-acknowledgement of its inherent limitations have left concerned stakeholders asking the basic question – how reasonable is the metamorphosis from Restore Hope to Pulo Shield? For the National Publicity Secretary, Nigerian Democratic Awareness Forum, Mr. Frank Anwusonyen: “The objective for an altered mandate for JTF is as cosmetic as it is illogical”.
Anwusonye while reacting on the subject in Port Harcourt argued that it does not make sense to isolate oil theft from other crimes in coastal Niger Delta.
“Those prominent in oil theft are as violent as the pirates, kidnappers, and killers in the region. For me they are one and same clan of bandits. Since its introduction in the region, modern day militancy thrived on a professed declaration by its protagonists to take their reasoned fair share of the crude oil by force of arms as an expression of their dissatisfaction with underdevelopment of the region.
“So, to pay greater security attention to only one of their nuances -oil theft- is to give force to the others –banditry, kidnapping, vandalism and related violence which are all deliberate distractions to sustain the leverage to steal the oil” he said.
In a separate perspective, safety expert, Mr. Emmanuel Aruya, sees nuisance value in the present security situation in the region against the new JTF’s focus with Pulo Shield.
“The renewed violence and kidnappings in the advent of streamlined JTF operations is an indication that the much cherished relative peace that had been scored to inform the altered mandate was a false interpretation. That to me calls for concern because it means we cannot have peace in the Niger Delta without an army of occupation watching over lives and property,” he argued.
Aruya added that the current reality of the security situation in the region also calls to question the hyped success of the Federal Government Amnesty.
“Amnesty was intended to rid the creeks of militants and all shades of criminality. If with the billions expended and so much claims of success on the programme we still have recurring killings, kidnappings, oil theft, vandalism, piracy and frequent armed attacks in the coast, then all the efforts may have been a wide goose chase”, the safety expert harped.
Ironically, not every concerned stakeholder is impressed with even the much success Operation Pulo Shield has been recording in protecting the oil. Among those who do not have kind words for the hyped success with the adjusted role of the JTF in the region is Mr. Chika Onuegbu, Rivers State’s Chairman of the Trade Union Congress, TUC.
Recently, he accused the security task force of aiding and abetting oil theft rather than fighting it. According to the labour leader, the operating space where oil theft thrives is not so hidden with an aerial surveillance to make the task of putting out the oil thieves such a herculean endless exercise for the military.
Onuegbu would add that the zealousness being demonstrated by Operation Pulo Shield against apprehended oil thieves is targeted at victims who refuse to yield to the Force’s racketeering interests in the crime of oil theft in the area.
He, however, explained that the JTF may not as a body be inclined to being involved in the shady oil deals, but maintained that some of the men in the fold are involved by the lure of the fast money it attracts.
He added that the zealousness among officers and the rank and file of the armed forces in serving in the JTF as well as the large life styles of those already serving attest to the belief that the body is compromised in its task of securing the oil.
Taking exception to the criticisms, JTF through its spokesman, Col. Ugochukwu, maintained that: “Since inception on January 9, 2012, the JTF Operation Pulo Shield, has fought relentlessly, including paying the supreme sacrifice of laying down the lives of a number of its operatives, to curb the excesses of crude oil thieves, sea robbers and pirates, pipeline vandals and illegal oil refiners in the Niger Delta”.
According to him, men of the security force have been above board in carrying out this assigned role in the region in defiance of tempting gratifications offered by the oil criminals. He cited a recent case on July 30, 2012 where an oil thief with international links in Lebanon was arrested and his vessel impounded despite reportedly offering a senior officer of the JTF a staggering $30,000.
On why the task force cannot wish way the crime of oil theft in one breath as is being suggested by critics, Deputy Commander of the Task Force, Commodore Ayuba pointed to the overbearing vastness of the operating environment in relation to the human and material resources employed as a basic challenge.
He explained that with a Nigerian maritime space spanning 480 nautical miles with several creeks, the responsibility of policing the entire space for the criminals is enormous and requires time against the changing tactics adopted by the criminals.
Other stakeholders have simply suggested a legalisation of the some of the criminalities currently constituting the shades of oil crimes in the Nigeria. While former Bayelsa State Governor, DSP Alamieyeseigha believes in the legalisation of bunkering in the Niger Delta, Ijaw activist, Comrade Austin Ozobo wants government’s technical support for those currently being hunted by the JTF over illicit cooking of stolen crude with the objective to upgrade their illegal refineries. This he said will go a long way to serve as small investor refineries which will ease importation of refined petroleum products.
The thinking of both commentators is that the suggested measures, if ratified, would protect and reduce mass poverty among the locals in the region while also shrinking the policing task of the JTF to check high profile oil theft involving highly placed Nigerians and their foreign collaborators.