March 27, 2024

Okuama: How govt, security bodies failed to rein in militant leader – Vanguard Investigation


By Emma Amaize, Regional Editor, South-South, Kingsley Omonobi & Akpokona Omafuaire

ASABA — If government and security agencies had taken concerted action on the several petitions against an alleged militant leader and crude oil thief who banished a monarch from his kingdom in Bayelsa State, years ago, they would, probably, have averted the March 14 killing of 17 military personnel at Okuama in Delta State, Vanguard investigations have revealed.

Our inquiry on the recounted activities of the militant leader whom the Nigerian Army trailed to Igbomotoru in Southern-Ijaw Local Government Area, Bayelsa State, barely 72 hours after the Okuama massacre, showed that government, both at federal and state levels, including the security agencies, failed to rein in the militant leader before March 14.

Perhaps, if the government had taken decisive steps, the militant leader would not have grown so powerful and audacious to wipe out a Lieutenant Colonel, two Majors, one Captain, and 13 soldiers in one fell swoop with his rag-tag gang.

After a supposed militant leader claimed in a viral video that he participated in the killing of the soldiers at Okuama, the Director of Defence Media Operations, Major-General Edward Buba, said penultimate Friday, in Abuja: “The video, among other things, helps narrow investigations to persons of interest and their cohorts.

“Accordingly, the state governments and host communities of these personalities are required to assist the investigation in flushing them out.

“There can be no hiding place for perpetrators of such dastardly acts against our nation. This is a clarion call to duty by members of those communities and the state governments.’’

However, those familiar with the Igbomotoru warlord said he is not the same as the militant leader in the viral video.
Therefore, it is the word and proof of the Army, which is searching for him for the blood-letting crime, and had once declared him wanted.

However, yesterday, a militant group, Amagbein Force, suspected to have killed the 17 military personnel at Okuama, Delta State, on March 14, demanded that the federal government hand over waterways security to it.

The demand of the militant group corroborates the military’s preliminary finding that Amagbein was behind Okuama killing.
A group member in the trending video said he was speaking for his leader, nicknamed the River Lord.

The Army had tracked the militant leader to the Igbomotoru community in the Southern Ijaw Local Government Area, Bayelsa State, last week, but did not find him.

The militant leader, who banished the royal father of Igbomotoru from his throne, is currently on the run.

A bearded member of the group, who wore a singlet and tied a white band around his head, said the militant leader is from the same lineage as Ijaw revolutionary leader, the late Isaac Adaka Boro.

“We, the followers, will stand with him until death do us part. We are begging the Federal Government to ensure that waterways security is given to the person doing the right work. Bunkering will not stop if government refuses to attend to us in a peaceful, easy way.”

I petitioned the Presidency, state govt, and security agencies – HRH Ofongo

The paramount ruler of Igbomotoru communities, a retired army officer, HRH Ayibaikie Aseimighen Ofongo, sacked from his throne three years ago by the militant leader, said: “I have previously written several petitions to the Presidency, the state government, and security agencies about the activities of this militant gang.

“We attended meetings with the governor, and we had time with the oil companies’ representatives, because when they started, it was with the oil companies, and then rolled back to me that I have been deposed.

“So all those activities were reported to the government, and so many meetings were held by the government, and oil companies to resolve that, but the militants continued to do what they think is good for them until we reached this state.
“It was my opposition to this militant group that made them force me out of the community on self-exile.”

The monarch said the militant group, which took control of his community, continued all manner of atrocities until they allegedly got involved in the killing of military personnel at Okuama community in Delta State.

His words: “My community, Igbomotoru, for some time now, has had some internal problems and there is a group that brought militants to the community to dissolve the ruling class, and at the same time vandalised national assets of oil companies in our area which I opposed.

“I maintained that if we had any problem with the oil companies, we should apply normal communication with the oil companies and government, so they can look at those issues but this advice did not go down well with the group.

“Since that time, there have been problems. They did not allow me to visit my community for almost three years; they threatened my life and I escaped. I only get to the community when I have an incident of death of my relations, that has been the trend till the present issue of killing soldiers at Okuama.

“Where I am hiding, I got telephone calls from home, relations, and friends on what happened at Igbomotoru, and what I was told was that the Army came into the community, particularly on Igbomotoru ll. Igbomotoru is on both sides of River Sangana.

“Therefore, when I had this issue, I enquired from sources I should believe, they told me there was an Army invasion of the community, I was told a militant from Igbomotoru went to Delta, and some military officers who were there to make peace were shot dead, and that it was the reason the military invaded our community last Sunday.

Troops knew where the killer was and went there

“The troops that came knew the person they wanted and they went for him but some miscreants who were members of the militant gang came out, and wanted to know what was happening, in their usual militant way.

