AFTER’ a six-day siege, soldiers moved out of Oporoza, the traditional headquarters of Gbaramatu Kingdom, Warri South-West Local Government Area, Delta State on Friday without arresting ex-militant leader, Government Ekpemupolo, alias Tompolo, who repeatedly denied link with Niger Delta Avengers, NDA in the last few weeks. Notwithstanding the withdrawal of the military 24 hours after militants, in a surprise attack, three days ago, killed two soldiers, six civilians and sank a military houseboat in Warri South local government area, Saturday Vanguard learned that the running battle between the Joint Task Force, JTF, in the Niger Delta and Niger Delta Avengers, NDA, continues.
In fact, the Avengers blew up the Forcados Export Line belonging to Shell Petroleum Development Company, SPDC, at about 3.00 am, yesterday. Before leaving Oporoza yesterday, the Army arrested 10-suspected members of NDA, who the Commander, 4th Brigade, Nigeria Army, Benin City, Brigadier General Farouk Yahaya, paraded last Sunday, in Benin City, with arms and ammunition, including pistol and magazines, explosive devices, ipads, laptops, combat boot, dagger, cable wire, speedboat throttle cable, among others recovered from them.
The militant group hotly denied that the military arrested any of its members. Similarly, the spokesperson of Gbaramatu Traditional Council, GTC, Chief Godspower Gbenekama, Ijaw People Development Initiative, IPDI, National Association of Gbaramatu Students, NAGS, and others maintained that the apprehended persons were not militants and gave their names.
They gave the names of the 10 persons whose release they demanded as Ebis Emma Job (SS1 Student, Gbaraun Grammar School, Oporoza), Philip Gagha (Palace cook), Andrew (Palace driver) and Tebe-ebi (Palace tailor). Others are Emotimifagha (Student of Gbaraun Grammar School, Oporoza), John David (Student of Gbaraun Grammar School, Oporoza), Solomon Teiwei (Student of Gbaraun Grammar School, Oporoza), Oromoni Peter Miyebi (Community boy), Godspower Abraham (Student of Gbaraun Grammar School, Oporoza) and Bright (mechanic).
Saturday Vanguard could not verify the information before the military took over Oporoza, last week, but a dependable source hinted, weeks before the invasion that Tompolo had since fled the kingdom. The man they regard as General Officer Commanding, GOC, Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger-Delta, MEND, in a press statement, 24 hours after soldiers took over Oporoza, also maintained that he had left Gbaramatu Kingdom.
Military commanders, who acted on a tip-off that he was hibernating in Oporoza with members of the Niger Delta Avengers did not believe the story and stormed Kurutie, his father’s home town in search of him and others. They found neither him nor his father, who had also escaped from the community. Chief Gbenekama confirmed to Saturday Vanguard that soldiers were, indeed, demobilizing from Oporoza when contacted about 11.00 am. Public Relations Officer of Oporoza Youths, Paul Kirifade, told our reporter: “They are leaving as I am talking to you now.”
Gbenekama said: “I thank God that the military have seen with their eyes what we have been telling them since, that the people of Gbaramatu kingdom are not Niger Delta Avengers, we do not know them and we do not wish to know them.” “They came here looking for Tompolo, I said it before that Tompolo is our son, but since the EFCC declared him wanted, we have not seen him. He had left Gbaramatu kingdom, but whistle blowers told them he was here, they have searched for him and I think it is now clear to them that he is not here.
“I can also tell you that they did not find any member of Niger Delta Avengers here, but I am not saying that there are no criminals in Gbaramatu kingdom. Those they arrested are not militants and talking about the arms and ammunition they recovered, I tell you that I do not know about that,” he added. The Ijaw leader said” “I must thank the media; they are the ones that cried out for us, you can see the molestation, looting and inconvenience that they caused thousands of residents of Oporoza, Kurutie, Okerenkoko, Kokodiagbene and other Ijaw communities they raided.”
“We are not saying they should not do their work, but they should work with good intelligence and isolate the criminals they are looking for, instead of subjecting the whole of Gbaramatu people to untold hardship and even branding all of us as militants, “he asserted. Another youth leader, Frank Ekpemupolo, said, “We just noticed that they suddenly left the community after laying siege to us for a week.”
“We cannot tell if they have left finally or if they are returning back to the community, but we are hoping social and economic activities can return to normal while residents of the community embark on their daily affairs,” he said. Before yesterday’s call-off of the Cordon and Search Operation in Oporoza, the military had deployed four warships, jet fighters, surveillance aircraft and nearly 100 gunboats in the Niger Delta region, especially Delta and Bayelsa states, 48 hours after it took over Oporoza.
