Prospects of a confrontation between Niger Delta militants and the military heightened yesterday as the Nigerian Army announced that its Special Forces had started exercises in preparation for combat in the restive oil rich region.
The Army in a statement by its spokesperson, Colonel Sani Usman, said it had started conducting exercises for its Special Forces on maritime warfare. “The Nigerian Army will from this weekend commence another training exercise code named ‘Exercise Crocodile Smile’ in 82 Division and part of 2 Division areas of responsibility traversing the South-south geo-political region,” he said.
Bayelsa State Governor Seriake Dickson on Wednesday met with President Muhammadu Buhari in Abuja and said force was not the solution to the problem that had massively constrained the country’s crude oil production output.
The Chief of Army Staff (COAS), Lt-Gen. Tukur Buratai, had warned last week that if the militants failed to accept the federal government’s offer of dialogue over their grievances, the military would have to step in to protect the nation’s oil and gas assets that had been the target of a militant group, Niger Delta Avengers’ (NDA) consistent acts of sabotage.
The federal government’s strategy for dialogue would appear to be experiencing some hiccups as the main militant group, the Avengers, has consistently expressed reservations about the sincerity of the process even as some other stakeholders query the government’s option of using proxy for the proposed talks.
Obviously not wanting to be caught unawares, the Nigerian Army has started preparing for a possible confrontation with the militants, conducting exercises for its Special Forces on maritime warfare.
Usman wednesday said: “The aim of the exercise is to practise our Special Forces and other units of the Nigerian Army in Amphibious and Internal Security Operations in riverine environment and also check criminal activities like kidnapping, militancy and piracy and other forms of criminal activities in support of the civil authority.”
He urged members of the public “not to panic on the sight of unusual movement of large number of troops, heavy military weapons and equipment in these areas”.
As part of the military’s preparation, its Joint Task Force in the Niger Delta, Operation Delta Safe, also warned the militants not take it for granted, saying it had the capacity to crush them.
Rear Admiral Joseph Okojie, the new Commander of the outfit covering Delta, Rivers, Bayelsa, parts of Ondo and Akwa Ibom States, described the crisis in the region as a fifth generation security threat, but stressed that Nigerians would soon begin to see the results from the efforts by the forces to tackle the violent agitators.
Okojie, who spoke with journalists in Yenagoa, Bayelsa State, where the JTF, ODS is headquartered, assured Nigerians that the military had total control of the security infrastructure in the country, but added that the military remained subservient to the political leadership of the country.
He noted that the federal government, the minister of defence, the chief of defence staff and all the service chiefs were fully involved in the current operations to rout all criminalities in the oil-rich region.
“The ODS will not shirk its responsibility of securing the Niger Delta. We will ensure that there is sanctity of our territorial integrity, but we have to make sure that collateral damage is minimised.
“We are on top of the security manifestations and at the appropriate time, if necessary, action will be taken to ensure there is peace.
“If there is need to up the tempo, we will do it, but for now (our operations) are driven by the political imperatives of our leaders. The political leadership has come out with clear instructions while we also carry out our core duty,” he said.
Flanked by his lieutenants in charge of land operations, maritime and civil military operations, Okojie explained that in the last few weeks, his men had successfully foiled cases of pipeline vandalism, kidnapping, illegal oil refining, piracy and other criminalities in the region.
“These are complex operations, but we are trained for that and very soon everyone will begin to see the results,” he said.
He added: “We are quite capable of enforcing our mandate. This is a fifth generation warfare. Not everyone there is a criminal. It is complex and you must consider innocent people. Every situation demands its own solution. We wouldn’t want to hear complaints that people are being killed.”
He urged the media to be objective and professional in reporting the security challenges in the region, saying that the military would continue to keep its mandate of providing a safe environment for economic prosperity.
According to Okojie, “We have seen reports emanating from faceless sources that tend to compromise national security in the mainstream media and want to restate our commitment to the mandate given to Operation Delta Safe.
“Our mandate does not include engagement in propaganda with any interest and wish to restate that the territorial integrity of our country is sacrosanct.
“We implore the media to rise to the occasion and subject their security related stories to the dictates of their professional ethics.”
But Dickson told State House correspondents in Abuja on Wednesday that he discussed the looming violent confrontation between the militants and the military with Buhari and expressed the view that there was no alternative to dialogue in the conflict.
“I have said that the issues in the Niger Delta, the terrain, the historic nature of the issues and challenges are such that military solution may not be the way forward,” he said without giving details of his discussions with the president.
According to him, “For us who are products of political system, who are at this level, we have a duty to mobilise communal and local leadership, we have a duty to support the work that the intelligence and security agencies are doing; we have a duty to ensure that issues are better appreciated and that we fill the communication gap. And where there are issues, those issues need be addressed. And it is also our duty to network like I’m doing to ensure that problems that are identified as the root cause of some of these challenges are looked into.
“The military solution as I have always maintained is not the right option, we are hopeful that the ongoing discussions will yield the desired result. I have always been in support of negotiations, of dialogue as the sustainable way forward. Dialogue will bring out the issues and then we will all unite around these common issues to move our country forward.”
Dickson, however, thanked Buhari for not interfering in the state election which he won on the platform of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), and extended an olive branch to his opponents in the election, asking them to bury the hatchet by joining hands with him to build the Bayelsa of their dream.
He said: “I came in this afternoon to have discussions with Mr. President. That is because my position has been and I believe that is the right position every political leader should take which is that after general election political leaders and citizens must unite and address common issues and find solutions to the problems of our country.
“All over the world, once nations have crisis, once nations come under attack, leaders unite across political lines and come together.
“I came in to have discussion with Mr. President and I thank him for that opportunity and we cross fertilised ideas around issues of security. Of course as you know Bayelsa is central to the maintenance of law and order and stability in our country particularly in the Niger Delta region.
“Bayelsa is the epicentre of the issues that have to do with the Niger Delta. We had fruitful discussions on the need for political leaders, governmental and political leaders to work together to support the work of the security agencies and foster better understanding of even people who have grievances and that we are committed to do together.”
The governor expressed joy that the state Election Petitions Tribunal sitting in Abuja yesterday upheld his election, saying the judgment was an affirmation that his emergence as a true product of the democratic exercise of rights of the people of Bayelsa State in the 5 December and 9 January, 2016 elections.
He said: “Again, I want to use this opportunity to appreciate Mr. President for his non-interference contrary to the propaganda and the name dropping that some politicians back home and even in Abuja embarked upon. There is no name they didn’t call, there is no claim that they didn’t make but I’m telling Nigerians, I’m telling Bayelsans to disregard all that propaganda, the president never had anything to do by way of negatively influencing the last general election in Bayelsa and also the outcome of the tribunal proceedings. That is important because if our nation must move forward, if our democracy must be strengthened, if our nation must be stable, then institutions must be allowed to grow.
“I want to use this opportunity to call on my opponent, brother and friend and fellow citizen of Bayelsa and all others to join hands with us so that we can render service to our people and build a stronger and more stable and prosperous Bayelsa.”
On the crisis rocking the PDP, Dickson said the nation needed a political party in opposition that is strong and well organised.
He said that the party was working very hard to ensure that some of the issues and disputes in the party were resolved.
He said that the party’s convention would produce a virile, credible opposition party that would work for democracy and the Nigerian nation.
According to him, “We need opposition that plays by the rule; that knows that there comes a time when people across divides must unite for the sake of our country. You expect to see those types of issues and disputes in any political party and we are working hard to address them.”