By Jimitota Onoyume Assistant News Editor
It has been peace in the Niger Delta without much of military fire since Lieutenant General Tukur Buratai was appointed Chief of Army Staff, COAS, by President Muhammadu Buhari in July 2015.
The incessant clashes between military and communities in the region that hitherto dominated media space has disappeared with his emergence as COAS. Though there were few occasions when some persons , not comfortable with military presence in their areas had tried to cook up lies against the soldiers but interestingly within the same communities arose those who spoke in glowingly of military conduct in the communities.
In time past when soldiers stormed communities in the region virtually all residents, natives fled the area. But this has not been the case in the last three years. “ There is hardly any community in the Niger Delta you will say that soldiers came into and residents fled , relocating in mass to other areas for fear of their lives.
The military has been very decent in the last three years. Where they had need to go for targets they went smoothly for it without turning the entire community upside down”, an Ijaw activist , Fred Inefa said.
Enefa recalled that there was no tension in Brass local government area, Bayelsa state when four soldiers drowned in the Atlantic fringes of the Brass river at the launch of Operation Crocodile Smile 1 in September, 2016. He said two of their riffles got missing in the water, adding that in the past there would have been panic in the town.
“ You would have heard natives fleeing to other communities for fear that soldiers would harass the entire community, residents for the missing riffles.
Rather what we saw were local divers recruited by the army to join the search for the riffles. It speaks of a friendly military in the region. I give it to the new culture of peaceful, military relations in the region “, he said
An Ogoni youth, Kpabare Charles also said when the army had need to go for an ex militant declared wanted in Yeghe community, Khana local government area, Mr Ndigbara Solomon, aka Osama Bin Ladin in January 2016, Brigadier General Stephen Olabanji who was then Brigade Commander 2 Brigade went straight for his target even if the soldiers missed him at the end of the exercise. “ In the past the entire community would have paid dearly, probably the whole place would have been pulled down like the case of Odi in Bayelsa state. But all Commanders under Lieutenant General Buratai have kept to the new tradition of not using a sledge hammer to kill a fly since the nation is not at war with her citizens in the Niger Delta region. And this has enhanced military/community relationship across the region”, he said
Intelligence gathering has heightened to an appreciable level in the military. The era when the army tumbled a community for the sake one target is far gone. When soldiers went for Don Wani, an alleged kidnap kingpin and cult leader, in Omoku, Ogba Egbema Ndoni local government area, the community was not not reduced to rumbles. Where they had to allow sister security agencies to contribute to achieve maximum result it was encouraged and at the end of the day the remains of the dreaded Wani was displayed in Omoku with residents jubilating to high heavens.
The last general elections was another case where the army displayed its new tradition of peace with no reckless military might. When the media reported alleged presidential directives that ballot box snatchers should be gun down there was initial fears, some electorates said they would rather remain indoors on the election days to avoid any ugly incident.
But those who came out on the election day in Delta and several other states in the Niger Delta region came back with heat warming news that the soldiers were extremely professional in their conduct , they kept their distance from polling units. “ We saw them on the roads. They were not in any way near ballot boxes in Delta state”, a resident of Jakpa area of Warri said.
Deputy governor of Delta state, Mr Kingsley Otuaro hailed conduct of the army during the general elections when the Chief of Army Staff, Lieutenant General Buratai paid a courtesy visit on him in Government House, Asaba before the funeral of former first indigenous Commandant of Nigeria Defence Academy and Chief of Army Staff, General David Ejoor.
In Rivers state most residents were firm in their stand that they would not have participated in the election if soldiers had not been on ground to provide security.
“We all saw how charged the atmosphere was in the state before the elections with all political divides talking so tough. Some of my family members had to travel out of the state for fear of their lives before the elections. “ a youth who did not want his name in print said.
There were killings in several parts of the state, some attributed to cult related differences. “ The state was really unsafe. And even after the elections we still read reports of the insecurity , killings in several parts of the state. The media is awash of the killings “, the youth added.
A native of Emohua who also spoke under condition of anonymity said the killings before the general elections in several parts of the state generated so much fears , stressing that it sent panic down the spine of many to the extent that many concluded that Police alone will not be able to secure lives during the elections.
“There may have been some bad eggs among the soldiers during the election in some parts of the state .but we must be honest that without the soldiers there would have been no election in the state. Who would have come out with the way the politicians were sounding. There were fears in several quarters that politicians had armed thugs to secure victory “, Mary who lives in Mile 2 said.
‘There have been allegations of involvement of some soldiers in electoral related offences, I think this should be thoroughly investigated to get to the root of the matter for the good of our democracy”, she added.
The army has also intensified its war against oil thieves in the region without pulling down entire communities. In Ughelli in Delta state , a long stretch of illegal oil bunkering site was destroyed in a military operation led by Sector I, recently . And at the end of the exercise which lasted about two weeks, a major illegal refinery point was pulled down completely with no loss of lives. The operation enjoyed support from communities.
In Delta several communities have had reasons to protest against activities of oil companies in their areas, they marched to flow stations with no shots fired by military men protecting the facilities.
“ We were only told to be peaceful while our protest lasted”, Secretary, Kokodiagbene community, Warri South West local government area , Mr Timiyan Jackson said. The community had marched to the Chevron flow station in the area and even shut it down, demanding for development attention from the oil giant.
The new resolve to achieve peace in the region with little or no gun fire under Lieutenant General Buratai has also saved the army unnecessary friction, clashes with communities in the region.
The army Chief also won the heart of the civil populace in the Niger Delta region with his introduction of civil , military relations in the Operation Crocodile smile launched in the area.
There were initial fears that the operation would result to another round of crisis in the area between the army and communities. Some youths in the region had even alerted of their battle readiness to engage the military . But contrary to expectations the military Operation further endeared the army to the people as the army went round primary schools donating note books, chairs .
They even embarked on environmental exercise, cleaning up markets and streets. At the popular Effurun market in Uvwie local government area traders who spoke said they had not seen the army doing such in the area. “
“When we saw army on the streets of Uwvie before now, the wisest thing to do for the day was to pack your wares and go home. Because the calculation was that they had come out for war with some bad boys. But we were surprise to see the army coming out to help clean our markets. “, Madam Agnes, a trader at Effurun market said.
The army also carried out medical outreach program in Umuaji community, Asaba that was flagged off by the Chief of Army Staff, Lieutenant General Buratai. Excited community folks came out in their large numbers for free medi care while the program lasted.
The army boss is not new to the Niger Delta region. He was former Commander 2 Brigade ,Port Harcourt barracks before it was relocated to Akwa Ibom state.
The region is like his second home. And to ensure security of lives and properties in the area he established additional two Brigades, one in Bayelsa and the other in Asaba Delta state. He also created 6 Division in Port Harcourt to directly oversee activities of the various Brigades in the region.
Lieutenant General Buratai as Chief of Army Staff is achieving peace, reduction in oil theft and crimes in the Niger Delta region with little or no military might , kinetic force,gun shots, leveling of communities. A resident in Bayelsa, who gave her name as Preye said with the way things are going, militancy was gradually becoming oil fashion in the region.
The army is building bridges of friendship , confidence and healthy relationship across communities in the region as it goes about securing lives and properties.