The Chief of Army Staff, Major General Tukur Buratai had prior to the operation, last week, raised the alarm that militants were killing soldiers in the creeks and vowed to crush them. He did not give details of the casualties, but what was known at the time he spoke was that three soldiers of the Joint Task Force perished in two separate boat tragedies in the two states.
Fact vs fiction
Responding to Buratai’s finger pointing on Tuesday, Niger Delta Avengers, NDA, opened what looked like secreted information. It squealed: “The Chief of Army Staff, Lt General Buratai in his statement said NDA killed Nigerian soldiers, it is not true. Chief of Army Staff, we are not the ones killing your soldiers. The Chief of Army Staff deployed personnel to the creeks without amphibious training that led to the death of about 50 soldiers. If not for the help of local fishermen, the death would have been up to 100.”
A source told Saturday Vanguard: “It is not possible for the Nigerian Army to lose up to 50 soldiers in one day and keep quiet about it. Do the soldiers not have families? It is obvious that a number of soldiers lost their lives to suspected militants in separate attacks lately.” A military officer hinted that the military did not just take over Oporoza, saying, “We had a lead before they moved in to Oporoza and stayed put from last Saturday after two previous visits, last month.”
Baptism of fire in Bayelsa
All the while, soldiers had not clashed face-to-face with the militants blowing up pipelines in Delta state, but they arrested 10 persons suspected to be members of the Niger Delta Avengers at Oporoza, last Saturday and took them to Benin City. It was on Sunday, May 29, at Gulobokriand Eweleso communities around Brass area of Bayelsa state that soldiers of the 343 Artillery Regiment of 2 Brigade, 82 Division of the Nigeria Army engaged militants in a gun duel that led to the killing of some militants, which averted the planned attack on an oil pipeline in the two communities.
Shaking off the stupor
The military siege to Gbaramatu, which has caused humanitarian crisis with thousands rendered homeless, appeared to have momentarily cut off the militants from the their attacks in Delta state
until June 1 when the Avengers shook off the lethargy and ripped apart two Chevron Nigeria Limited, CNL oil wells at Dibi, Warri North local government area.
Claiming responsibility for the attack, Niger Delta Avengers on its twitter handle, @NDAvengers, boasted, “With the heavy presence of 100 gunboats, 4 warships and jet bombers, NDA blew up Chevron oil well RMP 23 and RMP 24 at 3. 44 am this morning (June 1).” “This is to show the whole world that the Nigeria military is good in harassing innocent Nigerians. RMP 24 and RMP 23 are Chevron swamp highest producing wells,” it added.
Breaking the ice
Despite the recurrent swanks by Niger Delta Avengers, the troops and the militants seemed to be minding their business in the state until the bloody June 1 evening when so-called militants attacked a military houseboat at Efe Ugbokodo in Warri South local government area, killing two soldiers and six other persons. Assistant Director, Public Relations, 4 Brigade Nigeria Army Headquarters, Benin City, Captain Jonah Unuakhalu, in a statement, June 2, said the suspected militants, who disguised as commuters approached the Houseboat in Five (5) speedboats mounted with 250 horsepower engines.
“During the deliberate attack, 2 soldiers were killed, one wounded, one soldier missing while 4 civilian staff attached to the house boat were shot dead.” “The attack occurred when other members of the troops were on pipeline patrol. The Brigade out rightly condemn the attack on our personnel carrying out their constitutional duties and other innocent staff,” he asserted. Admonishing citizens to go about their normal businesses, Unuakhalu said such dastardly acts would not deter the Brigade; rather it would remain resolute in discharging its constitutional duties.
He, however, stated that the military would apprehend and bring to justice those who carried out the criminal acts. Niger Delta Avengers, who blew up two crude oil pipelines at about 2.00 am on the same day in Bayelsa state, did not claim responsibility for the attack. On the Bayelsa infraction, it tweeted: “At about 2:00am today (yesterday)
@ NDAvengers blew up the Ogboinbiri to Tebidaba and Clough Creek to Tebidaba Crude Oil pipelines in Bayelsa State.
“This is in line with our promise to all international Oil companies and Indigenous Oil Companies that Nigeria Oil production will be zero,” the militants added.
However, a security source said of the killings of soldiers in Warri: “We suspect they are the ones that did it because they warned in statements issued earlier that that something big was going to happen and that they were going to shock the world.” “I can tell you that by this unprovoked action, they have given the military license to kill, never mind all these noise people are making that soldiers are looting property, molesting people and raping girls, which is not true,” he said.
Saturday Vanguard learned when the news of the bloodbath filtered to the soldiers, who went out on patrol in the creeks when the militants came calling, they boiled with anger and when they saw their gory remains, many openly moaned. The colleagues of the fallen soldiers made efforts to save them and the affected civilians by rushing them to the Delta State University Teaching Hospital, DELSUTH, Oghara, but it was pointless, as the doctors were on strike. They died.