“There was an opening of fire by the Army, and some of the personnel were killed. Therefore, it was only members of the militant gang that they killed, not the natives.

“As a paramount ruler and somebody who has served in the Nigerian Army and retired, I must always report any act of lawlessness to the authorities, if not it means I am involved.

“Army operation at Igbomotoru community is just against the fleeing militant gang at Igbomotoru ll, where their leader resides, committing crimes. They have not crossed to Igbomotoru 1 but because of fear, people have deserted the entire community.

“It was not proper for anybody to kill, even when you are talking about the army. Civilians are not permitted to carry guns, and so my people should desist from this type of crime, which I have been drawing the attention of the government and all security agencies to before now. We know what those militant groups do is criminality.

“So, I urge the Army to continue to be civil as they are hunting for the suspected killers of soldiers because the community is ready to assist them in arresting all suspects involved in the dastardly act.”

Complaint to Bayelsa govt

In a correspondence dated January 7, 2022, addressed to the Bayelsa State Governor, and copied to the Deputy Governor, and the security agencies, Ofongo had raised the alarm that the community was under siege by the militant leader and his cohorts.

He pleaded with the authorities to wade in and mop up arms and ammunition in possession of these non-state actors to give the community and people a new lease of life.

The letter was entitled, “The Igbomotoru Community is under Siege in Southern Ijaw Local Government Area of Bayelsa State by a militant leader and his cohorts: A demand to mop up the illegal arms and ammunition in the hands of these non-state actors to usher in peace and tranquillity for the people.”

It read: “Please, permit me to refer to the Igbomotoru community’s petition captioned ‘Save Our Souls,’ dated December 9, 2020, that gave graphic details of attacks and brutalization of lgbomotoru people, specifically the youths of the community, by the popularly known “GENERAL…” and his cohorts that have sectionalized Igbomotoru community.

“The affected youths since then have been refugees in other communities, including Yenagoa, the Bayelsa State capital.
“The people to date, have not experienced any positive change in their attitude or behaviour. The people at the receiving end are pained, helpless, and uncertain, with the situation worsening over the days and months.

“He is intimidating and bragging, saying he is connected to the top and that complaints and petitions against him are brought back to him. He is strongly promising anyone petitioning him to be ready to accept whatever action he would take.
“This has emboldened him by the day, recruiting jobless and ready youths of Southern-ljaw Local Government Area and beyond into his army, vandalizing houses, and looting properties therein.

“Not only that, they are also molesting and brutalizing people of 1gbomotoru satellite communities of Lasukugbene, Baberegbene, including Oyeregbene, which is a satellite community of Peremabiri community.

“As earlier reported in the reference above, he is now the sole crude oil bunkerer, and artisanal refining guru in the Igbomotoru axis of the Nigerian Agip Oil Company Limited, trunk 18 inches diameter crude oil Tebidaba/Igbomotoru/Brass Pipeline. The returns are unimaginable.

“All others who attempted to locate their bunkering and refining sites on that axis have been chased away because the more bunkering and artisanal refining sites located, the easier for surveillance workers on oil pipelines to detect and report…”

Monarch forced to take oath of allegiance to militant leader

“On Saturday, December 1, 2021, at about 2 pm, he ordered his notorious squad, and at gunpoint, woke me up from sleep with a bang on the door, knowing sufficiently well that the previous night, I attended a wake-keeping ceremony in honour of my late elder brother, late Elder Tbogomo Ayibaikie Ofongo.”

The Amananawei said six men escorted him at gunpoint into a waiting 200-horsepower speedboat, which took him into the bush, and to a shrine where the militants ordered him to take an oath of allegiance to him (militant leader).

“When I reacted and said that I had before my coronation, subscribed to an oath before our ancestors and even God to be impartial in the discharge of my duties as Amananawei of Igbomotoru community, he ordered his gunmen and they fired several rounds of AK-47 rifles over my head.

“At that point, I realized I could be shot dead in the shrine, so I succumbed to save my life and took the oath,’’ he said.
The paramount ruler also disclosed that on December 12, 2021, the Igbomotoru I community chiefs, under the directive of the militant leader, convened a meeting of all the people of Igbomotoru 1 community in the town hall, where he hatched his dethronement.

He said a few days later, the warlord sponsored an announcement of his dethronement as the Amananawei on two radio stations in Yenagoa, the state capital.

Another petition

In another correspondence, IGBO/SECURITY/021/VOL3/22/7, dated July 13, 2022, addressed to the governor, Ofongo said the community was living in peace until sometime in December 2020 when the militant leader came to the riverside town from his hideout in Mbiama River axis in Ahaoda West Local Government Area of Rivers State.

The paramount ruler added: “He (militant) was on or before his arrival at Igbomotoru, encouraged by his siblings and others of Igbomotoru extraction to liberate the Igbomotoru people who they considered to have been held in bondage.

“As it is now, the people are intimidated and brutalized to submission and, in some cases, chased out of their ancestral homes.

“I have written at least two petitions against him about his criminal exploits in the community, and other surrounding communities as a kidnapper, assassin, crude oil bunker, and artisanal oil refiner to Bayelsa State government, and security operatives.”

The monarch said Bayelsa State government reacted spontaneously and denounced the dethronement as an exercise in futility and of no effect whatsoever.

He, however, noted that he, who is opposed to the activities of the militant in the lgbomotoru community, and others, have no access to the community.

Diri, Sylva’s verbal war

Vanguard’s efforts to get the reaction of the state government, the police and military formations in the area proved abortive.

But a source at the state deputy governor’s office, which oversees community and chieftaincy-related matters, said he was not aware of the purported letters by the monarch

The state government, it will be recalled, had through the deputy governor, Senator Lawrence Ewhrudjakpo, declared there are no ungoverned spaces in Bayelsa, and reiterated the state government’s commitment to peace and security as a matter of priority.

Shortly after the Okuama killings, a former governor of the state and ex-minister, Chief Timpre Sylva, said: “I condemn in totality the killing of men of the Joint Task Force in Okuama, Delta State. This again shows why politicians should not arm irresponsible non-state actors.”

“The last Bayelsa governorship election featured a lot of disheartening state sponsorship of gunmen. Today, we all see the result of that act of desperation and the unnecessary loss of precious Nigerian lives. My heart goes out to the families of those gallant soldiers who lost their lives.”

The governor, Senator Douye Diri, who accused Sylva of politicizing the killings, wondered why the ex-minister of Petroleum Resources “chose to dance on the graves of the slain soldiers in his false allusion to the use of non-state actors in the governorship poll in the state.”

His Chief Press Secretary, Mr. Dan Alabrah, said in a statement: “The military authorities should be allowed to conduct a thorough investigation into the sordid occurrence in Okuama. Comments should be restrained at this time, while efforts are on to unravel the perpetrators.”

He also noted that Sylva’s statement is akin to the proverbial pot calling the kettle black when the All Progressives Congress, APC, governorship candidate’s antecedents as a politician were “like an open book known to everyone.”

The governor said it was ridiculous that the same Sylva is whipping up sentiments and spreading falsehood over the presence of soldiers in Igbomotoru, where the military had reportedly extended its investigation into the Okuama killings

Shocking how militant leader beats military checkpoints

It was unclear how the armed militant leader and his band have been able to beat the many military checkpoints in the creeks, and waterways of the oil-rich Southern Ijaw council area known for massive deployment of security operatives to secure the nation’s critical oil assets.

Each occupant of boats approaching the military locations usually raises his/her hands like conquered people before proceeding with their journey.

Communities like Odi, Agge, and Letugbene, among others, in the state had in the past suffered collateral damage from military invasion caused by the unwholesome activities of some misguided arms-wielding youths who seized control of the communities from where they unleashed a reign of terror on their people with devastating consequences.

Life as an outlaw

The Igbomotoru axis of the state had over the years, been in the news as host to a retinue of illegal refining camps, popularly known as Kpofire, in local parlance and had served as haven for militants allegedly operating the illegal business.

The military has repeatedly conducted raids on the illegal bunkering sites in swathes of the swamp in search of the operators and destroyed such camps, while zeroing in on a militant kingpin, who allegedly got involved in militancy at a very tender age, and grew to become a commander and self-styled general after about 24 years of militancy.

The supposed militant leader is a supporter of one of the political parties in the state, and his relative is a top official of a local government council in the state, after he influenced his appointment

The militant leader, once linked to the abduction of a serving commissioner in Bayelsa State over the latter’s refusal to allow him establish a bunkering camp in his community, owns and runs a sophisticated local refinery allegedly in the deep swamp of Igbomotoru.

It was, therefore, not surprising that the Joint Task Force, JTF, sometime in 2022, declared him wanted for bunkering after a series of raids on illegal bunkering sites in the area but failed to capture him.

Militant leader dismisses JTF allegations

However, the militant leader had in a statement, described the allegations by the JTF as false and a desperate attempt to injure his reputation.

“I wish to set the record straight and state unequivocally that I am a peaceful and law-abiding citizen of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. I am not a militant leader, and I do not have any dealings or connections whatsoever with any illegal crude oil mining site in any forest,” he said.

According to some locals, besides the allegation that he is into bunkering and other vices, he is also involved in some philanthropic activities in the locality.

Last Yuletide, he reportedly organized a football competition with cash prizes for winners and distributed food items, meat, and cash to the elderly in the community.