Apparently aware of the likely backlash and emotion over the senseless killing of soldier and sinking of their houseboat, the Niger Delta Avengers, at about 9.47 pm, June 2, refuted killing two soldiers in the blood-spattered attack. It, however, admitted blowing up two crude oil pipelines in Bayelsa state, same day.
Newly promoted spokesperson, Brigadier General Mudoch Agbinibo, said: “The Niger Delta Avengers are not involved in the attack of the Military houseboat around Warri, Delta State. Killing of Soldiers sleeping is not our style. We promise the world that in this process of liberating our People, not a single blood of Nigeria soldiers will be wasted despite the provocation.” “Even the inhumane Nigeria soldiers are exempted, our war is on oil installations not to take innocent lives. For the fact we cannot give life, we also do not have the power to take any life. But we (Avengers) are assuring the families of the affected soldiers that we will bring the culprits to book,” the violent group stated.
Its words: “When it is time to face the military in combat let the whole world know that we won’t be the ones to throw the first punch.” NDA added: “This message is going to all groups parading themselves as freedom fighters. You can fight for your people without killing innocent souls. NDA has proved that, we were able to drop Nigeria oil production from 2 million barrels to just 800,000 barrels without killing a soul.”
“We are warning every group to follow our footsteps. The days of killing and kidnapping are over,” the group added. Shell Media Relations Manager, Precious Okolobo, said he would get back on the development when contacted for official comment on the repeated attack on the Forcados pipeline, where the company had started repairs on damages resulting from the initial bombing.
Downhearted governor of Delta state, Senator Ifeanyi Okowa, Thursday, appealed to the militant group to stop their bombings, as they were destroying the nation’s economy. His words: “The pipeline vandalism that is going on is very bad for Delta State, we are suffering from pollution, our communities are affected, and we are the greatest losers; our communities are impacted negatively.”
No retreat, no surrender
The Avengers did not care a hoot about his appeal, as they struck again in the early hours of yesterday, blowing up the Forcados 28″ export line in his state, belonging to Shell Petroleum Development Company, SPDC. Brig General Mudoch said in an email statement: “At 3:00am Niger Delta Avengers blow up SPDC Forcados 48’ export line. We warned SPDC not to go on ahead with the repair work but they refuse. This is an example to all other multinationals.”
This is even as militant commanders under the auspices of the Joint Niger Delta Liberation Front, JNLF, threatened on Thursday to commence a three-day testing of six missiles in Niger Delta states as from June 7 and warning that they should be no flight within the period.
Time for Buhari to intervene – IYC
Meanwhile, the Ijaw Youth Council, IYC, on Friday, observed: “The situation in the Niger Delta region of Nigeria is rapidly deteriorating and getting out of control.” Spokesperson of the council, Mr. Eric Omare, in a statement, said: “The Ijaw Youth Council (IYC), worldwide calls on President Mohammadu Buhari to urgently and personally take charge of the management of the process to return peace and normalcy to the region.” “In the last 72 hours, there have been reported cases of attacks and killing of soldiers, civilians working in house boats and attacks on oil facilities in Ogbeinbiri, Bayelsa State and Forcados Export Line, Delta State.
Senseless killings of soldiers, civilians
“The civilians killed at the houseboat were mainly Ijaw youths including Tombra David Iwoubebi and Anita Demedongha from Odimodi Community, Burutu Local Government Area of Delta State. We in strong words condemn this senseless killing of soldiers and civilians that were working in the houseboat. This act of wickedness would only complicate an already delicate security situation,” he said.
IYC added: “We call for a bi-partisan stakeholders’ effort to bring the fast deteriorating security situation under control. The IYC is of the view that to make the process effective and produce the required result, President Buhari must personally take charge and provide leadership. The situation requires the direct involvement of President Buhari.”
It continued: “The events of the last few days have clearly shown that those mandated to lead the peace process have failed to produce the desired result. We also call on the governors of the Niger Delta states to collaborate and galvanize stakeholders in the region to quickly start the process to return peace to the Niger Delta region.” “This is a call to save the Niger Delta region and Nigeria; hence political considerations must be set aside. The events that are happening in the region pose serious economic, environmental and security challenges to the entire nation.
“On the part of the IYC, we reiterate our readiness and commitment to work with relevant stakeholders to return peace to the Niger Delta region while at the same time addressing the issues affecting the region,” the group asserted. Omare said: The IYC also passionately call on the Niger Delta Avengers and other militant groups and individuals to give peace a chance. Violence has never solved problems anywhere in the world. The federal, state governments and stakeholders in the Niger Delta region should be given the opportunity to look at the issues at stake.” His words: “We strongly feel that the continuous bombing of oil facilities and killings is not in the interest of the Niger Delta region and people. Aggrieved groups must give peace a chance.”