He is also said to be paying school fees, and buys books for indigent pupils in the community, a gesture ostensibly extended to some elements within the security circle who had always facilitated his escape whenever he was being sought after by security men.

His knack for giving from the supposed proceeds of his illegal refining activities may have endeared him to some of the community folks, which he exploited in orchestrating the removal of the paramount ruler with the support of his loyalists.

Delta community cries out as soldiers comb homes, shrine for stolen weapons

In a related development, residents of Orere in Ewu Kingdom, Ughelli South Local Government Area, Delta State, have raised alarm that no fewer than 200 soldiers have laid siege to the community, combing homes, shrines for stolen weapons of the slain military personnel.

Consequently, several panic-stricken women and children ran into the bush when the soldiers invaded the community.

Villagers said the soldiers, reportedly, on clearance operations, claimed they were also looking for fleeing residents of Okuama, a distance of almost 50 kilometers to Orere, adding that the invading soldiers came in five military gunboats through the waterways, and four Hilux vehicles through the Ewu axis.

“We are calling on the state and federal governments to come to our aid because we are a peace-loving community; we are not harbouring anyone here in Orere, neither do we have guns,’’ one of the leaders of the community said.

My people are under siege – Edafeamredje, president-general

Similarly, The president-general of Orere community, Mr. Dennis Edafeamredje, said: “My people called me that they are under siege by the Nigerian Army, and from what I was told, the military men that came through land and water were over 200.

“They were shooting sporadically and that brought fear into the minds of our people, and many ran into the bush, and up till this moment, some parents are still looking for their children.

“The scene is traumatizing because they had not experienced anything of this nature. They were demanding from the community chairman and those that ran from Okuama to Orere community

“The distance from Orere to Okuama is nearly 50 kilometers and Orere is not in any way close, and nothing connects us to Okuama.

“I want to beg the President, the Nigerian Army, and Delta State governor, Sheriff Oborevwori, and other relevant authorities to know that Orere has no hands in whatever happened.

“They have come, they have searched, and they did not find anything incriminating or implicating, so, whatever they took from here, should be returned, and they should not come back to Orere again, because it is a traumatizing scene for our people.”

Tension in Okwagbe

Sources said there is tension at Okwagbe because the military base there had been expanded.

Vanguard gathered that soldiers stop and search tricycles and motorcycles, causing unnecessary apprehension.

A lawyer told Vanguard, “As I approached Okwagbe and saw how people were being intimidated, I turned back because I do not want to be subjected to such humiliation.”

But Dr. Matthew Kwode, a political leader in Okwagbe, who downplayed the situation, said on phone: “You know we have an army post at Okwagbe, there was heavy deployment because of the Okuama incident. I think that is their operational base right now, but I do not think they are harassing our people.”

Anthony, an indigene of the Okwemo community, narrating his experience, said: “Before now, we passed through Okwagbe freely without being made to raise our hands and searched.

‘’But now, there is fear as everyone riding in Keke and okada are searched as you raise your hands while passing through.”
Edafe, a Keke operator from Egbo-Ide community, said: “They have turned Okwagbe to military barracks, if you are passing through, you see soldiers everywhere with their vehicles at the check points.

“There is so much fear, I will not be going back there for now; we hear they will move to all the villages looking for Okuama people. The situation is getting tough. Okuama is far from here. We want peace please.”

I don’t accept collective sanction on Okuama, says Asari-Dokubo

Speaking on the development, Alhaji Asari Dokubo, who described the former Commanding Officer of the 181 Amphibious Battalion, Lt. Col. A.H Ali, killed in the Okuama ambush as his “Muslim brother, said: “I will not accept that collective sanction, collective punishment should be meted out on the whole people of Okuama who might not know what transpired.

“I do not support it, I do not buy it, why will anybody leave Okuama and Okoloba where the crisis started, and go to Igbomotoru in the Southern-Ijaw Local Government Area of Bayelsa State? What is the connection?

He, however, declared that “whoever killed Lt. Col Ali and the other soldiers must face the consequences of his action.”
Asari Dokubo pleaded with President Bola Tinubu to give marching orders to carry out a proper investigation to get to the root of who was responsible for the killing.”

Tinubu to attend today’s burial of 17 soldiers killed in Delta

Meanwhile, the 17 military personnel killed at Okuama in Delta State would be buried today at the military cemetery, Abuja, with President Bola Tinubu in attendance.

A statement announcing the burial said yesterday: “The burial ceremony of Nigerian Army personnel killed-in-action at Okuama community, Delta State, is scheduled for Wednesday (today), March 27, 2024 at the National Cemetery, Abuja. The President, Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces, Federal Republic of Nigeria, President Bola Ahmed Tinubu, will be the special guest of honour at the event.”